Ullo John, gotta new e-bike?
Comedian and Daily Telegraph motoring correspondent Alexei Sayle has been whizzing about town on a shiny new Sparta RXS electric bike.
I have to say I’ve fallen in love with this machine. In my second year as a student in London I lived in a horrible flat within a condemned house in a district known as North Kensington – basically the Gaza Strip of Notting Hill Gate. In that same year I acquired my first bicycle as an adult, a black steel machine with a single gear. I loved the freedom a bike gave me, allowing me to time to the second how late I was going to be for lectures.
When I wasn’t using my bike it was parked in the hall. The apartment upstairs was occupied by an alcoholic called Mrs Cocker, and one evening I heard a thump and emerged from my flat to find her lying drunk at the foot of the stairs. She blearily looked up and said, “What is this place you’ve brought me to, Roger? There’s bicycles in the hall.” From then on, when I was in some frightening or mystifying place I would often find myself thinking: “What is this place you’ve brought me to, Roger?”
I hadn’t revisited the area for years and now I find in some ways North Kensington has not changed at all and in others it is transformed. For instance, at the end of my old street there is now a shop called JustEbikes, which sells electric bicycles. You could see this as being very modern but, on the other hand, the area was always, from the earliest days, home to businesses trying to save the planet.
Clare Elwes and James FitzGerad opened their first shop in the Suffolk town of Leiston five years ago and the London Portobello Road branch followed in 2012. Clare emailed me last year and asked if I would like to test a Sparta bike for a week. I say to her when I collect it that I am dubious about its value since the exercise I get on my ordinary machine is the only thing between me and a starring role on Channel 5’s Big Body Squad.
This is not the first time she has heard this argument but she says I am looking at it wrong. The e-bike is an attempt to replace your car, not your bike, and, besides, there is still a degree of gentle exercise involved in piloting one of these machines. Clare identifies an e-bike as a bike with more, while an electric car is a car with less (having driven a Citroën C-Zero two years ago, I can certainly testify to that). They are passionate in their devotion to the machines they sell and believe they can change the world for the better. Therefore, they find the situation with grants deeply frustrating – while electric cars come with a massive subsidy, their two-wheeled equivalents get none. Many firms, she says, would like to replace their vehicles with a fleet of bikes, but the cost is prohibitive.
When I show the Sparta to my wife by riding up and down the street, she finds it alarming how fast I am going and wonders if drivers will be sufficiently aware of a bike approaching them so rapidly. Yet when I go for my first ride to Chelsea, about five miles away, it is pedestrians who I have to watch out for. My conclusion is that they see way off in the distance a fat man pedalling a big, heavy-looking machine and assume they have time to cross in front of him, which they don’t since I am as quick as a morbidly obese panther.
On the second day I go for coffee with friends in the north London actor’s republic of Crouch End, a trip which involves several very steep hills. These I sail up with ease and get to my destination faster than I could even in my car. However, when I emerge several hours later and re-attach the control pad it starts flashing the message !Contact Dealer!
After a phone call, it turns out the machine has not been registered to me and it thinks it is being stolen, which means I now have to get home using only pedal power. This is not too bad a task – admittedly most of my trip is downhill – and though I’ve never ridden a Boris bike I imagine the e-bike is no more difficult to pedal. According to the display, I still manage an average of 9.3mph on the flat and in some ways this proves the superiority of the electric bike over the electric car, since you couldn’t pedal your Renault Twizy home.
I have to say I have fallen in love with this machine and for the rest of the week I keep finding excuses to go for rides; having coffee with people I haven’t seen for five years or buying specialist spanners from the only importer up the A5 in Colindale. I also delight in showing it to others – I will always treasure the look of shock on my friend Vic’s face at the speed with which he got around the block.
So I wish Clare and James great success with their project, though I fear they face an uphill battle. In this country there seems to be, unlike in northern Europe or Scandinavia, a cultural resistance to electric bikes.
But then things can change quickly given the right circumstances. After all, in 1967 a report stated that Britain had more battery-electric vehicles on its roads than the rest of the world put together. Admittedly, those vehicles were milk floats, but where once there were milk floats why not bicycles instead?