From pedalling to e-pedalling and back

Short story about making the switch (and when not to)

My old city bike, aka a beater in English, is the most important mode of transport in my life. Apart from my own legs, which the bike cannot do without, nothing comes close to the importance of my steel steed as the Dutch tend to say. Okay, I have to admit mine is aluminium.

VanMoof No 3 met Swytch Bike kit met accu voorop en Valkental fietstas aan originele bagagedrager. Fiets staat op een besneeuwd wegdek voor de Hempont in Amsterdam.
VanMoof No 3 with Swytch kit and battery (photo: 19 January 2024, location Hem Ferry, Amsterdam)

Yet sometimes other means of transport are also convenient, necessary or practical. A train covers long distances quickly and usually comfortably. So can a car, especially if the destination is far beyond the reach of public transport or if you need to carry a lot of stuff.

On a bicycle, distance is definitely a thing, unless you see it as a sporting activity. On those intermediate to long distances, a tram, metro or bus can offer a solution, but then you are dependent on departure and arrival times and the total duration is also often long, especially if much of the journey is within a city.

You could grab a (rental) car or scooter, both space guzzlers in the city. Or an electric bike. But yes, a city bike AND an e-bike, that’s not practical for the limited space in the city either.

How about just an e-bike? Expensive and especially vulnerable in the city. And above all, I don’t want to move less on all short or medium trips, say between a few hundred metres and six kilometres. I normally cover the latter distance by bike on average in about 20 minutes. You also know: once that electric motor is there, you start using it.

Swytch campaign and back pedal brakes

Until one time, by chance, I stumbled across an Indiegogo project from the UK called Swytch: convert your existing bike into an ebike. I was too late for that first version, but signed up for later projects. By early 2022, I was finally on a waiting list for the second version.

There was one thing though: no one from the helpdesk at the time could give me a satisfactory answer to the question of whether and how the system works on a bike with coaster brakes (back pedal brake), a very common type of brake on city bikes. “Maybe you should still install a front handbrake, one of those simple ones that brakes on the rim” was the idea of one of the helpdesk staff.

There was only one way to find out: try it. No problem in hindsight and having experienced how the system works myself, I don’t understand how they couldn’t have figured out that this just works. But then again, chances are that most helpdesk staff have never held such a kit in their hands themselves, let alone put it together… So it works just fine. Incidentally, I didn’t know that putting an electric motor on a bike is actually that simple either, good learning curve.

What could be against using a back pedal brake? Maybe at higher speeds you slip more easily? I also occasionally have that with regular cycling and and slippery road from rain for example. American websites mostly see them on children’s bikes and have the idea that you wouldn’t be able to brake in a controlled way with a coaster brake, I don’t have that experience myself (and if I cycle with too much stuff, I can’t always reach handbrakes properly either, but yes, cycling with too much stuff might not be a good thing either). In Germany, I have still sometimes come across rental bikes with coaster brakes and a front handbrake.

But over all: my current ride – the Swytch Air Max and the old VanMoof No. 3 – rides really top notch, with and without the electric drive. I do feel that if you don’t take the battery off completely, the motor gives more resistance, even when completely switched off (should try to find out how much watt the motor takes with and without the battery attached, if anyone has a nice setup to test that :) ).

Actually, one would want to make an open-source version of this, an open-source (electric) bike. A bike entirely from standard parts and standard sizes, I mean, there are a gazillion (too) cheap wheels with built in electric motors out there on certain websites. But unfortunately, I don’t think that idea is very original and I mostly see a lot of defunct projects when I look around a bit online….


Krijn Soeteman is a Dutch science and technology journalist. He majored in the history of art and architecture. After his studies he started as a music video producer. This led to producing a Museum Night at the NEMO Science Museum, which eventually led to science journalism. And much more.

10 thoughts on “From pedalling to e-pedalling and back

  1. @krijnsoeteman Is it just me or is the link broken? I get plain text/website code in stead of the website.

    1. Thanks for mentioning! It was broken after installing the webfinger plugin to activate the Fediverse.

  2. @markdevries Thanks for mentioning! I didn’t notice, because it doesn’t happen when logged in.. apparently the Finger-plugin breaks it. Switched it off and works again.

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