What It’s Actually Like to Ride an Electric Bike

A mini-moped, or an over-complicated bicycle on steroids? We put one to the test..

I’ve never ridden an E-bike before, or in fact spent longer than twenty minutes on a Dutch Style bike such as the Kalkoff Agattu Impulse which was recently handed over to me on a trip in Italy – via hire company Girolibero.

The five gear machine had a covered belt drive, Scwalbe Marathon tyres, daytime running lights, a luggage rack – and a 36 volt battery. Oh, and a kickstand.

The electric motor was controlled by a handlebar mounted remote, with varying speeds, so you could choose to use more or less power, or no power at all, depending upon your energy levels and the terrain.

The ride in question was a 15km tour of the local vineyards, with a selection of stops along the way to explore the winery and indeed taste the produce. The terrain was far from flat, with some pretty serious short, sharp ramps along the way.

Collecting the bike, I instinctively went to pick it up, to turn it to face the direction if intended movement, and quickly had other ideas. I’m not sure of the exact weight, but 20 kilograms would not have been too far off a sensible estimation.

I rode a few laps around the car park, to get used to the wide steering of a city bike and of course the Euro style braking -where the levers control the opposite brakes, before launching myself and the bike up the little ramp out of the car park a couple of times.

The Dutch bike position meant I could easily swing my canvas bag with camera and notebook over my shoulder with no issue, and a rack on the back would provide ample safe storage should I want to stow any items.

I didn’t turn the motor on until the peloton of E-bike riders was gathered and ready to make exit into the Italian countryside.  Turning the motor on was easy – a simple tap of a button, with up and down arrows to control the degree of power. A few pedal strokes in, and I felt no assistance – a little concerning as my ride buddies began to zip up the exit ramp. Then, a jolt, and a burst of movement, and the engine kicked in. What had been a fairly considerable effort was now a breeze.

I turned the engine off as we descended from the hotel, enjoying the easy comfort of the upright steed. I was shocked to feel how steady the position felt over the hairpin bends – I’d always imagined descents would feel somewhat sketchy on long sweeping bends, without the agility of a road bike built for purpose.

On flat surfaces, the bike zipped along easily, momentum powering it with a little help from my legs and nothing else needed. Turning the engine on, I got a little extra zing, and some free speed which was good fun and a little novelty.

Next we turned left, and were greeted with a pretty serious ascent. Initially, I pedalled unassisted, and then realised that the weight of the bike was such that I would actually never reach the top on my own.

Engine on, the ascent was pretty easy – but not so much so that I felt unworked. Reaching the top of the hill, several other first-time E-bikers commented that the pedalling required to reach the crest had been greater than expected. You can definitely expect a proper workout, even with an engine, over the right terrain.

The weight of the bike meant that when climbing it was almost always necessary to use the engine aid – short ramps could be achieved without, but little else unless you had very strong legs!

Types of Power: Throttle vs Pedal Assist

There are various styles of E-bike engine, two most prominent being hand throttle and pedal assist.

Hand throttle engines provide a boost of power, regardless of your pedalling, a little like a small moped. Pedal assist bikes rely upon you pedalling, adjusting the power based on your cadence – the faster you pedal, the more power is provided – to cater for the greater amount of ‘oompf’ that would be needed to go faster on a flat road.

This all becomes more complicated when riding up hill, since of course cadence slows unless you shift down a few gears and concentrate on spinning. This took a little bit of getting used to, and I and a few other first timers had a few “oh dear” moments when the engine seemed to slow right at the moment we needed it the most!

With practice, using the engine to power up the hills became more natural. Initially, it had felt like a little bit of a cheat, but after a full day of activities, visiting the local sights and tasting delicacies, it was a natural inclination to relax and let the engine haul myself and the bike up the hills.

I can absolutely see the appeal of an E-bike for someone starting out on a journey in cycling, who isn’t quite confident enough to tackle the hills alone, for an older person who isn’t as strong as they once where, or for someone recovering from an injury. Those using these bikes for fitness purposes would definitely still feel a burn and get a benefit, and of course the power could be switched off on more manageable sections.

E-bikes could also very easily provide the answer to congested cities. A person of any fitness level could get around town, there really is no need to get sweaty or change your clothes, and it’s easy to carry luggage without worry. In fact, there is no reason most of us could not swap them for cars, unless completing a full week’s food shop, or lugging a wardrobe home from Argos.

An E-bike won’t be for everyone, but if worries over fitness are putting you off cycling, or you simply need to get somewhere quickly and don’t want to go by car or public transport, one of these machines could well be your new best friend.

Check out these great E-bike brands and see this article on the benefits of E-bikes for more info.

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