I know that look, that mix of curiosity and contempt. I know it because I've given it out myself. I expected it from cyclists and looked forward to it in a perverse kind of way, but coming from a motorcyclist it took me by surprise.
Neither fish nor fowl, electric bikes do not fit with any of the accepted commuting tribes, at least in the UK. Their riders are not slimline roadies, rugged mountain bikers, besuited Moulton rail commuters, maniac single-speed couriers, panier-lugging tourers or hybrid bike utilitarians. Neither are they motorcyclists, their powered assistance being restricted by law up to a mere 15.5 mph, and yet even that is still seen by some (guilty, you honour) as cheating. E-bikers are a minority tribe that has yet to find its place in the established traffic light hierarchy, albeit one whose numbers are growing rapidly.
Seeing ‘the look' I made a point of being first away from the lights, stepping hard on the pedals and thumbing the handlebar throttle. Of course, the motorbike passed me in a second or two with the faster roadies not far behind. A few others came past a little later, but it seemed to me that they were doing so just to make a point.
The two-week test ride on the Metro folding e-bike from UK firm Volt Bikes was my first experience on an electric bike and I wasn't too sure what to expect. First impressions? It's really short. I usually commute to work on a road bike with drop handlebars and as a folder the Volt's geometry was always going to be rather different, but even for a folding bike the reach is very close. It felt as though my hands were in my armpits and removing a hand from the bars to signal induced a scary wobble until I got used to it.
It felt heavy too. At 22kg including the battery it weighs about the same as a "Boris bike", for those familiar with the capital's hire cycles. That's about average for a folding e-bike with a 50-mile range but twice the weight of my usual ride. On the other hand, the Metro felt immediately comfortable in a couch-like way with its wide tyres, plush saddle and suspension seat post and forks.
The bike is pedal assisted, meaning you need to be turning the cranks for the motor to kick in, then with a muted hum that rises to the buzzing of distant wasps depending on the level of assistance selected, you're off. As you pedal the 250W Bafung hub motor takes you smoothly up to your maximum assisted speed, about 5 mph in level one to 15.5 mph in level four (I was test riding last year's model; Volt says the current version has five levels.) Levels are selected using buttons on the bar-mounted LCD control panel, which also serves to indicate speed, distance and battery life. Stop pedalling and the power cuts out immediately, so it never feels out of control.
As well as the pedal assistance there's also a handlebar-mounted "thumb throttle" which allows the rider to power away without needing to pedal - handy for getting away from a junction, pootling around in traffic or when you need to walk the bike up a footbridge ramp.
To be honest I never really used assistance levels one to three. In heavy traffic I relied on leg power (there are eight standard derailleur gears) with the thumb throttle providing an extra boost where necessary. Once the road opened up a bit I'd put it straight into level four to enjoy the sensation of going far faster than my minimal input deserved.
Up and away
For its first outing I used the Volt for my usual 16-mile commute home from central London. The short wheelbase means the Metro is pretty nimble in the stop-start city traffic and the handlebars, while wide enough for stability, are sufficiently narrow to let you squeeze between queues of vehicle. It handled the congested streets just fine once I'd learned not to try to ride it like a road bike, but I confess to being slightly underwhelmed; it didn't quite have the zing I'd anticipated. Then came the hills.
Towards the end of the journey the landscape begins to roll. The hills aren't huge but they're enough to knock the air out of your lungs. They're not fun hills either, being marred by traffic pinch points, potholed surfaces and blind junctions, meaning you can never really get any momentum going. Some days I really hate those hills.
This is where the Volt really comes into its own. It loves the hills, eating up the rutted road surfaces and carrying you effortlessly up and away from the congestion, so effortlessly that I had to stop myself from laughing like a loon. For me it was an epiphany.
Since then I have grown attached to the Volt Metro. I've taken it to 30mph and found it to be remarkably stable considering the short wheelbase. It has commuted on the train (it folds neatly into a package not much larger than a standard 20-inch wheel folder and the upper frame loop makes its not inconsiderable mass easy to carry on and off) and been in the back of the car.
I have ridden it into work a number of times without feeling the need to squeeze into lycra (surely a blessing for everyone) arriving refreshed and fragrant(ish). Not having to put in so much physical effort also leaves the brain with more resources to daydream and think about the day ahead.
The Metro is powered by a 36V Panasonic lithium-ion battery, which the
company says provides a range of about 50 miles fully charged, which seems about right from my test ride experience. This range is achieved with only a few pence worth of electricity (Volt claims 5p for a full charge), which considering the effort saved is pretty remarkable. The battery, which is removed for charging, locks to the frame with a dedicated key to deter theft.
The 6061 T6 aluminium frame looks and feels solid and well made. The paintjob is tough, the mudguards and panier rack well specced and of good quality, as are the independently powered Dutch Spaninga front and rear lights and folding pedals. Meanwhile the puncture-resistant Kenda tyres should see you rolling on for many a maintenance-free mile.
The font brake is a Tektro disc affair and notably more powerful than the rear V-brake. While both feel solid that is something that could be improved, but Volt says it is working on a dual disc version. Likewise the Shimano Acera gears feel a little low-end for what is quite an expensive bike in real terms.
I must say I never got used to the bolt-upright riding position. One obvious improvement would be an adjustable stem to extend the reach without hurting the foldability.
Pricewise, at £1,250 the Volt Metro is not the cheapest e-folder out there but it's still at the budget end of the spectrum. At the other end, for example, you'll find the Gocycle G3 which will set you back £3,600.
So would I buy one? As much fun as I've had over the last two weeks I'd have to say no - or at least not yet. London is reasonably flat and my legs have a few more years in them yet, touch wood, and if I were to go for an e-bike it probably wouldn't be a folder. Having said that, if I lived in a really hilly city like Sheffield or Swansea I would have no qualms at all in dropping my allegiances to leg power and joining the e-bike tribe.
A solid and well-engineered folding e-bike at a reasonable price with enough character to convert the naysayers.
Pros: Good quality frame, suspension, folds down small, comfortable, stable, easy to use.
Cons: Upright riding position not to all tastes.