We gave our graphic designer, a lifelong cyclist, an e-bike and told him to report back.
It started with a text from the boss: "What car are you in? Will it be big enough to take an e-bike?" We had a meeting planned at I Cycle Electric and he suggested I should come home with an e-bike to see what all the fuss is about. Comparisons between e-bikes and the regular pedal powered variety are fairly common place these days so I planned to use a different methodology. Take an e-bike that is as far removed from the carbon fibre race machine I'm usually perched on and see how they compare. Not only that, I'd be comparing my performance on the e-bike to my best time up one of the steeper local hills from 2 years ago, at a time when I was at peak fitness after months of training for a couple of local sportives (70+ miles with up to 10,000 feet of climbing). Scientific it wasn't going to be. Interesting? You bet.
You can't get much different from a modern race bike than a folder. Small wheels, upright riding position, thick foam saddle and a luggage rack just for good measure. No one said this was going to be a fair fight. In one corner we had my Ridley Fenix SL (that's S for Super and L for Light), 16.5lbs of rigid carbon fibre designed for speed. In the other corner a Pulse Folder, designed to get you from A to B before going all Optimus Prime and transforming into a fraction of its normal size for stowage beneath a desk or in a luggage rack on a train or bus.
Despite the one-sidedness of my choice of test bikes I already knew that the road told a different story to what you see on paper. In the past I've suffered the humiliation of being passed uphill by someone a good twenty years my senior, pedaling in slow motion yet gliding past my panting carcass like he was on the up elevator and I was on the way down. The 250 watts of power delivered by an electric motor is the same amount of power an average club cyclist generates. That's a lot of extra power even when you're carrying an extra 20lb of battery and motor.
The choice of testing ground was the lower half of Marsden Lane outside of Huddersfield. A piffling one tenth of a mile but with an average gradient of 17% and reaching 28% at its steepest. As if the pull of gravity didn't provide enough challenge, it's also barely a car's width in places with cobbles in the centre of the road and loose grit and debris to each side. The gradient makes you want to stand on the pedals while the lack of grip tells you to sit down again. My best time on a racing bike is 49 seconds, good enough for 15th place on the Strava segment leader board. The fastest time is 40 seconds, no doubt recorded by someone who sports feathers beneath their lycra. The picture below shows the end of the test section. When the trees are growing sideways you know it's pretty steep.
Test day was a Saturday morning. In keeping with the athlete's tradition of living a monastic lifestyle I'd limited my Friday night quaffing to red wine (good for the blood) and had declined a third bag of Monster Munch (good for the waist line). The sun was out and the wind forecast to be behind me. None the less, wind cheating lycra was eschewed for regular jeans and soft soled plimsoles, since that's the sort of clothing you'd expect someone riding a folder to be wearing. I pressed the button on the Strava app to record the ride and set off on my way.
The Pulse folder has 4 power options, with a noticeable boost when you select number 4. My route to Marsden Lane began with a long steady drag. Not steep enough to call it a hill but hard enough to use the inner chainring on a regular bike. I jabbed the + button on the Pulse's handlebars and the road flattened. I can only liken it to turning out of a strong headwind and suddenly having the wind on your back. Up ahead I could see a peloton of local club cyclists, probably fresh from a cafe stop in the village. With little to no effort I found myself closing on them. I eased back, not wanting to catch up. Who was I trying to kid? Like putting two dogs together and expecting them not to sniff each other's behinds, if there's a cyclist up ahead of me and I'm closing the gap then I'm closing the gap. I shifted up several gears and pressed hard on the pedals. The racing snake at the rear of the group (all shaved legs and mahogany tan) must have heard me coming and glanced over his shoulder. I gave him a friendly "Ayup" and floated past, sat bolt upright and grinning like a TV evangelist. Then disaster. As the road began to level out my speed started to straddle 15mph. Go above it and the motor cuts out, drop below and the motor cuts in. Would I be able to keep up my speed without the fruits of Thomas Davenport's labour assisting me? Like a returning hero whose engine begins to splutter with the White Cliffs of Dover in sight, I told myself that everything would be OK. A short increase in gradient slowed me enough for the motor to kick back in and put in another surge. Then a flat section. I knew there was a long stretch of downhill approaching and had to make my escape. Salvation came in the form of a turning circle for HGVs. I pulled over and propped the Pulse against the wall to take some pictures. Out of the corner of my eye I could see the group of cyclists pass me, heads turning in synch like a military parade only presenting bemused faces rather than a salute. They may have been dawdling at a social pace but the ease with which I had been able to catch and pass them seriously impressed me.
Turning off the main road I began a steep descent that leads to Marden Lane. I'd ridden folding bikes in the far distant past and expected skittish steering from the small wheels and a certain amount of bum squeaking from myself. The Pulse folder couldn't have been more different. I suspect it's the weight of the battery and motor, mounted low and adding stability to the ride. Even braking didn't make the bike feel unstable. Over the Huddersfield narrow canal and the road climbs up Crowtrees Road. I hadn't planned to make this part of the test but I sprinted up the short rise without getting out of the saddle. The result was 5th place overall on the Strava segment leader board. That's faster than some very accomplished local racers, while wearing soft soled plimsoles and using flat pedals. (Before you ask, I have removed the ride from the Strava leader boards.) Much as I would like to credit such a performance to my undiscovered natural ability on a bike, in reality it's an illustration of just how much easier an e-bike can make cycling.
Another short descent and Marsden Lane reared up in front of me. I changed to the lowest gear but it was too low. Mission aborted. I turned and retraced my route for another run at it. The second time I hit the hill in lightly too large a gear. On a regular bike this would be a problem, since your drive chain is under massive load and changing down is accompanied a cacophony of expensive grinding sounds that come from chain and sprockets not engaging together. Try this while standing up and there's a chance you'll end up on the floor. On the Pulse I simply pressed harder on the pedals. Not being used to riding in soft soled shoes my feet slipped off the flat pedals. I also found the position of the folder too upright. On steep hills like this I'd usually be stood up, pulling hard on the brake hoods and leaning forward over the handlebars. Whether swapping the pedals for my own clip-in pedals and stiff soled cycling shoes would have made a difference isn't the point. I was riding a folding bike the way most people who ride a folding bike do it. The road kicks up to the 28% section. I notice I am breathing hard but in a manageable way, not in the 'this is what waterboarding must feel like' way that I usually experience going up here. Finally the gradient eases and I spin as hard and fast as I can before letting the steepness slow me to a stop.
The French call the time trial the race of truth. You can't argue with the clock. Back home and with an isotonic cup of tea inside me I logged in to Strava to compare times. My previous best was 49 seconds, today I did it in 50 seconds. My initial reaction was disappointment. Deep down I must have wanted the e-bike to be faster. But I'd crested the short hill before Marsden Lane quick enough for 5th place on the Strava leaderboard. The point is, in the real world, if you were commuting up hills as steep as this you would get up them with as much effort as you wanted (or were able) to put in. The same would be true of headwinds. Before this test I wasn't really sure what to expect from riding an e-bike. Now I'm certain. Whatever your level of fitness or riding experience, expect a big grin on your face.
A really big grin.