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What's the fastest way to commute by bike on a budget? The sub-£500 DIY e-bike vs acoustic bike challenge

A £500 budget, a 16-mile commute and the promise of a pint... let the race begin!

At road.cc we love to champion commuting by bike, but Dave and I disagree on how it's best done on a budget. To find out who was right, we were each given a £500 budget and told to meet in a top-secret location (next to the bins in the office car park) to hash out the finer details of our challenge. 

My sub-£500 commuter bike choice

2024 commuting challenge Merida Speeder 20D

I was the first to arrive aboard a Merida Speeder 20D. This is a bike that I think proves that you can commute on a budget without compromising on important things like reliability, gear range or braking performance. 

The Merida Speeder 20D recently scored an 8/10 review on road.cc, and even though it has an RRP of £550, with a bit of searching about you can find one for around £440. That's well within our budget. 

I was confident that with its 24 gears, dependable components and hydraulic disc brakes I was on to a winner, no matter what the challenge would entail.

Dave's sub-£500 commuter bike of choice (with an added extra)

2024 commuting challenge Triban T100

Dave, meanwhile, had taken a very different approach. A second-hand Triban RC100 used up less than £100 of his budget, with the rest going on the new Swytch GO+ Kit. With a 50% pre-order discount it cost £399.

The Swytch GO Kit is the newest and best value kit in the Swytch range, and promises to lower the point of entry to electric bike riding. The company says that it was made in response to the cost-of-living crisis, and that by enabling people to add electric power to a non-assisted bike saves money when compared to a new electric bike. There are three battery sizes available: The GO+ kit that Dave used is the middle one, with the GO the smallest and GO++ the largest.

2024 commuting challenge Swytch kit in box

We were both under budget then, but could a sub-£500 e-bike really pull the skin off a rice pudding? Would Dave's 250Wh boost be enough to propel him to victory? I was still confident of my chances as we were issued with our challenge...

The challenge

2024 commuting challenge route
  • The challenge consists of a 16km point-to-point race with 250m of climbing, starting at the road.cc office and finishing at the local pub in the village where Jamie lives.
  • The route will consist of urban riding, a bike path including a hardpack gravel section and a main road.
  • The winner is the first to be sat drinking a pint... but there's a catch. You’ll have to pass a 'sweat test' to be allowed in!
  • The challenge starts as soon as the whistle goes, so you’ll have to get your bike into a rideable state if it isn't already...
2024 commuting challenge Dave sweat test

I only had a short while to laugh at the prospect of Dave having to build his e-bike before the whistle went... and we were off!

The race

Part 1: Getting ready to race

2024 commuting challenge Jamie road.cc kit hybrid bike

Realising that there was no way that I would be able to ride up hills with any meaningful speed without sweating through my civvies, I made the choice to Lycra up as I usually do for my 10-mile commute. I then thanked my lucky stars that it was only pedals missing from my bike, adjusted the saddle height, donned my rucksack and set off riding just six minutes after the whistle had gone.

2024 commuting challenge Swytch Go+ battery install

Dave was still quietly confident that he could fit his Swytch kit in much less time than I expected, and to be fair he did!

The Swytch GO+ kit consists of a wheel with a hub motor that replaces your existing one, a battery pack that attaches to the top tube and seat tube of the bike (or anywhere you like), a pedal sensor located on the non-drive side crank, a display, and of course some wires to connect it all together.

2024 commuting challenge Swytch front wheel motor

This wasn't Dave's first rodeo with a Swytch kit; in fact, he has previously fitted both the first and second-generation Swytch kits for reviews over on our sister site ebiketips. With this experience and the simplicity of fitting the Swytch kit, he was ready to hit the road in just under 10 minutes, around four minutes behind me.

Part 2: Hitting the (not so) open road

2024 commuting challenge city riding

By this point, despite the numerous red lights, I'd managed to make it across a fair portion of a heavily congested Bath city centre. Dave seemed less annoyed by the red lights, because when it came to setting off again the Swytch kit assisted his pedalling to the tune of 250 watts.

Dave seemed impressed with both the kit and his building skills. While he realised that he probably wouldn't manage to reel me in by the pub, he had decided to stay in casual clothes for the commute. The idea behind this was that if he could use the Swytch kit to take plenty of the load, he would pass the sweat test at the pub and be allowed straight in without having to get changed.

2024 commuting challenge Dave city riding

Even so, in the UK all e-bikes are limited to 25kph, so I was confident that with a bit of effort, I could extend my lead.

Part 3: How commuting should be!

