Saturday, 14 July 2018

Have electric bikes ruined cycling in Europe?

e-bikes
The long slow drone of a pack of electric bicycles (e-bikes) approaches us from behind. They sound like a swarm of bees gathering into formation - ready to strike. As they get closer the volume increases and my nerves jangle with anticipation of their attack.

Struggling slowly uphill in the midday sun I glance around, desperately searching for an escape route. The bike path is narrow. To my left a tight, winding road is hostile with traffic. It runs through yet another wonderfully picturesque town, but I have no time out from ensuring my own survival to appreciate its beauty. Medieval buildings rise up on
my right, built as close to the street as possible and leaving no room to swerve. Ahead, another swarm of e-bikes hurtles toward me down the hill. I try to hold my line, concentrating on the space ahead, hoping the pack behind will overtake before the ever diminishing gap in front of me closes. They begin to overtake - two, three, four ........ six in all. The last of the group cuts in just millimetres from my front wheel and with only seconds to spare before the downhill pack shoots pass. Both  disappear into the distance. I am safe for now. I have a few precious moments before another group of e-bikes attack.

We are cycling the paths around Lake Constance (The Bodensee) one of the largest lakes in Europe.  Bordered by Germany, Switzerland and Austria it is, or ought to be, a cyclist's delight. The path which circumnavigates the lake passes through quaint Medieval towns, market farms and lush fields. It meanders beside railway lines, across historic bridges, along back roads and sometimes next to busy highways. From time to time it dips down to the shore for scenic views across the water. There are places to picnic, hills to climb, views to appreciate and architecture to marvel at. Sadly there are also e-bikes, hundreds and hundreds of them, in great marauding packs swallowing up the kilometres like locusts in search of food.

bikes Meersburg
Bikes parked outside Meersburg, a small town on Lake Constance. Most of them are e-bikes.

Where once Europe's bike paths were the preserve of a hardy and adventurous few, now sexagenarians, septuagenarians and even a few octogenarians charge up their machines, pull on their lycra and hit the pavement. In our early sixties, David and I feel very much in the younger cohort of cyclists.  With almost no effort on the part of their riders the bikes sail up hills, roar along flats and become kamikazes on the downhill.  They approach from behind like teenage snowboarders, recklessly indifferent to wiping out anyone who stands in their way. Without the slightest decrease in velocity they duck and weave between other cyclists, cars and pedestrians. Worse still they use the size of their groups like battering rams forcing others to make way by sheer weight of numbers.

They never slow down.  They don't have brakes - at least none that I can discern. Perhaps they are terrified speeding up again will run down their e-batteries. Nor do they seem equipped with bells or voices. There is never a warning signal, neither the tinkle of a bell or the polite call of  'on your left' as they pass.  There is only ever the buzz of electric motors to warn of impending danger.

They arrive at their destinations untroubled by effort or sweat.  With no need to stop and catch their breath at the crests of hills, they are strangers to the camaraderie among pedal-powered cyclists who have conquered the kilometres.


Meersburg
With stunning towns like Meersburg crowds are a problem which e-bikes have exacerbated.

The Rise of E-Bikes in Europe


In our recent travels around Lake Constance and south-western Germany we found e-bikers everywhere. Priding themselves on their 'green' credentials their impact on everyone around them is enormous. To give some idea of the scale of the problem, in 2017 720,000 e-bikes were sold in Germany alone and the European Cyclists' Federation estimates that by 2030 there will be 62 million electric bicycles in the EU. Cities are overrun by them and towns, villages and previously quiet country paths are blighted by them.

Some e-bikes go as fast as 45 km/h (28 mph).  In others the power assist cuts out at 25 km/h (15.5 mph). Some require the rider to pedal, others can be operated purely by throttle. Whatever the type e-bikes are capable of speeds normally associated with cars, yet the caution with which the average motorist approaches blind crests and curves seems almost universally lacking amongst the operators of these mechanical beasts.

The problem is exacerbated by the plethora of e-bike tour companies feeding the demands of an older generation to whom the idea of cycling even short distances was previously out of reach. No longer do cyclists need to start slowly, gaining fitness, and learning balance and other cycling skills before heading out on long treks. Now they jump on an e-bike and go, posing a danger to themselves and anyone else who happens to be in their path.

sign
I am not sure what this sign says, but I can guess.

