The bicycle has really come on in the last few years. For the first century that followed its invention, advances in bike tech were slow and modest. A better tyre. A lighter frame. Gears. Exotic handlebar shapes. Metallic paint. The word "Grifter." Someone had the idea of putting a bell on and that idea caught on and so forth.
Nowadays, though, bikes have quantum-leaped forward in concept and become complicated enough to need charging. They tell you how long they can go for before they run out. They are usually very wrong about that, but still. They try to help and even do some of the pedalling work now. The gears are so clever you can't see them or even imagine how they work. Operating these sci-fi new bikes requires a manual and they have entire screens dedicated to settings.
Or at least they do if you decide you're so into bicycling and want everyone to know about it that you can sign off the investing of three thousand pounds in the Volt Axis; the ebike specialist's newest and most technologically advanced two-wheeled transportation solution for the man or woman who already has most things.
It's a folding electric bike with screen, for the commuter who wants to get about town without changing out of sweaty trousers at his or her destination, using the standard ebike assisted pedalling system to add some extra push to each of your own pedal strokes.
It doesn't come with a throttle, as ebike rules have marginalised such choices. What the Volt's assistance modes do is help you turn the pedals and therefore make riding vastly easier, like there's a massive named storm of a tailwind behind you, or as if you're a toddler and dad's huge hand is pushing you along.
The varying levels of assist put power in to boost your pushes via the Shimano Steps motor attached to the crank, until you reach around 16mph, with the maximum assist level empowering even modestly-thighed riders to smash up hills at speeds that would have Chris Froome reaching for his inhaler.
Max assist gets you pulling away from a standstill with massively enjoyable levels of acceleration, with the small-ish wheels and carbon belt drive getting the 250W motor's power to the wheels quickly and effectively. It is a slightly silly little bike, but it is great fun. It's one of the few things in life that could bring a smile to the faces of both Jeremies Corbyn and Clarkson.
And it's not only the pedal turns that benefit from being powered. The Axis comes with an electrically controlled Alfine Di2 gear shifting system – with the cogs hidden from view inside the rear axle hub – that's so posh and welcoming of the amateur cyclist that it even has an automatic gear change option.
Activate this and it changes down for you when the bike comes to a standstill, then changes up again as you pull away and accelerate. While this is quite the selling point on paper and you can alter the aggressiveness of the changing to suit your riding style, it's fairly irritating to use in real life. Gear changes rob you of momentum even when there's an electric motor helping whizz you along, and with small wheels and relatively compact gears, there's a lot of changing to be done.
People tend to ride with bikes left in one gear, don't they? It gets a bit boring pulling away in fourth, then two seconds later switching to fifth, then sixth, then seventh and so on. This full auto mode can be switched off, mind, although with the Shimano digital shifters presumably adding hundreds to the base cost of the Axis, that's ruining the point of it a little. A cheaper, non-electric geared model would be a better choice, but that's not on offer. It's all electric or nothing.
The brakes are full manual old fashioned friction disc options, albeit made additionally modern and complicated by opting for the hydraulic system. Hydraulic brakes are great until they go wrong, and you end up in a weird quasi-medical world of valves, fluid and syringes. You do get incredible braking power here in return, though; the Shimano disc brakes stop the Axis so quickly that your brain's still telling your fingers to bend when you've already stopped.
On the art and activity of electric assisted bicycling
Every ebike review has to have a section where the author justifies the activity, so here you go.
Yes, riding an electric bike is exercise. You can still put in MAX EFFORT on an electric bike and get a good workout. The only difference is, on a conventional bike your max effort might see you going up a hill at 8mph – on an ebike you can go up that same hill at 15mph. So it's max effort for less time, but still perfectly possible to fully knacker yourself out if you so wish.
What's important is how moderating your effort by letting the bike do more work is a new strategy in riding. In the winter, you want to wear coats and hats and gloves and more pairs of socks than the manufacturer recommends. On a normal, non-electric, legacy bike, you're then sweating like an inappropriate metaphor at the top of the first hill.
Not so on an ebike, where you can turn up the assist, put in a bit less effort, and not get so sweaty. Yes, that's less of a workout, but it means going out on your bike when you might've not bothered otherwise.
