E-bikes for “red ocean” cyclists

Commuter, E-bike 17 42

I post about e-bikes from time to time, and I am definitely a fan of the category. I believe that urban oriented e-bikes, like the Sanyo Eneloop, have potential to get more people riding, and that is definitely a good thing. Longtails and cargo bikes are another type of bike that I really think could really benefit from the addition of an electric motor (this electric Kona Ute from Interbike is a good example). Pedal assist could extend the usefulness of those types of bikes for many potential users.

Cytronex powered Cannondale Super Six www.cytronex.com

Lately though, I have been thinking a bit about a different type of electric bike. I mentioned in a recent discussion thread about e-bikes for commuting on the LinkedIn “World Cycling Industry” group that electric assist might be nice for a short stretch of my commute. One section of my ride to work is on a busy, narrow two-lane road with rolling hills. When I get to that section, I usually get down in the drops and pedal hard to get through it as quickly as I can. I like to maintain a speed of at least 25 mph through that section, but that is not always easy to do on a loaded bike after a long day at work (especially in the winter). In that situation, it might be nice to have a small reserve motor to help me maintain speed until I get to a road with less traffic.

Obviously, a comfort-oriented bike would not be the solution for me. I would prefer something lightweight with road bike geometry and just enough reserve for the few times that I want to use it. In the discussion thread, Juan Diaz mentioned Cytronex bikes, which use fairly small NiMH batteries and have a throttle for that occasional punch when needed. He also mentioned the BH Emotion bikes based on the Panasonic mid drive motor. Another option for a lightweight (relatively speaking of course) e-bike is the electric conversion kit from Freedom e-bikes. According to the website, the kit is only a 3.2kg weight (about 7lb) addition to a regular bike. My current commuting bike (an older Litespeed) is just over 20 pounds with racks, so I could turn it into a sub 30-pound e-bike with the conversion from Freedom. I probably never will, but it is something I would like to try… mainly out of curiosity.

E-bike concept with fairing www.henrychongdesigns.com

Coincidentally, Henry Chong sent me his e-bike concept (pictured here) as I was starting to assemble links for this post. Last year, I briefly mentioned the Trek Phase, another concept e-bike that seemed to be targeted more toward the current base of enthusiasts than new cyclists. As the e-bike category matures (here in the U.S. at least), I think we will continue to see electric bike designs that are geared toward different segments of the market. So I am curious…would you ever consider an electric bike for your commute? If so, what type of bike (or features) would you want?


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James Thomas

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17 Comments

  1. Andreas April 14, 2010 at 1:03 pm -  Reply

    Yep, I would certainly consider an e-bike. Especially for when you see those horrible hills up ahead and you’ve been cycling for about an hour wishing you were home by now! (I love cycling but we all get those moments). There is something comforting about knowing you could hit a button and get a nice little boost.

    As you mentioned yourself there are a few busy sections of road in London that I prefer to just get over and done with as soon as possible (the sections where cars are zooming past at 50mph and all you can hear is that annoying engine sound) again the battery would be useful there.

    Can I see myself getting an e-bike in next 1-2 years? No way. In next 4-5? Maybe

  2. Champs April 14, 2010 at 1:25 pm -  Reply

    Whatever the mode of transport, we can’t insulate ourselves from some kind of suffering. I’ll take my chances with weather and gravity, and enjoy the sense of accomplishment when they don’t smile upon me.

    • James T April 14, 2010 at 4:13 pm -  Reply

      I like a bit of suffering and the resulting feeling of accomplishment too, which is why I have been bike commuting on and off for about 20 years now. Back when I was racing in the early 90s, I had a 21-mile (one way) commute that I did a few days a week in all kinds of weather. I considered the long commute to be free training time, so I welcomed adverse conditions…the harder the better. Today, I am 40 years old and still fairly fit. I do more centuries and charity rides than races these days, but I still view my commute as free riding time that keeps me in shape. At some point though (who knows when), I may welcome an electric assist while riding a heavy loaded bike up a steep hill.