Have you ever done a bicycle tour? Did you ride an e-bike or rely on old fashioned  pedal-power? I would love to hear your opinion on whether e-bikes are are a great invention or a blight on all who come into contact with them.

Route du Rhin
Me - cycling the Route du Rhin the old fashioned way.


For other (non-motorised) cycling posts by me click on the tab Bike Paths & Rail Trails.

Other posts from our 2018 trip to Europe.



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43 comments:

  1. I haven't ridden a bicycle in years, and before reading this, the idea of an e-bike did seem appealing, especially on uphills. Now, I think I will give it a bit more thought. Sounds like it is turning bicycle paths into mini roadways.

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    1. Mini roadways is a good description. I have to confess though David and I are considering trialling a couple of e-bikes for use on rail trails in Australia. There is nothing in the world like having a heart condition to give you an excuse to be lazy - lol. I have ridden an e-bike a couple of times because my brother and sister-in-law have them and they are fun.

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    2. They've come a long way in the last 20 years.
      Back then the motor was behind the seat and drove the rear tyre directly by friction --wearing tyres out quickly.
      Now they have sophisticated electronic controls and the motor is inside the rear or front wheel hub. There are even kits for converting your own push bike.
      I still have the 30 cc 2-stroke petrol motor type which I enjoyed, as a novelty, riding round the neighbourhood and bike trails 18 years ago.
      So I have both extremes-- one of the most powerful and fastest production cars in Australia at 350 kw...and the least powerful bike motor at 0.2 Kw!!
      The bike wasn't always reliable. And weighs a ton, so I often ended up having to pedal it home through the gears.
      Now, after it's been sitting unused for at least 10 years, I'm trying to get it going again. However, the idea of a folding, electric bike is nagging away at me, though I fear that if it materialises the novelty will again wear off and make it the fifth bike to take up my precious garage space.

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    3. David says is that an HSV Commodore? Be careful of electric folding bikes. My brother had one for a trial and said they are hard to handle - a combination of the power and small wheels makes them difficult on corners. I remember those old petrol bikes. I have never had one but when they come up behind you on a rail trail they make an impression!

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    4. Not a Holden HSV. A Chrysler 300 SRT. Yes, most folding bikes unfortunately have small wheels. I must say the idea came weeks ago watching the BBC satirical TV series of itself, W1a. Two of the characters rode to the Beeb on foldable bikes.I thought of keeping a couple of motorised versions on the boat...but since my wife can't ride and can't be persuaded to...not much point.

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    5. I find it weird when people can't be persuaded to ride. I am not criticising, there are plenty of things I won't do but I still find it strange. D and I watched W1a ages ago. It is hysterical. Don't tell anyone because they don't like people talking about their offices but I once had an appointment at Google's head office in Sydney and it was just like W1a - all bright colours and modernistic furniture.

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  2. Ah, this is a very interesting article. In The Netherlands e-bikes are booming, though what I see on a day to day basis (ours being The Bike Country, and all) is that esp the elderly are staying active (and fast) while they actually can't manage it anymore. Some really dangerous things happen because of e-bikes on a day to day basis. I would say that it would be safer if people from, say, 70 yo and up would get a checkup every year to get cleare to use an e-bike.
    #WeekendWanderlust

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    1. It is a difficult issue. It would be hard to tell an old person they could no longer ride an e-bike but on the other hand I recently read a statistic that cycling deaths in the Netherlands are increasing. The increase has been attributed to men over 65 years old riding e-bikes.

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  3. In Bali we joined an e-bike tour through rice fields and villages and it was truly wonderful, except when the throttle on my bike jammed and I went “a over t” into a muddy gully. I’m not a confident rider and although this unfortunate event did rattle me I got straight on the replacement bike and carried on regardless. So, I would not have been one of those fearless riders you encountered, more likely you would just see me flailing about at the back of the pack, building up a sweat even with no effort whatsoever.

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    1. Haha - I love your attitude. FWIW you are not the only person who has come to grief in a rice field. I once fell into a rice paddy while riding an ordinary bike. The bike landed on top of me and although I wasn't hurt I was laughing so hard (at my own ridiculousness) that I couldn't get up without help. Hubby and a friend cycled on ahead completely unaware of my predicament for far too long.

