• How did the e-bike come about? 
  • Weigh up the benefits of owning an e-bike
  • Find out how to choose the right e-bike for you

Two old men riding penny farthings along a bridge with the sea underneath them

The evolution of the cycle

We all remember pedal cycles from our youth. The very first sit-on bikes in the early 19th century had no pedals or chains. The later pedal penny-farthing is a popular Victorian image, sending wary pedestrians and animals scattering. 

But it was the invention of the Rover ‘safety bike’ which laid the foundations for modern bikes. Additional features such as brakes, sprung saddles and pneumatic tyres brought us into the twentieth century when British brands like Raleigh were dominant. 

A brown rover safety bike

Fast forward to the 1960s and features we still see today, like small-wheel models (pioneered by Alex Moulton) and folding bikes (like Brompton) became popular, whilst the trendy Raleigh Chopper of the 1970s warmed many youngsters’ hearts. 

Yes, they were all lighter and more technically advanced than their forebears, but all relied exclusively on pedal power. Cycles became a ubiquitous and cheap form of personal transport – as Katie Melua reminded us, there are nine million bicycles in Beijing – and mass production moved to the Far East, leaving only the specialist builders and the designers in the west. 

In the twenty-first century, cycling as a sport, the popularity of velodrome events and of Team Sky have made many sports cyclists household names and aspirational figures. 

Whether it was Chris Boardman with ground-breaking carbon fibre frames, Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome in the Tour de France, or Victoria Pendleton in the velodrome, cycling has seen a resurgence both as a global sport and a leisure activity.

What is an electric bike?

An electric bike (commonly known as an e-bike or a pedelec) is not a form of moped which drives itself. All electric bikes have to be pedalled – stop pedalling and you will simply coast to a halt. But they are electrically-assisted via a rechargeable battery (usually lithium-ion) and a motor which converts the electric power into pedal assistance. The rider selects the appropriate level of power-assist depending on the terrain and conditions – inevitably, the more assistance you use, the shorter the range. 

Why are e-bikes gaining popularity?

The thought of turning up to the office drenched in sweat, carrying a spare set of clothing or just the expense and hassle of daily commuting have made e-bikes a more attractive proposition. City centre workers know that they are doing their bit to reduce emissions at the point of use and, as cycling becomes more popular, the number of cars on urban roads will decline (although this is also allied to the introduction of congestion charges on vehicles).

What are the other benefits of e-biking?

  • You arrive refreshed and fragrant wherever you’ve cycled to and, unless you want to change, can wear the same clothes as you cycled in.
  • Leisure cyclists need no longer put off by the prospect of conquering steep hills; greater distances are possible and whilst the physical exertion may be less than with a pushbike, you are still getting enjoyable exercise. It’s not, as some cycling purists would have it, ‘cheating’!
  • The fresh air, the changing scenery, the sense of movement - as well as the exercise and camaraderie - are all positives. 

So, if you’re considering buying an e-bike, what should you look out for?

A black and green electric bike

Which bike to go for?

The market abounds with lots of models from different manufacturers. Whichever you go for depends on the sort of cycling you envisage doing: commuting, leisure or off-roading (yes, e-mountain bikes are becoming very popular!). Traditional large wheel or small-wheel? Folder? 

Ultimately, select a model on which you feel comfortable – there is no substitute for a trial ride at a dealers to check that the frame geometry, saddle and handlebar heights all fit you comfortably. 

E-bikes are obviously heavier than push bikes – up to 25kg compared with 10-15kg for a standard bike. On level surfaces you might even switch off power-assist but turn back on when the first incline beckons so that you can zoom up. To cope with the extra weight, brakes are more powerful (often disc brakes which, if you have not experienced them before, are superb) and tyres are heavier duty. Check that tyres are puncture-resistant specifications like Schwalbe or Continental – pushing an e-bike with a flat tyre is not to be contemplated.

Costs

Ultimately, you get what you pay for. Bikes under £1000 will have less powerful batteries, less well-known components, front hub motors and perhaps a shorter guarantee. More expensive bikes will generally be better equipped and finished, have easy-charge batteries with a greater range and a crank-mounted motor which gives better weight distribution to enhance the ride. For under £2000 you can get a superb bike. Interest-free offers are plentiful and, if you are employed, you are eligible for the government-sponsored cycle-to-work scheme.

On the downside, be aware of the following. Only a few insurers will insure an e-bike as part of your home contents insurance. Given its high value, your bike is likely to be a target for thieves – so always lock your bike and remove any clip-on trip computer. 

Think about how you are going to use your bike. If you intend transporting it by car to a particular destination, will it fit? The extra weight (and frame size) may preclude placing it in the vehicle or using a rear strap-on carrier, or make it too heavy to lift safely on to a roof-mounted carrier. So a tow-bar fitment may be the only option. 

Recent years’ mild winters have seen e-bikes rise in popularity as Christmas presents – just make sure that Santa doesn’t scratch it coming down the chimney.