Electric dreams: Volt founder on the rise and rise of the electric bike
Between the oven-like temperatures on the tube, the promise of rail strikes stretching into infinity and the ever-present threat of another airborne pandemic, things are looking up for the e-bike industry.
Last year saw a record 22m e-bike sales according to the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry, a 10 per cent increase on the year before, with little sign of things slowing even as the cost of living soars.
“The biggest growth in public awareness was when lockdown started,” says James Metcalfe, co-founder of Volt, one of the UK’s first e-bike manufacturers. “It had been growing constantly since we founded the company in 2010 but at that stage it went crazy. Everyone was looking for another form of exercise and another way of commuting.”
It helped drag the UK closer to some of our continental neighbours, for whom e-bikes have been a way of life for some time – in the Netherlands, for instance, e-bike sales overtook those of regular bikes back in 2019, and in Germany e-bike sales are level pegging with those of cars.
“You go to Germany and the cities are heaving with e-bikes,” says Metcalfe. “Even outside of the city they have such advanced cycling infrastructure that it just becomes the dominant mode of transport. But in the UK we’re now seeing a huge amount of investment – it’s a vertical growth market with a lot of environmental factors pushing it as well.”
Many companies are investing in e-bikes for their staff, be it a handful shared between an office or an entire fleet. Metcalfe says this is, from a “cynical perspective”, partly the result of greenwashing, with companies falling over themselves to be seen to reduce their carbon footprint as well as invest in the health of their staff.
But he also sees a future where, in 30 or 40 years, we have “very few cars and a pro-cycling lifestyle.”
There are more immediate benefits, too. Not only can you often beat public transport when riding in the city but you can boost your mental health while you’re at it.
“There have been a few studies done by major universities saying the health and wellbeing benefits of using an e-bike are higher than a non-electric bicycle. They feel good to ride, there’s a genuine endorphin release without any of the ‘I can’t be bothered’ feeling you often get when you start riding a regular bike.
“And what inevitably happens is people start reducing the electric power because they want to exercise. You can exercise on an e-bike just like on any other bike – you just turn the power down.”
Metcalfe says he’s not concerned about the rising popularity of e-scooters, although he’s keen to see them legislated in a similar way to e-bikes, which have a mandated speed limit of 15.5mph (from the electric motor – you can pedal as fast as your legs or gravity will carry you).
“We have a lot of people come to us having bought one of those little scooters thinking they’re the bee’s business. They race along on those tiny little wheels and crash out at speeds faster than one of our bikes would be going – and these are often blokes in their 40s.
“There’s no regulation for them at the moment – they need to cap the top speed at 12mph and make sure things like the brakes are up to standard.”
If you’re ready to sign up for an e-bike, it might be worth speaking to your HR department. With prices starting at £1,674 and topping out at £3,000, Volt e-bikes don’t come cheap, but the company is working on various schemes to allow buyers to spread the cost, including employer subsidies and using the Cycle to Work entitlement.
Metcalf also argues that they’re not actually all that expensive. “You can buy a regular bike for £100 – maybe £200 given inflation – and your mate might have paid £1,300 for his. And while they look similar, once you start paying attention to the components there’s a world of difference. It’s the same with e-bikes – when you look at what goes into ours we’re actually cheaper than other manufacturers. We sell direct so we don’t have to give away huge margins like the others.”
Metcalfe’s latest e-bike is the Volt London, winner of the Red Dot Product Design Award, which combines the aesthetic of an urban fixie bike with the high specs of the rest of the Volt range. How will you know if it’s for you? “It’s aimed at cool people,” says Metcalfe. Time to get on the phone to HR.
• For more information go to voltbikes.co.uk