Thursday, October 15, 2009

Is an E-bike in your future?

A few years ago, I was commuting home from work on the Keystone trail when I noticed a man riding about 200 yards in front of me. I'm a competitive person so I decided to give chase and see if I could catch him.

I was in good shape on a light road bike and the fellow in front of me looked to be carrying quite a bit more weight on his person and he was riding on a mountain bike of some sort. It also looked like he was only able to pedal strong with one leg (kind of like he was limping while pedaling...if that makes any sense). I figured I could catch him in no time.

After about 2 miles, my legs were on fire but I was finally getting close to catching him. I couldn't believe how fast this man was riding. As I finally passed him, I noticed something unique about his front wheel. The hub was HUGE. It also looked like there were wires running from his front fork back to his saddlebag. That's when I realized I was trying to catch somebody on an e-bike.

Since then I've often considered getting an e-bike to use when I need to cover a large distance quickly but without showing up at my destination in need of a shower and change of cloths.

CNN posted an interesting article about e-bikes today. Take a look. Maybe an e-bike is what you need to get started in the world of biking.


Douglas said...

I'm not quite sure where I stand on the idea of electric bikes.

My favorite quote from this article:"people who live in Spandex will probably always prefer a really good road bike and hard-core city cyclists may will stick to their fixed-gear bikes.".

Biker Bob/Runner Bob said...

I hear what your saying. Keep in mind that the quote you mentioned was from an individual that rides an e-bike and not the author of the article.

I think e-bikes have a place in a more well rounded transport structure though.

Kurt Goetzinger said...

I have six bikes. One of those is electric assist/hybrid. I use it when I'm feeling a little tired after work or just don't have the energy to huff it up the big midtown hills. Then I use it to run up to HyVee or another errand within a couple miles of my home. It's pretty slick and fun to ride.

Soon I'm going to try to rig a solar panel to keep it charged while not in use.

dale said...

Had a gal stop in the shop from California. Her ebike fell off the rack and needed the wheel trued. It was the brand pushed by Ed Bagley on Planet Green. Actually, she needed a new wheel but we got it rideable till she gets back to Cali. She left the battery so I had to take it for a spin around the parking lot. It was fun! Bike is heavy, battery is heavy but twist the throttle and it goes. You have to be pedaling for the throttle to engage.

The drawbacks we saw - very poor rim brakes. You have over 70 lbs of bike plus rider. These need a good mechanical disc brake or hydros. Most use them for uphills, how do they stop on downhills?

The wheels were too weak for the added weight. I guess all around the bike needed to be built better for the weight it was carrying.

Concerned about work on electric systems, etc. We've worked on a few changing flats. They take three people at times and three times as long as a regular flat.

I am for them. They get people out of cars and on to (motor)bikes -- but they are quiet motorbikes!

deerfencer said...

I've been happily riding e-bikes for about 8-9 years here in NY (where BTW they are totally illegal--but nobody seems to be aware of this, including the police). I've never been bothered and have an enclosed rear hub motor with the battery packs hidden in a rear rack-mounted Topeak bag, so the bike itself is fairly discreet and, other than the rear hub housing, looks like a normal mtb.

Dale is right when he describes them as quiet motorbikes, and my personal favorite ride is a completely silent Tidalforce S750X (no longer made but E+ makes a very close copy). With a hefty enough lithium battery pack (24Ah; 20+lbs)
I can cover close to 40 miles of moderate hilly terrain @ 21-23 mph average and still get a brisk workout on the hills. I've put close to 7000 joyful miles on this bike since I bought in 3 years ago.

Advantages: no cardiac moments (important at my age and weight), and the ability to cover a lot of ground in 1-2 hours without being totally exhausted at ride's end.

One other advantage of the Tidalforce and E+ systems is regenerative braking on the downhills, which directly addresses
Dale's (correct) concern about safe braking power on these bikes.

A Chinese company called Golden Motors is on the verge of releasing
what looks to be a copycat rear hub motor/controller with regeneration and variable voltage input to 48V at a very reasonable pricepoint (around $300). IF this motor proves itself to be robust and dependable
it will bring the cost of a decent high-power conversion kit down to $1000 or so (figure $700 for a decent lithium battery pack with 20 mile range).

Disadvantages: the weight. God forbid you should break down or run out of juice far from home as you'll basically be riding a bag of cement home. Luckily my Tidalforce has been near perfect and I've only had to have my wife rescue me once on the road when I flatted and discovered I'd left my CO2 inflator behind.

The more powerful e-bikes out there
(Tidalforce X, E+, and Optibike) can provide as much as 1100-1200W of e-assist and so must be ridden with a lot of care and respect for the power and speeds enabled. (I have clip-on aerobars on mine that allow me to go across fast flats @ 27-33 mph+ to give you an idea of how fast these pups can go.) IOW these high-power e-bikes are NOT toys and need to be ridden by adults with caution and care.

