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“Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle”

“Not to know what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child.”
Cicero (46 B.C.)

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
George Santayana, The Life of Reason, Vol. 1: Reason in Common Sense (1905)

That history repeats itself is supposed to be a given. In fact, it’s a cliché and was already thus by 1865 when an editorialist in Harper’s Monthly Magazine of that year wrote: “The most solemn humbug which does duty as a profound historical reflection is, that history repeats itself. History does no such thing.”

But there’s a reason it’s a cliché. Historians and philosophers recognise that humans in every new generation tend to believe their ideas are fresh and revolutionary and startling when, in reality, many of the same choices, and many of the same mistakes, are on a loop.

Take electric bikes. Perhaps not one of the most obvious choices for history repeating itself (internecine struggles tend to get top-billing in this respect) but bicycles, powered or otherwise, are a speciality of mine so my plucking of historical examples is blinkered.

Today, electric bicycles are seen by many in the bicycle industry as amazingly innovative and should be adopted as the “bicycle of the future”. Pedal bicycles will wither and die as lazy humans start to favour high-tech, li-ion-powered pedelecs over “bicycles that haven’t changed for 120 years.” Bicycle dealers ought to wake up and smell the coffee and should ditch “manual bicycles” in favour of the “science fiction” that is the 21st Century Electronically Power Assisted Cycle, or EPAC.

Thing is, we’ve been here before. In 1904, Popular Mechanics reported on an electric motor that could be retrofitted to a bicycle, and the same magazine reported the commercialisation of electric bikes in an issue from 1911. Long before that, tinkerers had been attaching all sorts of motors to bicycles and tricycles. The first commercially available motorbike was sold in the US in 1894.

From 'Popular Mechanics', October 1911

Bicycle dealers were encouraged to sell these machines, just as they are encouraged to sell pedelecs today.

In December 1896, an editorial in Cycling Life, one of many US trade magazines catering to the Bicycle Boom, conflated motorbikes with horseless carriages, i.e. early automobiles.

“Have horseless carriages come to stay? They are still curiosities and only curiosities, although a few limited purposes they may soon be suffienctly practicable. Perhaps, it illustrates what may be expected that the bicycle was a languishing commodity of trade for many a year before it reached that degree of practicability at which wiseacres commence to ask the question “Has it come to stay?” A similar languishing business may be looked for in motor-cycles for all-around purposes…Dealers in bicycles who have the future in view might do worse than by employing their spare time and energy to familiarising themselves with motor construction. Any suitable widening of the scope of the bicycle business can only contribute to enhance its stability and reduce its risks, and there is little doubt that the motor-cycle business, when it comes, will fall into the hands of those who have trained themselves most specifically for the task of taking care of it.”

And this is what happened. Many bicycle manufacturers turned their bicycle businesses into automotive businesses. In the US, the first commercially available motorcar – the Winton – was developed by Alexander Winton, a Scot who had emigrated to America when he was 19. Winton shut down his bicycle shop in 1896 to concentrate on his gasoline-powered horseless carriage. In the UK, Triumph switched from making bicycles to making motorcycles.

Bicycles without motors started to be seen as inferior. After the Bicycle Boom was over – and certainly by 1905 – many commentators assumed bicycles would fade away into history.

For many varied reasons – including exercise potential, efficiency, and, latterly, eco credentials – they didn’t. Pedal power has a bright future.

Not so, say some proponents of today’s electric bicycles. For sure, the pedelecs of 2011 are lighter and more powerful than the electric bicycles available in 1911 (but, thanks to regulations in the EU at least, not radically so). However, for some e-bike champions, the “old-fashioned” and “sweaty method” of pushing pedals with leg muscles is passé and a new generation of faster, more powerful e-bikes will take the place of simple bicycles.

Hannes Neupert, founder and president of ExtraEnergy, an electric vehicle lobbying organisation based in Germany, told a Light Electric Vehicle (LEV) conference in 2010 that pedal-powered bicycles would go the way of the dodo:

“Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle within a few years like it has killed many other mechanical products. Bicycles…will remain as historical items hanging on the wall.”

Here are some of his slides from that presentation.

ExtraEnergy isn’t alone at lobbying for e-bikes in Europe. Another key player is ETRA, the European Two Wheel Retailers’ Association, based in Belgium. ETRA is likely to achieve a key goal in 2012: the European Commission is set to reclassify powerful e-bikes as bicycles, removing them from motorcycle ‘type-approval’ but allowing such next generation e-bikes to be used where bicycles can be used. In the UK, the Bicycle Association and CTC have requested that the UK Department for Transport oppose this legislation, stating that high-powered bicycles have no place on bike paths.

In 2010, the world’s foremost expert on electric bikes agreed with this position. Ed Benjamin owned bicycle shops from 1969 to 1995 but since the mid-1990s has championed electric bicycles. He’s the managing director of an e-bike consultancy business and founder and president of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, LEVA. Talking at the same 2010 LEV Conference as Neupert, Benjamin presented these slides, showing that he believes e-bikes ought to do what the motorbike industry did just before the Great War and that’s split from the bicycle industry.

Benjamin recognises that e-bikes – especially the faster, more high powered e-bikes that consumers demand – have more in common with motorbikes than bicycles. But he can’t resist disparaging bicycles. In an article in Bicycle Dealer magazine in November 2011, Benjamin told retailers of bicycles that “science fiction is in your store today,” equating e-bikes with Jetson-style air cars.

[Remember, e-bikes were available in 1904 and even the modern e-bike is old: Sanyo demonstrated its first electric bike at the 1970 World Fair in Japan].

Benjamin said:

“Manual pedal bikes have not gotten much more comfortable, or much easier to pedal…from the bikes sold in 1972. Yes, I know about index shifting, higher-pressure tires, mountain bikes, flat foot cruisers, gel seats, et al. And my point stands. They are basically not much different.

“Pushing on the pedals of a modern pedelec bike (using a torque sensor to match or amplify the rider’s pedaling input) really does make you feel very strong.

“These machines are really powered exo-skeletons. Manual bicycles amplify human power with mechanical advantage and bearings. But adding an electric motor and battery makes the amplification of the human power even greater, easier and more fun.

“These bicycles are “science fiction” in two ways. First, they’re fun, advanced gadgets. And they’re new, technological devices that people really, really like.”

He then pitches the electric bike as the perfect product for bike shops, with sentiments similar to those in the Cycling Life editorial of 1896:

“Electric bikes [are] more complex. They need more service,
 more tires, and they will inevitably need an expensive new battery. Your customers don’t understand them. They need your help and the special skills that you will be developing to service human electric hybrid cycles. All of this is good news for your profits and your Service Department. And that’s after you enjoy a larger ticket and a higher margin on the initial sale. And after you attract a lot of folks to your store who are simply never going to buy a manual bike.”

The 2010 LEV Conference in Cologne had another speaker, too. Han Goes, of Q Square Consultants, didn’t pussy-foot around the subject of electric bicycles replacing “manual bicycles.” He said the pedelec was the “Trojan Horse of the Bicycle Industry.”

And perhaps this final slide is a good, history-based reason for traditional bike shops to steer clear of certain e-bikes? Start selling throttle-controlled high-powered battery-powered motorised bicycles and you’re a motorbike shop. Fine if you want to become a motorbike shop but if bike shops believe in the future of bicycles – machines powered by cornflakes, not coal-fired electricity generating stations – there’s every reason to believe Goes when he says e-bikes may well just be a Trojan Horse.

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