We mentioned in the last issue that electric bike prices were falling.This time we’re looking briefly at the new bikes available for less than £500. If you’re wondering why such cheap electric machines are popping up, it all comes down to China’s massive two-stroke motorcycle problem and attempts to reduce pollution by getting commuters back on bicycles – albeit electric ones.There are now 300 companies producing these electric ‘scooters’, with sales of two million last year, and a prediction of three million in 2004. Such vast economies of scale help to make exports cheap, so these well-equipped bikes with vestigial pedals are now setting forth to conquer other markets.
Euro-Classic £350 . Euro-City £400 . Euro-Tourer £450
If you’re not in the electrical business you probably haven’t heard of Thompson. It’s a large family-owned electrical goods wholesaler with premises in Worcester and interests as diverse as toasters and washing machines.Tony Thompson and son Carl have fingers in all sorts of import/export pies, but sell mainly to market traders and discount electrical shops in the UK. In the dim and distant past, that would have placed Thompson firmly at the tackier end of the business, but with almost everything now being made in China, Thompson’s goods may well be sourced from the same factory as the classier Comet or Dixon product sold on the High Street.These days, nothing is quite what it appears.
Tony got into the electric bicycle business quite by accident whilst sourcing vacuum cleaners in China, as one does in the electrical trade. He happened to look out of the factory window and saw dozens of little electric bicycles scurrying about, and the vacuums were soon forgotten. Once the deal had been done (new brushless motors and Japanese Panasonic batteries thrown in), Thompson found itself one of the biggest players in the UK market, selling 1,200 in the first year.They investing a further half a million pounds, and are now predicting sales of 3-4,000 in year two and 5-6,000 in year three. If you’re importing a bottom end electric bike, be prepared to quake in your boots – Tony is close to retirement, and he expects to go out on a high note.
The Thompson message is value Thompson Euro-City – £400 for money, and the Chinese have thrown in a surprisingly high spec.The range comprises three machines: the Classic, City and Tourer, plus the more expensive and moped-like Duo, of which more another day.
All the bikes feature brushless DC motors.To cut a long story short, brushless motors have no wearing parts, so they’re reliable, quiet and efficient. And they’re usually designed to pull away from a standstill without destroying themselves, unlike the earlier, cruder breed of DC motors, which tend to cut in at walking pace, giving no assistance from a standing start.The bad news is that the switching function of the brushes is reproduced electronically, and electronics have a tendency to go pop when overstressed. Thompson say the control system is extremely reliable.
Otherwise, these are technically very simple machines – six 6 volt lead-acid batteries feeding, er, 36 volts into a 200 watt motor (up from 150 watts last year).They’re all as ugly as sin, but who cares? They’re practical (all have lights and indicators) and very very cheap. Last year’s headline retail price was £300, but to hedge bets against the tangled Euro-legislation fiasco, the Thompsons have wisely added a ‘pedal-assist’ switch to the bikes for an extra fifty quid. Call it insurance, guv.
We’d better recap on the legal maelstrom. For twenty years, British power-assisted bikes, like US machines, have been available as ‘pedelecs’ – where the motor only cut-in when you turned the pedals – and ‘E-Bikes’, which you didn’t need to pedal, but could if you wanted to. In Euro-land, meanwhile, the E-Bikes were generally illegal, and Brussels is now trying to bring us into line.
The different types have similar power outputs and (more importantly) identical top speeds, but to put it in tabloid terms, Herr Kraut is telling us to turn our pedals and trim our waistlines, when we’d rather follow the free-market Yanks and decide for ourselves whether to stay trim and slim, or grow fat and lardy. More seriously, many older and/or partially disabled people really need that freedom to choose.
Thanks to lobbying (by disabled riders, amongst others), our civil servants tried to negotiate a compromise, but the situation remains in complete chaos, with contradictory UK and European law in place simultaneously. At the ever helpful Department for Transport, the main man has retired with a headache, leaving minions who simply don’t have a clue.Their current advice is to wait and see what the courts say…
If E-Bikes are banned (all bets are off at the moment), and gran is seen coasting on her Thompson, but spots the old ‘blues ‘n twos’ in the mirror, she need only flick to Pedelec mode. (‘But I was pedalling officer, honestly.’) If no-one’s looking, she can put her feet up, and go on her way.The affair is developing into a classic Euro-farce, but fifty quids worth of switch does at least give the end-user some insurance should the legislators turn nasty. Just to add to the confusion,Thompson is poised to put the E-Bike version back on the market, and why not?
