A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers (Part II)
A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers (Part II)
So you’re inspired to try more biking…
If you haven't yet read Part I of this article, please do. After learning about Peak Oil a few years back, I decided to get a cargo bicycle setup with an electric assist as an alternative to using a car for around-town trips. I had been a cycling enthusiast for about 20 years at that point, and I had prior experience tinkering with electric bicycles. During my college years, I worked in a bike shop and commuted daily by bike. In 1994, I ordered and installed my first electric add-on kit, consisting of a very basic setup – a friction roller against the tire, activated by a two-speed toggle switch on the handlebar. I also happen to have a degree in Physics, which helped a lot with debugging early electric bike equipment that was not quite ready for prime time.
Nevertheless, when I decided to take on this project in 2007, I quickly found out that it wasn’t a simple undertaking, despite my fairly broad experience. The local bike shops were not enthused by this project. They wouldn’t touch electric assist, and ordering an Xtracycle kit to convert my bike to a cargo hauler was something they were decidedly lukewarm about. Given that attitude, I decided to just order the parts through the Internet and do it myself.
I encountered a huge variety of choices on the Internet, especially in the realm of electric motor kit add-ons. There were myriad motors, motor controllers, and batteries – and a wide range of prices. It took a few months of reading and research before I was confident with my choice. And then the fancy, expensive lithium ion battery I ordered didn’t ever show up (after months of waiting, I cancelled that order). That’s when I decided to get into the business, because if other people had to go through what I was going through, not many would ever adopt this option for an oil-limited future.
Find an open-minded bike mechanic or shop
Fortunately, since that time, I’ve heard reports of quite a few bike shops around the country that are taking these options more seriously. Many shops are beginning to actively support the cargo bicycle concept. Fewer are embracing the electric motor concept, though we’ve had quite a few customers who purchased a motor kit to be installed by their local bike mechanic – and found their reluctant mechanic became more enthusiastic about it during the process. More and more e-bike-specific dealers are cropping up.
Unless you have significant experience working on bikes, it will help to have someone to assist with the assembly and/or upkeep of your new ride. I suggest calling around to the local bike shops and asking. Ask whether they’d be willing to help you with something like an Xtracycle installation and/or electric motor installation, to find out whether or not they treat you like you’re from the planet Mars. If they don’t, then you might have a keeper. If they do respond that way, just call the next one in the list. Another possibility is to check your local Craigslist for people willing to do mechanical work – or you might even post a help wanted ad.
It's not that I discourage learning how to do the work yourself – in fact, over the long term, I think it is a valuable set of skills to develop. If you’re Peak-Oil-aware, you’re likely into self-sufficiency, right? But the initial assembly of such a bike can be quite involved. It is certainly possible to do it yourself, if you have prior mechanical skills and some time/patience. But most bikes ship disassembled to save space and shipping costs, which means they require substantial assembly upon arrival. If you don’t know what a headset, bottom bracket or derailleur is, then I’d strongly recommend that you pick up a book like the Park Tools Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair and check out Sheldon Brown’s excellent repair site. These resources will give you a better idea of what is involved in building up and working on a bike.
Recently, some shops have figured out how to ship certain bikes fully assembled, but that adds to the cost. Some brands of bike even prohibit dealers from selling and shipping their bikes fully assembled. Even if you do get a fully-assembled bike delivered to your doorstep, I’d still recommend checking out the above resources to learn how to do it yourself or developing a relationship with a local mechanic who can work on your bike.
Overview of costs
Acquiring a complete electric cargo bike built from reputable, name-brand components is not an cheap endeavor. Typical prices for these bikes are $900-$2200, not including $600-$1800 for the electric motor kits. So a bottom-end electric cargo bike setup is going to cost $1500 or more, and a lighter and/or higher-end setup, as much as $2500. For replacing a car with such a bike, most people find it to be worth the cost. In fact, we’ve had quite a few customers who sold a second car and used the proceeds to buy a cargo bike of some sort. But if it is only going to be used occasionally, that is a lot to spend. Electric bikes without cargo-carrying can be had for less, often as little as $400-$500, though in this price range they aren’t designed for durability. Electric add-on motor kits with batteries start in the high $300’s and go up to $1800 or more. The biggest variation in price in electric bikes and motor kits comes from the batteries. Lead acid batteries are cheap, but heavy, and are not all that long lasting. Lithium batteries are lightweight and longer-lived, but they are expensive.