Another key thing about electric bikes is how they negate the weather. If it is dreich, a scunner, blowing a hoolie or whatever your regional term is for a terrible day, the motor makes going out more bearable. Headwind is not a problem when you have assistance, therefore you ride more, on days when you'd drive, when the most exercise you'd put in is hinging your ankle on the car's acceleration and brake pedals. Or you'd stay at home, where the only exercise you'd get would be repeatedly lifting your arm to put nibbles in your mouth.
Similarly, in the heat of the summer, your businessman, in his suit, can put in less effort cycling through town and may arrive at his important meeting not dripping like a Solero. This is not a paid advert for electric bikes, you understand, and I had to give this one back, but I tell you, they do give you more choices and make you ride more.
However, there are some universal downsides to electric bike ownership. There's several kilos of battery. A hefty motor too, and thicker framework and chunkier wheels to carry the load. You do not want to have to drag this up to a third floor flat, or, worse, run out of battery and have to ride it home unaided on one of the aforementioned terrible days to be out on a bike. Then you will hate it regardless of cost.
You also have to put up with everyone's default conversation being that you are "cheating" by riding an ebike. Even fat doofuses driving CARS full of POLYSTYRENE CHIPS CONTAINERS will regularly wind their windows down to tell you you are being lazy by having a motor helping you cycle, without being self-aware enough to think "Hang on, I'm sitting still doing nothing at all." That gets boring quickly. Anyway.
The only problems with the Axis are the same unavoidable issues that most electric bikes come pre-loaded with. The assist, for example, only powers you up to around the 16mph level, when it smoothly tapers off. 16mph isn't a hugely exciting speed to be doing on a bike, and if you want to ride faster than that it's a massive effort to maintain it given the weight of the machine. Keeping it over 16mph even on the flat is hard, especially with the little wheels and gear ratios designed mainly for accelerating away from angry vans in town.
The battery range estimates are also laughably vague, as they tend to be on most electrical products. The problem is exacerbated by the very act of cycling, where you tend to put in loads of effort for a while (up hill) then no effort for a while (down hill). The algorithms basically shit themselves regularly if you're riding on anything with more undulations than a runway, with rides seeing the range saying that 42 miles of assistance remain one minute, before a hill appears, you and the battery suddenly start working harder, and the estimated range literally halves to 20 miles remaining in no time.
If you always take the lower figure and don't get your hopes up you'll be safe, but there's another problem specific to the Volt and its electric gears – you can't run the bike's battery to completely dead flat. Some power has to remain to run the gears and keep the screen switched on, so the bike's system will cut the assist when its remaining range estimates get critical. And an electric bike with no assist is the one thing you never want to ride, especially as you know there's some power in it because the screen's still on.
It also doesn't fold particularly well. Despite being warned to be careful not to rip out the wires that power the front wheel light while folding it, I ripped out the wires that power the front wheel light on the second attempt at folding it. Sorry.
It also doesn't fold into anything like as small a form factor as the bikes offered by folding bike sector leader Brompton, thanks to chunky, heavyweight wheels and a generally wider frame. Plus due to the irritating way physics works, folding it into a smaller package doesn't make it any lighter. What's that all about, universe?
Putting the standard ebike weight/range niggles aside, the Volt is great fun to ride. Having such a zippy bike with ludicrous levels of assist offers a huge amount of pleasure. It is not just easier riding you are buying here; it is genuinely a laugh to have a pedal bike that snaps your head back a bit with acceleration when you push off.
It's hard to wholeheartedly recommend a bike that costs three thousand pounds, mind, unless you are seriously convinced it'll save you the cost of a season ticket or car and definitely plan to use it, day in, day out. It's important to match this bike to your planned riding, given its cost. If you really, really, seriously, definitely know you will be using it as a daily commuter mule and are unlikely to ever need to ride faster than the 16mph assist cutoff point, it's ideal. You'll look forward to getting on it, too.
If you want an oil-free carbon belt so you don't stain your chinos, it's also ideal. A way to sweat less getting to the station? Ideal. The automatic gears are a needless luxury, but maybe something an amateur cyclist might get something out of, as they take the thinking out of gear changing and hide the troubling cogs away from view and crisp beige chino cuffs. In fact, the entire bike is one massive luxury item, but then what is three thousand pounds nowadays anyway? Two mobile phones? One laptop? Eight weeks rent? A holiday to give yourself permanent liver damage? The Volt Axis is more fun than all of those things, so why not?