21 May 2019
Arguably the most significant (almost) new thing on two wheels is the electric bike. In the short time they’ve been around, the technology has progressed at an eye watering rate. Only two years ago Steve (Ground Effect’s resident bike fondler) made the fiscally rational decision to retro fit a Bafung mid drive to an old Santa Cruz mountain bike that had been retired from active service. Affectionately known as Frankie (as in Frankenstein), it's a fabulous off-road commuter. The task suited Steve’s engineering temperament and his patience to massage the wrinkles during the conversion process. However, the project is not one he would entertain in the current climate - with so many seductively well-resolved designs on offer from almost all the leading bike brands.
The Frankenstein experiment.
It’s not in any way definitive, but UK publisher Bike Radar has recently complied a useful summary of the broad eBike categories, examples of bikes they like, and their pros and cons.
In an over simplified view of the world, eBike designs typically sit on a spectrum with features that suit commuting at one end and mountain biking at the other - with a generous overlap in the centre that covers rail and cycle trails.
So, if you’re in the market, start with obvious introspective question “How am I likely to use this bike?” This will provide some clarity when evaluating the potentially confusing price-features-attributes minefield.
Be mindful that while current designs and battery technology are well-resolved, invariably eBikes will continue to evolve and improve - getting better and cheaper each year. There's a wealth of information to trawl through at E-Mountainbike Magazine.
Most commercially available eBikes have a 250-300 watt motor, are pedal assisted (go when you pedal, cut out when you stop pedalling or reach 32 kph), have aesthetically-pleasing integrated batteries and clever proprietary handlebar mounted controllers to manage power and distance.
eMtbs generally have a mid-drive motor around the bottom bracket to provide solid torque through a variety of terrains. The more sophisticated controllers will read your mind and deliver power at exactly the right point in your pedal stroke when navigating technical obstacles.
eCommuters may also have a mid-drive, although the less expensive models tend to use a hub motor in the front or rear wheel. They work just fine but need to be optimised for either flat riding or hilly stuff.
eBikes have transformed commuting, emancipating riders with a non-sweaty cruise to work at an elegant 32 kph - while retaining the traditional bicycle benefits of reduced road congestion, a hit of exercise and absence of parking frustration.
The standard front triangle-type conveyance with maximum versatility is the default choice for many. However if your steed is intended purely for town and around then other frame configurations may deliver more benefits.
Ground Effect recently acquired a bright orange Tern GSD cargo bike, affectionately nicknamed ‘Fanta’.
Scott and Fanta factory-bound with a load of zips.
The ’sit up and beg’ position with increased vision is easy to navigate amongst traffic and riding with a straight back is very relaxing. The motor compensates for the non-aerodynamic upright stance and reduced pedal power. It has significant carrying capacity for stuff and/or little people. Swinging your leg across the low top tube to mount and dismount completes the bike’s urban sensibilities.
eBikes have opened up rail and cycle trail trips to a new breed of adventurers.
The less-fit can tackle a long day without blowing their foo-foo valve. And less experienced family members can travel at the same pace as the rest of the crew. A word of caution…compared to their non-powered cousins, eBikes are heavier and travel faster. If your two wheeled skills are a little rusty then invest some time practising before you head out - especially braking and cornering on a shingle surface. Also master smooth gear changing. The motor generates a lot of torque, exacerbating drive chain wear ’n’ tear. Clunky shifting can cause breakages.
Taking your bike on holiday to exotic locations is a joy. But airline restrictions make eTouring a little tricky. Expensive eBikes tip the scales at around 20kg - most nearer 25-30kg so your eBike alone is nipping at the airline’s baggage allowance and the 32kg maximum weight for any single piece. More problematical, lithium-ion batteries can’t be checked in or carried on as cabin baggage due to fears of spontaneous combustion. You’ll need to buy or rent a battery at your destination. Rental is not that common yet. Hiring an entire eBike may be a more pragmatic solution.
eBikes are fast. On the flat you’ll easily hit the 32kph max and you’ll climb uphill at 15-20kph with minimal effort and sweat. The (unexpected) consequence of this is that windproof layers are really important to keep you warm. A waterproof or water resistant jacket and pants is the foundation. Also consider windproof gloves, a beanie under your helmet, and windproof socks or over-shoes to protect your extremities.
Off-road eMtbs are arguably the most sophisticated, most expensive and fastest developing category. In Europe, and increasingly in other markets, they outsell their non-powered siblings in most shops. Some points to consider:
Mike Cowlin on Lithium at the Coppermine. Photo Digby Shaw
Batteries run out of juice. Recharging is often not an option. So, on longer trips you’ll probably want to carry a spare battery and conserve power by selecting economy mode rather than turbo.
At around 25kg eBikes are too heavy to sensibly hoist onto the roof of your car. And they will almost certainly exceed the weight limit to travel up there safely. A standard tow ball bikerack will also struggle - especially if you’re transporting two or more eBikes. You are likely to end up with a solid 2” hitch mount rack from the likes of Thule or Yakima to cart your eBikes around.
A final caution when belting around town on your eBike. Car drivers are not yet adjusted to bicycles approaching at high speeds and will often pull out in front of you in the mistaken belief they have plenty of time before you come thundering through. Always bring your A-Game when travelling amongst traffic.
May the force be with you.
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