Pedelec or PedalPower?
As recently as 10 years ago, electric powered bicycles or those with pedal-assistance were very much a niche market and definitely not considered ’proper’ cycling by traditionalists. Usually consisting of a massive hub-motor and an equally large, inefficient battery, they were generally ugly and heavyweight franken-bikes with little appeal other than as a bit of fun, or a way to get less able folk out on two wheels again. Speed forward — with or without the help of a battery and motor — to the start of a new decade and eBikes, as they are now collectively termed, are not only gaining great momentum (pun intended!) but no longer considered a less healthy alternative to leg and lung power.
Whilst the shift from fossil-fuelled cars to hybrid and all-electric vehicles has been a relatively ponderous and ongoing transformation, the eBike has quietly but very efficiently gained massive ground in the cycle market in a very short space of time. When you then consider how little the traditional pushbike had changed in the 135 years since John Starley created the safety bicycle, with propulsion being entirely human powered, electric-assist bikes have gone from relative zero to huge hero in little more than a decade.
eBikes are now sleekly designed, relatively lightweight and a very viable alternative to their motor-less forebears, with little to differentiate them from a regular pedal-powered bike at first glance. Even cost has become less of a factor in choosing between battery or muscle to power your ride. With popularity comes economies of production and the battle to win over a new or re-emerging demographic and this has certainly been the case with the eBike. Some traditional bikes, on the other hand, built with evermore exotic materials and refined components to save weight and increase speed are, frankly, becoming a little ridiculous in price.
A recent report in the cycle trade press claimed that 50% of new bicycle sales in Belgium are now eBikes and similar figures can be found for other European countries where cycling is far more ingrained in the daily routine of its populations. In the UK, cycling is still a minority mode of daily transport and generally seen more as a leisure activity. Even so, eBikes can be seen here in greater numbers and no longer carry any stigma for their riders, who are finding and re-discovering the joys of being outside on two wheels. Where they were perhaps originally seen as an ‘older’ persons option, the big manufacturers are now producing electric bikes for younger, fitter riders who just want to get up big hills without too much slog or wasted time, in order to gain as much of that time for the fun stuff coming down.
So is there a negative impact on traditional pedal bikes and should we be concerned about a decline in fitness levels, a loss of the simple, low-maintenance efficiency of the bicycle and perhaps also the environmental issues posed by the eventual disposal of all the batteries used to power these new eBikes? My own feelings are that power-assisted bikes are getting more people out cycling, which can only be a good thing and that the simple accessibility and joy of pedalling a traditional bicycle will never be lost. I can only hope that more and better ways will be found to recycle the batteries that power this new revolution in cycling history and that, with a bit more spent on infrastructure, cycling will once again find itself at the forefront of a transport revolution in the UK.
Whatever your own thoughts and feelings on the subject, one thing’s for sure; pedal-powered or pedal-assisted riders will all still be saying quietly to themselves as they cycle along… “I love riding my bike” : )
- Jim Griffiths