The Ultimate Commuter Electric Bike, of the (Near) Future
After 1000+ miles over months of riding an electric bike (and not touching my car), I had some thoughts on the future of electric bikes.
Electric bikeshare is just getting off the ground in cities around the world. Through government subsidies or “BYOB”, it will soon cost as little as $2 a ride or $30 a month for access to an ebike — if not free entirely, in major cities.
What does that mean for ebike sales?
It’s already happening with pushbikes, particularly in China where dockless bikeshare is ubiquitous — softening sales of entry-level ebikes. Why buy an ebike to tool around the city, and go through the hassle of maintenance and security, when you can spend less on a shared bike?
The value proposition of buying a comparable ebike will fade — at least in urban areas where ebikeshare prevails, and especially among younger people who don’t put an irrational premium on ownership.
But these shared ebikes have a few drawbacks. None go over 20 mph, and that’s probably not going to change. Going faster would legally require riders to wear a helmet thanks to recent ebike laws. Plus, it would put new, casual and potentially drunk riders at higher risk, a liability that firms probably won’t want. Especially when it may not appreciably increase trip times.
Ebikes for sale will become everything shared ebikes aren’t
Fatbikes and mountain bikes for recreational and off-road riding will become a bigger share of ebikes, but a new category will dominate, thanks to the addition of a motor and the riding it enables. I call it a cyclemotor, as an homage to its habitat, the road, to its motor, and to its forebear, the bicycle with a gas engine.
What is the point of a cyclemotor?
- It cuts down long commutes, by going fast — 25–30 mph (40–50 kph)
- It’s very comfortable for its speed, and fast for its level of comfort
- It can carry as much as a regular city bike, including child seats
- It’s a blast to ride
- It’s designed to last tens of thousands of miles
Who will buy cyclemotors?
- People wanting to do longer non-recreational rides (>5 miles) regularly,
- Suburban commuters beyond the reach of ebikeshare
- People who want to bike fast, on the road. (Electric road bikes already exist, but they’re mostly geared to mimicking the non-electric road bike experience)
- People who don’t want the expense, hassle or frustration of driving
- People for whom storage and theft are not an issue
The top tier of the urban ebike industry has already firmly fixed its eye on this archetype.
Stromer is the clear leader, having produced bikes in this mold for several years. Its bikes have unmatched fit and finish, but the bikes sell for a pretty penny, typically $5,000 and up. It has no inclination to stop being the Porsche of ebikes, which will limit its reach. Other models include the Trek Super Commuter, and what I own, a Juiced Crosscurrent S.
The latter lacks the finish of a Stromer, but it’s the only bike to offer a battery comparable in size to what Stromer offers — at a fraction of the price, $2k to Stromer’s $6k+. German makers offer options as well, though with less power and a much higher price than Juiced.
The cyclemotor is at once familiar, yet unique. Aside from the motor and battery, it’s comprised of technologies that are rapidly becoming ubiquitous in the enthusiast bike market — but combining them in a way seen almost nowhere else.
The Canonical Cyclemotor, In Pieces:
It starts with the tires: Wide, fast-rolling “balloon” tires, 2.15–2.80" (55–70 mm) wide. The bike world is increasingly becoming aware that wide tires are not any slower in real life conditions, as long as they’re designed to roll fast. Wide tires means more stability, and more comfort as you can run them at lower air pressure. Which lets you ride faster, as bumps are less jarring because the tire absorbs them more. That also means less rider fatigue, and higher sustained physical output.
Tire maker Schwalbe is a clear leader here, especially with it’s tubeless-ready G-One Speed (formerly the Big One) line, which it says is its fastest rolling tire in all categories, despite being as wide as 2.35" (60mm). And, it even has moderate off-road abilities, owing to its origin as a Dutch beach racing tire.
Certain tubes can be run tubeless, without inner tubes and filled with sealant that automatically patches small holes. That means you’re much less likely to get a flat tire, without heavy, rigid puncture protection built in to the tire material. Plus, the higher weight of a wider tire is mostly an issue when accelerating and climbing, and there’s now an electric motor to help out with that.
The wider tire also stabilizes the bike better at low or no speed, making dismounts easier. Which is important when your bike weighs 50–60 pounds. The Netherlands has seen an uptick of deaths among the elderly, and the weight of ebikes has been mentioned as a factor in men falling over and dying.
The Wheels: wider tires call for wider rims, to maximize tire volume and contact with the road. Think 30+ mm wide, internal diameter. These have become increasingly popular in mountain biking circles, alongside plus size tires. Fenders too, to shield the rider and drivetrain from dirt and puddles.
Ideally, the wheels are 26" in diameter, to keep the bike feeling nimble, and similar in overall tire diameter to conventional road bikes — but 26" wheels have mostly fallen out of favor in the bike world at large, so 27.5" wheels are the next best option. (Stromer does offer one 26" option.)
Rigid Front Fork: The fork is what attaches your front tire and wheel to your frame. Ebikes tend to have suspensions, to smooth out bumps — but these weigh a lot, and most don’t work that well. The combination of a rigid fork and balloon tires makes for a supple, responsive, lighter ride.
Disc Brakes: disc brakes are quickly becoming the rule for all non-road race bicycles, for their greater, consistent stopping power. After getting used to the powerful disc braking on my own ebike, the rim brakes on my nice road bike felt haphazard and weak by comparison. Ebike disc brakes are generally 180 or 203mm in circumference.
