Every cloud has a silver lining. As a pessimist who sees a cloud in a silver lining, I view this particular cliché with a wary disdain. It would never have crossed my mind to start an article with such an optimistic banality. Then my Vespa Scooter was stolen.
There is a wider context to the theft. I live in London and cycle a fair amount. Here is an example of how much I enjoy cycling on an ordinary bike: I even cycled to see Tony Blair for lunch when he was Prime Minister. I fell off en route, broke my elbow in five places and was told at the hospital I needed an immediate operation. A nurse asked me whether there was anyone I needed to inform. Yes, I replied, I need to contact Tony Blair to tell him I could not make lunch. "Get him off the morphine!" the nurse declared. This was a double whammy. I was genuinely worried that a busy Prime Minister would be fuming that I had stood him up. I also needed the morphine.
The message was conveyed in the end and the elbow repaired with pins, a work of artistry still shown in X-ray form to medical students at the Royal Free in Hampstead. Yet such episodes did not put me off cycling on orthodox bikes.
What led me to mix cycling with the addition of a cool Vespa scooter were those days with meetings in different places. London is a big city and sometimes on a bike the prospect of the long haul home seemed like the equivalent of the Tour De France. So on days when distances were close to interminable I'd use the scooter and not the bike. This had some advantages and a few drawbacks: the Vespa was a speedy machine but the helmet was heavy, and it flattened hair that already had a tendency towards flatness; the machine was also inflexible: unlike a bike, it could not be taken on a train or put on the back of a car.
But when the scooter was stolen, I knew that I needed a replacement. A friend suggested I consider an electric bike instead. At first I was dismissive. What would I, still in youthful middle age, do with the cycling equivalent of a wheelchair? My friend was persistent. You get all the benefits of a scooter, he pointed out, but none of the downsides: the MOT, the tax, the petrol, the parking problems. On reflection, this was a tempting argument, something like a scooter that I could put on a train or the back of a car to Cornwall and other hilly places.
I went to the Electric Transport Shop near Camden Town to discuss options. My friend had a conversion: his hybrid bike was given a motor and a heavy external mobile battery was connected to it. He is happy with this arrangement. After several twists and turns, I opted for a ready-made electric bike, an ex-display Easy model by the German maker Grace, as good as new.
It is a revelation. It is heavier than a normal bike, but not excessively so, while the battery is part of the bike rather than planted on the back externally. The options are far more varied than I'd imagined when I'd wrongly assumed that acquiring one would be the same as taking early retirement from life. Most fundamentally, the cyclist must pedal as usual to trigger the additional power. There are options as to how much power is used. In addition, the bike can be ridden without the battery, or the middle-aged athlete can opt for a work-out in which he or she or I opt for high levels of resistance; as you pedal against the resistance, you charge the battery and burn calories. The battery life is limited to 25 to 30 miles, much less if you have the power full on continuously. But the charger is no heavier than a similar device for a laptop, and the battery can be recharged by plugging into the mains for the long haul home.
I have used the bike on those busy days in London (otherwise, I still often use my push bike). Recently I cycled to Paddington, put the bike on the train to Oxford, cycled to an event there, returned on the train, and went to two events in London and then home, too knackering on a bike and impossible on a scooter. (I'm not required to wear a helmet, and I don't.)
The bike again came into its own this summer at the Edinburgh Festival, where I was performing a one-man show. Booked on the train at King's Cross, it then took me on endless journeys and hills from old town to new town, from my show to other shows. Friends and other performers were spending a small fortune on taxis; I cycled, sometimes without the additional power.
These bikes are almost a hidden secret in the UK, where annual sales stand at around 25,000; I have yet to meet another electric-bike rider on the road, and few people seem to notice I'm riding one. Yet they sell about 300,000 a year in Germany and 175,000 in the Netherlands; 200 million have been sold in China.
The higher the demand, the more sophisticated the bikes will become. Batteries are lasting longer and becoming lighter. Mine takes a couple of hours to charge. They need to become less of a secret. In London and several other cities, I cycle past endless traffic jams. Some of the motorists who yearn to get out of their cars might not feel up to cycling ordinary bikes as an alternative, but nearly all of them could cope with an electric one. A city of electric cyclists is my futuristic vision. It is a better one than a city of stationary cars and good for the environment, too. I would offer the over-sixties an electric bike instead of the Freedom Pass and encourage those under 60 to ride them instead of driving. Reflect on this liberating prospect during the next life-wasting traffic jam: "This nightmarish jam could be my last!" Every cloud has a silver lining.
Steve Richards bought his bike from Electric Bike Sales, London N7 (electricbikesales.co.uk); prices range from £500 to £15,000
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