Science fiction and futurist novelist HG Wells was convinced there would be cycling tracks in heaven. Perhaps he envisaged dystopian megacities with automated vehicles, an urban landscape from which fellow novelist Iris Murdoch pleaded release: “Other forms of transport grow daily more nightmarish. Only the bicycle remains pure in heart.”

Cycling idealists may disagree with her when it comes to e-bikes — any bicycle with an inbuilt electric motor. They split opinion, seen by purists as a form of cheating via “mechanical doping”, or scorned by hardcore riders as a fall-back transportation for the elderly.

The issue may not be as trivial as the riding outfit debate —mountain-bikers should never wear lycra, and roadies with baggies are trying too hard — but the truth is that cycling’s hallowed traditions have long since been swept aside. The modern cycling experience is infinitely better for the fact that conventional bicycles today bear no resemblance to the penny farthing.  

Actually, e-bikes have been around nearly as long as conventional bicycles. But some key technology milestones spiked e-bike developments. In 1993 Yamaha launched a pedal-electric “pedelec” cycle in Japan, marketing it as “Power Assist”.

From around 2005, the uptake of lithium batteries, combined with carbon technologies which reduced bicycle frame weights, kick-started the 21st century sales boom. The global market has grown into a massive sector, estimated at $6.9bn in value — and likely to grow to $8.4bn by 2025. Unsurprisingly, China is the main market: 33-million e-bikes were sold there in 2017.

Of course, these volumes fulfil a mass-market need for a utilitarian commuter bike. But the e-bike sector is growing in almost all parts of the world. Nearly 2-million e-bikes were sold in Europe in 2018 ; in Holland, a pioneering e-biking country, nearly a fifth of all bicycle sales are now electric. The US, too, is reflecting a doubling of volumes, and slick marketing pictures show happy, youthful couples  alongside bright bikes, imitating carefree horizons and promising that an e-bike opens windows to new adventures.

They’re not wrong. A fresh wave of cycling’s “e-volution” is underway. Beyond road, urban, or mountain-biking, there’s now an e-bike to match any cyclist’s needs or aspirations.

Hills show the clearest benefits of an e-bike. For serious trail or mountain-bikers, this gives new dimensions of freedom — to go higher, bomb down faster, navigate more gnarly tracks and trails.

Besides, let’s face it: on some rides, the huff-and-puff is, well, exhausting. And an e-bike can deliver magical acceleration when it may be most needed. Picture the scene: commuting by bike, you face a sudden danger. With a traffic onslaught from all sides, the only way out is to seize a momentary, small gap — and flicking your bike’s pedal-assist to turbo gives that instant acceleration towards safety.

On other days, an e-bike simply allows recovery. Just like runners, cyclists feel the urge to turn the legs no matter how badly the body aches, and the amplified power compensates for injuries or days of feeble fatigue.

Other e-bike advantages are conveyed by veteran all-round, competitive cyclist Errol Pretorius: “Initially I was sceptical, sensing a cop-out from what, at the time, I thought cycling meant. But now I am pro e-bikes. They’re great for commuting to work, allowing slower riders to ride with stronger ones, and even during monster stages we can look forward to the next ride rather than swear never to ride again! And my e-MTB has given me a greater love for the mountains, because it takes me safely to more remote places.”

If, like Pretorius, you’re particularly into e-MTBs, chances are you’ll judge a bike by its heart, its motor. Manufacturers including Shimano, Yamaha, Bosch, and Brose are constantly refining their systems to achieve more torque and to facilitate better control — all packaged in lighter housing units which allow e-bike makers more design flexibility.

The cross-pollination of technologies and disciplines has led, inevitably, to e-biking advances. Swindon Powertrain, a British company involved in the engine technology of F-1 racing cars, sought to develop a mountain bike that could rival the thrills and spills of a high-performance motorbike. (They’re not the first petrol-head company to veer into cycling territory:  legendary motorbike manufacturer KTM has been making bicycles since 1964. Under its Macina brand, it now also offers e-bikes.)

In 2018 Swindon unveiled the bland but futuristically-named SWIND EB-01, announcing it as “the world’s first hyper-electric bicycle.” It’s not technically an e-bike, because — although the cyclist pedals to initiate the momentum — a handlebar throttle regulates the electric power. And it can surge along at nearly 100km/h , whereas a legal e-bike cannot provide any assistance above 25km/h.

That’s not the point of the SWIND EB-01, though. Rather, it demonstrates that cycling technology is always racing ahead. Swindon Powertrain’s hyperbolic marketing slogans — “the future of fun” for “the urban adventurer or the cross-country adrenaline junkie” — may be crafted to justify the e-bike’s £15,000 price, but they have more than a ring of truth. 

Battery improvements have also been crucial. Exponential improvements in the energy density and the capacity of e-bike batteries has in turn improved the riding experience, mainly affecting cycling range, but also the aesthetic and weight of the e-bike, and the practicality of charging time. As battery system integration evolves further within bike design, just like cellphones, functionality and form will improve further.

The next step-change will emanate from the larger 21700-cell generation of batteries under development by companies such as BMZ in Germany.

“Because Tesla will be using this cell for their future car models, [e-bike] research and development will benefit from this move,” reckons Ingo Beutner, head of engineering at Haibike.

The good news is that the key innovations in motor, battery and component technology have plateaued, meaning e-bike prices should stabilise, access to spare parts should improve, and the tech-speak involved in understanding — and buying — an
e-bike should become more commonplace. (Like the phraseology around smartphones, which we now generally get.)

Indeed, an indication of e-bikes’ burgeoning acceptance is their inclusion on the racing scene. The European Cycling Union has incorporated a Formula E-Bike circuit as part of its 2019 season starting in late March, and the UCI has scheduled an e-MTB classification in 2019’s World Mountain Bike Championships. In SA, too, the 2018 Telkom 94.7 Cycle Challenge became the first major local race to accept e-bike entries, with logical conditions.

Ironically, e-bikes solve many problems against which the purists rage. For distance junkies, too many kilometres may be making their bones brittle; mountain maniacs want to get higher; speed merchants crave the extra ringing in the ears and the suck of more marrow. By providing the option of extra leverage when it’s most needed, e-bikes allow committed, passionate cyclists to keep the adrenaline pumping.

E-bikes are trendy, functional, and fun. But of all the reasons to embrace e-bikes, it might be as simple as accepting that they’re here to stay. You can now, literally, lose the car keys and ride into the healthier future of transportation.