An electric utility bike setup based on a Yuba Mundo ($900) and a BMC hub motor kit with Nickel Cadmium battery pack and charger. Total system price is $2,097.
In general, the more you spend, the longer-lasting the components, at least to a point. The very high-end includes extremely lightweight bikes and components meant for racing, and those aren’t what you want for a daily-use bike. The best parts to use for an everyday bike are mid- to high-end mountain bike components, such as the Shimano Deore XT and/or SRAM X7. These are designed for the abuses of mountain biking (mud/dirt/rain/etc), and hold up for a long time. I have a Shimano Deore XT gear shifter and derailleur (the part that actually shifts the chain from one gear to the next) from 1987 that still works okay after 20 years of use. I also have a nice chromoly steel mountain bike from 1992 that is in great shape. Cheap stuff won’t last nearly so long.
Some discount and big-box outlets now carry electric bikes. Their price is low, but that’s about all that can be said for them. The bikes aren’t selected by or for people who ride regularly. They are designed for someone who is going to put the bike in the garage and only get it out a few times per year to go to the local bike path. If you get one of these bikes and ride it regularly, it will break down.
In our shop, we’ve seen many customers who bring us cheap discounter bikes to fix. After a few years, it becomes more expensive to fix one of these bikes than it did to buy it in the first place. And we’re pretty tolerant – we want to help people ride their bikes more, so we’ll fix almost anything. But if you are on a tight budget, I’d strongly suggest that you avoid buying a cheap discounter bike. Instead buy a solid, used mountain bike (typical costs < $100), and convert it with a good, lower-end electric conversion kit (~$400). Then, if you later decide you want cargo-carrying capability, you can add on an Xtracycle kit. The results of this approach will likely be far more satisfactory than a cheap Wal-Mart or Target electric bike.
A 1992 Stumpjumper mountain bike with Xtracycle kit installed. Total cost under $600. Note the wide swept back handlebars (Nitto North Road) and wide saddle, to give a comfortable, upright riding position.
Comfort on the bike
Comfort is an often under-appreciated aspect of biking. The main focus of the bike industry is on racing, and it has only recently begun to address comfort. Racing is generally not comfortable, because one needs a tucked down position to be as aerodynamic as possible. But for everyday riding, comfort and safety are essential to encourage (rather than discourage) everyday use. A more upright position on the bike generally improves visibility to cars, and it also makes it easier for you to pay attention to the traffic around you.
Comparison of comfort saddle on the left to a racing saddle on the right. They are built for different purposes.
I generally recommend the type of handlebars that give a more upright position on the bike, such as cruiser bars or comfort handlebars. Many bikes on the market – even so-called “comfort” bikes – come with flat bars, the same as are on most mountain bikes. The problem with flat handlebars is that they do not encourage an ergonomic hand position. Try this experiment: Let your hands hang down freely at your sides. Then swing your hands slowly up together in front of you, where they would be if you were gripping handlebars, without twisting your wrists at all. You’ll see that the natural position is to have your knuckles pointed outward at 20-30 degrees from your centerline, not pointed straight ahead. I used to use straight bars, until I started developing wrist pains from my regular riding. Switching over to bars that sweep back at a 30-degree angle solved those problems immediately.
If you ride the bike in an upright position, more weight is going to be on your rear end, so it is important to have a good seat. Seats are a matter of strong personal preference. Some people like a very cushy “gel” seat, while others prefer a bit more rigid seat. One thing to note is that the seats that come with bikes are often not designed for comfort, unless it is a comfort bike. So swapping out a seat is often important to consider.
Another important goal should be to size your bike properly, so that you are neither too stretched out, nor too scrunched up when you are riding it. Some of the cargo bikes come in only one size but have adjustable stems and seats. If you are a very short or tall person, it is good to mention your height when working with someone to find the right solution, since it can impact which bikes will provide the best fit. You should be able to sit comfortably on your bike without any significant pressure on your hands and wrists (or they will get sore).