2024 commuting challenge tow path riding

...and extend my lead I did! Taking full advantage of the flat cycle path along a disused railway line, I hammered through the tunnels and continued to put the watts down. By this point, it was clear that even if I did want to sit in a pub in Lycra, it was very unlikely that I was going to pass the sweat test. There's only one thing for it, and that is more speed!

Now around seven minutes behind, Dave continued his much more laid-back approach to commuting. 

2024 commuting challenge Swytch kit riding shot

Without the display, the Swytch GO+ offers a single level of power assistance, which is more than enough for mostly flat riding and moderate hill climbing. However, with the display, Dave was able to select from five power levels. No prizes for guessing which one he selected! 

If he wasn't racing then this would allow Dave to turn the power off on the flat sections, making his bike behave just like it did before the Swytch kit, and extending the battery life. While it's no aero road racer, the Triban RC100 is much less draggy compared to some other e-bikes. There wasn't much of that going on for this ride though.

Part 4: The hill

2024 commuting challenge Jamie on hill

31 minutes after the whistle had blown, and I'd hit the foot of 'Col du'Hinton', the bane of my commute. It didn't take me long to wish that I too was on an e-bike, and as I dropped to my smallest gear I knew that Dave would be eating into my lead.

The Merida Speeder 20D is many things, but at over 12kg it isn't light. Despite my efforts, the speed dragged down into the single digits as sweat poured down my face.

As I neared the top, it was Dave's turn to face our challenge's biggest hurdle. He kept the Swytch kit in maximum power mode as the hill stretched in front of him.

2024 commuting challenge Swytch wheel motor 3

It would be wrong to assume that Dave could simply coast up the hill, such is the gradient of 'Cote duHinton', but he was visibly less distressed than me.

Dave gauged his effort well, being careful not to sweat and undo his tortoise strategy... I say tortoise, he was now clawing back time and by the top of the hill had cut the deficit from eight minutes to just over six.

Part 5: The final stretch

2024 commuting challenge pedal sensor fitted

As I entered the final few kilometres, I couldn't help but keep one eye looking over my shoulder. I had certainly ridden significantly harder and faster than I usually do on my commute, but would it be enough?

As Dave browed the hill, he was confident that he had enough bars of battery left to keep the power on all the way to the finish. The GO+ has a range of over 60km depending on what mode you have it in. Clearly Dave had been rinsing the electrical assistance for all it was worth, but even in this mode it comfortably handled our 16km hilly commute.

Part 6: The finish

2024 commuting challenge arrived at pub

If you haven't already guessed, I am quite competitive. When I arrived at the pub I was a sweaty mess, and it's no surprise that I failed the road.cc sweat test (I've definitely seen worse in pubs though). Time to pop a few doors down for a shower and change, and maybe I'd still be in with a shout.

As Dave arrived at the pub he was looking decidedly fresher than the state I'd rolled up in a few minutes prior... but would he pass the sweat test? Yep, first time! But as he opened the door, there I sat.

2024 commuting challenge Dave arrive at pub

I'd love to say that I'd been sat there for ages, but in truth it was merely minutes. So is analogue the way to go for your commute? Well, it may have won out in our race but it's safe to say I don't usually ride that hard on my commute, and Dave won't have to refit the Swytch kit when he sets off for work tomorrow.

Conclusions

2024 commuting challenge Swytch Go+ battery pack fitted

 

So after 16 (rather sweaty in my case) miles what had we learnt? Well, gone are the days when you had to spend a fortune to get electrical assistance and in answer to the question I posed earlier a sub-£500 e-bike can indeed pull the skin off a rice pudding.

Despite its price, the Swytch Go+ kit is an excellent way to take the sting out of pulling away from lights and indeed climbs. The range is more than enough for the average cycling commute and annoyingly (In my case) easy to fit.

I think the main takeaway though is that commuting by bike is approximately 12,344 times more fun than a bus or car. Dave and I both arrived at the pub with a grin on our faces, the fresh air in our lungs, we hadn't sworn at any traffic jams, had a car door dinged in a car park and had probably gone someway to counter the health effects of the pints we then consumed. Commuting by bike is the real winner here!

2024 commuting challenge Swytch kit front wheel motor 2

Find out more about Swytch kits by heading to the Swytch website. Would you choose an e-bike or unassisted bike for your commute? Let us know in the comments below. 

Jamie has been riding bikes since a tender age but really caught the bug for racing and reviewing whilst studying towards a master's in Mechanical engineering at Swansea University. Having graduated, he decided he really quite liked working with bikes and is now a full-time addition to the road.cc team. When not writing about tech news or working on the Youtube channel, you can still find him racing local crits trying to cling on to his cat 2 licence...and missing every break going...

