It’s fair to say I learned two main things in trying to test out a series of commuter-type e-bikes over the past few months. One was more of a rediscovery: they’re fantastic fun. The other was a surprise: at the moment, they’re really hard to get hold of.

The coronavirus pandemic changed the UK in many ways, and one of the minor impacts was to spark an explosion of interest in e-bikes, as people sought out ways to return to work while avoiding public transport and traffic jams.

After months of back-and-forth emails with bike companies and PRs, I got hold of the four featured below. I wanted to test more models, and some cheaper ones, but it couldn’t happen.

Before I get into the details, there are three general points to make.

  • Firstly, for any newcomers to this world, let me explain what we mean here by an e-bike. Under UK laws, this means an electric-assist bike – ie, the power boost only kicks in when you start pedalling – and where the power switches off at about 15mph. Faster and more powerful electric machines exist, but cannot be ridden legally without all the legal paraphernalia needed for a moped.

  • The second point is to stress that an e-bike is still a bike, and is not cheating. Plenty of studies have shown that e-bike users often get as much life-enhancing physical activity as riders of conventional bikes, with the lower exertion often factored out by more miles ridden.

  • Finally, e-bikes can be transformative, especially for those uncertain that cycling or cycle commuting is for them, whether because of a lack of experience, or because of hills, or perhaps fitness.

Enough preamble; let’s get to the reviews.

VanMoof S3 (£1,798)

This innovative Dutch company is so convinced by the prospects for e-bike travel that it has stopped making conventional bikes altogether, though the distinctive frame design remains, with front and rear lights in the crossbar tube.

In fact, pretty much everything is built into the frame, including the battery and motor, meaning fellow cyclists at red lights might not even realise what you’re riding until you shoot into the distance with a gentle whirring noise.

At least by e-bike standards, the S3 is not hugely expensive, but the feel is very hi-tech and high-end. Rather than a clunky bolted-to-the-handlebar display, a digital readout in the crossbar gives you the speed and battery life. An associated app lets you vary the automatic gears. Even the bell is electronic, with an app-selected choice of noise.

VanMoof S3
The new VanMoof S3 Photograph: VanMoof

To ride, the S3 is genuinely fantastic. The motor power, which comes via the cranks rather than direct to a wheel, is smooth and gradual, without the sudden jolt that some older e-bikes used to give when you hit 15mph.

In fact, the bike initially felt almost unnervingly nippy, until I realised the last test rider had left the app switched to US settings, meaning the electric power stayed on up to 20mph, the legal limit there. This is actually a bit worrying, as to use the bike in the UK like this would be illegal. I’m told VanMoof now don’t allow UK users to switch modes.

If you have the budget for a VanMoof, a lot of it will come down to its quirks. For example, the fully integrated battery looks very slick. But it can’t be removed, so if, like me, you live in a flat and keep bikes in a garage without electric power, it makes the S3 slightly pointless.

Similarly, some of the techy features felt a bit solution-in-search-of-a-problem. I endlessly fiddled with the ratios for the four-speed automatic gears, but could never find a range that even approximated how I’d want to change manually. Even the two electronic bell noises were a bit too abrasive for my tastes.

But others will, and do, disagree. The VanMoof was definitely the bike that prompted the most interest and envy from neighbours and fellow riders, and if the design suits you, it is a delight to ride.

In terms of commuting practicality, the S3 comes with full mudguards and a chair guard, and VanMoof makes its own front and rear racks, with branded pannier bags to go on them.

Carrera Vengeance E electric mountain bike (£1,099)

I had hoped to try the same-priced commuter model in Halfords’ own-brand range, or a slightly cheaper folding version. But if e-bikes are in short supply, then (relatively) cheap ones are like gold dust, so I tried out the mountain bike.

Though officially designed for hills and trails, it is still quite commuter-friendly, with eyelets for mudguards and a rear rack, while the wide tyres and suspension forks laugh in the face of bumpy surfaces.

