Last week, 500 new e-bikes joined TfL’s existing Santander cycle hire scheme, but what are they like to ride?
Design wise, the e-bikes look pretty much the same as the standard bike, but with a more solid bike frame to house the battery and electrics, and a noticeably different handlebar and luggage rack.
The saddle is a new design, and they’ve finally included a hole in the depression to let the rain drain away. Apart from a few modest aesthetic changes, such as the matt black wheel covers instead of gloss grey and the chunky grip on the peddles, the e-bikes are very similar to the standard bikes.
A modest splash of green advertises that these are e-bikes, but the large display screen for the battery and message in the luggage rack that these bikes will incur a surcharge to use should prevent accidental hires of the e-bike when people want a standard bike.
The 500 new e-bikes have been supplied by Canadian bicycle manufacturer, Devinci, who are the same company that supplied the original cycle hire scheme bikes and docking stations when the service launched back in 2010.
At the moment, TfL’s e-bikes can only be hired by people who have registered an account with the hire service and use the smartphone app or key to unlock a bike, so it’s not for the occasional user who pays at the bike stand. Cost-wise, if you pay as you use for the bike hire, then the e-bike costs £3.30 for 30 minutes versus £1.65 for a standard bike. However, if you have a monthly or annual subscription, then the cost of the e-bike hire is £1 for an hour.
Nudging the bike in the docking station is enough to switch on the battery indicator on the bike to show speed and battery life before you hire it.
There’s no switch for the battery, it’s always on unless you press the emergency stop button to switch it off. So use is as per any other bike, just get on and cycle off — and as you start, there’s the noticeable pulse of acceleration that comes from the electric motor. It’s not an e-bike that you can sit on and let it do all the work as the electric motor is there to assist pedalling, not replace it, so if you stop pedalling, then the motor switches off.
As with other e-bikes I’ve used, the most noticeable difference is acceleration as you start pedalling and the motor assist kicks in to get you speeding off. That’s quite pleasant when the traffic lights turn green and you want to get a decent headstart.
The bike however lacks any sort of control over the electric assist, so it’s either on or off and nothing in between. It’s however subtle enough an assist that I doubt many people will be disturbed by the acceleration and slight cycling assist when it kicks in.
It can seem like it’s a weak motor if you’re used to the powerful e-bikes from other companies, but if you’re a casual cyclist, often the hardest part of cycling is getting the bike started from a stop, especially if on a busy road with lots of traffic behind you. In that, the pulse of acceleration when the lights turn green is quite nice to experience and reassuring on a busy road.
That extra support is also a modest help in getting up the notoriously steep bridge on Cycle Superhighway 3 at Limehouse.
A few foibles to note.
The pedals are not directly connected to the gears, so they spin freely when not cycling, which meant I banged my shins a couple of times when repositioning the pedals while waiting at traffic lights.
I also found that when accelerating from a traffic light, as I would usually be in second gear, switching to third gear while still accelerating, as I would usually do, actually caused the bike to slow down. It seems that switching gears temporarily stops the e-bit of the e-bike.
Oddly although the journey I took was marginally longer than a regular trip I have taken for some years, the journey time was about the same. I would have assumed the e-bike would be much faster. Maybe my human-powered cycling is faster than I had realised.
Does seem odd that the display shows speed in kilometres per hour instead of the more familiar miles per hour.
On the smartphone app, it would be really nice if the icons were also enlarged when you zoom in so that the little electric symbol to indicate an e-bike is available is easier to see. That’s a general mapping problem – most maps on smartphones don’t enlarge text or icons when you zoom in, to my considerable annoyance. That gripe means I usually have to get reading glasses out if cycling and want to use the app to find a nearby docking station, as the icons are too small to see without my glasses.
The electric assist is subtle enough to be pleasant, without being a major feature of the Santander e-bikes. That will mean people used to powerful e-bikes may find them a disappointment. However, if this is your first time using an e-bike, you’ll likely love the acceleration when you start peddling.
For myself, cycling is partly a method of getting to a destination faster than I would by walking, and for fitness to use different muscles from those used while walking all over the place. It takes me just over an hour of walking to get to my closest cycle hire docking station in East London, and then I switch to cycling for the rest of the journey. As I have an annual subscription to the cycle hire scheme, I don’t pay to use a standard bike, but if I were to be cycling a lot further than usual, I might consider the e-bike as an occasional treat, especially as it’s only £1 per hire for subscribers.
For me at the moment, the recent change in the free hire duration for the standard bikes has been the biggest change, as it used to be 30-minutes, but subscribers can now use a standard bike for an hour for free. My average journey time is already nudging upward as I work out how much further I can cycle now that the 30-minute cut-off no longer applies.
Hopefully, those longer cycle rides will contribute to waistline shrinkage, as I have a frustratingly uncooperative stomach that likes food a bit too much.
But yes, I can see an e-bike being an occasional treat.