Sweat is pouring from my dust-caked brow, there are several flies in my teeth and I have the thousand yard stare of a Col du Tourmalet finisher. Welcome to my daily commute. Well, it would be, if I actually rode it more than a few times a year. I live just 12 miles from work but because of the hilly terrain, it takes me an hour door-to-desk by bike (including shower and change) versus just 30 minutes by car. This is the reason I don’t commute on two wheels.
But could an electric bike save me enough time every day to ditch the car? Last week I decided to find out. This was my plan: ride to work and back on my usual bike, do exactly the same on an electric bike, and compare. I used a GPS-enabled cycling computer coupled to a heart rate monitor to measure time and effort to hopefully give some objective feedback about the differences achieved. The electric bike I chose to complete this experiment on was the Storck Cosworth EFV, a slick-looking, flat-handlebar, carbon-framed commuter that happens to sport a 250W motor in the rear hub (see Storck-Raddar.co.uk for more information).
I live in rural Somerset and work in Bath. My commute consists of country lanes, a section of unpaved Sustrans cycle path and urban main roads. Home to work is 11.75 miles with plenty of hills (slightly longer on the way home to avoid a particularly steep ascent). On the first day, using my normal road bike, a Focus Cayo, it took me a shade under 50 minutes of riding time to get to work and a few seconds longer to get home.
I rode reasonably hard (for me) but wasn’t exactly time-trialling. The stats from my computer showed an average moving speed of about 14mph, with an average heart rate of about 165bpm. My aim was to cut 15 minutes off my time each way, and ideally, arrive in a less sweaty state to avoid the need for a shower. Too much to ask? Only one way to find out...
The next day I swapped my road bike for the Storck and set off again. I'd never ridden an electric bike before, and was hoping for something dramatic – an irresistible, grin-inducing surge of power. Sort of like this. Initially, at least, I wasn’t disappointed. The electric motor delivered a powerful and smooth boost as I pressed my pedals forwards. The power was somehow unexpected, even though I was expecting it. Pushing off from a standing start, the motor made the bike surge forward far faster than a normal pedal-powered machine; indeed, the tip of the saddle jabbed into my leg as I moved off, so keen was it to get going.
Unfortunately, once up to 25kph, the motor assistance progressively and quickly scaled back to zero. This is a requirement under UK law (in other countries the regulations are different – BikeRadar will be publishing a handy guide to the confusing world of electric bike regulation later this week). For a lot of people, this limit would never be tested on the flat, and freewheeling downhill, the added bulk was a help rather than a hindrance. However, for anyone moderately fit and upwards, this could be a serious limitation, and one I felt almost immediately. Once beyond that 25kph mark, riding a heavy electric bike unassisted felt a bit like trying to run through treacle.
Going up hills, however, was another matter. The first hill I took on the Storck felt great – very much like the euphoric feeling you get on really good days when you can smash big climbs and still have power in reserve. Even the steepest hills (the steepest of which averages about 11 percent on my ride) were handled with ease – though I still needed to pedal.
I knocked eight minutes off my ride to work, a time saving of 16 percent, and slightly less on the return journey, while keeping my average heart rate lower than the previous day. A great result, but not good enough for me to ditch the car. If the motor was delimited, as it can be in some overseas territories, I’m certain I'd have cut significant further time from my journey, as there were plenty of frustrating moments when the motor dropped away and I was left struggling to heft along a machine almost three times the weight of my road bike.
It’s disappointing because I loved the bike when the motor was running. Its sleek, stealthy appearance – the Storck is one of the few electric bikes that doesn't look like it's been assembled in a Soviet-era Lada factory from old bits of hospital gadgetry – meant I could smoke Lycra-clad racers off the lights and up hills and still look reasonably cool (it’s all relative of course).
That said, this bike and others like it could be great for many people. There’s a huge untapped market for electric bikes in the UK, and from my discussions in the lead-up to this experiment, it’s middle-aged men that make up most of this market. These were the people – friends, neighbours, in-laws, passers-by – who showed a real interest in my little experiment, and a genuine desire for more information. If you don’t ride above 15mph on the flat, then the frustrations I encountered above do not apply.
Will this UK law – passed in 1983 and updated and partly superceded by the EU in 2002 – limit the sales potential for electric bikes, just as it's limited the power of the motors? Possibly. It certainly reduces my interest in them, and it certainly lessens their appeal to the cycling enthusiast. But that’s a fraction of the potential market.
My thinking when deciding to do this experiment was that electric bikes could dramatically expand the cycle commuter belt of any town or city. I still think they can, but that belt would be wider and more populous with a more helpful piece of legislation. It does seem odd that I could hit speeds of close to 60kph on the Storck – completely legally – as I was freewheeling downhill, yet legislation prevents me from riding at more than 25kph if assisted by an electric motor.
By the way, I rode to work and back on a single charge, with the motor in high assistance mode most of the way (I turned it off on some descents and above 15mph on the flat). The company claim a range of 40km to 100km depending on how much assistance is used, the type of terrain and the weight of the rider.
What would you use an electric bike for? Have you had similar or differing experiences to mine? What do you think of the current legislation surrounding electric bikes? I welcome your comments below...