This review comes courtesy of electricbikereport.com contributor Richard Peace. 

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I first got into e-bikes at the end of the last century – I was cycling thousands of miles a year compiling cycling guidebooks for my own company and cycling maps for local authorities; these were the days before digital mapping was widely available on smartphones. 

I saw a review in ‘alternative’ transport magazine A to B for something called a Powabyke. This weighed around 37kg and its three large lead acid batteries had a range of around 20-30 miles.

You may well laugh at the bulk and modest range, but I was often thankful to have it when work meant venturing into the steepest parts of the South Pennines on a windy winter’s day.  

I soon realised all the obvious benefits that you read about in e-bike introduction type articles were there, even using my 1999 e-bike; it was one of the fastest ways to get about in congested town traffic, hills and headwinds were no longer a problem, I got no sweat exercise and was even able to save bags of petrol cash by going car-free some of the time.

The only real limitations were weight and especially limited range. In practice neither proved a huge headache and both issues have since been largely overcome and haven’t been an issue on e-bikes for several years now.

Despite all this it’s only really in the last two or three years that that e-bikes have really taken off in the UK. What lies behind this rather confusing mismatch of timescales? 

Technological Milestones

Fast forward to today and this particular week I find myself reviewing the FLIT-16, a state-of-the-art folding e-bike. This weighs 15kg – not that much more than the weight of that original Powabyke’s battery alone. 

The steady advance of e-bike technology clearly demonstrated by this example has clearly been a major factor in their growing popularity (with more flops than successes in the early days). That advance has been marked by several vital milestones that have proven to be the bedrock of e-bikes’ current success:

1994: Yamaha’s PAS system is the first crank or mid drive machine rolled out nationally (in Japan). Similar technology is in use on the most efficient and powerful mid-drive machines today.

2000: Several notably relatively lightweight e-bikes launch – for example the Honda Step Combo weighs 18.7kg and is imported in limited numbers form Japan into Europe and the UK. 

Giant, probably the largest manufacturer of quality bikes in the world, launch a redesigned LaFree e-bike with a Panasonic mid-drive and Nickel-Metal hydride batteries. Again it helps the idea of e-bikes gain a toehold as practical effective machines in Europe and the UK. 

2002: Japan’s Panasonic introduce the world’s first commercially available lithium ion powered e-bike which is taken up by European e-bike companies in 2003 and also claim the world’s lightest e-bike at 16.9kg.

2011: Bosch launches its crank drive motor system that sets a new standard for power and efficiency. Other highly efficient and powerful mid-drive systems follow from Kalkhoff (2012) and Shimano (2013).   

More Options

If the last major technological advance in e-bikes was around nine years ago then clearly the steady progress of that technology doesn’t explain everything.

UK sales show a pretty fantastical acceleration of e-bikes in 2019 and 2020; after years of steady and usually single digit % growth the last two years have seen sales unit numbers increase by around 25% each year according to UK government import stats.

2020 stats showed around 120,000 e-bikes imported into the country (very few are made in the UK); of course 2020 was an exceptional year because of the pandemic but this phenomenal growth in e-bikes actually predates it. Whatever true reasons for this incredible sales surge, and as empty bike shops shelves around the country prove, there is a huge appetite out there for e-bikes. 

This is all against a background of the number of e-bike designs and the quality of the spec increasing year on year. Nowadays just about every kind of bike design you can imagine and more are available in various electric versions, from industrially specced cargo shifters capable of moving several hundred kg of goods to carbon-fibre-framed folders you can easily lift with one hand.  

As an example of just what is possible let’s take a look at a top of the line electric cargo bike from Riese and Muller’s 2021 range, the Packster 70.

The £5k+ price tag may have been unthinkable just a few years ago but so is the technology on display.

The massively powerful Bosch mid-drive motor augments your pedal power by a maximum 400%, there’s a huge carrying box that will take two children, a maximum battery capacity of 1250Wh, many times bigger than the original Bosch offerings of a decade ago, and high tech options like stepless gearing and a display that’s virtually a mini-computer with features such as automatic route navigation and mush else besides.

If I had been overtaken by this whilst riding my Powabyke in 1999 the technology would have appeared truly mind-boggling even if, in fact, it was just a huge refinement of technology that had already been invented. 

Much of this technology has trickled down to lower priced machines too – things considered luxury spec like hydraulic disk brakes and hardwired high power LED lighting are now essentially bog-standard mid-range e-bike fare.

Added to the fact there are more and more high quality drive systems and more and more quality e-bike manufacturers offering them and the growing success of e-bikes starts to look much less surprising. Recently a new wave of small, lightweight hub motor systems have lead to a rash of ever lighter e-bikes with e-road and e-folders in particular developing from the improving technology.  

Big Backers Pushing Value for Money

At the other end of the spectrum there are more budget e-bikes on offer, with the likes of Halfords and Decathlon now offering seriously good value and slickly-designed sub-£1000 machines backed by solid guarantees and their own reputations as longstanding companies.

This is miles away from the early days of the industry in the UK which was dominated by smaller, sometimes here today and gone tomorrow operators often selling distinctly Heath-Robinson looking machines. That £500 you would have needed to buy a Powabyke in 1999, in today’s money, would now get you a much lighter Decathlon electric mountain bike with disk brakes and a good sized lithium ion battery and the riding experience itself would be immeasurably better. 

An oft-repeated complaint in my many conversations with those who approached me whilst riding an e-bike was the price; avid interest soon waned when I revealed what it was (“I could get a motorbike for that” is typical of the replies).

But my own studies of the e-bike market show that typical prices have stayed much the same, allowing for inflation. What has changed is what you get for the money, with the technology and design of modern machines clearly representing much better value.

And as the success of the likes of Riese & Muller demonstrate, the UK market is no longer ‘price sensitive’ and UK customers will pay a premium once they are convinced of the usefulness, value and longevity of the product.  No doubt it also helps that the likes of German firms Riese & Muller and Bosch now have their own technical and sales backup teams in the UK to support the ever growing dealer network.  

Lessons for Electric Cars?        

The Honda E – an electric car that has won hearts, but not minds

It’s a tempting exercise to ask what the nascent electric car industry in the UK can learn from the eventual runaway success of e-bikes.

Of course there are pitfalls, the least of which is that I am not an electric car expert. To me though it seems the advantages of adding electric power to a bike are perhaps more immediately obvious than swapping petrol for electric power on a car. With a bike you get a vehicle still free to use on the roads and one that is powered by only a few pence worth of electricity. Perhaps the undoubted advantages of going from petrol to electric cars are less immediately obvious to the buying public.

The e-bike experience suggests to me not only that the right technology must be in place and be capable of doing what people expect it to do, but that it needs refining and then marketing. Education as to its advantages also plays a huge role here too. It took years in the UK to convince not only the public but many, many dealers and even some bike manufacturers themselves that electric was truly the future and that process is clearly just beginning with electric cars.

One thing e-bikes and electric cars do have in common though is that once people have taken the plunge and bought one very very few want to go back – aside of all the well-rehearsed practical arguments, going electric, as e-bike and car drivers will tell you, is just so enjoyable it’s addictive.