You want to take a cycling holiday in France, but you're not sure your legs are quite up to it. Or maybe you'd just like a little help in the mountains. An electric bike might just be the answer, says Richard Peace, the co-author of Electric Bicycles: The Complete Guide.
To the uninitiated, electric bike touring in France might sound like heaven (eating up hills with a full touring load) or hell (extra weight, you need to be near electricity and the likelihood of a disabling bike failure leaving you stranded in unfamiliar territory).
As you might expect, the truth, depending on your requirements and your choice of electric bike, will probably fall somewhere between the two. But if you choose a model suited to you, your experience should fall nearer the heavenly end of the scale.
While Holland is without doubt the leading electric bike country in Europe (with the Germans not that far behind), electric bikes are increasingly catching on in France. They have been promoted at an official level by the Parisian government and leading French makes include Moustache and Gitane.
On a personal level, I've never encountered any problem with being on an electric bike – I've been on French trains and the Eurostar, as well as ferries in much the same way I would with a normal bike. Be aware though, if flying to France (or anywhere else for that matter), you're unlikely to be allowed onto a plane with a large lithium-ion battery, whether it's in the hold or hand luggage, as carriage of the very reactive lithium is strictly regulated by the airline industry.
It is possible to hire batteries once in France tough, if you are able to bring your bike without the battery. You can use Freewheeling France's bespoke bike hire service to find a suitable hire outlet.
Key questions to ponder
Do I really need one?
If you're entirely happy on a non-electric bike, then probably not. But if you tick any of the following boxes, then an electric bike could help:
• I would like to be able to cover more ground in a day
• I would like to carry more with me but find it's just too much/too heavy
• I struggle on some hills or into headwinds
• I like cycle touring but would like to try something different
• I have a medical condition that makes riding a regular bike difficult in terms of pedalling or exertion
• I like to go out riding with my partner/friend but can never keep up
• I've never tried cycle touring – I think it's probably just too much like hard work!
How practical are electric bikes for touring?
Electric bikes – like all other genres of bikes – come in all shapes, sizes and specifications. The key is to find the one that's perfect fit for your needs.
As with all bicycle touring, planning is required to ensure you'll be near an electricity point when you need one, but this is true of all aspects of touring (accommodation, lunch stops, train connections, etc).
As for budgeting, electric bikes won't break the bank in terms of electricity used on an actual trip. In any case, electricity is usually included in the cost of accommodation while on holiday, or used for free while you are eating at a cafe or restaurant.
Getting stuck with a broken electric bike is an understandable worry and, for this reason, better quality bikes are strongly recommended (see below).
The overall the quality of e-bikes has markedly improved in recent years and there are good models to be had for not much above £1000.
I've used quality ‘mid-drive’ systems (also called crank drives – where the motor is located around the pedal axle) for several years from the likes of Bosch, Brose, Shimano and Yamaha and have never had a single problem.
What electric bikes are best for cycle touring?
There are two basic kinds of electric bike:
• Pedelecs: Just turn the power on and pedal! Motor power is activated in response to your pedalling. Usually the amount of power depends on the pressure you put on the pedal – just the 'right' amount of pressure will give you optimum power. You will also get the option to deliver the percentage of power relative to your pedal power; 100% will match it and there is usually at least an 'eco' setting of around 50% and a 'turbo' which deliver incredible amounts of extra power – between 300% and 400% extra on the most powerful motors
• E-bikes: power is activated by a control on the handlebars – in the vast majority of cases by a throttle grip, moped-style. It's a legal requirement that the pedals must be turning for the power to be delivered to the motor. This is a relatively rare system nowadays, but it can be particularly useful for cyclists with a weak pedalling action, perhaps due to ill health or age. Once common, nowadays models with throttles are usually found on retrofit kits and even then on only a small proportion. The Sparticle is a good example.
With both pedelecs and e-bikes you can switch the power off and ride the machine like a normal bike. There is usually a little extra resistance, but this depends on the bike, and on the lighter, more efficient systems is not that noticeable.
In terms of suitability for touring, top of the pile have to be high quality pedelecs featuring systems from Bosch, Brose, Shimano and Yamaha, not only because they deliver good power over a good range of speed (ideal for fully loaded touring) but also because they tend to come with larger capacity batteries for longer range.
These high quality crank drive systems (i.e. they drive through the crank area, providing power at the optimum motor speed, whatever gear you are in) have the distinct advantage over those with motors in the hub whose efficiency is limited by the fact they are geared to operate best either at low speed on steep hills or at higher speeds on lesser gradients – but never both...