For people with back, wrist, or knee issues – and for those wanting the ultimate in comfort – another possibility is a recumbent or semi-recumbent bike. Recumbent bikes put the rider in a seated position more akin to a car seat than a standard bicycle. Recumbents have their tradeoffs. They are typically more comfortable and more aerodynamic. On the downside, they often look a bit odd and bike-geek-ish, and they are lower and hence less visible to cars. Nonetheless, they are becoming an increasingly viable option. More recently, several manufacturers have introduced “crank forward” type designs, which are essentially a hybrid between a recumbent and an upright bike. These brands include Day 6, Electra, and Rans. Rans even makes a recumbent utility/cargo bicycle called the Hammer Truck, mentioned in more detail later in this article.
Recumbent bicycle by RANS (left), and semi-recumbent/comfort bike by Day6 (right)
The necessities of everyday bike commuting are quite different from those of racing or mountain biking. One consideration is whether you can wear everyday clothes on the bike and not get them caught in the chain or wheel or messed up with grease. Recreational cyclists often wear cycling clothes to avoid this problem, but most folks who ride for transportation don’t want to don lycra. To deal with this, many of the newer transportation-focused bikes have chain guards of some type, and some even have rear-wheel skirt/pant guards. Chain guards like the Kool Stop Chain Disc can also be retrofitted, if your mountain or road bike lacks one.
Chain guard on Breezer Villager bicycle (left), and Kool Stop Chain Disc add-on (right)
If you’re not springing for a utility bike right away, a rack can be also be quite useful for carrying stuff. Some of the commuting-oriented bikes come with racks, and if you already have a bike lacking a rack, one can be retrofitted to almost any bike for $20-50.
Some will just use a backpack or messenger bag to carry all their stuff while on the bike. That works, but there are drawbacks. In hot weather, you’ll develop a sweaty spot wherever the bag or backpack is in contact with your skin. Plus, for longer rides, the bags often become increasingly uncomfortable. I strongly recommend for regular riding to find a way to get any loads you will carry mounted on the bike rather than on your back, using a suitable rack or utility bike setup.
Lights are another necessity, if there’s any chance you’ll be caught out after dark. I could write a whole article on lights alone, but I will distill it down to a few key points:
- Front lights are of two varieties, those to “be seen” and those to “see with”. If you are riding where there are always city lights, you may only need the less expensive “be seen” type lights. If you are riding in places where you might encounter unseen obstacles on the road, you need a “see with” light. They are more expensive. However, if you have an electric bike battery, there are now lights that can operate directly from that battery, so you don’t have to pay for or carry a separate light battery. They are made by the folks at ebikes.ca in Canada.
- For the rear, you can buy an inexpensive and very bright red blinkie, such as the Planet Bike Superflash, which can be seen up to a mile away. Most of these blinkies come with attachments, either for a seat post or a bag/backpack. Also, I love the Flash Flags, both for night time and daytime use. They are a fluorescent flag with reflective strips that sticks out to the side of your bike and waves in the wind while you ride. It is highly visible, day or night. I find most cars give more passing room when I am using one of these.
- I highly recommend that you also consider lights, or at least reflectors, that will illuminate your bike from the side. Some effective and inexpensive options include the NiteIze SpokeLit spoke light and Fun Reflectors that you can stick all over your bike. If you want to get fancier with this, the MonkeyLight spoke light displays wild light patterns in your spokes, and the Down Low Glow casts a large, tinted glowing circle all around your bike. Whichever way you choose, this type of illumination helps reduce the likelihood that a car will pull out right in front of you from a side street, claiming they didn’t see you.
Xtracycle bike with Down Low Glow (blue), spoke lights, and electroluminescent wire (in addition to front and rear lights)
Tires significantly determine how your bike will respond to the road. The tires for racing bikes are designed for one goal – speed. But those skinny little tires often compromise durability and the ability to safely ride over obstacles like potholes, gravel, grass, etc. A lot of folks in the biking world focus on “rotational weight” of a wheel and tire, because these can have a strong effect on how the bike accelerates. But for everyday biking, I strongly recommend considering wider, heavier-duty tires. They are both safer and more comfortable to ride. In fact, on my bike I now use very large “balloon” tires. I really like the cushy ride they give, as well as the ability to ride over almost any type of surface (except mud or ice).
