10 things you should know about e-bikes

E-bikes in Culver City, Los Angeles. Image: Getty.

So, e-bikes. Electric bikes. Wondering what all the fuss is about? E-curious?

I took the plunge in January. Here’s 10 things I’ve learnt, and why you should pay attention to something that’s turning out to be subtly revolutionary.

1. First surprise: quite how much FUN e-bikes are

You know those days when the wind is at your back, you feel strong, and eating up the miles? The sheer uplifting joy of that feeling? Riding an e-bike is like that all the time.
Ride an e-bike and try not to say, “Wheeee!”

2. E-bikes are simple & natural

There’s no throttle to think about, it senses how hard you pedal, your speed, your gear, while electronic controls make everything else work. The motor just amplifies what you’re doing.
If you can ride a bike, you can ride an e-bike.

No need for special bike-charging points, just unlock the battery, bring it inside to charge.

3. E-bikes aren’t fast, but are quick

The motor cuts out at 15.5mph, by law. You won’t go any faster than usual. But you’ll go slow much less often.

That long slog of a hill? 15mph.

That fierce headwind? 15mph.

Tired after a long day? Still 15mph.

It’s really cut my journey times.

4. E-bikes are still safe

Beforehand, I worried extra speed would be risky. But mostly you’re not going above 15mph, and that extra push gets you ahead of the turning traffic when the lights go green.

Or if the safest route is too long, hilly or stop-start, then a motor makes it an easier choice.

5. E-bikes aren’t cheating

Commuting and utility cycling is not sport, it’s transport. Get over yourself.

It’s not a motorbike, this is e-assist. You still won’t get anywhere without pedalling. 

And you will still get fit on an e-bike. Maybe even more than on a normal bike, because:

6. E-bikes get you cycling further and more often

E-biking is so easy, it takes away that “Can I be bothered to cycle today?” feeling.

Tired? Weather not great? Late meeting? Hungover? Trip’s a bit far? Doesn’t matter, e-bikes takes the effort out.

They will change our perception of what is just an “easy cycle” away. The Dutch are already responding with a network of cycle lanes designed for longer-distance commutes.


7. E-bikes are convenient

In the UK we ride sports bikes, not designed as transport. You know it would be so handy to have mudguards, built-in lights, luggage rack, fat tyres for potholes. But the weight!

Got a motor? No problem. You can ride a tank as if it was air. And e-bikes make it effortless to carry stuff.

8. On an e-bike you don’t have to be “A Cyclist”

Cycle commuting can be a rigmarole. Changing, showers, gear. The British treat it as the equivalent of driving to work in a Formula 1 car dressed like Lewis Hamilton.

E-bikes literally take the sweat out. Drop the Lycra and do it Dutch-style. I now cycle seven miles, in my suit, and just stroll into the office like a normal person. Dress for your destination, not your journey.

9. E-bikes are inclusive 
Most people just want to get around, not chase their Strava times. E-bikes will attract people who don’t identify themselves as cyclists.

Also older or less fit people. Asthma stopped me cycling in cold winter air for years: the e-bike changed that overnight.

10. Now the bad news: e-bikes are expensive

Recharging only costs pennies. But e-bikes are expensive to buy, repair, and insure.

This will change, quite quickly I think, as we reach mass-market adoption. It’s already cheaper than driving or public transport.

11. Finally, why now?

E-bikes aren’t new, but these things are:

  • Lithium batteries light, cheap & powerful enough. 
  • Neodymium magnets for powerful, compact & light motors.

So advances in chemistry, packaged with new electronic controls, add up to something completely new, with really broad appeal.

E-bikes are the future.

Sales are exponential, close to overtaking conventional bikes in some countries, and way ahead of electric car sales. They have the potential to change lots of what we take for granted about cycling.

Just try one, you’ll be hooked. It was hiring an electric Lime bike that convinced me.

It’s time you found out what the fuss is about.

 
 
 
 

What are Europe’s longest train journeys?

The Orient Express was a pretty long train. Image: Getty.

For reasons that aren’t clear even to me, a question popped into my head and refused to leave: what’s longer? Britain’s longest train joruney, or Germany’s?

On the one hand, Germany is quite a bit larger – its area is 70 per cent more than Great Britain’s. On the other hand, Great Britain is long, skinny island and Germany is much rounder – the distance from John O’ Groats to Lands End is over 1,400 km, but you never have walk over 1,000 km to cross Germany in any direction.

And it turns out these factors balance almost each other out. Britain’s longest train, the CrossCountry from Aberdeen in Scotland to Penzance in Cornwall, runs 785 miles or 1,263 km. Germany’s longest train, the IC 2216 from Offenburg in the Black Forest to Greifswald on the Baltic coast, is exactly 1,300 km. Germany wins by a tiny distance.

Except then I was hooked. What about the longest train in France? Spain? Italy?

So I did what anyone would do. I made a map.

