Llewellyn Plugs In: Pedal Power

Robert tries out an electrically assisted bicycle

By Robert Llewellyn on June 9, 2012 7:20 PM

Last week I went for a delightful cycle ride in the rolling hills of South Gloucestershire. I was rapidly transported back to my childhood when I took part in forced bike rides with my family, oh the joy.

My mother on her pre-war boneshaker complete with basket on the front. My older brother on his racer, with drop handlebars and five gears. My dad, with my younger sister on the back in the child seat, on his Sturmey Archer geared proper man’s bike. I’m wobbling along on my bright blue learner’s bike without stabilisers, the dappled sun playing on my innocent skin as I ride along beneath the trees.

But then there’s a hill, I’m only little, it looks like a very big hill and it’s very hard work keeping up. My big strong dad places his hand on my back and shoves me up the hill, his huge big dad legs pumping his pedals. We overtake my mum, even my brother who is standing up on the pedals and doing proper grown up cycling. I was the winner. Yeeeeah.

Why did I flashback to this happy childhood memory? I suppose because the best way to describe riding a pedal assist electric bike, as I did recently, is that it’s like having your dad push you up a hill.

You have to pedal – if you don’t pedal, you come to a halt – but with the incredibly ingenious sensors built into either the chain wheel on the crank or the rear wheel spar mean that the harder you pedal, the harder the 250-watt brushless motor in the hub will push you.

I was riding a bike called the A2B Hybrid 24 and it was the first time I’d ridden one of these remarkable machines any distance. I’ve sat on a few over the last couple of years but usually only ridden them around a car park or exhibition hall.This time I was undertaking a proper bike ride along country lanes with proper hills.

The bike is considerably heavier than the regular road bike I use (the A2B is 27 kg), but that extra weight actually means it runs along the road smoothly and the motor more than makes up for the extra weight. As your legs go around you realise pretty quickly that having that extra bit of cheating power makes a huge difference. Cycling is a pure delight, I found I didn’t use the gears, the bike is fitted with a five speed derailleur system but I just had it in the lowest gear all the time, even up steep gradients.

As an old school hardcore cyclist there is no doubt it’s cheating – I wasn’t getting the same level of exercise I would have got pounding away on my lightweight bike, but I was still having to pedal. You can’t just stop pedaling on these bikes, as the sensitivity of the system ensures you will just stop if you do. So your legs are turning but the bike is moving at Lance Armstrong pace with 20% of the effort.

As an old school hardcore cyclist there is no doubt it’s cheating, but for people considering daily use for a commute to work, this bike is a dream."

For people considering daily use for a commute to work, this bike is a dream. Very stable, very comfortable. The battery slides out of the holder and is surprisingly light, so you can carry it indoors to re-charge it – no need to lug the bike in doors or up steps to get it near a plug.

It has a range up to 40 miles, and let me tell you, if you ride 40 miles on a bike you remember it. You can increase or decrease the amount of extra push you get from the motor by using the little display mounted on the handlebars, and there are three levels of assistance: economy which gives you maximum range; standard which I was using, delivering a strong dad hand pushing you along; and high, which is really noticeable, I suppose the best analogy is an angry rugger bugger shoving you along.

Because of various European regulations, the maximum electrically-powered speed is 15.5 mph. It’s not classed as a moped, so you don’t have to wear a helmet, but you should.

So is it worth it? Well, if you are a strong legged cycling warrior, then probably not, but if you are looking for a different way of getting around and puffing up hills fills you with dread, then a pedal assist bike is a brilliant idea.

There are over 120 million electric bikes on the roads of the world, most of them in China. They come in all shapes and sizes, and the A2B hybrid near top of the range – it costs close to £1,000, but then again it costs literally a few pennies to charge it.

I really loved riding it, and clearly this technology is set to develop very quickly.

Audi has just announced they are getting into the market, the Audi E-bike Worthersee is very attractive, weighing only 20 kg, with a more powerful motor, sleek inbuilt battery and incredibly technology onboard (more here). It looks truly amazing.

About Robert Llewellyn

Columnist Robert Llewellyn is a comedian, actor, presenter and writer. He’s perhaps best known for his role as Kryten in hit BBC comedy Red Dwarf and as co-presenter of Channel 4’s Scrapheap Challenge, but since creating the Carpool series he has been invited to test drive all kinds of cars, from the pure electric Tesla Roadster sports car to the Honda FCX Clarity hydrogen fuel cell car. As a result Robert has become an expert on alternatively-fuelled vehicles, in particular electric cars, launching EV web series Fully Charged in 2010.

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