      Cycling is something that I plan to do for my entire life, so I guess my point is that the sense of accomplishment you refer to should be on a sliding scale. 20 years from now, I am pretty sure that I won’t be able to perform like I did 20 years ago, but I want to still be able to, not just ride a bike, but carry loads and get around on one. If I need a little help to do it, I am pretty sure I will still feel that same sense accomplishment that I always have from a rainy commute, a tough race, or a very long day on the bike.

  3. Matt April 14, 2010 at 1:33 pm -  Reply

    My current commute is around 4.5 miles… so no, I wouldn’t… but if it became a 20+ mile commute, I might – if it allowed me to go several mph faster (I’d be interested for purposes of time spent commuting, not effort spent pedaling).

    As an aside, the fairing on that e-bike design is awful. What biker in their right mind would want something even lower down than the bottom bracket? Also, where are the brakes? Surely there’s not much market for a fixed-gear e-bike (fix-e?)?

  4. andy April 14, 2010 at 3:58 pm -  Reply

    There’s too much promise with not enough results. Small motors and batteries will mean a very short range with little power. I’ve met several people on electric bikes with fairly beefy systems that only get ~15 miles offering half the assist power needed to get up slight hills. If I had to guess, I’d say that these systems weighed about 20 pounds. So if you want a 7 pound system, you should expect just a few miles of assist. A lot of the weight goes into the power system (usually a hub) and the mechanical parts and mounting system. Once you run out of juice, you’re left with this add-on to carry the rest of the distance. If you venture further, than you are carrying dead weight for the rest of that trip until you can recharge it. I think for non-fit riders looking for an easier ride, their money would be better spent on lighter bike parts or different gearing.

    Plus, if you only ride your powered bike a few times a year, than it’s hardly worth the cost these systems sell for (hundreds to a few thousand dollars). If you ride it frequently, than you are likely fit enough to not need the system in the first place…

    • James T April 14, 2010 at 4:32 pm -  Reply

      A few miles of assist from a 7-pound system might even be a generous estimate, but I would still like to try a system like that one out of curiosity. The section of my commute that I would use it for is very short (maybe 1,000 feet), but it is pretty sketchy so I like to zoom through it as fast as I can. Maybe it wouldn’t be worth it to have that extra 7 pounds on the bike for the rest of the ride, but since I also carry my lunch, a change of clothes, tools, files, a laptop, etc., that extra dead weight might not be such a big deal. As it is, the combined weight of my bike and bags vary by a lot more than 7 pounds , but my times to the office are fairly consistent.

    • wvcycling April 17, 2010 at 1:10 pm -  Reply

      A few years before I earned my driver’s license, I had a souped-up 59cc moped. Being age 14/15… there were several times where I either ran out of gas, or something happened to the thing where I had to push or pedal home. I still remember it like yesterday over a decade later.

      • Charles D June 6, 2010 at 1:39 pm -  Reply

        Modern e-bikes (at least the mid-drive ones) are unlike mopeds inasmuch as you’re expected to pedal in tandem with the motor; think of it like having a tandem with an invisible stoker. :)

    • Charles D June 6, 2010 at 1:37 pm -  Reply

      Buying an electric assist system as a way to “bootstrap” a longer commute than you’re otherwise fit enough for is a good way to get off four wheels and onto two. It’s what I did, anyhow — I’m now a daily cycle commuter, and take the e-bike when I’m in enough of a hurry that I want to get to work in 45 minutes instead of 70.

      And just to be clear — I’m putting in the same effort per unit time in that 45 minutes; it’s the effort per unit distance (and the speed) that the electric assist impacts.

  5. Juan Díaz Díaz April 15, 2010 at 2:48 am -  Reply

    Andy, there are some case scenarios that will be better served with nonpermanent light electric assitance.
    Mine, i. e., i live uphill in Barcelona so my trip leg downtown in my semiold heavy weight two wheeled anchor is easy. If not loaded (“not loaded” for me is just a back pack wih around 6-8 kilos of mixed stuff and 82 kilos of selfported brave guy) the trip back is easy too, just slower.

