Electric Bikes - the future?

Electric Bikes - the future?

by Dave Atkinson   September 9, 2008  

Bionx system on specialized Roubaix

Electric bikes were big again at Eurobike, and every year they seem to get bigger. It's a trend much more noticeable on, and driven by, continental Europe but we still see its effects filtering through to Blighty. So what's happening? Electric bikes are getting better No doubt about it, the technology has come a long way from the 40kg behemoths that used to pass for electric bikes five years ago. To see how far technology has come I had a spin on the top-of-the-range (2,800 Euros) Diamant, a Trek sub-brand that's distributed in Germany and Austria.
What's refreshing from the outset about this bike is that it's obvious that without the battery and associated gubbins it's a well-thought-out and competent city cruiser. You get a well made Aluminium frame, decent rigid forks with a small headshok-type damper, sensible wheels and new LX running gear. It's the kind of upright urban steed you might expect to weigh maybe 26-28lb. With the battery, motor and controls the total weight is considerably higher at 46lb, but it's still a perfectly manageable bike even with the motor turned off.
Add some power and it really comes to life. The bike uses the Pedelec system (it adds to your pedal input) and there's four levels of assistance, from 25% to 200% of pedal power. Braking is regenerative, helping to charge the battery, and there's also four charge settings for longer downhills, or if you just want to make life difficult for yourself. On the full power setting it was so impressive that I had to stop to confirm with the Diamant guys that it really was just a road legal 250W motor; on the continent electric bikes can be twice as powerful, but need to be licensed.
Obviously this is a high-end machine with a price tag to match - the scarcity of Lithium Ion batteries isn't helping to make these bikes affordable at the moment - but there were plenty of other good-looking bikes on show for a lot less; I also had a spin on a mid-range Trans-X Pedelec bike that was very likeable if not as impressive as the Diamant. Pedelec seems to be the system of choice right across the board now, and twist-shift systems appear to be losing favour.
On the retrofitting front the Bionx system was all over the place as well, fitted to all sorts of bikes including the Specialized Roubaix at the top of the page that they wouldn't let me have a go on. A modified version of Bionx is also the power behind the new electric Birdy - more on that later... And the bad news? Well, mainly that there's too much faffing around with the actual bike design when all that's really needed is a light and efficient way of adding power to what we already know are the most sensible bike shapes. We don't need shaft drives, nor unusual frames; these things just add weight without giving any operational advantage. Similarly there's a big obsession with front and rear suspension, which is even more unnecessary on a town bike on the continent than it is over here. Just fit some bigger tyres, and do us all a favour: the systems are generally rubbish, and it's just more mass to push around.
There was plenty of 'urban utility vehicles' knocking about too, basically motorbikes of one description or another with their petrol innards replaced by electric ones. I can't help feeling that this is a hiding to nothing: it's not as if the world can't cope with a few 50cc mopeds pootling into town, and I'm yet to be convinced that firing up some manner of power station to supply the energy to charge the battery of said electric moped is better than a tiny petrol engine anyway. Having said, I've got a lot of time for the e-Bikeboard scooter, simply because it's such tremendous fun. Sadly, I think it's too powerful to be legal in the UK...