What would the world be like if almost anybody could ride a bike effortlessly, at any speed they choose, regardless of physical fitness, hills, headwinds, or drag from the bike trailer full of kids and groceries? What if even those of us who are not athletes could get all the glorious benefits of cycling including invincible health, complete freedom from traffic jams, free Rockstar Parking everywhere, and Zero Dollar Gasoline, forever?
This is the promise of the Electric Bicycle, a trend that has become enormous in Asia and Europe and is finally making its way here to North America.
The basic idea is that you take a regular bike but swap out one of the wheels for a different one with an electric motor built into the hub. Add a battery, basic control electronics, and a motorcycle-style twist throttle, and you have created an astonishing Frankenbike that allows you to perform like Lance Armstrong at Maximum Sprint, without even breaking a sweat. Depending on the model and style, Ebikes can attain top speeds anywhere between 15 and 50 MPH, with ranges from 10-50 miles.
To put the value proposition into the simplest form possible, this is why I am excited about this invention:
This table is obviously just an approximation. Steep hills or humid summers may reduce a beginner cyclist’s range even further, and meanwhile some readers can crank out 15 miles before the first bead of sweat forms upon their brow. But the bottom line is that these things get you further and faster, with the option of little or no sweat.
At this point I need to admit that I’m personally not the ideal electric bike customer. I live in a town that is 5 x 5 miles and I rarely leave here except to go to the airport. Standard leg-powered bikes have been getting me around this place easily for 9 years and they allow me to carry everything from groceries and kids right up to major appliances. With my 40th birthday coming up next month, I don’t need to be getting any less exercise. And while we do also have a car and a minivan, both are still sipping on the tanks of gas I bought them in April 2014.
But hey, I like speed at least as much as the next guy, and I’ve been known to own a fast motorcycle or two in earlier years and also perilously approach highway speeds on a snowboard. On top of that, electric propulsion is absolutely the future of personal transport – chant out the usual oil exec slogans all you like, but electric cars are already here and they make their gas counterparts look like tragic clown dinosaurs by comparison. I’ve been researching electric vehicles for years now, and looking forward to the day when we can all make the switch.
I test drove a 2015 Nissan Leaf over the summer and was floored by its lightning acceleration, solid handling, silky silence even at 90 MPH, and general 5-door practicality. If we could take the benefits of that, and scale them down to bicycle size so we could still get some fresh air and exercise (and spend a lot less than the price of a new car), it would be even better.
So I built myself an electric bike recently, with the goal of evaluating long-term performance and reporting it back to you. It is a hell of a lot of fun, and I’ve been blasting around town (and country) on it for several days now. But before we get into the details of my setup, let’s take a look at the whole ebike scene to see where everything fits in.
In my mind, it breaks down to three categories, which will appeal to different people:
Off-the-Shelf Electric Bikes ($600 – $10,000)
These are the easiest (but generally most expensive) option. Last year, I toured the inventory at Small Planet E-vehicles here in my own town, and test rode some very fancy bikes. My favorite was the $2800 Stromer Sport, which senses your pedaling effort and adds the proportional boost of your choosing, which feels exactly like being a bionically enhanced superhero. However, the bionic boost gets you no faster than about 25MPH, as the pre-made bikes must comply with federal e-bike speed limits.
Pros: Ready to go immediately. Sit on it and start riding. Just plug it in every now and then to recharge. This is the option for people with more money than mechanical skill, and a desire to get out into the fresh air immediately.
Cons: More expensive, top speed (while still swift) will not appease speed demons like myself.
Examples: Stromer, Prodeco, and Pedego are some of the leaders in this field. Some car manufacturers are offering their own take on E-bikes including the SMART (owned by Mercedes), BMW, Audi (prototype only), and KIA.
Complete Conversion Kits ($800-$2000)
Several companies are now putting together kits that allow you to take almost any existing bike and convert it to electric drive. The motor, battery, controller, and any accessories are all designed to work together with matching plugs, voltages, etc.
This is the option I chose for myself, because I wanted to profile something within the technical skill of the average bike owner. If you can change the back tire on a bike and install a bike speedometer, you can install this kit. On top of that, I was able to get advice from Ebikekit* founder Jason Kraft about exactly what setup would best fit my existing bike and align with the way I use it.
I ended up with a 500 watt direct drive motorized rear wheel, a 13 amp-hour lithium battery, plus everything required to use it and charge it at home. The total list price of my setup with shipping was about $1600, although with strategic use of discounts, this can be had for about $300 less. We’ll get into how well this system works at the end of the article.
