SHOULD YOU BUY AN ELECTRIC BIKE?

Electric motor assisted bikes are becoming very popular.  Should you buy one?.  Here Travelman looks at some of the issues. He has had a variety of electric bikes over a period of 15 years. (prices are early 2020)

DO YOU HAVE A BIKE ALREADY?

If you simply would like to make getting up hills and getting around easier, think about changing the gearing on your existing bike before considering an electric.

Quaintly, the British system of gearing dates from the Penny Farthing.  These bikes did not have gears, but the larger the wheel on the front, the faster the bike went, and the harder it was to push.  Gear ratios are expressed as the size of the ungeared front wheel you would need on a penny farthing to be in that gear.  So 100” is what you would get if you had a 100 inch front wheel on this type of bike. 20” is a low gear, representing how it would feel if you had a 20” wheel on the front.

With a lowest gear of 16-20 inches you will, after a bit of practice, be able to ride up School Hill or Station Street. (below 16” you tend to fall off because you are going so slowly)  Your existing bottom gear may be 30” or even higher.

You may find the bike shop contemptuous of gearing this low.  They may call them “granny gears”.  Be insistent.  You may need to get them to modify the gearing since this range is standard only on some mountain bikes.  This is quite a simple job, but may mean that you have quite a low top gear.  Don’t worry about this.  For a beginner, any gear above 80” is a luxury.  If you are going this fast you can freewheel!   If you later get fitter you can have the gears modified again.  Gears are the key to cycling joy!

Changing your gears might cost you £75 or so, a fraction of the cost of a new bike. Try this before thinking about an electric.

HOW MIGHT AN ELECTRIC BIKE BE USEFUL?

It makes journeys easier and faster

Very fit cyclists typically cycle at up to 20 miles an hour or more on the road.  They will not be thinking about an electric bike. Other cyclists may ride at about 10-12 miles an hour on the flat and slower up hills. People with disabilities, including those that come with age, may struggle with this.

You still have to pedal, but the motor will provide assistance up to 15 miles per hour.  So if you commute to Brighton, for example, you may be able to get there quicker  than the hour it might take at your normal 10-12 miles per hour, and you will arrive less sweaty than with an ordinary bike.  You may be able to travel in your normal clothes.

It makes the hills flatter

But see above.  Better gearing on your existing bike might be an easier answer.  But it does make things a lot easier if you live at the top of a hill and you are going to carry things like shopping.

You can go further

Given the right electric bike you might be able to think about rides that go much further than you might otherwise go. This is particularly handy if increasing disability means that you cannot go as far as you used to.  You can go out with your partner or friends again. But be warned that an electric bike with a flat battery is quite a weight to pedal home with.

You will still get fit

Unlike a moped, you still use energy on an electric bike.  You have to pedal and you will expend energy, just not as much. Sometimes you may be able to go further on an electric bike and so perhaps expend more energy than you might otherwise do.

All these things are powerful advantages, but there are disadvantages too.

ISSUES WITH ELECTRIC BIKES

The cost of the bike

You will normally expect to pay at least £1800 for a good quality new electric bike and a more typical price is up to £2500. Bike conversions may be cheaper.  If you want a specialist off road bike the price will be even higher.  Compare this with the £300 you could pay to get a serviceable non-powered bike.  £1500 will get you a really lovely unpowered bike.  If you are just unfit, think about buying a lightweight unpowered bike with low gears.  You will get fitter.

The battery

Like all things battery powered the bike battery will take less and less power as time goes on.  Eventually it will need replacing.  Budget on replacing the battery after 3 years of regular use.  Do not buy a bike with a battery warranty of less than 2 years.  Battery replacement costs vary from about £350 to £500. Many people do not factor in this extra cost.  For this reason, do not buy a second hand electric bike without adding on the cost of a new battery onto the asking price.

The weight

A typical unpowered bike might weigh 14 kilos.  A motor and battery will add 10 kilos to this, so you are looking at a weight of around 24 kilos.  This is a lot to carry upstairs or up steps or to put on the roof of a car.

The technology

While electric bike technology is improving rapidly, you are adding bits of equipment with considerable extra technical complexity. There is more to go wrong. Whilst most bike shops can fix a non-powered bike, bike shops will normally only be able to repair electrical stuff that they sell. Many brands do not have a service centre in this country.  So buy local in case you need to go back with a problem.

The batteries

There are environmental and humanitarian questions about the production of batteries. See here . Also see here

WHAT BIKE TO BUY

There are load of electric bikes for sale and most of them are horrible. There are loads of disappointed electric bike buyers who have unusable electric bikes sitting in garages.  Don’t be one of them.  The issue is not so much whether it works well now, but whether or not it will work in a couple of years’ time..  Here are some tips:

Buy from a local established bike shop. That way, if things go wrong you can go back. Local means a shop you can get to easily.The shop should have a track record of selling a decent amount of electric bikes.

