I’ve just spent a couple of days in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, where family friends live. One of them, James FitzGerald, runs Justebikes.co.uk, which sells, among other things, several models of electric bicycles.
I tried out one of these, the Dutch-made Sparta Ion M-Gear Low-Step, last night; and was very impressed. One of their brochures refers to these bikes giving one “bionic powers”; which is a rather good description of how it feels. Another way of capturing the experience is imagining that gravity has somehow been diminished, and cycling just takes a whole lot less effort than you might expect. For these bikes do not have accelerators, or anything like that: if you do not pedal, they do not move. But when you do pedal, the bike does much of the work.
I followed James to his home, cycling cross-country from Aldeburgh to Thorpeness, where we had dinner. Then I cycled back by myself in the dark, following the same route: the line of a former railway track, long dismantled in this weird country that has spurned and trashed a working public transport system in favour of a belated love affair with vast numbers of private cars for which they really do not have the room; and which have considerably reduced the quality of their environment.
The Sparta has a range of 25 miles with a standard battery pack, a pannier battery can extend it to 50 miles. It re-charges in just an hour and a half – about as long as it would take to have a good leisurely lunch, which is of course the only kind one should have. It solves one of the great problems with standard bicycle commuting, which is that one frequently ends up being so hot and sweaty on arrival that one craves a shower – a facility which is rarely easily available. Light Electric Vehicles are working to sell these bikes to companies as fleets, and are developing solar-powered bike sheds for re-charging. The solar panel area required to effectively re-charge a bicycle in this clime and latitude is approximately 0.8 square metres, conveniently, about the same area required to cover effectively cover the bike.
James’ father-in-law, who is nearly 80, has another model of electric bike, the Chinese-made Swift, which I tried out two days later. The Swift, selling at £689, is considerably less-expensive than the Ion (£1429). It certainly feels far more like a conventional bike with a motor than the Ion, and less solidly engineered. The range is only 15 miles, to the Ion’s 25. But the Swift definitely has a few points going for it, besides price. Some feel the Swift’s power-assist is less subtle than in the Ion; I didn’t notice much of a difference myself, and can imagine that some people might well enjoy the sense of “surge'”.
A key difference is that the battery on the Swift is removable. Where I live in Cape Town, 100m along a mountain path up from the nearest road, being able to just take up a battery for charging, rather than having to get the whole bike to a power point, would be a considerable advantage.
The Swift has a double-kickstand, rather than the Ion’s side kick-stand.
Though the Swift did feel a bit more flimsy than the Ion, I enjoyed riding it as much as the Dutch machine.
The bicycle is, unpowered, the most efficient form of transportation human beings have ever developed. Electrically (and solar) powered, it becomes practical over greater ranges, for more people (including the elderly), and over a wider range of terrain, making bicycle transport potentially less daunting for those living in hilly areas. It retains all the humanity of cycling – not being hermetically sealed by speed and capsule from one’s human and physical environment. It’s a form of transportation that deserves very heavy promotion by those who are serious about reducing climate change.
The only – somewhat massive – problem: the Sparta at present costs £1429 – or R20 000 – making it, for South Africans at any rate, only slightly less expensive than a new car, and a lot more expensive than many faster, more powerful petrol scooters and motorbikes. It’s probably not for those who wish to rush about, though in many cities it would be far quicker than other modes of transport. So, let’s rather go slowly, looking forward to a time when electric bikes are within reach of all our pockets.
So what’s available in South Africa? Ezee SA advertise the British-designed Ezee Torq, which they describe as the “best electric bike” on the basis of it twice winning an event called the Tour de Presteigne, the UK’s first electric bike rally held in the Welsh town of Presteigne.
The Torq has a range of 50-60km, and is advertised at R12 974. I suspect I will be looking very seriously at a Torq, before getting a new car to replace my faithful but elderly Opel Kadett Cub.