You might not be Tour de France ready, or lycra clad, but cycling is still an option
Bike Week happened recently, but not everyone is comfortable in the saddle. Adam Shaw spoke to the Irish-owned Electric Bicycle Company on London’s fearsome North Circular Road about getting UK commuters to switch to Continental-style travel solutions.
The journalist Zapata Espinoza once said: “Bicycles may change, but cycling is timeless.” This sentiment certainly holds true; from the zenith of the Penny Farthing to the ultra-light models of today, people have always travelled on two wheels.
Fans of science-fiction might be disappointed that we don’t have highspeed, hover bikes whizzing above our heads 16 years into the 21st century. But there is a new kid in town – the battery-powered, motor-assisted e-bike, a design that gives you a helping hand and lets you fly up hills.
“I’d champion an electric bike over a conventional one simply because it’s easier to ride, it’s faster, and, generally, it’s more convenient,” the Electric Bicycle Company’s Colin Patterson said. “They still count as bicycles, they just have an added battery and an added motor to give you that little bit of assistance.”
When they first came onto the scene, they were dismissed as fraudulent. But they have grown in popularity since people came round to the idea that they were “using assistance” rather than cheating when riding an e-bike. Colin has never questioned their honesty, and he has championed their effectiveness from day one. His arguments in defence of the electric bike are manifold, least not the concept that when the battery is switched off, it mirrors a conventional model.
“If you want to use a bike for health purposes, an electric bike still fits that bill, because it has different levels of assistance,” he explained.
“If you’ve got a long journey to work and you don’t want to be sweaty by the time you arrive or your body might be a bit sore along the way, then it can fill that void.
“And hills are essentially flattened – that’s one of the main things people are after. On a gradient, people sometimes need that little bit of assistance to get them to the top.”
If e-bikes haven’t quite taken off in the UK – Colin admitted that Britain was “quite far behind the pace” in embracing the concept – they’re a big deal on the continent. In the Netherlands, 276,000 ebikes were sold in 2015, a 24 per cent growth on the previous year. And Germany has seen yearly ebike sales flutter around the half a million mark for some time now, with 535,000 people investing in one last year.
Perhaps the difference lies with the British tendency to be wary of change. Or perhaps our legions of ‘mamils’ (middle-aged men in Lycra) are unwilling to give up their sleek, expensive and impossibly light road bikes.
The biggest distinction, however, is the general attitude towards commuter cycling in places like Holland and Germany. Their infrastructure not only caters for cyclists but actively encourages it. “There are a lot of Dutch and German cities that are built around cycling rather than the other way round,” Colin said.
This means that they are more likely to consider an e-bike, particularly if it has the ability to make their daily cycle ride that bit more comfortable. So it seems as if the UK, and in particular London, needs to review its roads and pavements if it is to move with the cycling times.
“There are steps being taken to improve cycling in London – the cycle superhighway was seen by many people as a statement of intent,” Colin said. “It’s true that cycling suffers due to the city’s infrastructure. The roads were essentially built for horse and cart and not necessarily delivery vans, HGVs and 18-wheelers. But they are making moves to make things more cycle-friendly and hopefully things will continue to improve.”
There is a big push to get more people into cycling, and although profit is the natural goal for businesses like the Electric Bicycle Company, there is a genuine desire to see more bikes on the road.
“We want to get more people out of their cars and off public transport so they can save money and help the environment,” Colin explained. “For us, it’s all about getting people from A to B in the cheapest and fastest way possible. We believe that can be achieved with an electric bike.”
Whether they take off in the same manner as they have in other parts of Europe remains to be seen. But, with a little bit of encouragement, the electric revolution could well leave its mark on cycling’s timeless journey.