Electric are beginning to enter a new phase of popularity, spurred on by rising oil prices, cheaper components and a populace eager to save money on their commuting and daily travel costs. The result has been a flood of new entrants to the market in recent months, underpinned by a new crop of cheap Chinese electric motors which are more efficient, and cheaper than ever.
I thought I’d take a look at two of the products jostling for our cash, from both ends of the spectrum. In one corner the ultra-modern, designed by a Formula 1 engineer, sleek GoCycle and in the other a more traditional but much lauded veteran of the electric bicycle world, the Brompton Nano.
Both are urban oriented folding bikes in a similar price band, but apart from that they’re chalk and cheese in many respects. Read on for more details as to the differences, similarities and what it’s like to live with them for a while.
First Impressions. You can recognise the Formula 1 pedigree immediately you start riding this smart looking, distinctive e-bike. For one thing it stops on a dime, which becomes very apparent after you finish picking bits of gravel from your teeth. Disc brakes all round, injection moulded magnesium body, sleek side panel and chain guard (no oil on this baby, ladies) and some very impressive tyres, make this bike a real high tech crowd pleaser.
So far I’ve had three shouts of recognition from the roadside as I’ve been travelling, all of them admiring, including one who insisted on a quick guest ride. This bike gets you noticed!
In Use. It’s no slouch either. That tiny little front wheel mounted 250W electric motor pulls away with alacrity once you push the little red button. Up hills, down dales, across busy intersections, whoosh! Or rather squeaaaaal. Because, as well as being fast on the uptake and very distinctive, the GoCycle is also a tad noisy. Push the button down a quiet side street and you’ll get people looking at you as you whizz by – well OK not exactly whizz, top speed is a legal max of 15mph in the UK – but you know what I mean. This is a bike for those who like to be noticed, not shy retiring sorts.
Practicality. Designer Richard Thorpe tells me he didn’t really create it as a commuter bike, more as a fun, runabout and I can see what he means. If you’re serious about travelling through 10 miles of dense, snarling traffic every day you’re probably not going to buy something which needs a button to be kept pressed all the time, you’re going for a bigger wheeled, heftier road racer type bike.
But saying that, I found the bike immensely enjoyable for extended runs around town. The fact that you can hop on easily with no battery to carry, no keys to turn, no bicycle clips to adjust means it’s perfect for hopping across town for a hair appointment, or to visit some friends for a barbeque when you’d otherwise train it or take the car. The secret is in the fact that it’s lightweight and well balanced enough to act like a normal bike, so you can start off just pedaling as normal and enjoy yourself. Only this time hills, buses and busy intersections hold no fear, as your friend the Red Button is near. Or something.
The gearing is perfectly adequate, although at times I did wish for a couple of extra top gears to help me hustle along a bit more, and it’s choc full of balance, poise and confident chutzpah. Only 16.2kg in weight, and with a range of 6 -20 miles depending how you use that button, you’ll whizz through those journeys. The only things I would ask for are a speedo of some sort, a battery gauge and some more luggage space, although there are front and rear bag options you can buy.
The only terrifying thing is the fact that for those who live in a big city, this bike is almost certainly a honeypot for thieves. I spent the first three rides convinced that every time I secured it with the flimsy default chain lock thing, it would be gone by the time I returned. The first time I was so paranoid I took a photo of it with my phone cam just to prove to Richard and the police that I had actually locked it to a stout metal barrier. Needless to say it was still there when I returned later. Nevertheless, if it was mine, I’d buy a BIGGER LOCK! Definitely!
Verdict. A stonking piece of really classy technology. My first ride on the thing was a 10 mile cross-city hack, weaving deliberately and safely through typical big city traffic with aplomb. Only a couple of time did I lose my nerve, but that was not the bike’s fault, just my inexperience alongside fast moving vans and buses. And I got back home with a huge grin on my face, which really says it all.
Richard is right, it’s not really a commuter bike. But it is a bike that will encourage you to make more local trips without the car. A bike that turns any location into Holland, flat and non-threatening for biking. A small bicycle which just happens to have a hidden super power, in the form of a lovely little Red Button. Delicious.
Price: From £1495.00.
Pros: Beautifully designed to be lightweight, well balanced and a pleasure to ride as a bicycle as well as an e-bike. Head turning looks, powerful torquey engine for steep hills, superb brakes and a beautifully smooth gear change mechanism.
Cons: Thief magnet in town, could do with some higher gears and a battery gauge, spare parts probably a little too non-standard to be cheap. Noisy motor and gear system at speed. Not really an easy folder, more of an ‘if-you-must’ folder.
First Impressions. If the GoCycle is all flash and dash stallion, then this e-bike is a stately old dray, not so much slow as steady. Unprepossessing, reliable, not one to make a fuss. It’s really a classic case of the English understatement. When I were a lad, there used to be a class of car which were called Q cars. They looked totally normal, but underneath the bonnet the owner had shoehorned in something huge and menacing, and the first the Porsche owners knew about it was when this super tuned monster screamed past them on the dual carriageway.