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23 comments

Avatar
mattw | 3 weeks ago
2 likes

A good piece.

And good to see it identified as sponsored; that matters.

I think my main quarrel is with calling it a "race"; too Jeremy Clarkson / Top Gear. I'd suggest "trial", which is a far more neutral word from legal, not illegal, road cycling.

It's a bit of a technicality, but we imo don't want to feed the trolls.

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Paul J | 4 weeks ago
0 likes

"acoustic" is such a groan-some term for "normal bicycle".

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levestane replied to Paul J | 4 weeks ago
0 likes

I guess alternatives are P-wave and longitudinal, but I still don't get the link.

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Paul J replied to levestane | 3 weeks ago
0 likes

I had no idea WTF they meant with "acoustic bike" for quite a while. It makes no sense. Confusing, dumb.

However, evidently someone on staff is very pleased with themselves for making this up, and they're going to keep using it.

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brooksby replied to Paul J | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Isn't it a jokey reference to when Bob Dylan started using an electric guitar?

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peted76 | 4 weeks ago
0 likes

I appreciated that video  1 That swytch kit seems really simple to set up.

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Rendel Harris replied to peted76 | 4 weeks ago
2 likes

peted76 wrote:

That swytch kit seems really simple to set up.

It's a really nice kit - I had one on order for Mrs H during Covid but their backlog at that time was so long I eventually cancelled it – but nearly all hub motor conversion kits are as simple, just bolt in the front or rear wheel, fix on the battery (usually on the bottle bosses) and pedal sensor, fix the control unit to the handlebars and plug them into each other and you're away. I've done half a dozen conversions for family and friends and only one took more than 20 minutes (had to file down the fork dropouts to fit the motor axle).

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wtjs | 4 weeks ago
3 likes

Despite myself, I found this interesting and entertaining!

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cyclisto | 4 weeks ago
1 like

This was a very cool idea, nicely executed, kudos road.cc team!

A couple of notes:

1. Let's be honest, the used Triban would be faster than the Speeder even without the kit. UK is blessed with great fast depreciating used bicycles.

2. This kit seems a nice idea, but at £400 preordered to get a 50% sale (thus making you kind of business partner) it is seems a little expensive to me. A Xiaomi scooter costs like £350 and it is a full vehicle neatly designed, with two wheels, an elaborate folding frame, disc brakes, lights, etc, whereas this kit consists of the absolute essentials (hub motor, battery, charger, sensor and a display) plus a rim and set of spokes. Of course it is a tiny company compared to Xiaomi that pushes prices up, so I still wonder why big companies don't get into this market (I have personally asked it with a form from Xiaomi, got no response).

 

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Safety replied to cyclisto | 4 weeks ago
1 like

Isn't the Xiaomi scooter you refer to currently illegal?

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cyclisto replied to Safety | 4 weeks ago
1 like

Not where I reside currently, but even if it was illegal worldwide on public roads, it wouldn't matter, we don't talk about laws, we talk about engineering and pricing.

Maybe they are reluctant making such a kit, because it could cut sales from their electric folder bicycle.

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mattw replied to cyclisto | 3 weeks ago
1 like

The Xiaomi has 8.5" wheels, which I think are a big downside - even when compared with my 16" wheeled Axon RIdes e-folder (which was £899 at half price - the most expensive cycle I have ever prchased).

BTW I suggest that we *do* talk about laws; they matter.

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cyclisto replied to mattw | 3 weeks ago
1 like

I have never ridden a scooter apart from a 50m test ride of a 8 year old long cousin riding it. And yes, on 8.5" wheels it is super wobbly, but I felt wobbly on the 20" Dahon I rode once, as I ride 28" with heavy rims and tires. As I say again it is legal here with the most recent law and many people commute on these. I do find it super dangerous for the current infrastructure, but it could potentially be the ultimate urban mobility vehicle with a Dutch level cycling infrastructure, given that is cheap, small and sweat free. (note that in Netherlands even small cars are allowed in their cycle routes, they are rare but not inexistent)

Ok can talk about laws, but they seen irrelevant to my point. We are discussing whether a product that seems feasible to me and at a proportionate low price. Laws vary vastly around in the world and change even in the same country, so a snapsnot of them shouldn't be seen as the Ten Commandments. Law is flexible, it is a piece of paper, engineering combined with competitive pricing need real skill to improve, and unfortunately Europe is losing the VFM battle.

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chrisonabike replied to cyclisto | 3 weeks ago
1 like

If we had at least Dutch-level infra everywhere in the UK I could see e-scooters becoming a major transport mode.

