Why Australians are buying e-bikes

Lately, I've been seeing more and more e-bikes.

You can often spot them due to the bulging batteries that drive their electric motors. The real giveaway, however, is the momentum a rider can obtain without too much visible effort.

But how many are on our roads?

"So many people are importing that it's hard to pin down an exact number," says Peter Bourke of peak body Bicycle Industries Australia. "It's still a small part of the market - but it is by far the fastest-growing."

What exactly is an e-bike? The bikes classified as "pedelecs" aren't allowed to do all the work, Bourke explains. The primary source of power must be the rider. You have to be turning the pedals before they will boost your efforts, while the motor stops helping when you reach about 25km/h.

In the past few months I've been chatting to e-bike riders whenever I can, and one thing was notable – every person I asked quickly became an e-bike ambassador, delighted to have a chance to spruik the benefits.  

Hills, heat and distance

It's often said that Australia will never become "like Europe" in terms of cycling because our cities are too spread out, too hilly and too hot. But for the transport rider, power assistance can often make the difference between avoiding bike use and embracing it.

Many of the people I spoke to said that e-bikes had transformed the way they travelled, giving them the advantages of bike riding with an added edge.

One told me that he didn't consider himself a "cyclist" – but he'd nevertheless covered several thousand kilometres since the beginning of the year on his commute.

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A keen club rider who owns 10 bikes said he uses his e-bike for Monday and Friday commuting – as a different, more relaxed experience, and to lug his electronic equipment to and from the office.

Another e-bike rider, David Cheng, bought his three years ago for his commute from Chatswood to North Sydney.

"I was walking and taking the train," he says. "A weekly ticket would have cost me close to $30, so I figured the bike would pay itself off in about 2½ years."

Meanwhile, Cheng reduced his transit time from up to 45 minutes to about 25 minutes, and no need to shower on arrival.

"Riding to work is quite a breeze, but I can also choose to put effort in with the electric option turned off – which makes it actually harder [than a regular bike]," he says.

Variety and technology

As e-bikes grow in popularity worldwide, customers are reaping the benefits of increased development and competition.

"The technology has advanced to suit a broader market," says Elizabeth Krassoi of Eurocycles, with more torque-responsive motors able to provide greater grunt and longer-lasting batteries.  

There is also more choice than ever, says Bourke: "It's only in the last 12 months we've seen some major brands making e-bikes available in Australia."

E-bikes as workhorses

Instead of a second car, Sally McGeoch's family of four bought a cargo e-bike three years ago - a longer version of a standard bike, with seats and running boards for passengers.

"It was about $3500 but we've used it almost every day since and it's paid for itself," she says.

McGeoch, who lives in Randwick in Sydney's east, uses the bike to drop her children at school before riding to work – without having to change on arrival.

The bike really rules on weekends, she says, for shopping trips and outings, especially to the beach.

"We park in front of the ocean, stay as long as we want, and don't have to then walk back up the hill and get into a hot car - it's quite liberating."

But there are safety considerations, she says: "I always stick to the bike paths and quiet roads when I have my kids."

Active transport

While the motor assists propulsion, there is no denying that electric bikes are a form of active transport.  

"It's not like a motorbike – you're still getting exercise," says Rich Nicol of Sydney Electric Bikes. "It's a really good blend, particularly for people who are unfit, or are old and haven't got that fitness any more."

"Compare someone who is riding an e-bike with someone who is not riding at all," says Bourke. "They are miles ahead. And if riding an e-bike adds to the enjoyment – you'll ride more."

A study at the University of Colorado Boulder recruited 20 car-commuting sedentary people who agreed to commute by pedelec three times a week for 40 minutes a day.

After a month, the researchers recorded "improvements in the riders' cardiovascular health, including increased aerobic capacity and improved blood sugar control".

More the merrier

I've spoken to riders who see e-bikes as some kind of betrayal of the faith, but for me, anything that gets people onto a bicycle is good for society – and other bike riders.  

In two RAC-conducted trials in WA, participants were loaned e-bikes for 10 weeks to use for commuting or any other purpose. The participants reported financial as well as health and wellbeing benefits, and half of them bought the bikes at the end of the trial, the RAC said.

Recently, I rode an e-bike again for the first time in years, to remind myself of the attractions.

One thing I'd forgotten was how the assisted power helps to get the bike going. Moving off from the lights can be an awkward time, but the boost from the electric motor makes it easy to achieve optimum speed.

But most of all, there's the easy cruising up hills. Even the famously steep Awaba Street in Balmoral – scene of an annual charity running event – was crested with comparative ease. 

Of course, there will always be unaided cycling, but the attractions of e-bikes are obvious. I've no space for an extra bike in my life right now, but I love seeing how the electric option is getting people onto two wheels.

Even when they pass me on the hills.

Fairfax journalist Michael O'Reilly has written the On Your Bike blog since 2011.

E-bike loan courtesy of Eurocycles.

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