Ride & Equipment
Equipment levels are pretty good. The lights take a direct feed from the battery and are thus pretty powerful – more moped than bicycle.When the power’s turned off, the lights draw power from the motor, which usefully functions as a crude generator when coasting. There’s also a functional electric horn, indicators of rather dubious daytime value, a rear rack, stand, and front suspension forks throughout the range.The 18-inch wheeled City also has a rear coil spring, which absorbs largish bumps, and all the Thompson Euro-Tourer – £450 bikes can be fitted with a useful front basket for £7.99, and/or a lockable rear top box for £14.99. A spare charger – useful for topping up the battery at work – costs £29.99.
The only real problem is that these bikes are single-speed and low geared, with short cranks. As far as the Thompsons are concerned, their bikes are aimed exclusively at older people who wouldn’t (or couldn’t) pedal if they were being chased by a family of Grizzly bears.We won’t argue with them (the Thompsons, not the bears), because they know their market and they’ve already sold a thousand of the things. All we will say is that everyday cyclists looking for a bit of assistance will be driven mad by pedals that are only really useful below 7mph.This inability to add much oomph of your own will make a big dent in the range too, but we’d guess at 15 to 20 miles, provided the territory is reasonably flat.
Wheel size varies according to model (the Classic has 24″ wheels, the Tourer 22″, and the City 18″), but the fixed gear ratios are all 48″.With a taller seat pillar, longer cranks and larger chain ring, all these bikes could be made reasonably pedallable, but we doubt it would be worth the trouble.Thompson could have specified all these parts, of course, but they’re adamant that their market sector won’t pedal, so that’s that.
After a short ride on each, there isn’t a lot to add: the 200 watt brushless motors are quiet and pull well (the 150 watt is rather feeble), top speed is around 12 or 13mph (15mph is the legal maximum), the pedals are more or less there for show, and the suspension works quite well, although not well enough to prevent things crashing around in the noisy top-box. Brakes are barely adequate to hold back a 40kg machine, so you need to exercise some care, especially in the wet. Hills are a problem because of the limited pedal-assist, but the 200 watt motor is capable of surmounting a 10% hill at a modest speed. Incidentally, there will be a larger 250 watt motor for next year, and brushless motor watts are nice big efficient ones, so that promises to be fairly perky.
Brainy types may already have gathered that the expensive Pedelec mode is next to useless except on steep hills, because it only lets the motor cut in when it senses pedal input, but you can only realistically pedal at low speed. Just ignore it.
E-Bike Retro £399 . E-Bike Cruiser £499
I enjoy cycling – not just a particular bike, but anything with two wheels and a set of pedals. At least, that’s what I used to think until I rode the E-Bike Retro. It’s slow, hard work and wobbly.
But then perhaps I’m missing the point, which happens to be a rock bottom price tag of just £399. Thompson apart, this is the cheapest electric bike in Britain. Powabyke used to be the price leader, but they now start the thick end of £200 more than one of these. So is this the breakthrough for electric bikes? If so, it’s about time, because as many detractors will point out, you can buy a bargain basement 50cc scooter for the price of a Giant Lafree or top end Powabyke. A fairly unpleasant, low-tech scooter, but a scooter nonetheless, with weather protection, a 30mph top speed and no need to pedal.
The Retro looks tiny, like a cheap child’s bike, an effect heightened by the bright yellow and blue battery case which sits on the rear rack. Start riding, and it feels like a child’s bike as well. Even with the seat stem at the top of its travel, my stubby 30-inch legs felt cramped and uncomfortable, so only the seriously short need apply.There’s only one gear, and it matches the pedal-twirling 48″ of the Thompsons, so even with the right size legs, cycling more than a couple of miles would be a fair old challenge.
