Sunday, April 13, 2008

Electrobikes only for the elderly or infirm?

We subscribe to AtoB magazine ( a rather quirky, amusing and timely publication for folks interested in both cycling and public transport issues. In its early days folding bikes, like the Brompton and Birdy and the pitfalls of privatised railways in the UK, took centre stage. Over time general themes like individual energy use, environmental concerns and climate change have been cleverly worked into the mix of articles. Folding bikes of every provenance plus trailers for child transport are given test rides and their advantages and disadvantages described, sometimes upsetting major suppliers of course. Initially bikes assisted with electric motors were rarely considered since any that existed tended to be heavy, inefficient and unreliable. However, as with folders and separables like the Moulton or BikeFridays, ebikes like the Powerbike are gradually becoming almost mainstream devices. Many AtoB readers complain frequently about the inclusion of these ebikes in the reviews, clearly regarding them as not real bikes and only fit for the elderly and infirm. Legally they are defined as bikes and can therefore be ridden without a licence and also use cycleways or highway sections designated for cyclists. They are almost as quiet as bikes in use, tyre noise being the main sound.
A close look at the population structure of most Western European countries quickly reveals that a sizeable proportion is already over 55 and this chunk is expected to grow as most birthrates decline. Opinions vary as to the age at which the term elderly can be applied. I’m now around the age at which I first became aware of my Grandmother as a person, a little old lady in a black dress, but anyone who calls me elderly is likely to get slapped on the face or challenged to a bike ride. Like most people we hadn’t thought much about the potential benefits of ebikes until our local bike shop hosted a demonstration. It took place at the Senior Citizens Centre, a spacious airy building in the town centre about as far removed from similar establishments I’ve visited elsewhere that one can imagine. Coffee, tea, soft drinks are served at sensible prices and cakes, home made by Frau X or Y are delicious. The place was packed as the bikes were displayed and their advantages discussed. A young woman with a heart problem also appeared, with her trusty steed now somewhat outmoded, but which had enabled her to work as a peripatetic music teacher, without a car. She is also able to tour with her family, something impossible for her using a normal bike. Her ebike, she said, had given her her life back, which I can believe.
The real action then took place as the ebikes and a trike were wheeled outside and after a quick demonstration were grabbed, mainly by menfolk to start with. There were a few wobbles but then with a rush they were away to make the streets of Viernheim into the Hockenheim Ring for bikes. Riders have to keep pedalling, so there is some effort involved keeping the circulation going. Several ladies joined in on the next round and returned with beaming faces, though the trike was deemed a little strange to ride. Two models were available, one the Vital-Bike with a detachable lithium battery and charger. It comes with some variable features and has a range of about 50km between charges. The other Hercules bike looks almost like an ordinary town bike but has the battery built into the frame, making it perhaps more difficult to charge away from home, since few hotels really like bikes in bedrooms. (We’ve been forced to do this occasionally, where there was no secure storage, but can’t recommend it). Only for the elderly and inform then? Well perhaps, but there is anecdotal evidence of people who haven’t ridden a bike for years buying an ebike then selling it a year or so later because they had regained enough fitness to return to a normal bike.
There is another twist to this tale. Our local bike shop has been suffering more and more from competition from what one can only describe as bike supermarkets in big sheds, where glossy machines apparently displaying all the must have devices, gear ratios and navigational systems or whatever are offered for the price of a cup of tea and a scone. Of course most of us realise that you get what you pay for and these supermarkets offer little in the way of after service, but if your child’s bike has been stolen twice most folks will take the risk and get the next one for 250 Euros and a bar of Ritter Sport chocolate. In Andreas’s shop bikes for adults range from perhaps 550€ at the bottom end and it is easy to exceed a couple of thousand if you want something for racing or long distance touring.
Some bike shops have simply disappeared, others sell motorbikes and scooters, but Andreas has branched out into the ebike business. In his first week after the demonstration he sold three ebikes and hopes to develop into a centre for the Rhein-Neckar region, with 2 million inhabitants including Mannheim, Heidelberg and Ludwigshafen. Good for business, good for keeping the not so fit on the move and good for riders of human powered machines who need local bike shops for supplies and maintenance.
Technical details and some ideas on ebike touring follow in subsequent blogs.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Brushing off the cobwebs

The last two winters have been very mild here in Germany’s Rhine Valley so our folding bikes have been used throughout the darker months. We do our local errands and occasionally dash off on the rough tracks in nearby woods on crisp sunny days. In February a run of frosty mornings followed by spring-like afternoon temperatures tempted us to lift down our mountain bikes, pump up the tyres and dislodge the odd spider. Not that the run over the farm roads to visit friends in the next town but one really merited the MTBs but, maybe we’d run into a cowpat or find the road blocked by earth tremor. It just seemed the right kind of weather so we pulled on the wind proofs and persuaded our elderly legs into can-can position over the crossbars and headed north. Without saying a word both of us set off at a cracking pace round the edge of the town and alongside the drainage ditches running parallel to the Odenwald Hills to our right. Birds were twittering in the bushes, the hills rose in greens and browns, and we arrived at our friend’s house slightly out of breath and ready for coffee, cake and conversation. The return journey’s pace was more moderate, perhaps as a result of being tempted by strawberry topped tart and delicious cheese cake. As we returned the bikes to our cellar, both of us were convinced that spring really was around the corner and we’d be biking longer routes very shortly.
We should have known better for the weather gods still needed a bit of winter fun and a series of violent storms blasted through our area, destroying lots of trees and causing a few deaths. The German weather service give names to low and high pressure systems, which people can give as presents to their loved ones. We’re not sure that we’d like to be remembered as ‘low Neil’ which wreaked death and destruction across half a country or ‘high Judith’, responsible for the worst drought since records began, but there’s no accounting for folk. Expeditions by bike were minimal, necessary journeys close to home as the weather nastiness rose to a crescendo over Easter. Snow, which had held off all winter finally coated the garden and the Odenwald hilltops were white for days as temperatures hovered in that unpleasant range just above freezing. On Easter Sunday we caught the tram into Mannheim, bought an English Sunday paper at the station and marched for 40 minutes along the Rhine upstream before and even more rapid about turn to catch the tram home to warmth, cups of tea and a (home-made) hot cross bun.
A week later temperatures were back at mid February level and we could cycle by Brompton into Mannheim to buy our weekly fix of news from home. It was wonderful, after our enjoyable bike ride, to read about the tribulations of the new T5 at Heathrow. Schadenfreude can be so enjoyable, especially when no one has been hurt physically. What a turnaround could have been achieved for ordinary public transport, plus storage facilities for cyclists at bus and train stations, with all those billions of pounds. There would be no prestige, little razzmatazz but quite possibly all might have gone according to plan, and saved the planet to boot!

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