    Now, lets go to car replacement
    But when i do some grocery shopping i carry a trow over double side pannier and i add from 15 to 30 more kilos. Now my rise to home changes is not so easy anymore and i have to dismount and push for the last part of the ride. Also, my speed is much slower.
    In ths case a light electric assistance, just to keep the speed and ride all the trip will be vry wellcome.
    As for the weight added when not in electric mode, my actual bike weights 24-26 kg in road mode, one lighter bike, even electrified will be lighter (around 16 to 22 kg). Im used to heavy bikes.
    The real issue with many mass-marketed electric bikes is the choice of components. Those bikes use to have lower-mid range components and as minded for people that will ride not too logn distances and will use them more as a moped that a bike with helpers weight is not the key factor but price contention. The manufacturer needs to offset the higher price tag of a electric bike with cheaper components and for non intensive bikers 5 Kg more or less in a electric bike dont count as much as 300 euro less in the price.

    There is a space not served by bike manufacturers (Cytronx may fit here). And i think that this niche will be better filled with DIY solutions.

  6. MrH April 15, 2010 at 8:10 am -  Reply

    Hi Guys,

    Since the birth of my daughter, and spending less time asleep I decided that I was not up to my 20 mile each way cycle commute on my beloved Binanchi. I initially started to use other forms of transport but really missed being on a bike. I decided to get an eBike to see what it would be like. After much research I bought a Wispa 905 City. It was not cheap, the components aren’t great and it does not feel like a normal bike, but it gives me a 30 mile range on full assist and a 60 mile one on minimal assist and I really appreciate it for what it is.

    I am still cycling every day, in all weathers. Having the Wispa means I can have an easier commute every couple of days and if I am unwell I don’t resort to the car. It is also very good at helping me tow my daughter in a trailer with the weekly shop in panniers.

    They are not for everyone, and I am the youngest/fittest person I have seen riding one (33/and not too bad if I do say so myself!) but they (with a bit of refinement) are the future.

  7. Ross Nicholson April 16, 2010 at 1:47 am -  Reply

    For a light conversion try Gruber Assist, eh? Or another through the gears conversion: elationebikes.com.au, both are relatively light.

  8. Bryan Willman April 17, 2010 at 4:52 pm -  Reply

    Electric assist, or even rocket assist, would greatly increase my utility riding. That’s because (like many people who live near me) any ride from my house starts with a very severe climb – so much so that I have to walk/push the bike up the hill. Riding up would create an honest risk of heart failure.

    That one obstruction, faced while dead cold at the very start, really pimps my utility riding. So an assist that worked for that 200 odd feet only would be of great value.

  9. NoSho April 27, 2010 at 1:59 pm -  Reply

    I commute every day 6 miles each way on a Trek Valencia+. The Trek Ride+ bikes use the Bionx electrical system so it weighs in at around 20lbs. The Valencia is a pretty sweet road-inspired urban bike with road tires and pretty good gearing for around town. When I started riding this bike, I was new to bike commuting and so used the electric motor a lot. Now, I basically use it as you’ve described. I really appreciate the added acceleration when I’m in traffic and I still use it going up some of the hills in my town, though I’m trying to use it less on the hills. The electrical system also comes in really handy on the days I’m running late. If I take a short route and crank up the motor, I can make my commute in about 20 minutes, which is basically what it used to take me to drive and find a parking spot.

    The extra weight of an electrical system that I don’t always use all the time doesn’t bother me because my primary goal in riding to work is fitness, so if the extra weight means I get a little better workout, I’m okay with that.

  10. RC May 11, 2010 at 8:45 pm -  Reply

    I used one a few years back, and although it was heavy and clunky I LOVED it! Now I’m saving up for a new one. My husband just got a Giant ebike and loves it as well. Much lighter than my old one, with better looks and better range. He travels 7 miles each way to work and back, coming back with a light sweat and a big grin on his face. A few years ago ebikes were heavy and terribly uncool, but I’m sooooo glad to finally see attitudes changing. They’re absolutely great for commuting and so much fun to ride!

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