Volt electric bike in action

Sports tech: Electric bikes

Cycling up hills is now easier than ever before with the latest in electrically-powered bicycles.

So, here I am with my pal Tim cycling up the Col d’Iseran in France - as the highest paved road in the Alps at 2,764m this is no easy feat, but Tim and I like to think we’re in fairly decent shape, so despite a good deal of perspiration, grunting and cursing, we’re making progress.Then, all of a sudden, two less than sylph-like ladies of a certain age glide past us on their bikes, chatting happily. I glance across at Tim in mild panic before gasping: “How on earth did that happen?”

“Electric bikes, mate. Don’t worry, you’re not as unfit as you thought.”

‘E-bikes’ have seen a huge surge in popularity in recent years. From big clunkers with motors the size of a small suitcase they are now easy to mistake for a ‘regular’ bike.

They are commonplace on the continent, and in Holland and Germany they represent roughly 25 per cent of all bike sales.

China has the most e-bikers, with in excess of 200 million people actively using them. As a result, much of the technology for e-bikes stems from there. However, development in the technology is a global movement and typically e-bikes have mainstream components already found on conventional bikes.

Technological advances are focused on battery, motor and controller, with a target of smaller batteries and longer distances between charges.

Lyle Metcalfe of leading British company Volt Bikes says: “For exercising, e-bikes are excellent, allowing you to choose your own level of effort. With variable levels of assistance you can simply choose how much effort you put in.

“On Volt bikes, for instance, you can choose from levels 0-5, with zero being no assistance from the bike at all, five being maximum assistance; even at assistance level five you can still put effort in to cycle faster.

“It’s been statistically proven that e-bikes get up to seven times more usage than conventional cycles, so it is arguable that you get more exercise on an e-bike.”

E-bike motors are situated either in the hub of the rear wheel, the centre of the bike or in the front wheel. Generally, rear hub and central crank motors are deemed best for practicality and performance, with leading brands delivering in excess of 80 miles of assisted cycling per charge, and a full charge costing around 10p.

“At Volt we use lithium polymer batteries, which last in excess of 1,000 full charges. This will give the average owner three to five years of use,” says Metcalfe.

The downside of e-bikes of course is that the batteries eventually have to be replaced, and this is not cheap. Volt batteries, for instance, start at £240 (the company also offers a recycling service).

Such issues don’t appear to be putting off customers, however. Tony Scudder, editor of Electric Bike magazine, says: “Once you talk to dealers and manufacturers, you soon realise that the next bicycle revolution is already well under way. Sales of e-bikes have doubled or tripled year-on-year and the only barrier to a country’s potential sales is its road infrastructure.

“The governments of Germany and the Netherlands encourage cycling, and annual sales of e-bikes there are in the hundreds of thousands. In the UK the government has been slow to realise the huge benefits to the economy and the health service and so sales remain in the tens of thousands.”

Needless to say, cycling equipment manufacturers are already heavily involved. Japanese company Shimano has developed its ‘Steps’ system for e-bikes, which is generally regarded as one of the best on the market. Volt uses Shimano Steps and Bafang Motors on its e-bikes. In 2012, Bafang opened a European HQ in the Netherlands to be closer to the increasingly important European market.

Volt has also developed its own ‘V-Wave’ technology, an all-in-one computer monitoring system which automatically adjusts power output, acceleration, torque and speed and allows riders to customise each. The motor is virtually silent and has increased battery and motor efficiency thanks to the ‘V-Wave’ system. An intuitive Pedal Assist System (PAS) allows riders to adjust the power of their e-bike to suit their riding style, like choosing how quickly or slowly their bike accelerates, as well as monitoring the pedalling efforts of the rider to release power when it’s most needed.

Volt also equips all its bikes with an advanced battery management system (V-BMS), which monitors and protects the battery and motor to prevent damage caused by overstrain, since e-bikes are susceptible to battery damage and a shortened life expectancy of the motor.

Shimano’s Steps system consists of a 36-volt lithium-ion battery pack, which is available as either a rear carrier (weight 2.55kg) or down tube mounting 2.66kg) with a 418Wh capacity. It can take 1,000 charges without significant power loss and is fully chargeable in four hours.

The actual drive unit is frame-mounted on the bottom bracket, keeping the weight low for better handling. It holds all the essential electronics in a weatherproof casing, is one of the lightest on the market at 3.2kg and, says Shimano, it offers “intelligent power assistance”.

The final element of any e-bike is the cycle computer - not just to record speed, distance and other standard functions, but also to provide battery charge and range indication, so users don’t end up out in the sticks with an uncharged battery.

Clearly e-bikes will always be heavier than conventional bikes because of the motor and associated components, although with the latest technology the weight is dropping, with lighter models coming in at around 20kg. This is still considerably more than my Orange Five mountain bike (13kg) or my Cannondale road bike (7kg), but when I come to a hill I get no assistance in lugging up those reduced kilograms.

Yet there are restrictions on how much assistance an e-bike rider can enjoy. UK law states that motors should have no more than 250W of power and not be capable of delivering an assisted speed of more than 15mph.

I asked Metcalfe where people tend to use e-bikes, bearing in mind the motor’s limited range. “With batteries now delivering so much distance, it’s rare that you will run out of power on a typical ride, especially if you plan ahead, and most pubs, restaurants and so on will allow you to charge your battery if you’re using their facilities. The chargers are portable so you can carry them in your pannier or a backpack.”

Metcalfe says: “We get a wide range of people buying our bikes, although by law you have to be over 14 to ride one. We’ve seen demand in the commuter market, with e-bikes offering people a way to ride to work ‘sweat free’ and then exercise on their way home by riding more vigorously.

“The government employee ‘Ride-to-Work’ tax incentive [spreading the cost of a bike over 12 months and reducing the cost of an e-bike by up to 40 per cent] also gives employees a great incentive to buy e-bikes.”

Metcalfe adds: “The fact that electric bikes no longer look clunky and obviously electric - they are often now subtle, slick and cool - makes them more appealing. We often get emails from customers telling us stories about how their e-bike has literally improved their life.”

Metcalfe told me that Volt’s sales are currently doubling year-on-year, and from around 70 authorised showrooms across the UK at present, the firm expects to grow to around 150 by this time next year.

Electric Bike editor Scudder also enthuses about the future of e-bikes. “The assistance power and battery range of the top e-bikes (in the UK: Raleigh, Haibike, Kalkhoff, Gocycle, and Volt) is now at a level for you to be able to virtually ride all day on a single charge. Electric bikes will get more powerful and gain even better range, but the goals now seem to be for lighter bikes and developing better handlebar display systems.”

If you’re thinking an e-bike could be the ride for you, how much should you spend on one? “A good electric bike starts around the £1,000 mark and anything above £2,500 is starting to get into a more specialist environment, so I’d recommend first time buyers to spend somewhere between £1,000 to £2,000,” says Metcalfe.

Or maybe put one on your Christmas list. *

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