During World War II, motorcycles were widely used by militaries to conduct reconnaissance missions. Japanese forces took to pedal-powered bicycles during the conflict’s Malayan campaign, using them to outmaneuver British troops moving more slowly on foot — in what became known as the “Bicycle Blitzkrieg.”
Ukrainian e-bike firm Eleek initially gave a few bikes to the military when the war began, according to manager Roman Kulchytskyi. Soon after, they began to mass-produce bikes — kitted out in military green, with a small Ukrainian flag on the rear wheel — for Ukraine’s fighters.
“When the war started, we were shocked at first. … Everyone was worried and thought about what to do,” Kulchytskyi told The Washington Post. “But we all rallied.”
Working from a bomb shelter, Eleek began making a power bank based on lithium-ion battery cells it had left in stock. After struggling for parts, it turned to electronic cigarettes — launching a social media campaign to get people to send in their devices.
The military version of the bike was stripped down to remove parts such as mirrors and rotating lights that were considered unnecessary for trail riding. The company added footrests for passengers, improved the charging time, installed a battery control system and included a 220V output that allows soldiers to charge gadgets and can help power Starlink satellite Internet terminals, Kulchytskyi said.
The bikes, which are fitted with relatively fat tires, are particularly useful in forested areas where riders can carve their own paths along unsealed trails. They weigh about 140 pounds — light compared with motorbikes — but can carry relatively heavy loads. One video posted on social media showed an armed Ukrainian fighter zipping along a road on an e-bike, apparently traveling as fast as an accompanying vehicle.
Another advantage of the bikes is that they may not be visible on thermal imaging systems, which are used to detect differences in temperature and help militaries pinpoint potential targets. That’s because the electric motor doesn’t heat up like an internal combustion engine, Kulchytskyi said.
Daniel Tonkopi, founder of e-bike company Delfast, wrote on Facebook this month that his California-based firm has been donating electric bikes to the Ukrainian army since the war broke out.
He included pictures of the bikes carrying antitank weapons and said he had received feedback from the military that they planned to use the bikes to target Russian armored vehicles. During one recent mission, they recounted to him that several vehicles came back with holes but that the riders were intact.
Ukraine’s armed forces didn’t respond to a request for comment on the program.
A Delfast spokeswoman said the “primary purpose” of the company’s e-bikes is to reduce a user’s carbon footprint and make transportation more sustainable. She said Delfast hasn’t sold bikes or made modifications to the e-bikes to support any military action. The company is donating 5 percent of all sales to fund humanitarian efforts in Ukraine.
Ukraine isn’t the only military to try out e-bikes. New Zealand’s Air Force is testing locally made UBCO bikes for tasks such as reconnaissance and surveillance. Flight Sgt. Jim Reilly told an air force publication that the bikes made it much easier to carry out patrols. Their relative silence also provides service members with “great situational awareness” compared with noisy motorcycles or 4x4 vehicles, he said.
Australia’s military is funding e-bike trials for a range of potential combat roles. A recent military video showed troops from a mounted infantry unit known as the Light Horse Regiment winding through gum trees on the bikes.
In Norway, e-bikes were tested by border guards patrolling the country’s boundary with Russia. That project is on hold for now, said Rolf K. Ytterstad, a spokesman for the Norwegian army, because of problems with maintenance and the overall economics of the project. “We had good experiences with the e-bikes,” he said.