You can’t afford a car and even if you could, the thought of city traffic leaves you in a cold sweat. Public transport is not an option either: after years of tedious bus journeys, swelteringly hot tubes and the occasional ‘body on the line’ announcement, you’ve inevitably reached the end of your tether. You’re keen to cycle but having done so in the city numerous times before, you can’t ignore the fact that every three months yet another bike bites that burglary dust.
Enter, Justebikes, a cutting-edge ‘e-bike’ emporium located on Portobello Road, led by husband and wife team James FitzGerald and Clare Elwes. Fusing James’ experience in engineering with Claire’s perspective on practical cycling in the city, Justebikes has firmly rooted our cynical outlook on London biking. Having test-driven a bike around a Portobello block, we can only compare it to being in a Ferrari after you’ve had a Fiat for 10 years; the accelerating thrust of power had us hooked in seconds.
Here’s James showing us how it’s done:
What exactly is an e-bike?
The technical term for electronically assisted bikes is ‘Pedelecs’, because they have in-built pedals with capacities to be both electric and manual. You adjust the level of electric assistance depending on whether you want to use it purely as a mode of transport or a bit of exercise, or a bit of both. The more assistance you have, the more the electric motor is used and easier it is. The less assistance you have, the more it becomes like a manual bike. Battery life lasts about 20 miles and maximum speed approximately is about 15mph. We do have speed Pedelecs, which go to 40kph, but you have to register them with the DVLA, wear a helmet and have a number plate.
How did your e-bike journey start out?
James is an aviation, classic car and motor racing engineer. He was living and working in hilly Auckland and had a big hill to tackle on a commute, so eventually he ended up making himself an electrically assisted push-bike! From then we started looking at the electric bike market in the UK, which was about 10 years ago. We began to order parts from the main cycling nations like Denmark, Germany, Holland, Switzerland and France and went from there.
What are the deal-breaking benefits of an e-bike as a mode of transport?
Its functional capacities of being automatic or completely manual, all at a flick of the finger, makes it an aid to your lifestyle by responding to needs a car or sole manual bike can’t.
It comes without the congestion, traffic, parking problems, pollution and insurance costs of a car and there is no need to pay for public transport. If you want it purely as a mode of transport, or don’t want to break a sweat before work, it’s like car: turn on the motor via the electrical assistance and it will do all the work for you, no matter how steep the hill. The same applies if you want to regain confidence on the road, especially in the capital. The Dutch Amsterdam style structure means you are more upright which allows you to see more around you, which, combined with speed, makes you feel more comfortable on the road.
If you want it as a form of exercise, all you have to do is turn off the assistance and it will function completely as a manual bike. The electric bike is no heavier than a Boris Bike so you really get the best of both worlds.
Bike theft is a huge concern in the city; how do you eliminate that?
These bikes have an incredible security system, which actually makes them more secure than a car.
You can actually leave your bike on the street and it won’t be taken. In the last eight years we’ve only had one electric bike stolen and it was returned to the police within a week!
There are three components to the system; a manual lock at the back which puts a steel bar through the frame, a chain which wraps around and plugs into that same lock, and an electric control panel called an immobiliser which attaches to the handlebars. The immobiliser tells you how fast you’re going, how much battery you have left and what level of assistance you have.
When the bike is parked you detach the immobiliser from the handlebars and take it with you as if it were your wallet or car keys, and it completely immobilises the motor altogether. The motor, the battery and the frame are all registered to the bike on a European database and essentially they all work in tandem together. So if you go into a Sparta dealer in Italy and say you’ve lost your immobiliser, they will actually contact the shop you bought it from to prove you own one.
Are people looking at e-bikes in the wrong way?
A lot of people, particularly in the UK, say it’s cheating, but they’re looking at electric bikes in completely the wrong way; it depends on how you use it. If you use a bike to keep fit, then of course it’s cheating. But if you want to use it as a means of transport — which is what it’s made for — it’s actually an alternative to a car. And if by chance you want it equally as a mode of transport and fitness; it has the capacity to do both anyway.
‘The whole point in our electric bikes is we’re not trying to get cyclists onto electric bikes, we’re trying to get people out of their cars and onto bikes.’
A lot of people have their bikes sitting in the shed for years and don’t use them. We’ve found that customers are astounded when they realise how much mileage you can rack up on electric bikes, as they genuinely find it a replacement for a car; no effort is needed and the speed and stability is sufficient to be its equivalent. When you start looking at them in a different angle the real appeal of them becomes apparent.
E-bikes are exploding in popularity in all the main cycling nations; France, Germany, Holland, Denmark, Switzerland. Why hasn’t Britain caught up yet?
The frustrating thing is that there are government subsidiaries available for electric vehicles but not for electric bikes. If you think about it a car, no matter what it’s powered by is still a huge metal box with one person in it, taking up a lot of space and exerting lots of pollution. They are great but they don’t address the issues electric bikes have in abundance; congestion, pollution.
E-bikes are a ready-made solution for these transport problems but it’s extremely difficult to get the government behind it because you cannot discount the fact that there is a massive oil and motor lobby here, which is engrained into the culture. It’s short-sighted; in Germany you have Angela Merkel going to Euro Bike and getting photographed on electric bikes, there’s a real hype about it in Europe as it’s intrinsic to their transport plans for major cities. It’s so short-sighted that we don’t get backed in this country, because if you look facts and the benefits compared the e-bike’s motor counterparts, it becomes very clear that this is why huge European nations have implemented it into the core of their transport systems.
How do you see the e-bike progressing in Britain?
We feel like electric bikes are at a tipping point. In London it has the potential to really change the way people get around the city; it’s an absolute no-brainer. It will be customers that lead it with more people looking into these bikes and learning what they’re really about. We’ve found young people are specifically interested, and have heard them say countless times that they would never consider buying a car in the city because of cost. So to get a replacement for a car in the form of an e-bike just makes so much sense.
Justebikes; 318 Portobello Rd, W10 5RU; Opening hours: Weds-Sat 10:00-18:00, Sun 11:00-16:00; justebikes.co.uk