Pedelecs: power at your feet

A pedelec – short for “pedal electric cycle” – is a hybrid bicycle which offers assistance to conventional pedal power from a low-powered electric motor. Pedelecs can be useful in hilly terrain or for those who do not have much strength in their legs. They have sold well for some time in parts of Europe, but are now becoming more popular in the UK.

Pedelecs and e-bikes: what’s the difference?

As its name implies, a pedelec’s motor provides power only while its rider is pedalling the bike. This means that pedelecs cannot travel entirely under electric control. This is similar in effect to power-assisted doors which must nevertheless be pushed. E-bikes, on the other hand, use a system similar to that found in mopeds: the rider uses a throttle or button control to travel under electric power alone with no need to pedal. Because of the greater reliance on battery power, e-bikes generally have a shorter effective range than pedelecs.

What to look for in a pedelec

Given their dual power sources, pedelecs are unsurprisingly more expensive than pedal cycles: there are a few models around for less than £500, with many mid-range pedelecs costing around £1,000. It’s therefore a good idea to take a test ride on any model that appeals before committing to buy. Important aspects to consider include:

  • Drive: Pedelecs can be driven by the front or rear wheel, or via the pedal crank. There isn’t that much difference in practice, although the weight distribution means that front-wheel drive may be a little more stable and rear-wheel drive may provide greater grip.
  • Gearing: Some pedelecs lack gears altogether; their simplicity makes them relatively cheap and suitable for riding on the flat grounds. However, in hillier areas, especially for longer rides, a geared bike would probably make a better choice.
  • Materials: Cheaper pedelecs often use zinc plating on components such as spokes and the nuts and bolts that hold the bike together. This is lightweight and looks good, but can rust easily if the pedelec is exposed to dampness. Stainless steel is more expensive, but more durable as it’s rust-free.
  • Battery: Most pedelecs use either Li-ion batteries, though a few recent models have NiMH units. Capacity is measured in watt-hours; 300 Wh is a good starting point. Look for a bike whose battery is guaranteed for 24 months; many cheap pedelecs offer only a 12-month guarantee.
  • Service: A good dealer should be able to identify and fix common problems with a pedelec. Ask the shop how long they’ve been selling pedelecs, what an average service costs and whether they keep a large range of parts in stock.

Pedelecs and the law

Current legislation restricts pedelecs to a maximum power output of 250 watts and specifies that they cannot offer power assistance at speeds of more than 15 mph (25 km/h). Pedelecs which comply with these restrictions are treated similarly to standard pedal cycles for most purposes (but see below). There is no need to pass a test, take out insurance, or pay road tax, and helmets are not compulsory.

A bike which has a motor providing more than 250 watts of power is legally classed as a moped, so licences, insurance and so on are required. Such bikes should not be referred to as pedelecs, in order to avoid confusion.

In the UK, although not in many other European countries, a person must be at least 14 years old to legally ride a pedelec on public roads or cycle paths. A pedelec must also weigh no more than 40 kg, or 60 kg if it is a tricycle or tandem.

Can pedelecs succeed in the UK?

Pedelecs have enjoyed increasing success in the European market, with total sales exceeding 850,000 in 2012 and continuing to climb. They are most popular in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, countries which share a strong commitment to the environment.

With the law surrounding pedelecs in the UK now clearer, their prospects here seem bright. Britain’s crowded roads make a small, nimble means of transportation attractive, while the booming interest in cycling in recent years should also boost the prospects for pedelecs to take off in the UK market.