Simon Cowell is used to dispensing advice to his followers, but it’s not usually very helpful. “My advice would be if you want to pursue a career in the music business, don’t,” he once told a contestant on American Idol. “Shave off your beard and wear a dress. You would be a great female impersonator,” was another. “Do you have a singing teacher? Get a lawyer and sue her,” he told some other wannabe star.
Taking to Twitter last night, though, Cowell was unusually humbled. “Some good advice,” he wrote to his 11.3 million followers, “if you buy an electric trail bike, read the manual before you ride it for the first time. I have broken part of my back. Thank you to everyone for your kind messages.”
Cowell, who is 60 years old and seems slimmer every time he appears in public these days, was taking his new e-bike for a spin in the courtyard of his home in Malibu, California, when he reportedly did a “wheelie”, overturned and fractured his spine. The music mogul later underwent “a long surgery”, a source told the New York Post, in which surgeons “had to fuse his bones and implant a rod.” Cowell later used Twitter to thank his doctors, and will now recuperate at home.
Once the preserve of gadget-obsessed tech enthusiasts, e-bikes are growing in number with each passing year. Many riders of traditional, entirely pedal-powered cycles will know the mixed feelings of indignation, exasperation and envy as an e-bike – which generally work by a powered “assist” helping riders as they pedal, while a motor kicks in on hills – breezes past them on a slope, and the experience is becoming ever more common.
Both private purchases and the rental e-bikes available on city streets has soared in recent years, so much so that worldwide, Deloitte believes the e-bike market will be worth £16bn by 2023, with sales overtaking those of all other electric consumer vehicles. In three years, the accountancy firm expects 40 million will be purchased globally. By comparison, last year just 5 million electric cars were sold.
While not exactly cheap (an unwritten rule is that you need to spend at least £1300 for a decent model), e-bikes are convenient, environmentally friendly and fun, but Cowell’s experience may have prompted a question about safety, particularly as he is an experienced rider, frequently using e-bikes for exercise and errands both in California and in London.
Well, the experts say there’s nothing to fear here. The crucial difference between most e-bikes in Europe and the model Cowell allegedly hurt himself on is that here, the law requires e-bikes are unable to exceed 15.5mph; in the US there is little stopping far more powerful models taking to the roads. Cowell has been reported as riding a $8,499 CAB Recon, which can do 60mph. One dealer described it as being, in his view, “essentially just an electric motorbike.”
Ben Jaconelli, 37, founder and director of Fully Charged, supplier of the UK’s largest range of high-end e-bikes, has seen exponential growth since the lockdown cycling boom hit Britain. Jaconelli has quadrupled his turnover and trebled his team size, selling to delivery businesses, high net-worth individuals or just regular commuters who are able to fork out anywhere between £1000 and £5000 for an electric bicycle.
“I expect every household to have one in 10 years, it’ll be like how in the 90s people didn’t think we’d need mobile phones – suddenly they were everywhere,” he says.
By chance, Jaconelli also has a longstanding relationship with Cowell, and has both sold him e-bikes and been for rides with him around London.
“Simon’s a big supporter of e-bikes in the UK. He’s bought some very sensible ones not just for him but his household, his staff, and believes it’s an excellent mode of transport and controlled fun exercise and to explore around town,” Jaconelli says. “We’ve enjoyed some rides together and he is always a sensible rider. I was very shocked and saddened to hear about his accident and wish him a fast recovery.”
If it is true Cowell was riding a CAB Recon, then he might have been well advised to read the manual. Even the e-bike’s online description is hair-raising. “The CAB Recon is hands down the most powerful production electric bicycle on the planet,” it reads. “It will […] keep you on your toes, no matter what your skill level.”
I think that’s supposed to be a good thing. Reviewers on the company’s website certainly agree. “The best way I can describe the experience to my friends and family is to compare it to a firearm,” a customer called “Jake J” from California wrote. “Innocuous, unassuming, and deceptively silent at rest, followed by instantaneous, overwhelmingly explosive power.”
The appeal of e-bikes like the CAB Recon for US riders is similar to that of supercars: they may not be particularly practical day-to-day, but they’re the most powerful, expensive vehicle of their kind, so thrill-seeking owners will happily buy one.
Jaconelli isn’t against them in principle, but believes they ought to be treated like motocross bikes: ridden by individuals on private land, wearing a full helmet, overalls and under the right tutelage.
(It isn’t known either whether Cowell was adhering to that, but given he is rarely seen wearing anything other than shorts and flipflops or flared jeans, it is difficult to imagine.)
In the safer, slower world of UK e-bikes, James Metcalfe, the founder and managing director of Volt Electric Bikes, is doing a similarly booming business post-lockdown.
“We had a bit of a dip in sales in March, when people were getting their lives together and working from home, but when people came to terms with what was happening, they were looking for outlets to exercise, ways to avoid public transport, and changing the way they do things,” he says.
“Like most e-bikes in the UK, ours are highly intuitive. You just get on, start riding, and then have three or four power settings for how much it assists you. We also have power safety brakes, so when you put the break on, the power cuts. And there’s a button to boost you to if you need to swerve out of trouble. So I’d say they’re as safe, if not a bit safer, than riding a regular bicycle.”
As well as being capped at 15.5mph, European e-bikes can be no more powerful than 250 watts. The CAB Recon is capable of 10 times that. “It’s also pretty much impossible to ‘pull a wheelie’ and fall backwards on an e-bike here, they’re not powerful enough and they’re much too heavy,” Metcalfe adds.
Cowell’s advice was right, then. You really ought to read the manual, but especially if you’re riding a super-powered e-bike in your mansion courtyard with possibly only some of the gear and half an idea.