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  4. I haven't done an e-bike tour. I did a segueway tour in Vienna and didn't really enjoy it all that much. I did a regular bike tour in Copenhagen, and I enjoyed it a lot. I think there's a lot to be said for taking things more slowly and appreciating the experience. I don't think most electric bike (or segueway) tours promote that. It seems like it's more to cover as much space as possible as quickly as possible. That being said, I find that some places (like Copenhagen) have a very aggressive bike culture and I can't imagine what it's like now with e-bikes, lol. #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. We have not been to Copenhagen for about 20 years. I remember we hired bicycles for two days and had an absolute ball the first day but I was dead tired on the second - and Copenhagen is flat. I hadn't thought about the distance thing with e-bikes and segways. I can see why people want them to get up and down hills but it does take the sense of achievement out of cycling.

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    2. Bikes were aggressive in Copenhagen and annoyed at tourists who didn't realize that there was a bike lane that was kind of part of the sidewalk. I saw some near disasters and some very p.o.'d Danish bike commuters.

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    3. You are the second person (I think the other was on twitter) who has mentioned Copenhagen as a place where bikes are a problem. I confess that I have sometimes wandered onto bike paths myself without realising they were there.

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  5. Hmmm...e-bikes a blessing or a curse? No question there will be more and more of them in use in the coming decade. It is one thing when you are out in wide open spaces but in some of these countries the old charming villages come with very narrow streets as they were not designed for anything more than pedestrians and horses, so there's little room to step or pedal aside. You bring up an interesting travel subject. #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. You are right about the narrow streets. The worst places were cycling through the small towns.

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  6. My husband and I have been talking about taking a long-term (6-8 weeks) trip on bikes in Europe as an alternative to driving so we can slow travel. I don't think I could go as far as he would like unless I get an e-bike so this has been a topic of discussion in our life lately... I asked, well can I get one just for the times I'm struggling to keep up? We will see. From what you described, I DO NOT want to be those people! Now, you really got me thinking!

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    1. Hi Angela, I don't want to be those people either but if you are not already a fit cyclist I would seriously consider it. You would be surprised at how tough even gentle hills can be when you are tired, especially on hot days and 6-8 weeks is a long, long time on a bike. There are so many e-bikes in Europe I might even consider getting one myself if we ever go cycling there again. As my mother always used to say 'If you can't beat them - join them'.

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  7. I prefer to ride the old-fashioned bicycle because that's the only bike that I've ever used. I don't like mountain bikes for they are uncomfortable and haven't tried e-bikes yet. But it's interesting to read about your experience in Europe. I was very nervous cycling in Hoi An, Vietnam because other vehicles kept honking me for no reason (it was probably their way of saying, "I'm here") and bikes and mopeds coming towards me in my lane! Although the distance covered was 2km, it was nerve-wracking! #TheWeeklyPostcard

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    1. You are braver than me to cycle in Hanoi. I have never been there but if it is anything like Ho Chi Minh City just crossing the road is dangerous. There are times, at the end of the day after a long, tough ride when I would love to be on an e-bike but since I cycle mostly for the exercise it would be a bit pointless.

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  8. We did an e-bike tour in Cozumel in a National Park and I have to say that I loved it. I loved biking when I felt like it and gliding when I didn't. However, we were the only ones on the road doing this. We didn't see another group the whole rest of the day. So, I'm not sure how I would feel if they were everywhere and I was trying to bike the traditional way.

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    1. I have ridden an e-bike a couple of times in Australia. My sister-in-aw has one and I have to admit they are lots of fun. The problem in Europe is that there are just so many of them.

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  9. I've only ridden an ebike once---on a bike tour in Tarragona, Spain. The kind we were given did not have an independent throttle for power and I don't recall them making any noise beyond a regular bike. My recollection is that there was a lever (or something) you could engage for different levels of assist---almost like gears. It was really nice for the hills. I certainly didn't go even 15 mph or use the assist going downhill. I've seen a few ebikes like the ones you describe in the US. The ones we used weren't like that at all. I'd definitely recommend the kind we have if you want to use an ebike. Of course, I have no recollection about what brand they were or if they had a special name.