Example of a slick “balloon” tire on the Yuba Mundo. It gives a cushy ride, and gives the ability to ride over nearly any surface, including gravel or grass.
Mountain bikes often come with “knobby” tires that have a tread meant to grip in the dirt or mud. While those are great off-road, you will get significantly lower rolling resistance with a smooth or semi smooth tire (often referred to as “slicks”). In my opinion, the optimal type for everyday riding in normal weather is the slick balloon style, ranging from 1.5” to 2.3” in width. If you find yourself riding in snowy or icy conditions, there are even studded bike tires available. I used these when I lived in a northern climate, and they work well, though they can be a bit noisy and they do add resistance. For those on a budget, another option is to set your bike up with “ Poor Man’s Tire Chains.”
General safety on a bicycle warrants a lot of discussion. Before we can drive cars, we have to go through extensive training and licensing. But anyone can hop on a bike, regardless of training. Consider safe biking to be just like safe driving – it requires some practice and skill development. There are many instructors through the League of American Cyclists who offer cycling skills training, and often local bike shops will offer classes as well. You can also read up on the subject at websites like bicyclesafe.com and Bicycling Life, or pick up a book on the subject, such as The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.
But there are a number of bottom-line safety issues to keep in mind:
- Sidewalks are dangerous. Riding on sidewalks is often the most dangerous way to ride, because drivers do not easily see you and may pull out right in front of you. There are occasional situations where I’ll ride on a sidewalk – for example, if it is the only way to avoid a very busy road of high-speed traffic – but I avoid it whenever possible.
- Choose your route carefully. The best way to get somewhere by bike vs. by car is almost never the same route. In a car, you’re looking for routes with high-speed thoroughfares, but on a bike, you’re looking for low-traffic and low-speed minor roads. In my own commute, I bike a few extra miles every day in order to avoid a high-traffic, high-speed road. I don’t mind the extra distance with my electric bike.
- Riding against traffic is dangerous. When you are riding against oncoming traffic, nobody has sufficient time to react if there is a safety issue. This can be very bad.
- Biking at night without lights or when intoxicated is deadly. In most studies I’ve seen, at least a third of all bicycle-related deaths involved people riding at night while improperly lighted and/or while intoxicated. If you want to become a statistic, this is a sure way to do it.
- Pretend that drivers can’t see you. Most of the time, drivers will see you – but sometimes they don’t. If you always assume they won’t see you, and ride accordingly, you can drastically increase your safety.
- Timidly hugging the far right side is not effective. Hugging the far right of the road can, in many situations, make you far less visible, particularly as you approach intersections, driveways, or turn-outs. It also makes you more vulnerable to car doors being opened in front of you. Instead, ride purposefully out in the lane (many state laws allow you to be up to 1/3 into the lane and/or 3 ft from the right side, check to make sure). If you are blocking traffic, then you can slide over to let cars by, with the added bonus that the drivers will be impressed by your courtesy as a cyclist.
- Get a mirror. The aware cyclist knows what is going on behind as well as in front. While the majority of danger comes from the front, it brings both peace of mind and additional safety to know what’s going on behind.
Helmet-mounted bicycle mirror
Overall, people who follow these guidelines tend to do well. (According to some statistics, cyclists fare better than car drivers per mile travelled.) Following good training and advice, you may reduce the risk of accident by as much as 1/4 (see Table 6 at this site). Many people think of biking as “unsafe,” but the biggest reason for that perception is all the untrained and uneducated riders. For people who get proper bicycle safety training, the years that cycling will add to their lives through better health will more than offset any risks cycling might pose.
All about electric bikes
As I mentioned in Part I of this article, electric bikes are great because they encourage you to ride your bike more often, instead of taking the car. This is particularly relevant for people who live a bit too far out of town, have hills, or hot weather, or are not in peak physical shape. Commuting or carrying cargo on a bike, without electric, works for some people who live in places without major hills or who are truly dedicated to the physical conditioning required, but for the rest of us, electric makes the difference between a practical/usable bike and one that sits in the garage. In the sections below, I will discuss various options and considerations in getting an electric bike or an electric motor add-on kit, and then we'll talk about possible cargo options. The combination of electric with a utility/cargo bike makes a great car replacement for many people.