However, for lightweight ‘credit card’ style touring or ultralight bikepacking, there are is an emerging range of lightweight bikes. While these tend to deliver less power (meaning you do more of the work), they are pretty effective nonetheless. And while they have smaller batteries, their lighter weight and smaller power requirements help mitigate this (and spare batteries are always available). Leaders in this field include the ebikemotion system as used by Ribble and the removable Fazua system, as used on the Boardman electric gravel bikes sold via Halfords.
If you regularly combine train and bike it might be worth thinking about folding electric bikes. The most compact folders are still the world famous Brompton bikes, still made in London. The company has its own electric model but there are lighter versions from ARCC, Cytronex, Nano and Swytch and a powerful throttle version from Sparticle that also features some of largest batteries out there for a folder.
If you want something that folds or is compact with more power and range potential and more carrying capacity check out Tern’s range of e-bikes – you would just be sacrificing small folded size and adding some weight when compared to the Brompton variants.
How far will a full battery charge take me and how much do electric bikes weigh?
Both questions are of obvious concern to tourers. Cycle tourers travel further than your average leisure cyclist in a day and often need to ride without breaks for re-charging (charging at lunch times will depend on the goodwill of any cafe or restaurant you happen to stop at or, if picnicking, there probably won't be any potential charging point). Tourers also want to keep the weight they have have to carry to a minimum.
Lithium-ion battery technology has undergone a revolution, though you should always go for a recognised brand – often manufacturers specify what cells they have used in their battery and reputable makes include Panasonic/Sony, Samsung and LG Chem (major systems manufacturers like Bosch, Brose, Shimano and Yamaha/Giant all use reputable battery companies).
A two-year warranty on the battery is standard and often there are guarantees on the number of charge cycles the battery will last (these should be specified as full charge cycles), made possible by the fact that today’s batteries can ‘count’ the number of charge cycles they have had.
Battery range varies enormously; the same e-bike with the same weight rider can produce huge range differences if ridden over different terrain and in different weather. Bosch’s handy 'Range Assistant' gives an idea of all the variables at play and the huge impact on range they can have.
Having said all that, around 20 miles (32km) would be a minimum range expectation from a standard size battery of around 500 watt hours capacity ridden on full power over extreme terrain. A lightish very efficient e-bike with a lightish rider ridden on lower power settings and a 600Wh plus battery could exceed the 100-mile range (160km). Of course, spare batteries are available and can be carried with you to extend range, but this option depends on your budget.
Fitter riders who will cycle unaided a lot of the time might find the lightweight ebikemotion and Fazua powered e-bikes with their smaller batteries suffice.
The heaviest bikes suitable for touring weigh around 25kg and, as you would expect, as the kilos come off, the cost goes up. The current cutting edge weight for fully equipped bikes with a reasonable sized battery is 15-17kg, with good examples including this Ribble Hybrid model and this Ampler Stellar model with integrated lights and a good sized battery.
How much would an electric bike suitable for touring cost me?
Good quality mid-drive pedelecs start at about £1500 with a smaller battery and go up to many thousands. Cube and Haibike are two large German companies that both produce huge ranges of competitively priced mid-drive models, as do Giant / LIV, while Kalkhoff and Riese & Muller are a step up in price and specification, offering high-tech features like belt drives (rather than chain drives) and continuously variable transmission (no steps between gears).
Decent quality e-bike conversion kits start at about £700. For rough stuff touring and mountain biking a good quality mid-drive bike is recommended, not a hub motor or retrofit system as they generally lack the power of a mid-drive.
What about electric mountain bikes and road bikes?
The electric bike manufacturing and sales sector is booming to such an extent you really will find it difficult NOT to find the right bike for your needs.
Most of the big manufacturers are now producing a full range of bikes across touring, MTB and road bikes. There are also now electric tandem and electric cargo options, the latter popular in Holland and Denmark, which – as you'd expect – have a larger range of specialist outlets than in many other countries.
What if I don't want to buy? Where can I hire an electric bike in France?
It is now relatively easy to find electric bike hire in France if you do not have your own bike (or if you cannot bring your own bike with you). This is especially true on the main tourist bike routes. Hybrid or touring e-bike rental is most common, but electric mountain bikes (or e-VTTs) and electric road bikes are also becoming popular, especially in the mountains.
Hiring a bike can also be a good way to test e-bikes out to see if electric bike touring my be right for you.
Richard Peace is founder of Excellent Books, specialists in cycle publishing, and has been writing about electric bikes for the last decade. Richard, who has made several tours of France on electric bikes, is the co-author of Electric Bicycles: The Complete Guide and author of Cycling Southern France. You can see all his books here. He is a regular contributor to bikeradar.com and A to B magazine.
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