For many cyclists the onset of autumn marks a time to pack away the bike for another year – but for most manufacturers it’s their busiest period. This year the largest bicycle fairs in Europe and North America, Eurobike and Interbike, were held within three weeks of each other in September. Amid a lot of Lycra and shiny new models, two trends emerged: the rise of the electric bike is now gathering real velocity and Europe is leading the way.
The figures for the continent’s bike market clearly illustrate the inexorable shift towards electric bikes. Sales of pushbikes peaked a decade ago according to the Confederation of the European Bike Industry; since then they have fallen 8 per cent to 19.6 million in 2016. Meanwhile, over the same 10 years, e-bike sales have shot up tenfold to 1.7 million and are now responsible for virtually all the growth in the overall bike market.
What is it that’s driving this boom in Europe? The Eurobike trade fair in Friedrichshafen, on the German shore of Lake Constance, provides an insight. Whereas in years gone by e-bikes were considered bulky and ugly, worthwhile only for elderly cyclists in need of a bit of help climbing hills, today it’s a different story. “E-bikes are an attractive proposition for anyone from 18 to 80 years old,” says Siegfried Neuberger, head of the German Bicycle Industry Association. “Looking at new models you can tell that the market has reached a new stage.” As the technology behind e-bikes has matured, design has come into focus. The new buzzword is “integration” – in other words, hiding the battery in the frame. “Five years ago the slogan was: ‘The next bike will be an e-bike.’ Now it is: ‘The next e-bike will be a bike.’”
In Europe, Germany has been the driving (or rather, pedalling) force behind this trend. The EU’s leading producer of bicycles is Italy with 18 per cent of total production. But when it comes to electric models Germany – despite its higher labour costs – takes the lead with 30 per cent of the market. It also does the biggest trade in e-bikes, with more than one third of all those sold in Europe bought in Germany (perhaps not surprising given the country’s size, wealth, infrastructure and deep-rooted cycling culture).
Two pioneers in Germany are former bike couriers Pius Warken and David Horsch. They met at Heidelberg University, where they studied physics. “Back then e-bikes were ugly, bulky and not much fun,” says Horsch. “But we had an attic to tinker around in.” So they developed an e-bike based on the slick design of their single-speed courier bikes. At 13.5kg it weighed almost half that of the heavy electric-motor cruisers that dominated the market at the time.
When their prototype won a prestigious design award, Warken and Horsch knew they were on to something. So in 2014 they launched Coboc and moved into a disused fire station to build their original design, the One Soho, which looks as sleek as any expensive city bike. Since then the company has grown to 20 employees and has a range of eight models; earlier this year they moved into the former headquarters of Heidelberger Druckmaschinen, which manufactures printing presses.
“We have more space but we still need to focus on essentials,” says Warken. The engineers here thus concentrate on two tasks. In their electronics workshop they fine-tune batteries and produce controllers: chips that take information from sensors about how fast and strongly a rider is pedalling in order to calculate the level of motor support that’s needed. “The controller is the heart of the e-bike. It determines whether or not you have a smooth ride,” says Warken. The second remit is assembling the final bike using frames designed here but manufactured in Italy and Taiwan, and motors and batteries from other suppliers. The bikes are then shipped to retailers around the world.
The dealer who sells most Cobocs – even to places as far afield as Australia and Mongolia – is Matthias Lingner. In 2014 he opened Wingwheels in Berlin, a shop focusing on high-end electric bikes. “Retail for e-bikes is similar to retail for cars,” he says. “You need technical knowledge and should provide customers with an experience that often starts with a cup of coffee.” After all, he is asking them to part with thousands of euros at a time – over the past four years the average price of an e-bike in Germany has gone up by 17 per cent to more than €3,200.
His customers tend to return. “Many want to keep up with the fast development and buy a new e-bike every two years,” says Lingner. Plus they come for bi-annual check-ups, since e-bikes are trickier to service, more susceptible to wear and tear with their extra torque and receive regular software updates. Nonetheless one of his bestsellers is actually a cargo bike – partly thanks to a 2012 federal law that extends tax incentives for company cars to bikes as well. Few people would guess but Germans bought more electric cargo bikes last year than electric cars.
When asked about rumours that he might launch his own cutting-edge model, Lingner grins evasively. “Several manufacturers are now aiming to build the Tesla of e-bikes – it would be foolhardy not to.”
One place that is not short of Teslas already is Munich. But is the country’s wealthiest city – which is known for being full of car-lovers – ready to invest in electric bikes? The man to ask is Oliver Weiss, a Swiss entrepreneur who runs three Green City e-mobility shops in Munich. “One of my clients owns a Porsche but told me that he wouldn’t buy cars anymore,” says Weiss. “The new status symbols are e-bikes.”
Unsurprisingly Germany’s manufacturing base is also leading the way in providing parts to the industry. The rapid growth of the electric-bike market has opened up opportunities for narrow-focus suppliers such as Kappstein. Based in Gotha in the heart of Germany, the company has 13 employees, many of whom are proud owners of single-speed bikes. In a factory stacked with cnc milling and turning machines, plus a laser cutter, they build gear systems that allow for sleeker and more compact designs.
Kappstein’s managing director Christian Gerlach shows monocle two of the highly specialised parts that his company makes: a rear hub motor that weighs less than 1kg and another one with three integrated gears. “Both are quite unique,”he says. Some are already speculating that Lingner’s rumoured luxury “Tesla” bike might rely on exactly these parts.
