Matthew BeedhamEditor, SHIFT by TNW
Matthew is the editor of SHIFT. He likes electric cars, and other things with wheels, wings, or hulls. Matthew is the editor of SHIFT. He likes electric cars, and other things with wheels, wings, or hulls.
Ebikes are blowing up, and it’s bloomin’ glorious to watch. No, I don’t mean exploding, but people are buying them at the fastest ever rate. But I’m worried some of us are missing out, because we’re not appreciating the ugly ones.
Over the past year, electrified bicycles have come of age. It’s part of what the BBC calls, “The great bicycle boom of 2020.” Pandemic lockdowns around the world opened our eyes to how much we rely on the car, and it’s got people thinking about two wheels as a more preferable mode of transport.
People are gravitating to sexy new ebikes, packed with gadgets and features, but I’m here to tell you not to forget about the simple, affordable, albeit slightly fugly ones — electric town bikes.
The sexy ones
Based on what I see everyone riding, this ebike boom is largely the result of high-tech, and stylish new ebikes that are packed with features that promise to make daily life better — whether they do is a matter of opinion.
It’s common for new ebikes to have the motor and batteries integrated neatly into the frame. They often come with GPS tracking to deter thieves. Many also have apps that can “unlock” the bike, or be used to adjust how the motor delivers its power. They’re at the pinnacle of the ebike market.
Take Specialized’s Turbo Vado SL and Como SL, for example. These sporty ebikes have captured attention for their clean looks, low weight, and integrated components.
VanMoof and Cowboy are two leading examples that are battling for the smart ebike crown. They’ve become popular among those wanting a sporty and stylish ride, packed with high-tech features such as GPS tracking and total component integration.
In fact, every genre of bike now seems to have an electrified option. But there was a time when there wasn’t so much choice and ebikes were janky looking things. Batteries were large, frames were utilitarian, and integration wasn’t a word known by designers.
Shoutout to the pioneers
These first ebikes were effectively modified town bikes designed to give a helping hand to people who need assistance to get around. They were something you bought because you had to, not because you wanted to — but they worked beautifully!
As the market has moved on to more expensive and technologically advanced offerings, I’m worried that people are starting to neglect the ol’ reliable electric town bike.
When I say an electric town bike, there are some fundamental characteristics I’m referring to: a basic motor in the front wheel, removable battery, fenders, and what some might call, that classic Dutch style.
If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s what I mean:
In this bicycle-riding writer’s humble opinion, they are the most underappreciated type of ebike out there, and they deserve a hell of a lot more love, just like your inner child.
But why should we coddle these ugly ducklings, I hear you cry! Well, for the same reason your grandmother loves them: they’re simple, practical, and affordable.
It’s the trifecta of what makes any bicycle brilliant. Let me paint you a word picture.
Practicality can be sexy
The main reason why town-style ebikes are great is their practicality, and this is an often overlooked feature. More modern and pricier ebikes tend not to place style over functionality.
Town ebikes are often built with many braze-ons for fenders, racks, lights, wheel locks, and chain covers, as standard.
All of these accessories make the town ebike incredibly useful in daily life. Got some shopping to take home? No problem! That chain case will prolong the life of your drivetrain and stop your trousers getting oily. And the fenders will keep you dry and clean when roads are wet.
Add some electrical assistance to that package, and you’ve got a bike that will do the heavy lifting for you every single day, in a whole range of scenarios!
Reliable, discreet, and affordable
Electrified town bikes are also unpretentious — they’re honest and humble. They know what they are, what they’re supposed to do, and they don’t try to woo their rider with fancy gimmicks or gizmos.
This simplicity makes them reliable. There’s less that can go wrong, and if it does, it’s usually a simple fix.
If the motor dies, it’s simply a case of replacing the front wheel and connecting it up. The same goes for the battery: simply pull it out and stick in a new one. As there’s little to no integration of electrical components, removing and replacing failed hardware couldn’t be easier.
What’s more, town ebikes rarely come with complicated apps which control how they deliver power. There will usually be some controls on the handlebar, which include a power switch and buttons to adjust the level of assistance from the motor — that’s it. That’s all you need.
When you want to ride, you switch it on, and you go — no faffing necessary.
But you know what other perk comes with simplicity? A low price.
Most electrified town bikes cost comfortably less than $2,000. High-tech, modern ebikes go for well over that price — paying twice that price also isn’t unusual. These humble two-wheelers are undeniably the most affordable of the lot.
The ugly duckling problem
As H. G. Wells said, “When I see an adult on a bicycle I do not despair for the future of the human race.”
Indeed, Wells did not care what kind of bike a person rides, but simply that they ride. For me, it’s the same, except with ebikes. So let’s not forget the humble and unassuming town ebike. Like high-tech models, town ebikes too are great machines.
While they might be ugly, they are so much more. They are practical, simple, and affordable — and undeniably the best option for most people.
They are the egalitarian darling of electrified cycling, not a by-product of tech yuppie privilege. They are the essence of what modern cycling should be.
Sure, they’re not as exciting or as alluring as modern ebikes, so we forget about them, but let this serve as a helpful reminder that there are other options. Ebikes don’t have to be overly complex and cost the Earth.
I do not despair at the notion of the ugly electrified town bike, I applaud it — and you should too.
Do EVs excite your electrons? Do ebikes get your wheels spinning? Do self-driving cars get you all charged up?
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