Put your feet up for an electricycling journey

It's green, cheap and virtually sweat-free, but can the Powabyke hold its own on the road? Tom Stewart reports

Question: what consumes no petrol or diesel, effectively produces no emissions, requires no insurance, road tax, licence, registration, MoT or fare paying, is congestion and parking charge exempt, can be "driven" in bus and cycle lanes and won't earn you a speeding ticket? Answer: A bicycle.

Question: what consumes no petrol or diesel, effectively produces no emissions, requires no insurance, road tax, licence, registration, MoT or fare paying, is congestion and parking charge exempt, can be "driven" in bus and cycle lanes and won't earn you a speeding ticket? Answer: A bicycle.

Second question: What gets a tick against all of the above, but requires almost no pedalling, and so doesn't make you hot, sweaty and breathless? Answer: An e-bike. This is a bicycle with a battery-powered electric motor controlled by a twist-grip throttle, so cycling is possible without pedalling - the human power and the motor are independent systems. This means that throttle and pedals can be used simultaneously, but they don't have to be, and, as such, an e-bike can be ridden by anyone older than 14, in a similar way to a conventional scooter or motorcycle.

I've explained this fairly precisely, because I don't want you to confuse an e-bike with a pedelec. This name is derived from "pedal electric cycle", and while pedalling, the rider is assisted by additional power from the bicycle's electric motor. Control of a pedelec's motor is linked to the rider's own legwork by a movement sensor. In other words, the electric motor is activated as soon as the rider starts to pedal, and deactivated when the rider stops pedalling. Confused? Think of the power-steering system in your car: it provides assistance when the engine is running, but doesn't when it isn't.

Though this terminology may still be unfamiliar, powered bicycles are nothing new. In the late 1940s, the fuel shortage in Japan forced the populace to walk or ride bicycles, so Soichiro Honda built a tiny engine and fitted it to his bicycle. And the rest is history. Yamaha introduced what's now called a pedelec back in 1994 and, though undeniably a clever idea, queues to buy them were short. But with costs, congestion and green issues becoming increasingly critical, "electricycling" is quietly, inexorably on the increase. A Leeds University survey carried out in 2001 estimates that about 18 million miles a year are being ridden in the UK on Powabyke models alone. High time, therefore, for a test ride.

My iron horse for the day was Powabyke's 24-speed Commuter model. At £845, it's the second most expensive in the Bath-designed, Shanghai-manufactured nine-model range, but that's not much more, for example, than I'd have to pay for a year commuting by Tube into central London. Turn the key, push on the pedals,twist the wrist - and you're away, up to a top speed of 15mph over a range of about 20 miles.

At first I found e-biking slow and jarring, but, of the eight cycles in my garage, just two are mine and they're both motorcycles, so I suppose that was to be expected. I initially found myself pedalling frantically in short bursts and, with the assistance of so many gear ratios, pedalling faster than the 15mph the front-wheel's hub motor delivers. In the process, I discovered what mountain bikers know - the lowest ratio is for ascent of the Eiger, while 24th, if wound right up, might break the speed limit at Edwards Air Force Base.

After a few miles, I settled down, both physically and mentally. Now confident that the 14-amp battery had been fully charged (despite a small fully-lit LED charge indicator), I motored along in a state of relative calm, noticing that even when traffic was light, I was travelling from A to B at least as fast as the buses. In central London's rush hours, I reckon this e-bike would be quicker than all else bar a narrow, well-ridden motorcycle, or Lance Armstrong.

If the fully-charged, 20-mile range might not prove sufficient, then it can be increased by switching the Commuter's key from "pure power" to "pedal assist". This latter mode effectively turns the Commuter from an e-bike into a pedelec with a corresponding range of about 34 miles. But ultimately, range depends on how often and how hard you're prepared to pedal.

In the longer term, a battery should have a service life of approximately 300 full charges, which equates to about 6,000 miles per battery. With Powabyke's battery recycling service costing £85 a throw, this works out at 1.4p per mile (Toyota Prius c.50p p/m), plus the juice from your wall socket.

In less time than expected, I'd made it across a portion of south London to home, where Mrs Stewart, an everyday bicyclist, contributed her qualified opinion. She noticed the Powabyke's extra weight over her own, otherwise similar Dawes, but, nonetheless, manhandled it over a step without complaint. Returning from a topographically challenging route in "pure power" mode, she declared it "excellent", noting that, while it had naturally slowed down while tackling steep gradients, the 36-volt, 200-watt motor dragged her up at least as quickly as she'd ordinarily have pedalled. All in all, then, it's a definite thumbs up, although I'd exchange at least half of those 24 speeds for some suspension, at least at the front.

It occurs to me that energy from the bike's rear wheel could be utilised to charge the battery, which would power the front wheel, which would turn the rear wheel, which would charge the battery. I'd call it the Perpetual Motionbyke.

Powabyke: 01225 44 37 37, www.powabyke.com

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