E-bikes are here to stay, and will play an increasingly important role when it comes to cycling uptake. While a bit of electric assistance is an obvious benefit to some riders, among UK cyclists there are still some misconceptions about what e-bikes offer, and the potential benefits they provide. So, let’s look at the facts behind half a dozen e-bike myths...
Here’s the first thing you often hear: you’ll never get fit/lose weight/improve your cardio on an e-bike. However, modern e-bikes are actually termed ‘electric assist’, so you’ve still got to spin your legs, with the electric power simply helping to maintain a higher speed. Of course, your workout isn’t quite as exhausting as on a non-electric bike, but the actual differences in health outcomes are less significant than you might think.
An extensive systematic review of existing studies of the effects of e-bike riding found there was good evidence that e-bike use provides definite health benefits and increased fitness, such as improved oxygen intake and increased maximal power output. One caveat was that e-bike riders have to ride for longer than walkers or conventional cyclists to achieve the same energy expenditure – although, helpfully, the review also said: “e-cycling is associated with lower ratings of perceived exertion than conventional cycling, potentially enabling people to ride more frequently or for a longer duration.”
So how much energy can you burn on an e-bike? The figures often quoted are around 300-400 calories an hour, or about 75% of the amount you’d burn riding a non-assisted bike over the same distance. However, in a direct study on the Electric Bike Blog website, engineer Ron Wensel recorded the calorie consumption he experienced when riding his e-bike. He found that he burned 440 calories in an hour, which was around 80% of his calorie expenditure when riding non-assisted.
Of course, these figures depend on a number of factors, not least how much electric assistance you choose to use. But the beauty of most e-bikes is that, as your fitness improves, you can simply reduce the level of help you require. Meaning that e-bikes also offer a very clear way to judge and develop your fitness, too.
Not only does selecting the level of electric power you require have a bearing your long-term fitness goals, it also affects individual rides in an immediate way by limiting how far you can ride with assistance. The more power you use, the shorter the distance (range) you can cover with the electric motor contributing. On minimal power settings, though, many e-bikes are quite capable of an assisted range of 100 miles or more.
However, judging range is not some dark art built on hope, good luck and guesswork. Most modern e-bikes have accurate battery level displays and even expected range indications, so you can work out exactly which settings are best employed to get you home. Going one step further, systems like the Bosch Nyon on-board computer even include GPS sat-nav and can offer different routes – fastest, most eco, etc – to get you home before the power runs out.
If something goes wrong and you do find yourself completely depleted of electrical energy, that doesn’t mean you’re left having to hoik some behemoth up the hills. Yes, most e-bike are a little heavier than their non-assisted counterparts – they’re bound to be, with added motors and batteries – but the tide is turning. Top-end road e-bikes are ultralight and even in the urban e-bike market, Islabikes recently sent us one of their eJanis models, which is impressively light at less than 14kg and would be a decent weight even for a conventional bike in this category.
Certainly there are a few extra bits and pieces to an e-bike but, underneath it all, it is still a bike with established components and technology that hasn’t changed for decades. If you can cope with fixing punctures, setting up gears or adjusting brakes on a conventional bike, you’ll still be able to enjoy doing all the same on a e-bike.
Even with the newer bits of tech involved, e-bikes are very much a product of the modern age with all the holistic and intuitive design that modern life prioritises. Recharging processes are becoming ever more simple and convenient. And the operating systems, such as Bosch Nyon, Shimano STEPs and or Mahle ebikemotion, can be as easy or as complicated as you want, with smart device compatibility or more advanced optional functionality such as integrating heart rate monitor readings.
Essentially: if you can work a normal bike and a mobile phone, you can get your head around an e-bike.
Last year, a YouGov survey commissioned by Shimano asked 13,412 people across Europe about their cycling intentions and views about e-bikes. It revealed that 8% of Europeans already owned an e-bike; 17% said they were more likely to purchase or use an e-bike than during the previous year; and 11% revealed that they no longer ride pedal-powered cycles alone.
In country-by-country results, 30% of respondents in Italy were keen to ride an e-bike; 26% in Switzerland, Poland and The Netherlands; 21% in Spain; and 19% France. Numbers this high means these are not ‘just’ old people. As Cycling Industry News reported: “Across the board, the younger demographic had stronger enthusiasm for [an e-bike] demo, running completely contrary to how sales initially tended to go to an older generation seeking new mobility.”
However, if you are a UK cyclist, it’s understandable why your opinion of e-bikes might be skewed towards believing they’re only suited to a select group of riders. In the YouGov survey, the UK lagged at the bottom, with only 7% of those surveyed saying they’d try an assisted cycle. It’s time to change that outdated idea.
If you are planning to use an e-bike to compete at the Tour de France then, yes, that would be cheating. But that doesn’t apply to the vast majority of people thinking about riding one.
That systematic review of e-bike studies we mentioned earlier highlighted the fact that e-bikes offer a more accessible way to achieving active travel. And active travel offers all kinds of personal benefits.
“Engagement in active travel, specifically commuting, has been shown to be predictive of a lower BMI and reduced risk of diabetes diagnosis… active commuting, involving cycling, was associated with a lower risk of all-cause mortality and cancer incidence and mortality… [and] commuting by bicycle or on foot was associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease incidence and mortality. The greatest gains in health outcomes from active commuting are reported in the least active individuals,” it said.
If the alternative is to be stuck on a bus or train, or vegetating on the sofa rather than enjoying yourself and getting a bit fitter – even if it’s not quite as fit as you’d get on a non-assisted bike - then you’re only cheating yourself.
We’ve already said that e-bikes don’t have to be much heavier than non-assisted bikes, and among many manufacturers, the integration of technology in terms of e-bike user interfaces has been impressively intuitive. But that level of design has also extended to frame construction, and battery and motor integration.
E-bikes of old might have been a bit unwieldy and – to be honest – not always particularly aesthetically sophisticated. But when you have major global bike brands focusing all of their talents on e-bikes ranges – for good financial and market reasons, as the YouGov/Shimano survey highlights – the results in terms of product development is astounding.
There are now many mass market e-bikes – such as the Focus range of road bikes at the top of this page, or Specialized’s cross-discipline Turbo range, or the Islabike eJanis (above) mentioned earlier - that are all-but indistinguishable to their non-assisted equivalents.
One final myth that's worth mentioning is that e-bikes are not, contrary to popular belief, a modern invention – they’ve actually been around since the late 19th Century. But with the kinds of public health and environmental concerns that are taking precedence in the 21st Century, e-bikes might finally become a truly crucial transport solution.
Of course, if you already cycle - unassisted - why would you need an e-bike? Well here’s one thing that isn’t a myth: they’re also fantastic fun.
Try one – it might be better than you think!