This bike reminds me of that.
In use. The Brompton Nano melds a classic Brompton M3L folding bicycle with an impressive Tongxin 250W brushless motor and Lithium Ion battery. All of this translates into a bike which moves impressively well under throttle control. The first thing you notice about riding this Brompton is the fact that the throttle control is very smooth. So smooth in fact compared to the GoCycle that you only realise you’re travelling at a fair rate when you zoom up behind a conventional cyclist and pass them with a smug grin. And only a whisper of sound. Oh yes, this is a beautifully quiet motor indeed.
Practicality. The absolutely most greatest thing about this e-bike is that it’s invisible. No one takes any notice of you as you effortlessly whizz up the hill, dumpy little legs silkily pumping away, smile on face. You don’t worry about nasty thieves nicking your pride and joy as you park it against the railings outside the local grocery store. It’s just another little folding bike among many. And as for riding it. Well it’s a Brompton. That means you have to push yourself a little more to get it going because it’s got smaller wheels, but if you cheat and twist the throttle, whoosh.
The result is you cheat a lot more on this than with the GoCycle. Cheat off the lights, cheat up the hills, cheat down the hills, along the straight. In fact it’s hard not to cheat, because it’s just so much fun. Who wants to pedal when you’ve got a massive Lithium battery willing to send you up to 50 miles on a charge? And maybe that’s the problem. Rather than being a nice bike with a battery assist, the Brompton feels more like an OK bike which really comes to life under power. So you use it.
It’s also great to have a useful bag there into which you can stuff shopping, as long as you are careful of the battery nestled at the bottom. You also quickly learn the trick of how to carry the bike when you’re not riding. Take the battery out first! Otherwise it’s a heavy unwieldy carry, what with all the weight of motor and battery at the front. And let’s not forget it folds like a trouper. Unlike the GoCycle you can lug this thing onto a crowded train within seconds of arriving at the station. Beautiful.
Verdict. The Brompton Nano is like a cuddly, quixotic old uncle with a bundle of quirks and old fashioned habits, but you love him all the same. You’ll need to remember the bike clips if you don’t want oily bits on your troos, those little wheels are a tad unforgiving on deep potholes and the cute little gearchange feels like something out of a 1950’s movie. But the thing has *bags* of character and a game little heart. It’ll puff itself up just about any hill you throw at it – albeit slowly sometimes – and still come back for more, mile after mile. Just give another twist of the throttle and your grin returns each time.
Price: From £1449.00
Pros: Great little motor allied with a hefty Lithium Ion battery gives you real commuting power on tap. Renowned for its light weight and amazingly compact folding ability, the Brompton really is a versatile workhorse in all conditions. Whisper quiet motor and ultra discreet design makes it a more secure option too, especially in a hostile urban environment. Available in kit form for £749 as a retro-fit for your existing bicycle.
Cons: Small wheels are bound to be more unforgiving on rough urban terrain, and the handling is not quite as balanced and assured as the Gocycle. A little pricey in comparison to alternative options, although you’re getting top class components, and you can always retrofit a 2nd hand model on the cheap.
My Comment. Overall the new revitalized e-bike sector is proving to be a really fascinating one, and after several years of struggle seems like it’s about to break through into the mainstream consciousness. It’s still a little too geeky for it’s own good sometimes, for example trying to figure out cost benefits between 250W continuous vs 130W rated motors vs 12V vs 24V vs a 10Ah battery vs 210 rpm wheel combos blah blah can really make the head hurt. Which is why it’s good to see entrants like GoCycle keeping the tech speak down to a minimum while focusing on consumer friendly design.
Tips on Buying and Owning an e-Bike.
- Weight. Lightness is king. Too heavy and you will squander most of the power just moving the bike. Cheap bikes tend to be heavier, so make sure to check before buying. Don’t forget also that if your battery runs out mid-journey, you will have to pedal home alone. The nearer you can get to 17-20 kg the better really.
- Battery. What they don’t tell you in the sales blurb is the fact that the battery is a delicate mechanism. You *must* charge it immediately after any use in order to avoid it potentially being damaged. This can be a little inconvenient, especially at work. Watch out also for the different types of battery, e.g. try and avoid Lead Acid models as this is very old, heavy tech. But cheap.
- Purpose. It’s important to have an idea in your head of what you mainly want to use the bike for before buying. This is because things like uphill performance, battery range, top speed etc are all very material when related to your particular journey requirements. It is important to buy the right configuration for your needs or you will risk wasting money on some expensive features you don’t need, and vice versa.
If you’re in the market for an e-bike check out the friendly and very helpful Pedelec forums at http://www.pedelecs.co.uk and the venerable A to B Magazine at http://www.atob.org.uk (price guide) both of which offer comprehensive and valuable advice on buying and owning an electric bicycle.