If an E-Bike Rides in a Forest... It Can Be Unexpectedly Fabulous!
Well, my friends: It has happened. As a flock of pigs makes its way over a frozen infernal landscape, I submit to you this account of my unexpected weekend adventure. The excuse I shall use, is that it all began with a car. You see, we were heading home from a long trip. And at some point I must have begun to make that barely audible howling noise which my Companion has come to recognise as "too much time in a motorised vehicle; meltdown imminent." Luckily, we were approaching the Glenveagh National Park at the time, and so a unanimous deciduous was made to stop and take a walk though its majestic lands before continuing home. Just as we pulled into the car park we noticed a herd of bicycles spread out fetchingly beside a van that seemed to be promoting their hire. Confirming this impression was the helpful sign: GrassRoutes E-Bikes. E-bikes! Oh boy. We strolled over to have a look at them - not intending to ride them at all, mind you; just curious about the construction and weight. But one thing led to another. And long story short: I have finally tried a bicycle with electric assist.
To provide some background: I would categorise my attitude toward e-bikes as disinterested. I have never been "against" them as some cycling purists are. But I do consider e-bikes to be a different category of machine from ordinary bicycles. And it is ordinary bicycles that interest me. Hence: no e-bikes for me, and (usually) no e-bike content on Lovely Bicycle. That said, I have nonetheless been meaning to try one some day - if only to experience it for myself. It was only a matter of the right circumstances coming together. And now here we were, in a beautiful forest with undulating terrain and no bicycles of our own. Why not explore the place on a couple of e-bikes? And so we did.
So, what sort of creature do we have here exactly? The machine before you is a Kalkhoff Agattu: An upright, all-terrain, fully equipped step-through bicycle with an 8-speed internally geared hub and an Inpulse Drive e-assist system (in case it doesn't jump out at you visually, the battery is behind the seat tube).
The Agattu is available both in ordinary and e-assist versions. It is a versatile model that incorporates both mountain bike and city bike elements, with features that include: an aluminium drop-frame with ultra-low stepover, suspension fork, fat tyres, swept-back handlebars, integrated dynamo lighting, fenders and rear rack. A range of gearing options and extras are available for both the e-assist and ordinary versions, including a belt drive option.
Like all Kalkhoff bicycles, the Agattu e-bike is manufactured in Germany, at the Derby Cycle factory in Cloppenburg. For those unfamiliar with Kalkhoff Cycles, this brand has existed since 1919, producing transport and touring bicycles. You can still find Kalkhoffs from various eras throughout Europe today, ranging from fancy pre-WWII roadsters to practical '80s trekking bikes, and to what you see on their website today. In 1989 Kalkhoff was acquired by Derby Cycle, with little impact on production methods.
Kalkhoff/ Derby began producing e-bikes in 2007, quickly acquiring an excellent reputation in this niche of the industry. The bicycle I rode came equipped with their proprietary Inpulse system, of which there are now several versions. The version here has about a 100km (60 mile) range, before the battery needs recharging.
A control mechanism mounted to the left handlebar allows the rider to regulate the e-assist's power -from low, to medium, to high.
On the right handlebar is an ordinary twist-style 8-speed gear shifter for changing speeds.
The experience of getting on the Agattu e-bike was no different from that of a regular utility bicycle. The upright position and low drop-frame make it welcoming to hop and and ride in ordinary clothing. To start with, I set the e-assist power on medium and set off.
I felt the e-assist "kick in" as soon as I pushed off to begin riding. And I mean this literally - as the sensation is like that of a little kick to the pedals on the rider's behalf - making the bicycle start from a stop with a slight jolt. By no means an unpleasant or disbalancing sensation, it is nonetheless distinctly felt when pushing off from a stop.
One the e-bike got going (which was more or less instantaneous) it felt like any other comfy and reasonably zippy upright bicycle. I was rolling along the unpaved forest trail nicely, but I was definitely pedaling with no sense of the e-assist helping me along - until I tried to put the proverbial hammer down and quickly accelerate. At this point, the e-assist again kicked in (more smoothly this time than from a dead start) and helped me - so that the acceleration I wanted took place, but without the power I'd expected to apply in order to make it happen.
The e-assist worked in the same way when applying power in a headwind, as well as when going up inclines. Whichever gear I'd be in, pushing myself up a hill (or against the wind) in that gear took less effort than it normally would.