Except that most Retro owners won’t be doing anything so rash. According to David Angel of F2 Motorcycles, who lent us the test bike, the typical buyer is a short senior citizen who wants to nip down to the shops with as little pedalling as possible. And here the Retro delivers, after a fashion.The modest 150-watt motor is clamped to the frame, and will trundle the bike along at an estimated 10mph without pedalling.We didn’t have time to test range, which the maker says will run to 18 miles at 13mph.
With or without pedalling, riding the Retro is not a very pleasant experience.The combination of the high-mounted battery and a less than rigid frame make for a distinctly wobbly ride.This is magnified by the soft and squashy (35-45psi) 22″ x 1.75″ Cheng Shins, which squeak and squeal reluctantly around corners. Almost every component underlines the low price – the plastic brake levers and steel cranks – and paint was starting to flake off the test bike. Mind you, the Retro is quite well equipped, considering. A front basket, battery-top rack, chainguard and rear stand are all part of the package. Good value then, but perhaps the Retro’s strongest suit is the fact that its low price tag will attract crowds into the showroom.Then they’ll hopefully spend a little more on a better bike.
If they do, then this is it, because the E-Bike Cruiser, though just £100 more than the Retro, is in a different class. It shares many of the same components, and it’s still a no-no for six-footers, but this one has been designed as an electric bike, and it shows.
…the Retro has nothingin it’s favour but price…theCruiser is streets ahead…
Instead of the small 24 volt battery sitting on the rack, there’s a substantial 36 volt unit styled into the main frame.That partly explains why the Cruiser weighs 40kg, 25% more than the Retro, but it also makes the bike look more professional and all of a piece. It certainly feels nicer to ride, more solid and stable than the Retro – the lower battery mounting and a more solid frame probably do the business, though it wears exactly the same squishy Cheng Shin tyres.The ‘Wixing’ brakes are made of dubious stuff, and no more effective, but somehow this E-Bike feels more trustworthy than its entry-level cousin.
Once again, it comes with a single, breathless 48″ gear, and anyone with a leg of 30 inches or over will find it a non-starter. But for others, the Cruiser has its charms. (The stickers actually call it a ‘Commutabike’, but who are we to quibble?) Instead of an afterthought bolt-on, the 180-watt motor is incorporated into the rear hub. Better still, the brushless hub is astonishingly quiet. Apply throttle from a standstill, and the Cruiser glides gently away with Rolls-Royce aplomb – after the squawking and whining of older DC motors, this is heaven. Performance is gentle and sedate, which is somehow in keeping.The maker claims 20 miles at 13mph, though once again, we didn’t get the chance to test it, and 10mph seemed a more realistic speed on the flat.
There’s something else that sets the Cruiser apart, and makes the extra £100 well spent. It is very well equipped: a colour-coded top box, a rear rack and front basket to take care of the shopping.There is suspension at both ends: admittedly, the impressive looking braced front forks have about half an inch of movement, and there’s just a springy seat post at the back, but it’s suspension nonetheless. A three-LED display shows the state of the battery, and a front light is part of the package too. Like the Thompson bikes this works off the battery which might be illegal, but who knows with Britain’s Mad Hatter electric bike legislation? There is even a three-LED rear light set into the top box, but strangely enough it isn’t connected.You also get a chainguard, skirt guard and rear stand as part of the deal.
I was impressed by the Cruiser.The £399 Retro has nothing in its favour except price, but for just £100 more, the Cruiser is streets ahead in style, equipment and function. If you’re on the short side, and aren’t too bothered about gears, this might be the affordable electric bike you’ve been waiting for.
These very cheap bikes cost a little more to run than their more expensive cousins (we’ve estimated 5p-6p per mile) because with limited pedal input the range per charge and battery life is reduced. But the potential is huge – older folk, those who simply can’t pedal, tubby middle-aged types banned from driving who won’t pedal, and everyone else making the sort of short car journey a Thompson or E-Bike could do with ease. If granny’s legs go all wobbly, or you’re up against the ‘can’t pedal, won’t pedal’ mentality in the pub, just throw back: ‘electric bike, no need to pedal, three hundred and fifty quid’. Then sit back with a grin on your face.
Thompson Electrical tel 01905 763376 web www.thompsons-online.co.uk F2 Motorcycles tel 01295 712900 mail firstname.lastname@example.org web www.f2motorcycles.co.uk