Suspension Seatpost: these devices (pictured above, Cirrus BodyFloat) can eliminate nearly all the vibrations and road “chatter” that rough roads otherwise send up your tailbone and spine, by putting a suspension between your seat and the bike. The improvement is dramatic, and nearly everyone who tries it is an immediate convert. However, these can be costly, and not all users are willing to pay the premium, at ~$50-$200 extra, depending on the model. Or they may already have their own. Bike makers may elect to leave these out to keep prices down. Similarly, Redshift offers a suspension stem to keep small vibrations from creeping into the handlebar.
Narrow, backswept handlebars and a forward seating posture: adding backsweep to handlebars offers more support to your wrists, especially if you lean forward and down, to cut your aerodynamic drag. The lower aerodynamic position lets you go faster with the same power output, and also reduces your exposure to wind. The slimmer silhouette also lets you get through narrow passages, like splitting lanes in traffic. See: Jones Bend H-Bar, Velo Orange Postino, Ahearne+ Map bar, Nitto Jittensha.
1X Drivetrain: In recent years, ‘1X’ drivetrains with only one front chainring, have become popular in mountain biking. These are also useful on ebikes, because they free up room for electronic controls, and reduce the controls needed when handlebar space is precious. Plus, the motor makes the extreme ends of your gear range less necessary, especially for going uphill.
750+ W Hub Motor: motors built into the drive wheel (i.e. the rear) have greater longevity — easily 10,000 miles, and probably 30–40,000 according to ebike trip Guinness Record holder Ravi Kempaiah. They’re also affordable, and don’t strain the rest of the bike. As higher speed travel becomes more comfortable thanks to wider tires, power demand will increase to the legal limit of 750W — Stromer’s ST5 has already reached this level, as has the Juiced Cross Current X at 750W continuous.
750 watts, or one horsepower, allows most users to reach 28 mph on flat ground — but not while climbing hills. Companies may simply put more powerful motors on than is legal — but the link between higher bike power (not speed) and higher danger is tenuous at best. Despite stricter regulations overall in the European Union, speed pedelecs can have up to 4,000W — a more reasonable limit to ensure the bike can maintain 25–30 mph speeds in the face of wind, cargo and climbs.
~ 1+ kwh Battery: Keeping a battery’s charge consistently between 20% and 80% can double to triple the battery’s lifespan, to roughly 1,000 full cycles — making its total size that much more important. 60% (80%-20%) corresponds to 600 watt hours; at about 10–15 watt hours per mile (depending on assist level & speed), that’s a range of 40–60 miles. That suffices for most round trip commutes, and even one way for the hardcore, 20+ mile commuters. The range issue of ebikes has largely been solved, but Stromer and Juiced are among the few to offer 900+ watt hour batteries.
With 48, or preferably 52 volts, there’s ample power to sustain 20+ mph speeds, even when the battery is below 50% capacity. 52 volts is also the highest voltage possible before costlier regulations on high voltage devices kick in, at 60 volts. Currently, among purpose-built mass made ebikes, Juiced Bikes is the only one to offer a 52V battery. Luna Cycles offers 52V batteries as well, on retrofitted bikes, and on custom builds.
Typical ebike batteries are comprised of 18650 cells that are 18mm wide and 65 mm long. But 21700 cells that are slightly longer and thicker are due to arrive soon, and they pack 10-20% more power per pound, and cost about 9% less. They also have a longer lifespan.
Throttle: There are times when pedaling is difficult but acceleration is needed, or simply a burst of power is desired. Enter the throttle, which accelerates the bike without requiring pedaling. It’s like the “gas” pedal in a car. It’s useful when making turns, to accelerate through the turn when pedaling is hard, or when the light turns green at an intersection, to get a lead on cars. However, it is technically illegal on class 3, 28 mph capable ebikes.
Torque Sensor: Early ebikes meted out assistance based on how fast you pedaled, literally how many revolutions per minute (RPM) your pedals spin. But with gears, you can spin your pedals slow at a high gear or fast at a low gear. The newer, better generation of sensors measures how hard you’re pedaling, regardless of RPM. These are now standard on the better ebikes. One idea of my own is using the sensor to let users to set their speed (provided they are pedaling appreciably), instead of a level of assist that’s a proxy for higher speed — because users don’t care about power use with a bigger battery, but do care about moderating speed.
Odds and Ends — sometimes little things count far more than their cost.
- Cellphone mount: like a cupholder in cars, it’s a small cheap feature that riders love, especially if it can be used for both navigation and recording rides, like my Gaciron mount, which replaces the stem cap.
- Integrated front and rear lights: two fewer devices to charge and secure separately, and they can be brighter thanks to the bigger energy source.
- Rack: for carrying 50+ lbs of cargo.
- Heated grips and seats: these would be more of a luxury detail, but are far easier to implement on a bike that already has a large power source, the battery.
- Device charging: allow users to charge their phone by plugging in to the battery
- Bluetooth integration: transmit data to the phone, to track usage and let the phone serve as a display
- GPS Tracking: a GPS sensor hidden inside the bike or battery may help prevent theft, though makers may charge extra for it as an option, and potentially a subscription service
Estimated price: ~$2,000-$2,500.
Estimated weight: ~50–60 lbs
Retail Will Have To Change
As in other industries, direct sales are upending the old ways of doing things. The aforementioned Juiced is offering performance at one third to one half the cost of name brand rivals, albeit with less finesse and some budget mechanical components.
Currently, ebike retailers are coasting on a honeymoon of ignorance. Most customers have never tried *any* ebike before, so any half decent one will leave them amazed — the same way any washing machine would wow someone used to washing clothes in a river.
One of our biggest goals is simply getting butts on seats. Once people experience it, they instantly get it.
As customers become more discerning, sellers will have to demonstrate their value — either by providing competitive pricing, great service, or both. While Stromer in large part already offers the bike described, its prices mean there’s a vacuum right now in the market, for a ‘Porsche for the People.’