About a month ago, the editor forwarded me an email she’d received from an enterprising staff member at Green Energy Cycles in Hexham: ‘I would like to give you or one of your team an electric bike to ride around on for a week or so and review...’ As someone who usually walks to work and runs home across Newcastle’s town moor (well, jogs, stops, checks emails, then pops into Sainsbury’s in Gosforth), I was the perfect guinea pig.
So I emailed the shop and said, we’d love to give it a try. A few days later a man named Ali from Green Energy Cycles turned up at the office with a slightly odd-looking thing. I’m used to mountain bikes or road bikes, but this resembled an exercise bike, with small wheels, a low mid section, and all the gears in a sealed unit (along with the motor).
Anyway, he adjusted the height of the seat and explained how it works. It took a while, though in hindsight it’s very straightforward – you pedal, and according to what setting you choose the motor provides extra power, and with this particular electric bike the motor provides a lot of extra power.
I was being loaned a Gocycle, which is designed by Richard Thorpe, a former McLaren Cars engineer. What he’s created is the F1 of bikes: it has a lightweight magnesium-alloy frame; a self-tensioning chain in a sealed box so your trousers don’t get shredded; a battery which can be charged via the mains; and three automatic gears.
It can be disassembled and folded up in a couple of minutes, and there’s a built-in lock to keep it safe, though I didn’t dare leave it anywhere but the house or office – it costs £2,799. Thankfully, I borrowed one for free (to buy one is slightly beyond my budget – the Gocycle is aimed at lawyers and architects zooming around cities, rather than a writer in need of some form of transportation cheaper than a bus).
Despite its slightly exclusionary price range, it took me just one ride to fall in love. And I’m not the first: Chris Evans has been seen tootling around London on a Gocycle (he also reviewed one for the Daily Mail); Eddie Jordan keeps a pair on his yacht; Cara Delevigne rides one (she’s a model, I think); and Cristiano Ronaldo is a fan. So, yes, like many before me, I fell in love, but also like many before me, I was very sceptical at the start.
The huge problem with an electric bike is this: why? What is the point of it? Why would I spend all this money on an electric bike, when I can just get a normal bike, and use my legs, like a normal cyclist? I discovered the answer immediately, and it’s twofold: speed and sweat. You get a lot more of the former with an electric bike compared to a conventional bike, and you get a lot, lot less of the latter.
The first ride I did was from the office to my home, a three-mile trip. I took it easy. There are four settings on the bike – City, Eco, On Demand, and Custom – so I put it on City, meaning the motor would kick in quickly when setting off from a red light, and it would provide plenty of help on hills (even using this setting and a power-sapping customised setting, over a week the battery only needed charging once).
I cruised home, shaving about 15 minutes off my commute. But as I lay in bed at night I had one thought: this bike had more to give. The next morning (and the following mornings, evenings, and a couple of rides at the weekend) I decided to really put it through its paces. I changed the settings, which you can do using the Knight Rider-style display on the handlebars (little flashing red dots indicate your setting, speed, battery life and gear), or by using the more informative app on your phone or tablet.
I switched it to Custom and adjusted the settings so that the motor would kick in even quicker and stay on longer (by law the motor stops assisting at 15.5mph, though you can change that setting and go up to 25mph – let’s assume I kept it legal).
With the settings customised, I flew, whizzed, hurtled and zoomed. I started to realise the bike’s incredible potential as I zipped over the town moor cyclepath. The speed is amazing, the acceleration the most fun (and useful) part of it. You can sit at a red light with other cyclists, then when the light turns green, instead of the slow cycle crawl everyone else endures before they get up to speed, I was racing away, not out of breath at all (you have to be a bit careful, as drivers are continually surprised by how fast you can go).
That’s the best thing about having one of these Gocycles: despite looking like Mary Poppins as you sit upright on this quirky bike, you know you have the upper hand when it comes to other cyclists. As they perch on their expensive road bikes, looking a bit serious, you zoom past, legs rotating at a leisurely pace.
And it’s a tough little thing; I was bumping over curbs, racing over grass, giving it a thrashing, and it never once bucked: it’s wonderful.
Then there’s the little red button. It’s on the handlebar, and if you hold it in the motor works on demand, which means you can zoom along without pedalling at all, gradually building up speed until it reaches the limit. Inevitably, when there’s a red button on your bike that means you can stop pedalling and just go fast, you start to abuse it.
By the second day I was undoubtedly abusing it, going up steep hills, legs stationary, gliding past bystanders who stared at this bizarre pedal magic. By the third day, the electric bike guilt began. By then I’d started holding down the button pretty much all the time: going up steep hills, going up barely-a-hill, going along the flat.
I shouldn’t have felt guilty, as this is what the bike is designed for, to allow you to zip along at leisure, saving time, but it starts to get to you, that you’re not exercising at all. I was doing what those lycra-clad real cyclists think all electric bike riders are doing: cheating. But it is a lovely way to cheat, on a superbly engineered machine, going faster than any earnest leg-user can.
So I got over that by the fourth day, and I was back to simply loving it, which is was when the email came: ‘I will give you a call Monday and pick the bike up after lunch sometime if that’s okay.’ Ali from Green Energy Cycles was coming to collect it, which he did, just after lunchtime, like he said. I’d still been hopeful of a bike shop emergency, which would mean I could keep it for another week, but alas, all was well in the bike shop world.
So I handed it over, and as he pedalled away, I shouted after him, ‘I’ll miss it.’ He turned back, with a grin, and shouted, ‘Enjoy your walk.’ Brutal.