That said, the 1.9" tires and front suspension allow me to extend my biking season by several months as I can ride in conditions I'd never dream of riding a road bike in, and packed dirt roads can be a joy.

While I am a pure sport rider, other e-bikers I know use them for no sweat commuting and there are many who use them to overcome various physical disabilities, so the spectrum of users is broad and varied.

erik said...

i see the e-bike as a niche market, which unfortunately exists only due to the pitiful lack of concern by most cities for human and active transport. given that reality for bicycle commuters in omaha, i'm not sure if a 70 pound bicycle is the answer. especially when most commutes involve a significant amount of nimble maneuvering and the occasional bunny hope to avoid any number of hazards the city leaves in its wake for pedestrians and cyclists.

i'd like to see companies selling these bikes do more to recognize legitimate tried and true design and move beyond biking as sport. it's hard to imagine how things will change on the whole until the dominant brands in the industry stop catering to racers and wannabe racers primarily.

i feel like a broken record, but it's all about sustaining the discourse.

Biker Bob/Runner Bob said...

I agree that it is a niche market, but then again, so are commuter bikes in general. At least in cities like OMAHA that currently have a very small mode share for cycling as transportation. However, I'm not sure I agree that the ebike niche exists only "due to the pitiful lack of concern by most cities for human and active transport". I would think that as more active transport support exists, the ebike nich would get larger along with the commuting bike niche in general. I guess I just don't see the connection between lack of "active tansport" causing the ebike niche to exist.

In my opinion, as alternative forms of transport increase in Omaha (which they will) the ebike (and commuting bike) niche will get bigger, but possibly not at the same ratio.

As for bike companies, I'm not saying it's good or bad, but they pretty much cater to what sells. If they didn't they would go bankrupt. Some companies are more creative than others and have found ways to sell bikes at a profit to very small sectors of the cycling market.

Biker Bob/Runner Bob said...

BTW Erik, I've been following your blog. Looks like you and Emily enjoying the new home base.

I love the pictures you have been posting. Good stuff. Makes me want to find a babysitter for the kids and get my wife out riding more often.

erik said...

thanks for the compliment bob, I suppose I agree with you for the most part.

I'll clarify what I meant by "pitiful lack of concern for ... active transport" being a cause for the existence of the ebike. Essentially, in even a moderately dense arrangement, almost all stores are within 2 miles. That's a 12 minute bicycle ride in a city like oakland, following all traffic signs and riding in the street (not much infrastructure about, unfortunately, there either). What Oakland has going for it, which Omaha didn't, is density. In omaha, even where I lived in midtown, I'd have to make a typical 5 mile ride for the basic conveniences (like groceries) from dundee.

When you have active and human transit oriented development, you can walk/bike/bus/train wherever you need, without relying on an electric motor or whatever else to make up for poor planning.

So I agree that the ebike certainly serves a niche, but I think the debate must insist on returning to the cause and not the symptoms of poor planning -- and that is auto-centric sprawl in the case of the ebike. In many ways, this returns to those who argue that helmets aren't necessary for slow practical cycling and that the urge for helmet use comes from a strange demand upon the cyclist to protect herself when the real need for protection comes from the fact that most cities are planned with little regard for the safety of cyclists and a bit of styrofoam won't make up for that inherent unsafety (I often wear a helmet, especially when mixing it up in hazardous areas, for what it's worth).

So yes, and no. They are definitely good in that they democratize the henceforth olympic efforts required of anyone who wants to make a 20-30 mile commute in many low density areas. Just frustrating that they are sometimes seen as a way to spark a transformation in the ways I think it needs to be had.

I'm glad you like the photos I've been getting up too, not as much riding lately because I've been working an internship out here and applying for graduate school in urban theory and planning and all that takes time and thought. I've got my commute figured out though, it'll be about 14 miles of bay side riding, which beats the bart any day.

Transit oriented development is what we need, perhaps more so than bike lanes, to get the average person out of a car.

By the way, this was linked on the day's summary from streetsblog.


W. K. Lis said...

In the province of Ontario, effective October 3, 2009, electric bikes (both those resembling conventional bicycles and those resembling motor scooters) are permanently allowed on roads and highways where conventional bicycles are currently permitted.

Biker Bob/Runner Bob said...


Thanks for such a well thought out and informative comment. You did a great job of pointing out that much of what we often focus our attention on is actually just trying to treat the symptoms instead of the cause.

Thanks again to everyone that has offered comments on this topic an other topics on BikeOmaha. Your input is extremely important to us.