The electric bike is everywhere it seems. Even the in-flight magazine en route to Norway’s capital city Oslo has a feature on the two-wheeled revolution that's transforming the way we look at, and ride the humble bicycle. The piece in the magazine throws up an interesting couple of facts too: 1.6 million e-bikes were sold in Europe in 2016. And, in the Netherlands, no less than one in three bikes sold last year were electric. Little wonder then that Japan’s Shimano has its main European base there.
But it isn't just the bike-friendly Netherlands that's enjoying the benefits of the e-bike revolution. Cities all over Europe are embracing them too, which is part of the reason we headed to Norway to see how a little bit of Shimano electric assistance helps to get you around a typical city. As it turns out, Oslo makes a great place to get the best from an e-bike as it feels safe, sensible and, in late September, not at all slippery. That said, torrential rain on the day of our ride did add a little extra excitement to proceedings.
Norway is currently a blossoming e-bike market. Back in 2016 sales of electric bikes in the country doubled to 40,000, and the rest of the Nordic market is following suit. The Norwegian government has helped out with a subsidy scheme of 25% per bike, which takes the edge off the hefty price tag.
That’s obviously good news for Shimano, which, along with Bosch and to a lesser extent Yamaha, remains at the forefront of developing collections of electric bike components, or groupsets as they’re known in the trade.
Central to the Oslo e-bike foray was the brand new Shimano Steps E6100 e-bike system. Shimano knows more than a thing or two about bicycle components, and has produced its own designs for two-wheeled machines for many years. In fact, next year will be its 100th anniversary in business. This new package is a different kettle of cogs however, although Steps as a product has been around for about five years or so now.
One important point to note is that Shimano doesn’t build whole bikes – rather, it produces the groupsets that can subsequently be used by numerous cycle manufacturers. The components have been carefully designed too, in order to let bicycle manufacturers produce electric models that look eye-catching, dynamic and exciting to ride.
We got to try two different bikes; a step through number with an auto hub arrangement and a model with a crossbar and derailleur gears, but both had the benefit of battery power and disc brakes. However, they were essentially ‘generic’ bikes because Shimano said they didn’t want to show an allegiance to any specific manufacturer, which is a wise move if you’re a supplier to many.
At the introductory presentation the Shimano team were keen to underline that e-bikes are evolving and moving away from their reputation for being rather unwieldy. Indeed, one of the presentation slides pointed out how a study from the Sports Science Agency found that riding an e-bike actually reduces sweating by two thirds.
At the same time, Shimano has worked hard to develop a dynamic groupset that allows you to do as much pedal-pushing as you want. The difference being you still get to exercise but with the electric assistance you arrive at your destination a little bit sooner.
The bike's light weight helps keep sweat at bay too. Shimano has gone to great lengths to trim off any surplus bulk where possible. Considering e-bikes have always attracted moans that they're too heavy and cumbersome then this is welcome news. The difference was noticeable too as we pedalled our way around the city streets, with a system weight that totals 2.88kg. That might still sound like as lot, but the 200g that have been shaved off the new system did make the bikes we were on seem really quite nimble. It was also easy enough to move them around when we were parking up too.
The battery power has been boosted with a brace of power packs to choose from with 418Wh or 504Wh variants on offer. The resulting between charges range, reckons Shimano, should see you good for around 170 or 180 kilometres, which is impressive.
Riding the bikes is more straightforward than ever thanks to the practical range of operating modes and simple shifting system. You get four options - high, normal, eco and walk. The latter offers assistance if you're basically just ambling along with the bike and it's actually more useful than you might expect.
We also like the way Shimano keeps it simple with the rider information aspect, with an app that can be downloaded to your phone and mounted to the handlebars, rather than an on-board computer (though you can mount one of those instead if you prefer).
Adding to the leisurely feel of the step-through e-bike was the Nexus Inter-5, which is an internal hub that figures out when to make gear changes. It works a treat and, if you're in need of some help or just plain lazy then the system is a must. Out and about on the roads the whole thing works to great effect and, even if you're currently limited to a top power-assisted speed of 15mph/25kmh using the battery, the feeling of propulsion provided by an e-bike is a good one.
Choose your own adventure
Moving from the step-through model to the crossbar bike, the fun factor clicked up a notch or two. This setup is the one to go for if you want the ultimate in flexibility. There’s the full set of derailleur gears, which can be controlled with tabs on the right side of the handlebar. Over on the left, there’s a small button control for selecting the electric mode you’re in the mood for.
And therein lies the magic – you can tailor your ride to suit the conditions, terrain and how enthusiastic you feel and make use of a combination of electric power and/or manual gearshifts. It’s a brilliantly innovative and highly infectious tech cocktail.
Even on an extremely wet day in Oslo the bikes were great fun. Sure, they’re still pricey but e-bikes are evolving rapidly. Armed with the Shimano Steps E6100 system and some funky new designs on the horizon e-bike manufacturers have every reason to be excited about the future. If we can get a few more buying incentives then perhaps we, as consumers, should be too.
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Rob Clymo has been a tech journalist for more years than he can actually remember, having started out in the wacky world of print magazines before discovering the power of the internet. Since he's been all-digital he has run the Innovation channel during a few years at Microsoft as well as turning out regular news, reviews, features and other content for the likes of TechRadar, TechRadar Pro, Tom's Guide, Fit&Well, Gizmodo, Shortlist, Automotive Interiors World, Automotive Testing Technology International, Future of Transportation and Electric & Hybrid Vehicle Technology International. In the rare moments he's not working he's usually out and about on one of numerous e-bikes in his collection.