Ahead of a Suburban Renewal: A Review of the Karmic Koben S 2.4
Part one of observations, lessons, and living with an eBike
Another sunny weekend, and there are a few errands on deck. As usual, the headwind is much stronger than the tailwind. And yet, after cycling around the small town, there’s a smile on my face. The ease at which the Karmic Koben S accelerates, the comfort despite its weight, and its versatility have all made quick work of approximately 4 miles of errands. It’s been five months since setting foot into my car, mainly because of quarantine. But also, because of this electronic bicycle (ebike). Outside of an urban context, the commentary about how one could live with an ebike is largely missed. Perhaps, there’s a chance to show why owning one right now has you a little bit ahead of the curve.
About the Koben S
The Koben S is not exactly the newest eBike. But, it’s a pioneering one. A frame made of aluminum, it’s not the lightest of bicycles (carbon fiber ebikes weigh less by 10+lbs), but it’s a durable one. It’s eye-catching in the blackout colored version I have. On just about every occasion out and about, the Koben S gets a pause and a stare. While eBikes aren’t new, they aren’t usual. The design of the Koben S stands out, even amongst other bicycles.
And standing out is great. It’s battery (44V and 500Wh) sits on the down-tube but doesn’t break the design lines of the Koben. Same could be said for the Bafang motor. As with similar eBikes in its class (but not exactly price range), this motor sits between the pedals and crankshaft. The specs say it’s a 43V/350W motor, I will just say that it’s powerful enough to get you up and over a consistent 20mph. And, depending on the terrain and presence of headwinds, making it to the pedal-assisted 28mph is no problem.
A straight (mountain bike-like) handlebar is just as strong a character line when looking across it and the (very comfy) seat. Centered on the handlebar is the computer used to control the power put out by the motor and head/taillights. On the right is a twist-style controller for the gearing. Here’s another bit where the Koben S stands out — it uses a continually variable transmission (CVT). This means, instead of a finite amount of gears in the rear cassette, there’s a near-infinite amount of gears. You control for cadence and comfort, not for matching the abilities of the gearing.
I should add, in addition to not having a conventional gear lever, it also doesn’t have a chain. The Koben S uses a Gates Belt between the CVT in the rear wheel and the Bafang motor between the pedals. Belts require less routine maintenance than chains, and are much, much quieter in operation. On a quiet ride along a smooth road, it’s not surprising to only hear the hum of the motor and burr of the wheels. Chain churn and slap doesn’t exist. And it’s red. Against the all black bike, it doesn’t just stick out, it is like a feather or a streak… it fits this ethos of being stylish enough and functional enough. Not worrying about whether you needed to spend a few hours of prep/cleaning before riding is freeing. Even if all the cleaning needed is a hose and wipe down.
This gets to where the Koben S is a bit more than the specs. Yes, the 650b/47c tires make it a plush ride. And yes, the hydraulic brakes stop at lot better than you imagine (eBikes and ABS is a thing, I now know why). But, it’s how all of this combines into a very livable package. And I live on the 3rd floor of an apt — carrying a 50lb bicycle up and down a number of times a week is a mental commitment. But, the lack of tiredness, the feeling that I can take the longer route, and the outright efficiency of the motor/battery combo makes for a nice floor to consider what is necessary and what isn’t regarding our transportation choices.
Living by Bike in the ‘Burbs
The Karmic Koben S is a decent fit for my suburban state of living. From it’s ease at accelerating, to the weight coming in handy for the occasional potholes, curb cuts, and paved over tree roots on greenway paths, it’s a solid and dependable vehicle. However, you do quickly learn at how multi-modal your suburban reality is (parking spaces are everywhere, for cars only).
Image from People for Bikes’s City Ratings 2020
Of the things that you realize very quickly with an ebike, you don’t feel as nervous about jumping on to roadways where a 35 mph speed limit is more like 45 miles an hour normal traffic. Don’t get me wrong, you still want a decent size shoulder. But being able to pedal at 20 miles an hour makes you feel a little less of a “burden“ to the other traffic which may be going on.
On the other hand, you do feel a little “overqualified“ when biking alongside greenways in other places where you would normally find just as many pedestrians as you would find bicycles. It became very evident within a few rides that the Karmic, while very comfortable for recreation rides, was probably out of its element being so close to other people. Partly attributed to wanting to ride faster; but the other part actually had to do with the kind of attention it brought on. It was not uncommon, when stopped, to be asked questions about the cost, the style, and the comfort. All of this I am used to from my other bicycles (a Brompton is one of those), but it does take away some of the joy of riding when it’s a little bit more of a social signal.
I have found it being a very capable replacement to my automobile. That is, when we were talking about those trips that are 10 to 15 miles maximum distance. Most impressively, grocery runs (where bags from Swift industries, Relevate and Ortlieb have been amazing) Have been a particular delight aside from finding a decent place to park. Unless I am in an area where the cost of living is considerably higher, the parking for bicycles tends to be pretty far away from an entry or exit point. And that’s OK; for now, I do have the appropriate locks to keep things from riding away when I am shopping. But, this ability to carry tens of pounds of groceries, and simply up the pedal assistance, is just fun.
One down note specific to my context: the closest bicycle shop to me closed not long after the quarantine started. And that has meant a need to do a bit more maintenance of bicycles myself because the closest bicycle shops are 8–10 miles away with 5–8 week lead times on service (seriously a good time to be a bike mechanic). Having the Karmic has very much gotten me into a context of not wanting to drive (haven’t driven my auto since March, it’s mid-July in writing this); and that aspect of not having a bicycle shop in easy access is something to consider. Not all bicycle shops can take care of ebikes the same way. Some also don’t care to service bikes not purchased from them. Unfortunately, this is a bit some may want to consider.
Despite the negatives, and because of the positives, I do find livability to be a lot better than assumed. Is the Karmic Koben S a heavy bicycle? Definitely. At 50lbs, it’s not exactly the most fun to take up a few flights of stairs, especially when laden with a week of groceries. Is it speedy for local traffic? Definitely. You won’t feel rushed from stoplights. And in smaller towns, you can play with those digital speed read outs and try to trigger a speed camera. Does it portend a different type of living which sounds a bit like what urbanists declare? Somewhat… there’s a lot about affluence, agency in transportation, and even fitness that’s assumed of a cyclist. I hear something different when on the Karmic. It isn’t what I’m used to.
An eBike may change some of what you consider as possible and necessary if your suburban area is well-outfitted for living. And this isn’t a bad thing. In fact, this is the ripple you should expect.
For more info and to purchase, visit the Karmic website. Check them out on Instagram and Twitter (@KarmicCity) to see others who’ve been learning about life-by-ebike also.
I plan on writing a part two to this; it’s taken way too long to get this much written IMO. But when I do write the part two, planning to cover a few other aspects of living with an ebike in the suburbs because that context is just something that’s often missing from the conversation. Plus, I don’t tend to look like all of the other people who’ve been writing about these… It might be fun to have a different perspective. Stay tuned