On the mass-market side, automotive suppliers such as Bosch (one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of electric powertrains for cars) are quickly adapting their technology for bikes. The company draws on the expertise of 1,800 employees who work on e-mobility and just presented the first mass-produced anti-lock braking system for bikes. Using insight from its motorcycle unit, this innovation prevents front wheels from locking up.
As a global player Bosch has a perspective that stretches beyond Europe. “We see the rise of e-bikes as starting from a core in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands,” says Claus Fleischer, head of the company’s e-bike unit. “Now waves are spreading in concentric circles to Italy, France, the UK and Scandinavia – later to Spain and eastern Europe.” Australia and New Zealand are also catching on. The US, however, is still some way off. “Our indicators show that the US is eight to 10 years behind Europe.”
In the first half of this year US dealers only sold 15,930 e-bikes. Encouragingly that is almost double the number from a year before – but it is still about 50 times fewer than in Europe. Pat Hus, vice-president of the Interbike trade fair held last month in Las Vegas, is aware of the gap but is also excited by the prospects. “Seeing what is happening with e-bikes in Europe, the opportunities for the North American market are staggering,” he says. First though a few roadblocks will need to be cleared: some states ban the use of e-bikes, while others require helmets or a licence.
Rich Asian countries more closely resemble the European market. Take Japan, where Yamaha pioneered the e-bike back in 1993. Like Europe, its bicycle market peaked in 2007. Since then sales have fallen by a quarter: fewer than 8 million bikes were sold in 2016, with 85 per cent of these imported from China. So Japanese manufacturers have also turned to electrification; two out of three bikes built in the country today have a motor. Japan now builds 30 per cent fewer bikes than 10 years ago but their overall value has doubled.
Clearly then, while Germany is leading the electric charge, this is a global trend. And as the market gathers pace, new technological frontiers will be reached: already battery capacity is growing and better controllers and lighter motors make for smoother rides; chains are being replaced by belts that are cleaner, sturdier and quieter; Bluetooth links allow bikes to send data about battery levels and speed to smartphones; and anti-theft systems can lock wheels and help locate stolen bikes. And all the while more players are entering the market, leading to a greater variety of styles and designs. E-bikes are fast becoming not just big business but – dare we say it – cool.
Traditional bike brands:
While sales of conventional bikes might have slowed there are still plenty of brands around the world pushing the envelope. If you’re not quite ready to go electric, we’d recommend one of these.
Famous for its pioneering use of drive belts, this Berlin-based brand combines a sleek look with high-end parts.
With roots going back to 1922, this Czech firm was bought in 2011 by entrepreneur Richard Galovic. Think traditional design but modern carbon frames.
Hailing from Berlin, this firm uses slim frames that are handmade by a third-generation craftsman in Italy.
Set up in 2009 by brothers Timo and Mikko Hyppönen in Helsinki, Pelago builds elegant yet highly durable bikes.
The Riga brand was founded in 1927 and revived in 2005 by the founder’s great-grandnephew. Its bikes exude a traditional elegance.
Started in 1948 by Monty Young in London, this family business is now run by Young’s son Grant. Its bikes all come with a race handlebar.
These bikes can be customised with a choice of handlebars and rear hubs, as well as various colours.
Produced to navigate the busy streets of any metropolis, these bikes prioritise comfort over speed.
Simon Stanforth set up his Brighton-based company in 2014 and focuses on long-distance touring bikes.
Single-speed and cargo bikes that are as hardy as they are light.
I pick up my bike from the helpful team at Fully Charged, London’s leading shop for e-bike rentals. They have folding models and good-looking Cobocs but they start me off on a bulky model from French brand Moustache. Apparently it’s a good one for beginners (they’ve got the measure of me already). Although it has four modes, ranging from “Eco” to “Turbo”, I keep it in the tamest setting for the ride back to the monocle office. It takes no time to get used to the gentle assistance from the Bosch motor and the effortless ride – heading over Blackfriars Bridge on Cycle Superhighway 6 I reach 17km/h with ease, which feels like a decent clip.
Living on the second floor is an issue as lugging the 23kg Moustache up and down a narrow staircase feels like coaxing a sleepy bull into a birdcage. Nonetheless, with the battery fully charged overnight, once on the road the bike feels light as air. On the way into Midori House I brave the next two modes – “Tour” and “Sport” – and zoom up hills and down empty roads (a rarity with London traffic). There’s a hairy moment that evening when I start pedalling too hard before I’ve really got control of the bike and am propelled towards the back bumper of a black cab; I brake just in time though and a stern telling-off is avoided.
Another battle with the bike to wrestle it out the front door but then a satisfying start to the ride: while sitting bolt upright like a granny on her way to the greengrocers, I fly past a Lycra-clad cyclist who looks geared up for the Tour de France. I’m sure he can tell I’m being aided by a motor (he might even detect its faint hum) but he still looks peeved. I duck onto the ring road around Regent’s Park to test out “Turbo” mode. I get up to 20km/h without breaking a sweat. That evening it’s back to Bermondsey to return my Moustache. All in all a highly enjoyable experience, aside from the sheer heft of the thing; when they develop a lighter model (or perhaps when my gym membership comes through), I’ll be sure to get my hands on one.
in detail: coboc
How an e-bike works
Transmits data to smartphone; a Coboc app provides maps, finds bike-service shops and logs speed, range and battery temperature
Turns bike motor on
Indicates battery levels
Charging cable attached magnetically
Li-ion battery, able to absorb shocks, rechargeable in two hours and with a range of about 80km
An algorithm calculates how much the motor should support the rider
Sensors measure speed and force of pedalling, transmitting data to controller
Supports pedalling with 250 watts of power