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    1. The e-bike I have ridden in Australia had a way of adjusting the amount of assist. I gather that different countries have different regulations about how much power an e-bike can generate and whether they are able to be controlled purely by throttle. We have done a lot of cycling in the US and I haven't seen many e-bikes there but judging by Europe it is probably only a matter of time.

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  10. I'm not a cyclist but I always thought an electric bike was a great idea. You have definitely made me re-think that!

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    1. They are tremendous fun, I'll give them that.

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  11. Love cycling but never tried electric bikes. They sound annoying. #weekendwanderlust

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  12. We are seeing large numbers of just regular bikers in our area of Greece - some obviously haven't been on bikes in decades and they wobble and bobble (without helmets and protective clothing) on our narrow roads giving those in motorized vehicles heart attacks. I like bikes. I like bikers. But I do question the 'pack' mentality that tourism seems to foster. Great post, Lyn!

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    1. You have hit the nail on the head. I like bikes and cyclists too but the 'pack mentality' is an issue.

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  13. I prefer to get exercise when I bike, and I think that the noise, speed, and overwhelming amount of e-bikes would ruin the experience.

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  14. I prefer a traditional bike, and I feel that the noise, speed, and overwhelming amount of e-bikes would ruin the experience.

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    1. It definitely put a dent in the fun of cycling around Lake Constance for us. To be fair, some sections of the path were much worse than others. The path lead toward Stein am Rhein was crazy.

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  15. Too many of anything is never a good thing!

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  16. Hi Lyn: Thx for this post about e-bikes in Europe. Not really being much of a cyclist, I haven't yet been exposed to e-bikes. But I can certainly see where they'd be of a huge benefit, when cycling where there are many hills."

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    1. I have to admit, they are lots of fun and great on hills.

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  17. We've done both assisted and non assisted bike tours in Europe. Kris had two knee surgeries last year and her biking up mountain days on her own are probably over. And, frankly, struggling up mountains on a hot summer day is not my idea of fun either. A couple of points I would make: discourteous bikers and drivers are everywhere. I can't tell you how many times we were cut off by cars in Italy (as opposed to France, where drivers are uniformly courteous to bikers.) Second, maybe try a self navigated tour next time. That's what we always do. A lot less crowded. Third, e-bikes are here to stay, sort of like cars. Or do you ride a horse while you're traveling long distance?

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    1. We didn't do a tour so I am not sure what you mean by trying a self-navigated tour. Short of staying away from the most interesting towns I don't think it is possible to avoid crowds on the bike paths around Lake Constance. I take your point about discourteous road users being everywhere. No I don't ride a horse when travelling but nor do I want to get bowled over by e-bikes when I head out for a leisure cycle on a cycle path which was never designed for motorised transport.

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  18. I live in Canmore, Alberta up high on the side of a mountain in the neighbourhood called Peaks of Grassi. A supporter and promotor of active transportation, it is our second car. It makes a very steep uphill climb doable without being a struggle-fest and faster. Going into town, gravity provides the speed. I go no faster on my e-bike than on my regular bike. My e-bike is very quiet. I say, every person on an e-bike is a person not travelling around in a car. And yes, it opens up cycling to a whole new segment of the population. We need to encourage people to get fit and stay active. You DO get a great workout on a pedal-assist e-bike, which is the vast majority of e-bikes here in my region. You definitely sweat. There are inconsiderate people on regular bikes as well as e-bikes just as there are inconsiderate people driving cars and walking on paths. But thankfully, the majority are considerate. Love, love, love my e-bike but also still ride my road bike and my mountain bike.

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    1. We have done a lot of cycling in the States over the last few years. We even fly our (regular) bikes with us from Australia when we go so that we can cycle your great rail trails. The last time we were there was earlier this year. We have never noticed e-bikes on US trails let alone the large groups of them which we experienced in Europe. I agree with you there is a place for e-bikes, I just hope that they don't take over in the States the way they have around Lake Constance.

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  19. I’m a walker rather than a cyclist but I share your concerns. There are always a few cyclists who try to use the footpaths rather than the cycleways - I hope they don’t try it with their e-bikes...

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    1. We used to walk, before we took up cycling. I love be able to see more and travel further but I try to always stick to the cycleways and shared paths.

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