E for Environment – Are E-Bikes Green Technology?

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Antony addresses the questions of whether e-bikes are green technology, or an environmental red herring.

A few weeks back I found myself writing a response to an article in the Times newspaper. Someone there had caught wind of the fact that you can now buy a mountain bike with an integrated electric motor, and decided that this was going to bring about the destruction of the British countryside. I said it was a very silly article, and the responses in internet-land were pretty much in universal agreement. However there were also some commenters out there who voiced concerns over the growth of e-bikes on environmental grounds. Taking a low-impact activity like cycling, and adding batteries, motors and electronics into the mix – that can’t be good for the planet, surely?

My disclaimer

Before we go any further, a bit of a disclaimer is required. There’s an assumption that if you work in the cycling media, you immediately lose your objectivity, as you have to stay matey with the bike industry and dutifully promote whatever they’ve decided to inflict on the unsuspecting public this year. This is not the case here. I haven’t had my palm crossed with free T-shirts or press trips. I don’t own an e-bike. And I’ve never been given one to test (as an occasional freelance contributor to this website, I’m way too far down the pecking order for that).

sram e-mtb bosch drivetrain environment green technology
Finding pictures for this article was the closest I’ve got to riding a high-end e-MTB.

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Antony de Heveningham

Singletrack Contributor

Antony was a latecomer to the joys of riding off-road, and he’s continued to be a late adopter of many of his favourite things, including full suspension, dropper posts, 29ers, and adult responsibility. At some point he decided to compensate for his lack of natural riding talent by organising maintenance days on his local trails. This led, inadvertently, to writing for Singletrack, after one of his online rants about lazy, spoilt mountain bikers who never fix trails was spotted and reprinted on this website during a particularly slow news week.

Now based just up the road from the magazine in West Yorkshire, he’s expanded his remit to include reviews and features as well as rants. He’s also moved on from filling holes in the woods to campaigning for changes to the UK’s antiquated land access laws, and probing the relationship between mountain biking and the places we ride.

He’s a firm believer in bringing mountain biking to the people, whether that’s through affordable bikes, accessible trails, enabling technology, or supportive networks. He’s also studied sustainable transport, and will happily explain to anyone who’ll listen why the UK is a terrible place for everyday utility cycling, even though it shouldn’t be.

If that all sounds a bit worthy, he’s also happy to share tales of rides gone awry, or delicate bike parts burst asunder by ham-fisted maintenance. Because ultimately, there are enough talented professionals in mountain bike journalism, and it needs more rank amateurs.

Comments (24)

    Good article, although I wouldn’t call it a “green off”, none motorised bikes still have a huge carbon footprint due to the energy used in order to create one, carbon manufacture, Steel, Aluminium etc, they are all the product of mass energy to achieve the end result, as for e-bike batteries, just how does the industry intend on re-cycling those in the future, I would argue that some sort of KERS {kinetic energy recovery system} would be the way forward.

    Ahhh… Re-cycling in bike industry (and in general)… That ‘ole chestnut…

    Recently I started to be much more skeptical about various companies and industries claims of re-cycling schemes, programs and per cents.
    You only need to scroll some major new portals to whisk increased number of cases when so called recyclable material sent to some developing country for processing turned up to be pile of contaminated, utterly useless crap in the best case scenario or outright hazardous waste including medical stuff in the worst.
    That makes you think a bit…
    Cheers!
    I.

    I’ve long pointed out that battery manufacturing is a dIrty DIRTY business. That’s where the damage to the environment happens.

    As far as ebike batteries, they’re 50 times (200 times maybe) larger than that in my phone or watch. So they are SO much more polluting.

    Now if ebikes replaced cars then great. Net improvement.
    But they don’t. As leadt as far as MTBs are concerned.
    They’re virtually all bought IN ADDITION to a regular mtb. And are transported by car or van. So a lose-lose-lose.

    Local trails redeveloping to replace foreign jaunts ? Never. It’s not happened in the past 40 years, the addition of a battery won’t make it happen.

    @robertajobb, do you have any evidence to back up your assertion that e-MTBs are all driven to the start of a ride, or that e-bike owners fly to ride just as much as regular mountain bikers?

    If not, it sounds a lot like you’re just constructing a narrative to justify your distaste of someone else’s preferred form of recreation.

    e-bikes are driven about in cars/vans – this is the UK. Go to a trail centre and see. Not everyone has decent trails within an (e-)bikable distance and most won’t have ever – there is no where to build them in most locations. We also don’t have any Alps or similar mountains so owning one won’t stop people going on foreign holidays.

    No mention of the other aspect of the environmental impact: longer rides, getting up climbs impossible on a normal bike, more areas accessible by less fit riders etc etc all = more wear/erosion??

      @Mad Pierre – again, that’s a hypothesis, not an observation.

