A Declaration on Bicycle Assessment

You’d think assessing bicycles would be a lot easier than assessing researchers, but I’m not so sure.

eBike screenshot

Though I spend quite a bit of time as chair of the DORA steering committee pondering how best to evaluate research and researchers, this weekend I’m mainly preoccupied with rethinking my commuting options. When in 2004 we moved to our current house, a 25 min walk from the station, I used to cycle for that leg of my journey to and from work. I lasted six months. The problem was the house is high above the station.  That hill was an easy descent on the way in but a killer of a climb, even with a relatively light bike and 21 gears, on the way home.

I am now wiser, but also older. And heavier. And less fit. So I am wondering if an e-bike might allow me to get a bit more exercise without risking total collapse on that slow climb home from the station. I’m also trying to convince myself that if I got a folding bike, I could get even more exercise by cycling the last leg of my commute from Victoria Station to the Imperial College campus at South Kensington.

To that end I started looking at eBike options and soon became bewildered. There are so many! I’m not even sure what to look for. Is portability more important than rideability? How much battery power do I need? How many gears?

To cut through the morass of different options I took to Twitter to ask for advice and got a wealth of suggestions from friends and colleagues. The advantage of this approach is that the information comes from trusted sources, most of whom have first-hand experience of the bicycles they recommended.

Even so, there’s a lot of information to process. I put together a spreadsheet of ‘indicators‘ to get a better grip on the key quantitative differences between models.

eBike data table

That helped to sort out some of the decision-making: on price, for example (I can’t yet justify £3k for a Brompton, whatever the legendary design); on gears (I’m looking for more rather than fewer); and on weight (lighter, obviously).

But the choice is still not obvious. As Brompton-owner Andrew McKinley pointed out, ‘I think folding bikes fall into the “you want three things? Pick two” trap. Cheap, easy to fold, sturdy? Pick two…’. He’s not wrong.

And then there are all the qualitative questions to be answered. How portable is the folded bike? How smoothly does the electric power kick in? Do I want a front or rear wheel motor? Is the battery removable – and is that an important feature?

I think what I might be looking for is a narrative CV for eBikes, in which owners can describe there experience of these features. Of course, such judgments are subjective – and tensioned against the numbers. But that is the nature of evaluation of complex systems, research and researchers included. It’s about trying to gather the most relevant information as efficiently as you can and living with the fact that the process can never be perfect.

In the meantime, thanks to everyone who responded to my query on Twitter. I’ll be glad to hear any additional eBike assessments.

This entry was posted in Science. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A Declaration on Bicycle Assessment

  1. Henry says:

    I have had a similar problem recently – not with e-bikes, but with camper vans. So much choice! So many new and unfamiliar terms! A whole new community to get to know! The best advice I’ve received doesn’t come from online, but from friends who already have campers/motorhomes and so on, and a friendly and knowledgeable local specialist dealer. (You have just given me an idea for another blog.) So my advice would be to find a local dealer of e-bikes and ask if you can test-ride the bikes. A competent dealer should be able to explain all the features, and be there with after-sales service if things go wrong.

  2. Cath says:

    My (non-folding) electric bike is the best thing I’ve ever bought. I’m permanently 100% WFH now so I’m no longer commuting, and when I feel like a bike ride I tend to ride my non-electric for the exercise, but back when I had a very long and very hilly commute the e-bike was the best thing ever. Definitely test-ride before buying; I ended up liking the one with slightly worse reviews more than I liked the top-rated one in my price range. But don’t start your test-riding with the most expensive bike in the store!

Comments are closed.