Sandrine Cabut discusses on the Le Monde website about the benefits from electric or conventional bikes. According to a German study, conventional cyclists spend more time in the saddle and practice at a higher intensity than users of electric-assist models. What are your views?
Electric or conventional bicycle: What is best for our health?
Ten thousand steps and counting. Electric or conventional? In this column, the question obviously does not concern the choice of a four-wheeled vehicle, but the choice of a bike. This active mode of transportation has potentially significant benefits for health, the economy and the planet all at the same time, as highlighted this summer by a French study published in the International Journal of Public Health.
In 2021, 660,000 electric-assist bicycles (EABs) were sold in France, 28% more than in 2020, and they now account for a quarter of the country’s bicycle purchases. Alongside this increase in enthusiasm, the number of scientific studies is also growing. A German team from the University of Hannover is among the latest to publish their research, on October 11, in the journal BMJ Open Sport & Exercise Medicine.
Sven Haufe and colleagues fitted out 1,250 e-bike riders and 629 conventional cyclists with activity trackers, which recorded the amount of time spent on the vehicle, as well as distance traveled and heart rate, for a month. The volunteers also completed questionnaires.
The results showed that e-biker users spent less time in the saddle each week than those pedaling without assistance and that they practiced at a lower intensity. Their activity totaled around 90 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) compared with 160 minutes per week for traditional cyclists. Overall, fewer than one in four (22.5%) e-bike users met the World Health Organization’s recommended threshold of 150 minutes per week of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, compared with 35% of traditional cyclists.
The risk of accidents (studied over a period of one year) was similar in both subgroups, at least when making a crude comparison. However, more detailed analyses suggested a higher accident rate among e-biker users, especially among women.
Converting motorists into cyclists
Not surprisingly, e-bike users are slightly older on average, as well as being overweight and having more chronic diseases than regular cyclists, the researchers noted. They drew the conclusion that the expected health benefits of cycling (which, for the record, are reduced cardiovascular risks, certain cancers, diabetes and depression) are probably more significant in unassisted cyclists. However, e-bikes allow more individuals to access cycling who, according to their profile, would not usually think about using a bike.
So the question is, electric or traditional? It’s up to individual choice. Beyond regular use for small and medium trips, some people see the e-bike as a “great tool for the democratization of bicycle tourism, and the best way to convert former car drivers into future cyclists,” according to the geographer Alexandre Schiratti in his recent book Prendre la Route, Une Histoire du Voyage à Vélo (Arkhê, 260 pages, €19.90; “Take to the Road: A History of Travelling by Bike,” untranslated). The specialist in mobility and the environment also pointed out that, in 2020, 8% of itinerant cyclists used electric assistance, “a very fast-growing share.”
But that is not this fascinating book’s main source of interest. From the Laufmaschine of Baron Karl Friedrich Drais (the “draisienne,” or dandy horse) to the gravel bike (a mixture of road bike, mountain bike and cyclo-cross), Mr. Schiratti describes in detail all the inventions that led to the current models, and how cycling tourism was born and developed from the 19th century. When reading about the adventures of the pioneers of bicycle travel, such as George Pilkington Mills, Albert Laumaillé du Bignon, Thomas Stevens and Annie Londonderry, it instills just one desire: to repeat their journey. Maybe not on a penny farthing or a bike without tires, but with a modern, conventional or even electric bike.