Ahead of a Suburban Renewal Part 2: Living w/the Karmic Koben S
Eight months into using an eBike have invited some delightful changes, and opens new challenges to living outside of an urban center.
It has been nearly eight months since purchasing the Karmic Koben S 2.4 eBike and am largely quite happy with it. My auto, an ‘08 Mazda MX-5, is no longer in my possession, as I’ve transitioned to a (very) car-lite lifestyle. As challenging as this might be over the winter months, there’s some optimism that the pace of life (economic and health-driven, as well as the usual slower pacing of Fall and Winter) will allow for a few additional lessons and opportunities. Where this review of the Koben S stands now is on the unpaved roads of that optimism. Some items have already presented themselves as more a mental challenge than a physical one. The resulting physical challenges however, cling to both what is enabled by augmented electrical appendages, and curtailed by the design of small towns and sub-urban spaces.
Brief Specs Recap on the Karmic Koben S
The Karmic Koben S is a hybrid-style bicycle. It’s most distinguishing feature outside of the 500W battery on the down tube is its use of a Gates (carbon fiber) belt instead of a a chain to drive the rear wheel. The Gates Belt is connected to a Bafang motor at the pedals, and a NuVinci Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) gear box at the rear wheel. This Gates + CVT setup been quite a revelation in cadence and quiet (influencing a later bike purchase significantly). The wheels are the “smaller” 650b style; using 47mm wide WTB Horizons. And stopping those wheels are 160/140mm hydraulic, disk brakes.
Have added just a few items otherwise:
- a left-facing bottle cage
- the Zeitgeist Bag from Swift Industries
- a 1L Ortlieb saddle bag (similar to this but smaller)
Other than those, and an adapter to carry my U-lock, there’s not been much in terms of the original specs which has been added. And outside of the weight (50lbs), its actually not much of a want to do more. The weight factors in as I traverse a few fights of stairs at the front and end of cycling journeys. I’d not complain about it being 10lbs lighter — but, maybe that could be something explored over time w/some parts upgrades.
There’s a bit more on the specs covered in Part 1.
Wearing in the eBike
In Part 1 of this review, I’ve covered much about the feel of the Koben S on the road, so there’s not much to repeat there. I will say that the first flat tire (on the rear no less), was quite the learning experience for dealing w/Gates Belt-equipped bicycles. But, overall, nothing negative stands out about the configuration of the Koben S. It is a very solid, and eye-catching, transport and recreational vehicle. And at least in my uses, it very much fits a mode where you can and want to do local trips, but have some consideration for parts of your environmental impact.
One of the most interesting aspects of choosing the Koben S over driving has been found when shopping. Already one who doesn’t care to be in stores long, the approach of grocery shopping by bike does invite you to think more carefully about “getting things cause they look good versus getting items because you need them.” With an auto, my grocery trips would hit a few stores, and the limitations would lie in “how many times to do I want to walk the apartment stairs to take this inside?” Whereas with the bicycle, I’m already at that capacity with the main shopping. Those bags, plus the weight of the Koben S, easily makes that decision. And yet, I’m not so tired from grocery shopping that I’m done with the day. Because of the five levels of pedal assistance, I’ve often done a round of shopping and then went right back out on the ebike to other social/recreational moments.
Another set of insightful moments have come through experiments where I’ve tried to find the end of the battery. These have been those “how far can I go,” and “where does range anxiety begin” kinds of experiments. The first few of these were some northern excursions of about 20–22mi. In this context, the Koben S was excellent. Equipped with both the Swift Industries and Ortlieb bags, these trips showed just how capable of a weekend cruiser the Koben S is. The ride was swift and comfortable (tires were inflated to 40psi) with not much of a care to the state of the battery. The return trips, both 20mi, were also enjoyable, but it was right around the note of 15mi of range left where that anxiety kicked in. And it shouldn’t have, these were routes I knew. But, it did happen, and meant some more understanding of what is and isn’t possible at the back end of the battery.
The longest of these experiments was in the Koben S serving as the means to connect w/a friend 20+ miles away. I’d not only need the battery to last for the trip there and back, but potentially also for some leisure bits in between. Several lessons were learned. First, make sure that you have the right nozzle on your bike pump. Suffered a flat 16mi in (was making great time too). While getting the rear wheel (again) off was no issue, it was a learning moment. Second lesson came at the very end of the trip home, when the battery gauge was in the red. About 1mi from home the pedals shuttered. My understanding is that this was the motor letting me know the battery was very much in emergency power territory. By that point, I’d been riding w/less pedal assistance than the rest of the ride, so my legs were matching the heaviness of the bike. Yet, it was not impossible to pedal, just a bit more laborious. 55mi is clearly the most I can do (at the current state of the battery). As experiments go, very much a bucket of lessons.
One can consider an ebike as suitable for short trips around town, and some models work better as assistants toward recreational moments. The Koben S is more the former than the latter, but doesn’t have a problem being called into recreational duties. Where it might fall short is in the range (you will want to ride more), and the weight. But, if you don’t have far to go for enjoyment, nor need to worry about carrying it, then these issues are easy to push aside so that you can simply enjoy the journey, and the energy you have when you get to your destination.
Areas Of Evolution
Not everything is perfect the first time around, and certainly electric bikes have seen all kinds of useful and fruitless evolutions. While some would petition ebikes to evolve towards more utilitarian aspects, others see its evolution into an entirely different kind of transportation vehicle entirely. Neither of these points, nor the spectrum between them, are wrong. In fact, it is the shape of electricity, miniaturization in electronics and motors, and a better understanding of both materials and our environments which point to the answer being “all of the above, and then some.”
For this Karmic Koben S, its evolution was actually seen in the Oslo (which unfortunately didn’t make it to production). Aspects such as a more comfortable seating position, room for higher capacity batteries and storage options, throttle or pedal control, and a design begging for more personalization is the right way to think of some of this. For me, I’d certainly appreciate the ability to add a second or larger capacity battery, a bit more ease in adding front storage (the cables for brakes require a bit of fiddling for fitting the Zeitgeist bag), and maybe a more flush motor controller and display. These are found on various ebikes released in the past few years, so there’s some symmetry to my wants and the maturing of the ebike. Yet, there are many branches this vehicle can and will go, and it should continue to be refined each time a company takes a swing at this growing market.
If the Koben Fits
Whether a short or long ride, whether a weekend trip or a weekday skip to the cafe, the Koben S seems to fit me well. Well, it might be more honest to say I’ve made aspects of my life to fit a concept of transport and livability where an ebike makes a lot of sense. An EV auto could make sense. As could a e-motorcycle, or something even further like the Brio, PodBike, or Electra Meccanica’s Solo. In line with exploring the place and pace of transport, an ebike can be a powerful solution for some people. In my case, especially with office-commuting as a non-context, the ebike works well. The Koben S is setup to be an excellent option, even if it were a “second car” replacement.
Where it is most challenging in my area is in the roadway itself. Many bike-routes aren’t much more than paint and signs. My comfort in riding isn’t equal to what another would have; in fact, it’s likely greater given how much and where I’m riding. Any anxiety about the condition of an ebike’s change level, getting back up if there’s a mechanical issue, or even feeling heavier than usual because of what’s being carried isn’t something which the Koben S should solve. That part should be solved by redesigning livable spaces. While many large and medium-sized cities are taking some impressive steps forward, towns and suburbs have a ways to go, and moreso do their residents.
Note: I purchased the Koben S of my own funds, but was given a small discount as a friend to the company. I am also a member of the Washington Area Bicyclists Association (WABA), and serve on Maryland’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Advocacy Committee.