How I became an e-bike convert

By Ross McGill,
electric bike

Ten years with Sustrans and a lifetime of cycling adventures hadn’t really prepared me for this: my first ride on an e-bike.

I’ve always been sceptical and a bit of a purist when it comes to e-bikes. I have to admit I thought they were cheating and unnecessary.

After all, with a good range of gears and route planning even a hilly city like Derry, in Northern Ireland, can be navigated by bike.

Times and waistlines change, however, and as part of a recent workplace project that Sustrans is delivering in the North West of Ireland I was finally given the chance to see if I could be converted.

My first e-bike experience

The machine in question was a German made Focus Aventura (actually classified as a ‘pedelec’, a low-powered e-bike where the rider’s pedalling is assisted by a small electric motor). It's one of four e-bikes being used to encourage Derry City & Strabane District Council and Western Health and Social Care Trust staff to try their commute and local trips by two wheels.

My first impression of the e-bike was that it didn’t look like an e-bike, not the clunky, motor scooter kind that I had in my head anyway.

Apart from a narrow rectangle shaped 400v battery on the down tube there is little indication that it runs on anything more than your own steam. And unlike some e-bikes that have incorporated the motor in the rear hub, the Aventura’s motor is cleverly housed in the front chainset.

The bike has four settings that provide increasing levels of assistance to your pedalling: Eco, tour, sport and turbo which very quickly became my favourite setting).  The bike also has an eight speed Shimano derailleur gear set that you use just like a conventional bike. 

Once I selected the appropriate assistance setting and gear I was off.

Gently pedalling up Lawrence Hill at a top speed of 12mph whilst still on the saddle is a very satisfying experience.

As I glided to a stop, not even slightly out of breath, I thought wow! Now, this changes things. 

Shipquay Street, Lawrence Hill, Chapel Road and Creggan Road are notoriously steep streets in the city that are usually avoided by all but the diehard cyclists with a wide range of gears. On my Focus the hill didn’t exist anymore and that was only the start of the enjoyment.

Getting a boost up hills was an obvious one but the more I cycled around town the more I realised many other, no less welcomed benefits.

At roundabouts and junctions, statistically the most risky areas for cyclists, I was given smooth, quick starts to get me through them safely. Along the quay I breezed by two club cyclists on racing bikes struggling against the headwind, the dreaded “horizontal hills” (to their credit I did need to use ‘turbo’ to overtake them). 

The final benefit I experienced was just how much your distance and range can be extended. Returning back to base less than 30 mins later, I realised I had cycled around half the city at an average speed of 11 mph and never broke a sweat.

Are e-bikes the perfect solution? 

Well, of course there is no such thing as a perfect solution.

Starting at around £750, for most people the cost of e-bikes is unaffordable compared to conventional bikes. The battery on the model I rode needs to be taken off and charged from a mains connection. Also, the additional weight makes e-bikes more difficult to transport (although some models feature a walk assist mode for when you are pushing the bike).

However, as costs come down and battery life and recharge times improve e-bikes could start to become more viable and attractive option.

It’s been coined the “e-mobility” revolution, with the attention tending to be on e-cars and buses, but the highest selling electric vehicles on the planet are actually e-bikes with an estimated 35 million e-bikes sold in 2016. 

In many Western European countries e-bike sales have been steadily rising. This year, e-bikes are expected to out sell conventional bikes for the first time in Germany and the Netherlands.

I can also see their attraction from those returning to cycling or the elderly and less abled in society who may find it difficult to hop onto a conventional bike. Many European cities are also turning to e-cargo bikes to help move goods more efficiently in increasingly crowded urban areas.

With more and more kilometres of greenways being planned for in Derry and the North West, particularly the cross-border greenways to Buncrana, Muff and between Strabane and Lifford, e-bikes could offer a viable alternative to the car especially for journeys longer than 10km. And what a fantastic offer for the region we would have if Derry introduced the island’s first public e-bike share scheme.

So yes, you could say I’m a convert. I’ll always own and use a conventional bike for as one fellow cyclist told me “Lawrence Hill is the difference between what I wear now and elasticated trousers.”

However, for those of us who are also serious about the bicycle as a mode of transport, e-bikes aren’t cheating, they’re just a more sensible way to move about. 

Find out more about the Leading the Way Programme in workplaces

  • Sustrans is also trialling the use of e-bikes as part of the CHIPS project in east Belfast and will be exhibiting some of these during the Gran Fondo weekend at the Stormont estate.