For people new to cycling, buying a bike can seem daunting. Aside from the outlay, there is maintenance, and what if you decide you just don’t enjoy pedalling around?
This is where subscription bikes come in. An increasingly common idea in continental Europe and now in parts of the UK, these let you rent a bike by the month or year, generally with a lock and mechanical support. As well as for the cycle-curious, this can be ideal if you are in a city temporarily, or a student.
But what do you get for your money? This is what we wanted to find out. So I spent time riding around on five bikes from the three subscription services now on offer.
These are Swapfiets, the Dutch-based behemoth of the trade, which operates in dozens of cities around Europe, including now London; the UK upstart Buzzbike, which offers the service in London and Manchester; and Brompton, which will send one of its folding bikes to anywhere in the UK.
This is not an article about the services you get from each company. There are a lot of options, with full details on their websites. This is about the bikes. I tried them out on the sorts of very everyday trips where I usually cycle – commuting, shopping and just generally getting around.
With its distinctive grey-and-pink steel frame, three-speed hub gears and V-brakes, the Cty is relatively no-frills, if by no means basic – Buzzbike says such a model would cost about £600 to buy. It comes with sturdy mudguards and a pretty substantial D-lock.
In terms of commuter-friendliness, there is no chain guard or anywhere to put a bag, although Buzzbike says it’s fine if you attach your own rack, or even a child seat. Many customers will be fine riding with a bag on their back, but I commute in work clothes, so this was the only bike among the five I didn’t use for work trips.
I did, however, ride it lots of other places, and while Cty is straightforward, it’s also a lot of fun. The frame is light and stiff enough to make three gears plenty enough even on hills, while the upturned handlebars and chunky tyres inspire confidence.
My new-out-of-the-box model did have a couple of creaks, and the front wheel was slightly out of true, making the brake grab a bit, but Buzzbike says anything like that can be easily fixed by booking a tune-up via its app.
“Oooh, that’s quite sleek.” That was the verdict of the Swapfiets delivery driver, spotting the already-arrived EZ as he dropped off his company’s bikes.
And he was right. With its muted black frame, integrated battery, built-in lights and belt drive, Buzzbike’s Indonesian-built electric model is definitely more reminiscent of, say, a Van Moof than a clunky e-bike.
The controls are very straightforward – the same single button turns the motor on and off, and flicks through the three power modes – and it is very reassuring and predictable to ride. Plus, of course, lots of fun – it’s an e-bike. More practically, it has a rear rack, on to which I zip-tied a crate to carry my work bag.
I did have one issue: the gears. There are two, which click up or down automatically. For me, these were set too high and changed up too eagerly. You need a certain pedal cadence to get an e-bike motor to kick in, and with the EZ this felt more difficult than it should.
Buzzbike says it is looking at changing the gearing for the next model, which I think might be a good idea.
Swapfiets Deluxe 7: £21.90/month
Three pounds a month pricier than Swapfiets’ basic model, which has one gear rather than seven, like all the company’s offerings this could hardly be more Dutch. It has a defiantly upright and relaxed riding stance, a chain guard, a front rack, dynamo lights and a built-in chain and back wheel lock.
The commitment to utility riding even extends to a back pedal coaster brake, something UK riders might initially struggle with, although they should find it intuitive before too long. It does also have a front drum brake.
This is very much a bike on which you pootle about. It is surefooted, smooth and lovely to ride, and if, as I did, you go for the optional basket on the front rack, it easily carries a work bag or some shopping.
What it is not is fast, or light. I made the mistake of taking it on one journey involving a train, and let’s just say it’s a workout on the stairs. This is a bike arguably more suited for the terrain of Utrecht than, say, Sheffield or Bristol, if Swapfiets expands its UK offering. The one moderate hill on my commute was possible in the bottom gear, but a more sweaty experience than I’m used to.
Swapfiets Power 7: £69.90/month
The top of the Swapfiets range is, as the delivery driver in effect conceded, less sleek-looking than the Buzzbike equivalent, but it does have a frame-integrated battery (as with the Buzzbike, this can be removed with a key for charging).
In essence an electrified version of the Deluxe 7, this has the same chain guard, built-in locks, lights, coaster brake and everything else, and a simple handlebar-mounted LED display that shows the battery level and power setting.
But don’t be fooled into thinking the Power 7 is basic. With the power coming from the cranks rather than, as with the EZ, the back wheel, the acceleration feels slightly smoother, helped by the range of hub-based gears.
Like its manual cousin, this is undeniably something of a beast in weight, so storage is a consideration. Having to carry it up a narrow stairwell every evening would be interesting.
Brompton C-Line: £45/month annually, £60/month rolling
The Brompton arrives at your door in an unfeasibly compact box, but even for folding bike near-novices like me the progress from opening to pedalling away was no more than 10 minutes.
Yes, Bromptons are very easy to fold and unfold, and in their compressed state you can carry one on to a train or, as I did, store it in an understairs cupboard. They are a miracle of engineering. The decision, really, is whether your routine needs such a creation, and the cost it entails.
I was slightly suspicious about what it would be like to ride, but the C-Line was enormously enjoyable: responsive but reassuring to ride, and light enough for three gears to be more than sufficient. If you live somewhere hilly, there is the option of a subscription e-Brompton, but for a hefty £135 a month.
It is worth noting that you can claim back up to £150 in subscription fees if you fall in love with the tiny-wheeled life and splash out on your own Brompton, and there are various deals for NHS staff, students, and people who live in parts of London about to see the expansion of the ultra-low emission zone.
The one thing the C-Line doesn’t come with is an instant way to carry luggage. It has a built-in frame mount, but that requires a Brompton-specific bag. I cheated and borrowed one from the company. It was practical and excellent – but would have cost me £180 new.
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