The map above was all drawn with the Deutsche Bahn (Germany Railways) travel planning tool, which rather incredibly has nearly every railway in Europe. The data quality is better for some countries than others (the lines in France aren’t quite that straight in real life), and the measurements may be a bit off – it’s not always easy to find the length of a train service, especially when routes can vary over the year – but it gives us a good idea of what the routes look like.

Let’s start with the UK. The Aberdeen to Penzance route isn’t really for people who want to go all the way across the country. Instead, it’s a way to link together several railway lines and connect some medium-to-large cities that otherwise don’t have many direct services. “Cross-country” trains like these have existed for a century, but because they crossed multiple different company’s lines – and later, multiple British Rail regions – they tended to get ignored.

 

That’s why, when it privatised the railways, the government created a specific CrossCountry franchise so there was a company dedicated to these underused routes. If you want to get from Edinburgh to Leeds or Derby to Bristol, you’ll probably want a CrossCountry train.

The usual route is Edinburgh to Plymouth, but once a day they run an extra long one. Just one way though – there’s no Penzance to Aberdeen train. 

The longest train in Germany is weird – at 1,400 km, it’s substantially longer than the country itself. On the map, the reason is obvious – it takes a huge C shaped route. (It also doubles back on itself at one point in order to reach Stuttgart).

This route takes it down the Rhine, the biggest river in west Germany, and through the most densely populated patch of the country around Cologne and Dusseldorf known as the Ruhr. Germany’s second and third longest trains also have quite similar routes – they start and end in remote corners of the country, but all three have the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan area in the middle.

You’re not meant to take the IC 2216 all the way from north east to south west – there are much more direct options available. Instead, it’s for people who want to travel to these major cities. They could run two separate trains – say, Offenburg-Dusseldorf and Griefswald-Cologne – but making it a single route means passengers benefit from a bit more flexibility and helps DB use its rolling stock more effectively.

France’s longest train exists for a very good reason. Most of France’s high-speed lines radiate out from Paris, and it’s very hard to get around the country without going to the capital. Usually to get from Marseille on the Mediterranean to Nantes near the Atlantic, you’d need to take a TGV to Paris Gare de Lyon station, then get the Métro across the city to Gare Montparnasse.

Once a day though, this TGV avoids this faff by stopping in the suburb of Juvisy and turning around without going into the centre. This lets passengers travel direct between the coasts and reduces the traffic through Paris’s terminals in the rush hour. The exact length of this route isn’t clear, but Wikipedia says it’s about 1,130 km.

Spain’s longest train is very different. This is the Trenhotel sleeper service from Barcelona to Vigo, and it’s pretty fancy. This is a train for tourists and business travellers, with some quite luxurious sleeping cabins. But it is a regularly scheduled train run by the state operator Renfe, not a luxury charter, and it does appear in the timetables.

Being dry, hot and quite mountainous in its middle, most of Spain’s cities are on its coast (Madrid is the one major exception) and as a result the train passes through relatively few urban areas. (Zaragoza, Spain’s 5th largest city, is on the route, but after that the next biggest city is Burgos, its 35th largest,) This is partly why overnight trains work so well on the route – without many stops in the middle, most passengers can just sleep right through the journey, although there are occasional day time trains on that route too if you want to savour the view on that 1,314 km journey.

Finally, there’s Italy. This is another sleeper train, from Milan in the north to Syracuse on the island of Sicily. It goes via Rome and travels along the west coast of... wait, it’s a train to the island of Sicily? How, when there’s no bridge?

Well, this train takes a boat. I don’t really have anything else to add here. It’s just a train that they literally drive onto a ferry, sail across the water, and then drive off again at the other side. That’s pretty cool.

(As I was writing this, someone on Twitter got in touch to tell me the route will get even longer in September when the line to Palermo reopens. That should be exciting.)

So those are the longest trains in each country. But they aren’t the longest in Europe.

For one thing, there are some countries we haven’t looked at yet with very long trains. Sweden has some spectacular routes from its southern tip up into the Arctic north, and although the Donbass War appears to have cut Ukraine’s Uzhorod to Luhansk service short, even Uzhorod to Kharkiv is over 1,400 km. And then there are the international routes.

To encourage the Russian rich to take the train for their holiday, Russian Railways now run a luxury sleeper from Moscow to Nice, passing through France, Monaco, Italy, Austria, Czechia, Poland, Belarus and Russia. This monster line is 3,315 km long and stretches across most of the continent. That’s got to be the longest in Europe, right?

Nope. Incredibly, the longest train in Europe doesn’t actually cross a single border. Unsurprisingly, it’s in Russia, but it’s not the Trans-Siberian – the vast majority of that’s route is in Asia, not Europe. No, if you really want a long European train journey, head to Adler, just south of the Olympic host city Sochi. From there, you can catch a train up to Vorkuta on the edge of the Arctic Circle. The route zigzags a bit over its 89 hour, 4,200 km journey, but it always stays on the European side of the Ural mountains.

Bring a good book.

Stephen Jorgenson-Murray often tweets about this kind of nonsense at @stejormur.


All maps courtesy of Deutsche Bahn.