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.

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