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From 'Popular Mechanics', October 1911

“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.

17 thoughts on ““Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle”

  1. Anonymous / Reply December 30, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Anyone in the trade has of course seen all this before,in fact several times before. Yet again they fail to grasp what cycling is all about, no doubt they will drag a few stores in, and drag them to the bankcruptcy court just like last time.

    • carltonreid / Reply December 30, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      Yup. Short memories.

    • Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:32 pm

      I think this is really not reflecting the reality: Why has the Accell bicycle group been able to by about 12 mayour bicycle brands in the last 8 years? Very simple they have had an average profit of about 500 Euro per Pedelec and they have sold for many years now in the avergare maybe 90 000 Pedelecs a year. And the other bicycle brands have made only about 25 Euro average profit per bike they have sold. So they have been easily taken over by the Accell group with the cash cow Pedelec!

      And now in the last 6 month two mayour bicycle take overs by the car industry. The Pon group which is owning car industry in the past has bought DerbyCycle (the number one german bicycle company) and Gazelle (the number two NL bicycle company). And I expect more quite similar take overs. The muscle power only companies will get into seriouse issues and face bankcrupcy if the do not scale down in time to a niche market.

    • Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:33 pm

      I think this is really not reflecting the reality: Why has the Accell bicycle group been able to by about 12 mayour bicycle brands in the last 8 years? Very simple they have had an average profit of about 500 Euro per Pedelec and they have sold for many years now in the avergare maybe 90 000 Pedelecs a year. And the other bicycle brands have made only about 25 Euro average profit per bike they have sold. So they have been easily taken over by the Accell group with the cash cow Pedelec!

      And now in the last 6 month two mayour bicycle take overs by the car industry. The Pon group which is owning car industry in the past has bought DerbyCycle (the number one german bicycle company) and Gazelle (the number two NL bicycle company). And I expect more quite similar take overs. The muscle power only companies will get into seriouse issues and face bankcrupcy if the do not scale down in time to a niche market.

    • Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:34 pm

      I think this is really not reflecting the reality: Why has the Accell bicycle group been able to by about 12 mayour bicycle brands in the last 8 years? Very simple they have had an average profit of about 500 Euro per Pedelec and they have sold for many years now in the avergare maybe 90 000 Pedelecs a year. And the other bicycle brands have made only about 25 Euro average profit per bike they have sold. So they have been easily taken over by the Accell group with the cash cow Pedelec!

      And now in the last 6 month two mayour bicycle take overs by the car industry. The Pon group which is owning car industry in the past has bought DerbyCycle (the number one german bicycle company) and Gazelle (the number two NL bicycle company). And I expect more quite similar take overs. The muscle power only companies will get into seriouse issues and face bankcrupcy if the do not scale down in time to a niche market.

  2. Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 6:02 am

    Hi Carlton, Cool that you actually have read through the documentsof the LEV Conference. And I love your article with some nice historical connections. I know these history as well very well and still it is something different today. Jules Verne was as well spotted on when he talked about a rocket train to the moon. And he was wrong that we would go by train to the moon but what has happend is that today our life is based on satelite communication. I agree with you that the tendency of Ed and Annick to ask for more and more power is not the real future. I am a bicycle enthisiast and see in the clever way of enhanced muscle power a bright future. I fully agree that when adding a power on demand throttle this will mean that you drop the pedals next and become a pure motorcycle. This will not replace the bicycle. But I see the muscle motor as a kind of combustion enginge which by electronic controll and agumentation could get a much higher eficciency like the hybrid car has managed it for our fellow metal counterparts quite successfully. I have published in the latest ExtraEnergy magazine a proposal for future laws opposing to the current trend in the EU. Here I ask again for a combination of motor assist allowance in relationship to the muscle power input and a corelation between max assist speed supported by the electric enhancer and the muscle power input which is a new item. So I fully agree that the muscle power propelled twowheeler will never go away – I just see that electronic will get into it all over like it has done it in so many other lovely mechanical products and hase brought them to a new gloriouse age due to these added ease of usage. But lets speak about this 10 years down the road – I believe that reality will have prooven my version of this theory – lets see! Best regards, Hannes Neupert

    • carltonreid / Reply January 6, 2012 at 8:01 am

      Thanks for responding to the article, Hannes. I agree about ‘enhanced muscle power having a bright future’ and have had many conversations with Ed Benjamin about this point. Where we perhaps will have to agree to disagree is pedal power becoming passé: it’s not just enthusiasts who want to propel themselves by human power alone, many, many people want to tax their muscles when riding a bike, and will continue to do so.

      Bicycles are simple machines yet incredibly efficient. I believe e-bikes are a third category of product, in between pedal-power bicycles and motorbikes. I, too, have my concerns with the lobbying of ETRA (Ed and Annick) and these concerns are shared by CTC, Bicycle Association of GB, Sustrans, Colibi and Coliped, and the European Cyclists’ Federation.

      Is the latest issue of ExtraEnergy online? I’d like to see it.

      • Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 8:19 am

        Here is the link to the latest magazine – sorry only in german – have not had the money for e english translation:

        http://extraenergy.org/main.php?language=de&category=&subcateg=&id=15334

        • carltonreid / Reply January 6, 2012 at 10:45 am

          Agreed. Both have their uses and their benefits. The cycle orgs are worried that the benefits that pedal cycles have now may be reduced in the future if more powerful e-bikes seek the same benefits but then cause problems on, say, bike paths.

        • carltonreid / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:07 am

          Thanks for the link. I see you also use Issuu.com. Great platform.

          This is the direct link to the latest issue: http://issuu.com/extraenergy/docs/ee-magazin4

          It’s a great looking magazine, you really ought to get it published in English, too. I’m sure it would do very well.

          On what page is your piece about ETRA’s lobbing?

          • Hannes Neupert / January 6, 2012 at 11:05 pm

            On Page 57 you can find the proposal for a law which actually will make only electric agumenting of muscle power fun to ride. With this proposal ExtraEnergy believes that it will be possible to realy encourage more people to have mild exercise and bicycle fun on a daily base. We will publish this summarized soon in a handbook of the EU and the IEA – International Energy Agency – so it will become available as well in english.

          • carltonreid / January 6, 2012 at 11:19 pm

            Thanks, Hannes

            Has ExtraEnergy ever been a member of ETRA?

            How do you think ETRA has been successful at its change-the-rules lobbying when so many European bicycle organizations are opposed to the rule changes?

      • Hannes Neupert / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:25 pm

        Since I am a Industrial designer form my education one of my favorite items is to study human interaction with machines and technologies. The bicycle is one of the most interresting machine ever invented by the human and one of the most efficient one. But still I am born and grow up in a very hilly city – Stuttgart – mostly known as the hometwon of silly sports cars called Porsche and quiete big cars with a star in the fornt. In this city the modal split of bicycle transportation was usually about 2 % in a stable position. I have spend my youth there in the ADFC (the local organization of the ECF in germany) to promote cycling – now I have to accept that this was a quite unsuccessfull approach to get people out of their cars since pushing up a bicycle at a 12 % grade street as quite common at the hills of Stuttgart with 300 m height difference between downtown and many residential areas – this is not fun at all. In 2007 we organized a race of some politicans including the Mayor of Stuttgart on Pedelecs against professional cycle riders on the original 2007 Bicylce World Master series track:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h3LG-jZXbi4

        This has changed the point of few very much for the participants and has resulted in the target of 20% Pedelec modal split for the city of Stuttgart.

        Pedelecs have the power to get people out of their cars and on the pedals due to two simple added functions: they remove the hills and they remove the inner resistance to use a bicycle (this is true for people who are out of cycling for many years).

        And electronic functions will give us the ability to make a much better use of our own combustion engine, increase the efficiency and have more fun. That is why I believe that the purely mechanical bicycle will disapear into niche markets.

        Just remember every professional photographer smiling about digital cameras 15 years ago. Today every news paper picture was a digital one – there are simply not the laboratories left which are able to develope a chemical film within some minutes as 15 years ago it was a standard service for every press photographer.

        But Including me every photographer has still his old beloved film camera in a drawer since it is a important memory to the old times. It will be similar with mechanical bicycles when many improvements will surface and we get adicted to it which makes pedaling more fun to everyone. My target is to get the left 98 % of the population not using the bicycle on to a bicycle.

  3. Bubblefish / Reply January 6, 2012 at 9:18 am

    As a major user of both types of bicycle, electric and pedal, both used to cover some considerable weekly distance, I feel there is a place for both, and would resist changes to the regulations or to the distribution for pedelec. Pedelec is brilliant for commuting and shopping. The best improvements would be overall distance achieveable and iimprovements to the braking system. The rest is like a standard bike, except that I can comfortably communte 40 miles a day even as I move through middle age, and more importantly after having had several major knee operations which restrict my ordinary cycling to a limit of around 10 miles. I love my ordinary bike, love riding it and would never stop using it, but electric opens a world of being able to go distances with the freedom of a bike (parks and open spaces, quiet roads, cycle paths). I would not get a elec moped, the only alternative would be car.

    • carltonreid / Reply January 6, 2012 at 11:15 am

      Sorry, the reply to Hannes, above, should have gone to you…
      ++++

      Agreed. Both have their uses and their benefits. The cycle orgs are worried that the benefits that pedal cycles have now may be reduced in the future if more powerful e-bikes seek the same benefits but then cause problems on, say, bike paths.

  4. Andrew / Reply February 12, 2012 at 10:25 am

    The green aspect is strongly weighted towards the electric bicycle. In terms of a lifecycle analysis, a food powered bicycle loses out to an electric bicycle with a recyclable Lithium based battery.

    If we are serious about moving away from oil (which we will have to do sooner or later), we have to accept an alternative. Electric bikes are the most efficient alternative. The popularity of electric bicycles literally means more bums on bikes and if you are against that, well, maybe you don’t like bikes that much after all.

    Sport/recreational cycling has thrived despite commuting on bicycles becoming unpopular and there is no reason to think that this popularity won’t continue.

  5. Webbing Slings / Reply May 9, 2012 at 5:08 am

    Normally, the job is handled by a project manager, and supervised by a progression manager, design expert, progression expert or project developer.

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