      I mentioned the erosion issue in the previous article. There’s limited evidence at the moment, but a fairly rigorous study by IMBA has concluded that type approved e-MTBs don’t cause significant additional erosion compared to regular mountain bikes. https://www.bikeforums.net/mountain-biking/1134479-imba-report-effect-e-bikes-trails.html

        What was hypothesis? The first part was an observation. The second part was a question.

          I have friends with eBikes. I have ridden and enjoyed them myself. They are driven to good riding locations in vans by my friends same as we have to for our normal bikes. The same friends still get on planes with their non e bikes and jet all over the world to ride. That make it a clearer observation?

            So we’re firmly in the realm of anecdotal evidence then. Jolly good.

      Is it that unbelievable? Just go to any trail center, Cannock chase is a prime example. They’re transported around in cars and vans like any regular mountain bike.

        “Anecdotal evidence” – you know this is an online forum, not a court of law right?

          Stupegg, we know that most people who ride at trail centres drive there. What that doesn’t tell us is whether people who buy e-bikes will mostly load them on the back of a car and drive to a trail centre, or whether they’ll do more riding locally.

    On a different note I can see appeal of local-ish riding thanks to e-biking.

    I wouldn’t mind whizzing through Rotherham, Sheff all way up to let’s say Hope or Castletone on e-bike only to drop unnecessary weight of motor and battery on some sort of charging/secure storage station, then going for a ride only to collect my power-kit from the station at the end and cruise effortlessly back home.

    That would of course require high level of modular construction and integration. But that might just work fine for me…
    Cheers!
    I.

    “Now if ebikes replaced cars then great. Net improvement.
    But they don’t. As leadt as far as MTBs are concerned.
    They’re virtually all bought IN ADDITION to a regular mtb. And are transported by car or van. So a lose-lose-lose.”

    This is wrong.
    I have information from one of the biggest ebike manufacturers in Europe that the majority of their eMTB sales are to riders for who their eMTB is their only bike and in many cases their first bike. eMTB sales to existing riders is of course a significant market but to say the majority of eMTB sales are to existing MTB owners is far from accurate.

    The manufacturer I spoke to have gone from a sales proportion of 20% eMTB 80% MTB sales three years ago to 80% eMTB 20% MTB this year.

      Enough with your evidence-based arguments! Where’s the fun in *that*?

      I’m sorry, I don’t believe this.

      “I have information from one of the biggest ebike manufacturers in Europe that the majority of their eMTB sales are to riders for who their eMTB is their only bike and in many cases their first bike.”

      How do they even obtain that information? I’ve never been asked if this is my only bike nor my first bike and I’ve bought 9 mountain bikes over the last 13 years (and I’ve never bought from the same place).

      Also, How many is “many”? Is that most of? The majority again? Can’t draw anything from this, but if I assume majority, they’d be seeing far better growth than the rest of the bike market. Conveniently vague i say.

      I’d love to see some valid data for that. Can you get said manufacturer to publish that ? As it would be a really positive piece of pro-biking data.

      Maybe our mainland European friends do do that and just run and e-mtb.

      But I just don’t believe it for the UK.

      Near every one I see, and when I talk to folks who have them (I’m from the North so we do talk to strangers out in the butt end of nowhere!) , they have been transported by van or car, or are an additional toy on top of the proper bikes.
      So far I have met a total of 1 person once who had ridden their e-mtb from home into the hills (that was on Houndkirk Moor and the lady lived about 8-10 miles away so could ride from home)

      So… let’s see the valid data (e-mtb not commuter e-bikes in cities) to prove me wrong.

        There’s not much data out there on how people use e-MTBs – certainly not from a carbon emisisons perspective. But a customer survey from a manufacturer almost certainly involves a bigger sample size than one person chatting to the odd e-bike user on a ride. Worth noting that this survey probably includes the UK too, unless you’re aware of any e-bike manufacturers that only sell in mainland Europe, yet are still chatting with UK journalists?

        I still don’t see how anyone can maintain that e-MTBs won’t have an effect on riding patterns. If you’ve spent £4k on an e-bike with a range of 60 miles, would you only use it for riding 8-mile loops at a trail centre? The like of EMBN don’t think so.

        To draw another comparison, when mobile phones came out, and everyone had a device in their pocket that could send an email, did you go around vociferously asserting that people would still write letters?

    Let’s not even think about loading the grid up with everyone charging cars and bikes now. How long before the grid cannot deal with that demand?

      The energy needed to charge up an e-bike is tiny – roughly the equivalent of running a tumble dryer for 5 minutes. The biggest energy guzzlers in your home won’t be anything battery-powered.

    @Mr Agreeable – “(well, remove the battery, anyway)… ”

    That is nothing special. Few other bikes got removable power packs and covers in that place.

    Battery AND MOTOR, that would be something..

    Cheers!
    I.

      @IvanMTB Lapierre E-Zesty has the Fazua Motor and Battery, both units can be completely removed from the bike enabling you to ride the bike as you would a conventional MTB.

    That is pretty good.

    Probably not yet simple plug’n’play with single move, but looks pretty promising 🙂

    Cheers!
    I.

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