But - "if"...

While wary of declaring the apocalyse when it hasn't occurred after several years ... I suspect takeup of scooters will continue to grow.  (The next UK government whatever it is doesn't seem likely to be any more exercised about this than the current one.) As that happens I think this will negatively affect both "road safety" and the pleasantness / convenience of active travel for many.

I think this will increase conflict on pavements and actual "shared spaces".  From my anecdata it seems e-scooters are becoming more common on pavements - and may be more so than cyclists there.  I think many people definitely see scooters as "just like walking" or at least are even less happy to get in the road than they'd be on a bike.

Scooters are like cycles - quiet, and may be faster than the (unpowered) cyclists you'd expect to appear under "mass cycling".  I'm not aware of scooter safety data but (at least on UK infra) I imagine they may be more likely to crash themselves (e.g. because small wheels) - whether or not they're much of an additional risk to others.

Though I personally favour cycling or active travel ... e-scooters are likely a winner for many more people for short-distance transport.  Ease of use (including a familiar position - standing up), light weight (compared to cycle) and tiny storage space factor.  They are easy to transport on other modes, you can easily store them get them in / out / store at home, they can be more secure than cycles because you can always take it with you etc.

It's only when it comes to cargo transport they fall behind - they may even be easier for 2-person transport.  Although I've no idea if you are "supposed" to and I can imagine this may be strongly advised against!

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cyclisto replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Ah, now with the two person transport, you reminded me that I had used them at a city as a tourist where they flooded legally sidewalks as well as roads. I rode with a passenger, which was a scary experience indeed, but with the speed of an amateur jogger, not many bad things could happen, or at least I felt so, seeing many locals doing so. But the key the success, was the infra with very big sidewalks and law enforcement as drivers very eager to give priority.

But to get out in the roads I ride now, on a daily basis, seems too much of a risk.

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KDee replied to cyclisto | 3 weeks ago
1 like

Talking of talking law, I checked rijksoverheid.nl to be sure, but microcars are not allowed on bike lanes. The Biro was allowed on bike lanes in Amsterdam for a while, but along with scooters/mopeds, have now been banned also. Mobility aids are allowed (a micro car is not a mobility aid).

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chrisonabike replied to KDee | 3 weeks ago
0 likes

Seems sensible to me.

I guess there's an argument for "harm minimisation" e.g. "better in a microcar than ... a car".  But even (or especially) in Amsterdam cycle lanes are a finite resource.  And I suspect cycling isn't a "given" - just as in the UK people can be lured away to using less space-efficient / "active" / more problematic modes.

Microcars (and e.g. mini delivery vehicles) are still a fair bit chunkier than bikes and may have different characteristics (speed, acceleration, braking etc).  And you can bet that where they're currently limited by speed / power / weight / size, manufacturers are going to be lobbying for more - "if only we had a new category / relaxed this old-fashioned rule just think how much these could help with (x)!"

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KDee replied to chrisonabike | 3 weeks ago
1 like

A bit like the speed-pedelec trial on a bike path in Germany.

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Langsam | 4 weeks ago
0 likes

No grease on those pedal threads, Jamie?

STANDARDS, people!

Anyway, it's ridiculously easy to configure the Swytch kit with a USA speed limit (20mph). Not that I am suggesting anyone should do this invisible and undetectable modification, of course. 

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Jamie Williams replied to Langsam | 4 weeks ago
2 likes

My sincerest apologies, it won't happen again! (until the next race...)

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andystow | 4 weeks ago
1 like

When I remember, I carry a USB rechargeable fan similar to this one when I'm going to stop at the pub on the way home from work, and it's sunny and much over 20 °C, or very humid. If I ease off for the last couple of minutes of riding, I can usually shut off the sweating with a few minutes of the fan blowing on my face and neck, then I just need to dry off and maybe change shirts in the toilet.

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hawkinspeter replied to andystow | 4 weeks ago
1 like

andystow wrote:

When I remember, I carry a USB rechargeable fan similar to this one when I'm going to stop at the pub on the way home from work, and it's sunny and much over 20 °C, or very humid. If I ease off for the last couple of minutes of riding, I can usually shut off the sweating with a few minutes of the fan blowing on my face and neck, then I just need to dry off and maybe change shirts in the toilet.

I've seen people using neck fans - they wrap around your neck and blow air up at you. Probably not as portable as your solution, but might be convenient as you can turn it on whilst still riding. (Just ordered one in preparation for UK summer which might be optimistic)

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Jamie Williams replied to andystow | 4 weeks ago
3 likes

Where was this advice on race day haha! One to remember for next time!

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