  1. If buying a new electric bike don’t buy anything that does not have a motor provided by Bosch, Yamaha or Panasonic. Bikes have standardised on these because they are superior and parts are readily available.
  2. Get a battery guarantee of at least 2 years and make sure the seller tells you what a replacement battery will cost. Unless you are only doing short distance commuting you need a battery with at least 400watt hours, more if possible.
  3. I would be suspicious of any new bike costing less than £1750. There is a lot of rubbish about.But you do not need to pay more than £2,500 unless you want a mountain bike.
  4. Test ride the bike or a similar model before you buy. Try to use it on the terrain that you will be riding and also try to exhaust the battery. Riding an electric bike is a different experience from riding an unpowered one.
  5. Treat claimed mileages per battery charge with scepticism.Most are absurdly optimistic.Mileage depends very much on your weight and the terrain.Riding up Ditchling Beacon is different from riding on the flat! Remember that the possible mileage will decline over time as the battery ages.
  6. Some electric bikes which keep the battery in front of the rear wheel are longer than normal bikes.This can be an issue if you want to put the bike in a car or the cycle storage on a train.
  7. Electric bikes which carry the battery on the rear carrier can feel unbalanced. Check on your test ride.

You can find some reviews in A to B magazine  but their info may be a little out of date.

A FOLDING ELECTRIC BIKE?

Folding bikes are often specifically designed for commuting at times when you cannot put a full size bike on the train.  The main folding bike manufacturers are Brompton, Dahon and  Tern.  Until recently there were no decent folding electric bikes, although the Nano conversion of the Brompton got good reviews in A-B magazine (see above).  Your author has not ridden the latest models but thinks you should be cautious.  At the moment, apart from the Nano, there are no folding bikes  that have proved themselves over the long term. Weight will be an issue.  Many bikes use a small battery to cut down on weight, but this reduces the distance you can ride.

WHAT ABOUT A CONVERSION?

You can convert an existing bike to an electric bike, or have someone do it for you.  DIY is strictly for the experts, but there are two local shops that offer conversions.

Bosch, Yamaha and Panasonic motors are not available. The most established firm in the field is Heinzmann but no one offers conversions locally. Their kits cost around £1,500, which makes them comparable to buying a new bike once you have included the cost of the bik.

Two local shops sell and install the Bafang conversion.  The price varies from £800 to £1,000 installed, plus the cost of the bike, which you may already have, and the cost of any adaptions you may need for the bike.   This can work out much cheaper than buying an electric bike, even if you have to buy an unpowered bike

The Bafang is not as good as the Panasonic, Bosch and Yamaha motors and will need repair and replacement sooner. But Bafang equipment is widely available.

Additionally, if you buy a purpose built electric bike and the motor goes wrong, you have a useless bike, since the motor is integral, but with a conversion you can reverse the process.  You may also be able to swap to a different type of battery more easily.

The Bafang conversion will leave you with only one front chainring, so you may want to modify your rear gears.

Be careful about converting your much loved lightweight bike. Remember that you will be adding 10 kilos to its weight.  A hybrid or commuter bike may be a better donor bike.

WHERE TO BUY YOUR BIKE

Shop local!  Travelman bought a bike from a company in London which subsequently moved to Paris.  All repairs required the bike to be shipped to Paris.  Local means as far as you are prepared to travel to get the bike fixed, bearing in mind that you will have to pick it up again later.

Use a bike shop that sells a number of electric bikes and whose staff have trained to repair them.

Some local bike suppliers:

  • Cycleshack Lewes  Sells Bosch powered bikes
  • Mr Cycles Seaford  Long established bike shop. Sells Giant brand electric bikes which include Bosch motored bikes. Also Bafang conversions for £800. Travelman bought one of these from them.
  • Halfords Newhaven  You may not be able to try the the bike here, which is a big negative, plus any electrical repairs you need are not likely to be done on site. The only range they sell that I would consider are the Raleighs. You won’t get the individual attention you will get in a specialised bike shop.
  • Electric Bikes Sussex. Brighton Marina. Not long established.  Sells Bosch motored bikes.  Big range but told me a number of things I knew to be untrue, including that it didn’t matter that they didn’t know how much replacement batteries cost because they had never had to replace one. You may have better luck. They rent bikes to try, but probably not the whole range.
  • Brighton E-bikes, Hove  Does Bafang conversions for £1,000 plus. Specification may be higher than Mr Cycles- check.  Also sells the kits if you want to do it yourself.
  • Ebikes Sussex Shoreham. Family firm, long established, Bosch specialists selling Haiabike and Raleigh  untested
  • Easy pedal Bikes  Eastbourne  untested.

Article date 3/6/20