Electric bikes are selling in ‘tens of thousands’. Yet, here in the UK, uptake at retail level has been sluggish...

REPORT: Bicycle Association electric bike conference

The result, as Carlton Reid and Mark Sutton discover, is an industry brainstorming session in the Midlands on how to get the market moving…

Despite its relative niche status when compared to many other sectors in cycling, electric bike firms are quite abundant in the UK. In fact, more than 40 suppliers and retailers attended the first Bicycle Association-organised meet held at the headquarters of the BEN, the automotive and associated industries charity, toward end of November.

This was not a meet for the firms accused of ‘loving and leaving’ sector. Many at the BA event will pull no punches when talking about how the sector’s reputation has been tainted by cheaply made imports in the past decade. Many feel the problems caused by a high number of returns and the complexity of the electric components turned dealers off the sector.

Giant UK’s managing director Ian Beasant was keen to dispel the myth that e-bikes are always complex to deal with and stated to the packed assembly "A number of the latest e-bikes are now plug and play and thus maintenance is getting easier for the workshops. We’re only talking about five extra components compared to a traditional bike, all of which are replaceable in no more than fifteen minutes with a little training."

The reluctance at retail to embrace the sector is further compounded by the fact e-bike awareness in the UK is still relatively low, especially when compared to Europe.

Beasant added: "Consumer awareness and education of the more recent e-bike product has been the backbone of this segment’s expansion in many European countries. For the UK, this is fundamental to its growth. We need to let consumers know they exist. The UK cycling culture is changing and consumers are certainly making more considered purchases. With this comes an opportunity to introduce them to this style of product."

Thankfully, the legislation surrounding the sector is gradually smoothing out, with just a few changes highlighted in a presentation on tweaks by Raleigh’s Lloyd Clarkson. Alterations to the UK-specific regulations are largely to sit in line with the rest of Europe, changes such as a 0.5 mph rise in top speed and an upper limit power output of 250 watts. The proposal of a CE/EN approval sticker to show a bike meets certain guidelines is also proposed. Detail can run as fine as "could a bike’s electrics interfere with a pacemaker," but Clarkson stopped there for fear of "sending the room to sleep" and so will we.
It is, however, interesting to note that use of a throttle assistance on electric bikes made the list of things discouraged.
At present it is the EN 15194 standard, laid out in 2009, to which manufacturers selling in the UK must adhere, meaning the same testing that applies to things like cars, motorcycles or mopeds applies.

Whatever changes to legislation take place in the coming years, the BA’s deputy president Philip Darnton was keen to stress, particularly as DfT decision makers were present, that any changes to electric bike legislation should not adversely affect the legislation relating to bicycle use. Helmet laws were flagged up as just one way in which legislation relating to E-bikes could potentially confuse mainstream bicycle use regulations.

It was "damaged confidence" which Darnton said was a barrier to moving forwards in a conclusion to the presentations of the day. "It’s unfortunate that in the early days of electric bike retail so many stores had bad experiences with the sector. Going forwards we must make sure the industry is well represented to the Government overseeing law changes and to the customer as we move to improve the fortunes of the market."

Zyro’s BionX brand manager, Roger Cook told BikeBiz: "I think the industry is ready for a big boost and it’s achievable if we all work together. The majority of suppliers now deliver a thorough and decent service to their customers. Those manufactured now are being future-proofed, so service issues of the past shouldn’t haunt us again."

Post meet, there was a chance for a number of brands’ electric bikes to be ridden. The general consensus of those gathered around the car park test area was that plenty had been learned from the few hours spent in the aptly named Robert Bosch Room (Bosch is gearing up to become a major market player) and that biannual industry meets could do no end of good to finally getting the electric bike on the average bike dealer’s shop floor.

In other news...

Cycling UK chief responds to Government’s plan to back motorists, calls for ‘holistic’ approach to travel

Cycling UK’s chief executive is calling on the UK Government to take a “holistic” approach …