Pros: Top e-bike quality at lower cost. Unrestricted speed. Flexibility in choosing your own bike and exactly how you want things installed. Easy to upgrade battery later.
Cons: A bit of work to install (mine took 1 hour). A slightly more homemade look to your bike.
Honorable Mention: Although it is not yet available for general delivery (release date seems to bump out another three months every time it gets close), the Copenhagen Wheel is a $700 (update: looks like they just raised it to $950) conversion that has everything – battery, motor, and control electronics – packed seamlessly inside the wheel itself. It senses and boosts your pedaling effort and links with your smartphone to present an incredibly fancy yet simple user interface. Because of the splendid ease of use, this will probably change the face of electric cycling forever. But it’s still not as fast as the full kit above.
Fully Customized Systems for Hackers:
Just as it works with home renovation, auto maintenance and most other practical fields, if you bring more knowledge and effort to the table, you can build a system to your own specifications and potentially save quite a few dollars in the process.
For example, if you search Ebay for “electric bike kit“, you’ll find basic straight-from-China front wheel kits for about $260, then you’d add a 48V Lithium Ion battery for about $400 – $600 with shipping, depending on capacity. The downside is the risk of part failure (and I wouldn’t expect the greatest support if anything breaks), and the need to splice and solder a few wires here and there to get everything to work together.
Or instead of cheap, you could go for high-end. At the forum called Endless Sphere, enthusiasts spend hours doing detailed reviews and extensive discussion. One MMM reader sent me a full description of the $3400 ebike he built from the ground up that easily does 35MPH and regularly rocks a 42 mile roundtrip commute in a hilly area with high winds.
A Quick Primer on Terminology:
If you are going to look into one of these yourself, here are the basic things to know:
The Motor: 250 watts, 500 watts, or more?
Think of it this way: a fit cyclist can put out about 150 watts for an extended period of time. If you combine this with a fairly streamlined bike, you’ll end up zooming along at about 20MPH. During a quick sprint of acceleration, the same cyclist can put out over 745 watts (1 horsepower) for short periods of time. So even a 250 watt motor can beat you in a long race, and 500 watts is almost like sprinting at full speed. Sure enough, my 500 watt motor tops out at just over 30MPH if you are letting it do all the work, which is about the fastest I can pedal a conventional bike for short sprints without assistance. When I set my own legs and the motor to maximum output, we can achieve over 35MPH together.
Voltage: 36 or 48 volts? This doesn’t strictly matter, although you will generally find 48 volt batteries and motors in the higher-powered systems.
Lithium or Lead Acid Batteries? In my opinion, Lithium batteries are the only way to go. The older technology Lead-acid batteries are heavy and bulky, which are both properties you want to minimize in a bike. On a trike or golf cart, however, Lead batteries are fine.
What are Amp Hours and How Many Do I need? To understand battery capacity, multiply the “Amp hours” by the “Volts”. My new system is 13Ah x 48 volts, which gives us 624 watt hours (also known as 0.624 Kilowatt Hours, to put things in the context of my old Electricity article.) To put this simply, the battery holds energy equal to about four hours of intense cycling. The neat part is that charging it only requires about seven cents of electricity, which is way less than the cost of the enormous meal I devour after returning from a 4 hour ride!
So what is the range of these things?
Just as with a car, that depends on how fast you drive it. On a recent outing to the far side of Boulder (a 30 mile roundtrip), I rode my own bike at a swift 28-30MPH speed the entire time, pedaling along at my own normal energy level. This used up about 75% of my battery pack, which means the total range with this fairly intense use is about 40 miles. Just like an electric or hybrid car, you get better mileage in the city than on the highway, and my trip was mostly highway.
So tell me about the Mr. Money Mustache E-bike!
This post has grown quite long, so we’ll save the detailed analysis and testing for my second article in this series, which will come after I get some more miles on the clock . I’ve also recruited a friend to build one of those Customized Hacker Systems in order to compare his results with my own with the premade kit.
Here’s what my bike looks like so far. It is a fairly incognito setup, and the battery bag is simply held on with bungee cords at the moment. But so far, so good. The added speed of this thing has expanded my options for speedy errands around town, and it just might prove to be a revolution even for me. Tune in next time to learn more.
*Coupon code for EbikeKit – I have no affiliation with the company and don’t get commissions, but Jason did set up a coupon code for Mustachians – use “MMM” in the box if you are placing an order with them. The code can even be combined with any of their regular 15% off sales events which occur several times each year.