Can electric bikes really be cheating, asks Neil Pedoe, when all they do is help you pedal, higher, further and easier?
Are electric bikes really cycling?
In professional cycling it’s called ‘mechanical doping’ – with cutting edge electrical or magnetic motors as small as phone batteries hidden in bike frames to give a rider an edge. The motors are tiny and the advantage small, with only a few extra watts of power added to the hundreds these pros are putting out with human power alone on every pedal stroke, all day long. It’s still cheating.
But where’s the cheating when there’s no race, no unfair competitive advantage’, nor prize money at stake? When you’re riding your bike for travel, the real prize on offer with a bit of electrical assistance is more miles and smiles as you climb higher, ride further and explore more.
For inexperienced or unfit cyclists this might mean the difference between going on a bike ride or choosing to avoid one altogether – the difference between exploring the world with the wind in your hair, enjoying the mental and physical benefits of exercise… or deepening the dent in your sofa.
There will always be those fitness fascists who don’t realise that you still have to put some effort in to pedal a pedelec, who will always cry “cheat!” – but the same cry went up when the Tour de France bikes first started fitting gears to their bikes!
In our book, electric assistance is an adventure tool: it can power downhill mountain bikes back to the top of the trail, take amateurs to the top of Tour de France climbs, reduce the drag of a child trailer or heavy panniers, or help you share a great ride with a stronger riding partner. At its most simple, by making every pedal stroke that little bit easier, an electric bike can help you discover more with every ride, for no extra effort.
Okay, so e-bikes, or pedelecs are far from perfect, with many being too heavy, too expensive and not having a long enough range for meaningful travel distances between battery charges.
Then there’s their pesky 15.5mph built-in speed adaptor, after which a pedelec leaves all the pedalling work to you. And don’t even ask how much replacement batteries are going to cost…
The technical bumps in the road will be smoothed out in time, as more and people discover the possibilities of pedelecs. Maybe sometime soon we’ll get to ride the almost invisible e-bike technology those cheating pros have got their hands on.
Even when we do, pedalling – or rather not pedalling – is where we will always draw the line. Human-powered self-propulsion will always be at the heart of our love of bike travel – a ‘twist-and-go’ machine where you don’t have to pedal at all is just an electric motorbike. If we’re talking travel then that might not be ‘cheating’ per se but it’s neither Active Travel nor even cycling…