As far as I can make out, the e-assist function on bikes with the Inpulse system is not engaged continuously, but kicks in when power is applied beyond a certain threshold. So the rider is always putting in some effort when pedaling, but never too much effort. And, of course, you can regulate the effort threshold at which the e-assist kicks in, by adjusting the power setting and the gear you are in. Switching between the low, medium and high settings, I could feel the difference distinctly.
Considering the unpaved forest trails - which got rough and twisty at times in the off the beaten path areas we wandered into - being helped up the loose, steep stretches was a particularly cool sensation. Nevertheless, I never felt as if I wasn't doing any work. As the GrassRoutes organisation that hires out the e-bikes puts it:
Effort is still required - but not nearly as much. Steep hills become moderate and easily managed, moderate hills feel like gentle slopes and gentle slopes barely exist. The miles clock up without you even noticing.
This proved to be very true in our case, as we'd ended up venturing way further out on these bikes than we had intended, touring nearly the entire park in the sort of relaxed and leisurely manner that would not have been possible on ordinary bicycles.
What I mean is, that while we certainly could have handled the terrain on non-e bikes, the combination of the very relaxed sitting position and stroll-level effort was attainable thanks to the e-assist specifically. On an ordinary bicycle it would have been a manageable, but yet a different type of ride.
It was especially telling, I thought, that even my monstrously athletic companion found the Kalkhoff e-bike useful and enjoyable in that sense. In fact, he was absolutely delighted to be riding it and couldn't say enough good things about it. For exploring and taking photos on challenging terrain without it turning into a fitness ride, he feels an e-bike could be the right tool for the job - even for those who don't "need" the assist. He'd certainly rent it again himself, without a shred of embarrassment. And for couples and groups with disparate abilities, he feels it is an absolutely ideal equalising tool.
We also both felt that, e-assist aside, the Kalkhoff Agattu in itself was an impressively comfortable and well-handling bicycle for relaxed forest trail riding. Part of the Kalkhoff "Active" range, the geometry and construction seem to combine MTB and utility bike elements in just the right way to get the best of both worlds (as opposed to the other way around, as often happens with this category of bicycle). We'd be curious to try the non-e version.
As for the e-bike, I must admit that I enjoyed the experience far, far more than I expected to. Especially in the forest setting, the combination of the Agattu's handling, smooth ride, and the e-assist was an absolute blast. Of course, to what extent this has to do with the specific Kalkhoff e-bike I tried, as opposed to e-bikes in general, I cannot say. There are lots of different e-assist systems on the market at this point. And you will forgive me, but unfortunately I do not plan to go out and test a variety of them just to answer that question! Overall, I remain uninterested in e-bikes as a category. But more than ever, I acknowledge their usefulness. And I know that they can be a lot of fun! I may even rent one myself again under the right circumstances.
In fact, I see pretty big potential for e-bikes in rentals specifically. People who do not normally cycle a lot but may want to rent bikes on holiday would find the e-assist function especially helpful. And with the rental company taking care of things like maintenance and battery change, using an e-bike would be a hassle-free process. It makes a lot of sense.
As far as private ownership? In theory it can certainly make sense, for those who live in hilly areas and want to cycle for transportation without having to put in heroic efforts each and every time - particularly with heavy cargo, or children on board. Keep in mind, however, that the e-bike version of the Kalkhoff Agattu weighs 60lb and costs over 2,700€ (that's roughy $3,000 or £2,000 at today's rates). For comparison, the non-e assist version of the same model, weighs 40lb and costs aroud 600€. Considering those figures, I am not sure how many people will find it worthwhile to flat-out purchase this e-bike, wonderful riding as it is. The cost is high. And the weight might present a problem for pushing the bike should the battery run out, as well as for taking the bike along on holiday either attached to or inside an ordinary motor vehicle. On a budget of $3,000, I personally would find it more worthwhile to build up a comfy, compact, lightweight upright-ish bike with super-low gearing instead. And I could still always rent an e-bike if the situation called for it. Small scale companies such as GrassRoutes even rent them out overnight, as well as to groups for all sorts of trips and adventures at very reasonable prices.
And whether on a rental or your own bicycle, should you ever find yourself planning a trip to Ireland, a visit to Glenveagh National Park in County Donegal is a must. It is truly a beautiful, peaceful, magical place like no other.
With thanks to GrassRoutes and Kalkhoff for the opportunity to try this e-bike and for answering my questions. Full picture set can be found here.