Not so long ago, cheaper e-bikes could be jerky and jolting, but the Vengeance is enormous fun, and handles with surprising nimbleness. At 23kg, it is undeniably something of a beast, but the electric motor hauls you up inclines with ease. I even tried riding it, motor-less, up one steep hill, and while I wouldn’t call it fun, it wasn’t impossible.

Carrera Vengeance E
Carrera Vengeance E men’s electric mountain bike. Photograph: PR

On picking up the bike, I had worried whether its brakes – cable-operated disc models, as against the VanMoof’s hydraulic versions – might be a bit weedy against such bulk, but they were fine.

The main journey I took was a 20-plus-mile cross-London round trip to see a friend, on a day of constantly pouring rain, and it was a great illustration of the benefits of an e-bike. Even dressed in trawlerman-style waterproofs, there was no chance of overly sweating, while the sheer bulk of the bike mitigated against skittish handling.

Guided by a phone app along a complex route of back streets and low-traffic neighbourhoods, I found it almost relaxing. Yes, I could have done the trip on my normal bike, but the chances are I wouldn’t have bothered.

Brompton Electric M2L two-speed e-bike (£2,725)

The contrast between the VanMoof and the Brompton is perhaps best exemplified by their bells. While the former gave me the choice between two highly audible if grating electronic beeps, the Brompton’s small, highly polished bell produces the equivalent of a frock-coated butler politely clearing his throat.

To continue the parallel, if the VanMoof has everything sleekly integrated, the e-Brompton is basically a standard model with a motor hub and battery pack added to the front.

This is perhaps unfair. The electrification is both neat and elegant, with the front-wheel mounting allowing the bike to completely fold in the normal Brompton way. The battery comes in an elegant bag that clips to the front, and can be removed with a click and then carried.

Brompton e-bike
Brompton’s M2L e-bike Photograph: PR

Wheel-drive e-bikes used to sometimes feel a bit clunky, but the Brompton is ultra-smooth, and hugely nippy in full-power mode (the only one I ever use for e-bikes, I have to confess), and is very manageable to ride on zero power, even with the minimalist two-gear system.

As with all Bromptons, much depends on whether you need a folding bike. One extra advantage here is that e-bikes are very stealable, and with a Brompton you can safely keep it inside, at home or in an office.

But then, of course, comes the price. Even the cheapest manual Brompton leaves minimal change from £800, but an extra £2,000 might feel a lot for that electric assist, however well engineered. However, Brompton fans tend to be loyal, so for those who can afford it, this could be a price worth paying.

Raleigh Motus Crossbar (£1,800)

If the other bikes I tried all had their quirks, or niches, perhaps the best thing you can say about the Motus is that it is gloriously ordinary – a very sensible and well-fitted commuter bike that just happens to have an electric motor.

With full mudguards, a chainguard and rack, sensible, swept-back handlebars, and even a kick stand, this is a bike for getting around town efficiently and without drama. On a conventional commuter bike, suspension forks tend to be a weighty irrelevance, but here they helped make the ride even smoother.

None of this is to say the bike is dull. Particularly if you’ve never tried one, riding an e-bike is one of the most instantly grin-inducing things you can do on two wheels, and the Motus is zippy, smooth and enormous fun, even though it is no slimline machine, weighing in at about the same as the Carrera.

Motus crossbar
The Motus crossbar. Photograph: PR

Whereas some might feel baffled by the VanMoof’s app-adjusted inner workings, the Motus is a very obviously a conventional bike, with standard derailleur gears and no-fuss hydraulic discs. The electrics are controlled via a straightforward handlebar display.

One thing I’ve not mentioned for any of the bikes is range, in part as this depends on so many factors, including what power setting you use, how much you pedal yourself, rider weight, and terrain.

But e-bikes increasingly only need to be charged every few days, even once a week, as opposed to the range-anxiety-inducing creatures of before. The Raleigh claims a standard range of 76 miles, which is more than enough for a week of commuting for most people.


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