Pedelec versus throttle control
There are two different styles of electric assist operation when a motor is attached to a bicycle. The first, called a “pedelec,” operates the motor only when you are pedaling. It detects your pedaling cadence (revolution rate) or force, and uses that to determine how much electric power to add. Pedelec bikes are the most like regular bikes – you just get on them and ride, without thinking about the electric parts. The electric assist just does its work silently in the background.
The other style of electric assist is a “throttle control” that uses either a motorcycle-style twist throttle or a thumb-activated throttle to control the power. With this style, you can activate the motor whether or not you are pedaling. When you are pedaling, it just adds power. Some motor systems have enough power that they can carry you uphill without pedaling, but many do not – they will require at least gentle pedaling to move forward on steep uphills. Some users like the feeling of control that the throttle gives; others don’t like to think about it. It really comes down to a matter of personal preference.
Bike versus add-on kit
There are many brands of pre-built electric bikes that have an integrated motor and battery. There is also an increasing number of add-on electric motor kits for converting a bike you already have to electric. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one.
Advantages: Directly integrated battery and electric assist, often stylish and comfortable, successful in stealth mode (being seen as a regular bike instead of an electric bike), some have features like pedal sensing or regenerative braking (see below), and safe when well-built and assembled. Many models have chain guards to protect pants and skirt.
Disadvantages: Most have only 6-8 pedaling gears, decent but not great drive-train components, not readily upgradable to different batteries/motors, and most of these are at the lower end of the power/speed range.
Ecobike electric bicycle with integrated lithium battery (the black box), chain guard, cruiser handlebars, rack, 8Fun electric motor, and throttle control.
Electric add-on kits
These kits consist of a motor, motor controller, either a throttle or a pedelec sensor, and a battery that all attach to your existing bike. Installation of the simpler styles may take from 1-3 hours for someone who has mechanical experience with bikes.
Example of an add-on motor kit by Nine Continent
Advantages: They recycle your existing bike into a new use, they are typically used to convert mountain style bikes (which have more gears and better drive-trains), they come in a variety of power levels and speeds (low to high), and you typically get more bang for your buck out of an electric-assist conversion.
Disadvantages include the difficulty of figuring out a matching set of components, making sure that they will install on your bike safely and without problems, and that you need to have an existing bike that is suitable for conversion and that you are comfortable on.
The latter point can’t be understated – a lot of people have an existing bike, but one which is uncomfortable to ride. If the bike is not comfortable, you won’t ride it as often. So if you spend the money to convert a bike to electric, I strongly recommend upgrading your seat and/or handlebars to make sure you will have a ride that is very comfortable for you. It is also important that the bike is in suitable working condition so that you can safely convert it and ride it on a regular basis.
About motor types
The most common motor types available for electric bikes and electric bike conversion now are hub motors, where the motor is integrated directly into the bicycle wheel. The advantages of hub motors are that they are compact, quiet, easy to install, and usually people don’t even notice that you have a motor on your bike. The disadvantage of a hub motor is that for steep hill climbing, it can’t take advantage of the gears on your bike to give it more climbing torque. In order to deal with steeper hills, you can either get a bigger and higher-powered hub motor, or one that has internal planetary gears that gives it more torque (torque is a measure of the overall force that the hub motor can deliver). The internally-geared motors have the advantage that they generally have better climbing ability in a much smaller and lighter-weight package. They also have the advantage that, due to an internal one-way clutch, they provide easy freewheeling when you are pedaling the bike without an assist. They have the disadvantage that they are usually less efficient than the non-geared hub motors, and they can’t do regenerative braking, where you use the bike’s motion to recharge the batteries a bit.
Common brands of non-geared hub motors include Nine Continent, Crystalyte, Wilderness Energy, BionX, Golden Motor, and E+. Crystalyte is one of the better known brands and has a moderate reputation for reliability. They make one of the larg
– Peak Prosperity –