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2000 Miles of Justice: My Year of Riding Electric Bikes

My 500 watt rear wheel from EbikeKit.com

My 500 watt rear wheel from EbikeKit.com

Almost one full year ago, I built myself an experimental electric bike to see what all the hype was about. As a profanely vocal proponent of muscle-only transportation, I was skeptical of the idea at first. But in the spirit of a good experiment, I decided to just add the thing to my bike fleet and see how it went for a year.

As the months and seasons have rolled past, I have found myself blazing around town more frequently, with greater speeds and heavier loads than I ever thought possible, which has turned me into an unapologetic convert. The electric bike combines some of the distance-devouring advantages of a car, with the city-friendly flexibility of a bike (you can bypass all traffic jams and jump freely between roads, bike paths and even dirt and unpaved areas to find the most direct route, and park for free right at your destination).

This is why electric bikes give me the feeling of Justice. You are riding a bike like you should be, creating virtually no pollution or noise, but you have a tireless olympic sprinter in your back pocket that you can unleash at the twist of a throttle. You can EAT gigantic hills for breakfast and DUST entire pelotons of spandex-riders from the comfort of your flipflops and flannel shirt. These things could have a revolutionary impact on the lazy modern lifestyle and make cities of all sizes vastly more livable places. So my official position on the matter is now that Electric Bikes are Awesome.

But Isn’t this Just Modern Lithium-Ion Laziness?

After that first article, several Mustachians questioned my sanity. Had I sold out to the forces of convenience and comfort? My answer was that time would tell and I’d do my best to use the power responsibly. I figured that for any given longer-than-walking-distance trip, there are two categories of people:

  1. Those who use a bike, and
  2. Those who do not use a bike

Since I was already in category “1” for at least 95% of my 1-10 mile trips, you’d think that I would have nothing to gain and everything to lose from juicing my bike. And indeed, it could have gone this way: Over the past year the technology has caught on rapidly and I now see plenty of e-bike riders out on the streets just coasting while the motor does all the work.

But when I look in the mirror, I notice that I have no desire to be any less fit. In fact, more fitness would be quite welcome, which means I need to pack more effort into each day. This is just basic muscle math, the kind that should be part of the driver’s exam before you’re allowed to operate your first car. So anyway, I chose to do things a bit differently, setting up a few ground rules for my use of electric boost:

  • For casual trips like riding downtown to meet someone for lunch, I don’t even use the e-bike. I take my nice low, slow, inefficient cruiser bike instead.
  • When riding the e-bike, I try to leave the motor off whenever possible. So it functions like a super-heavy (60 pound) city bike that provides more exercise than normal.
  • Before turning on the motor, I give it all I’ve got, sprinting to fight the bike (and usually a trailer full of tools or groceries) up to at least 20 MPH on leg power alone. Once I run low on steam, I twist the throttle and feel the electric joyride take over as we blast up to much higher levels of speed. It feels like taking off in an airplane. I keep pedaling the whole time.
  • Since this could still steal away some of my exercise, I resolved to do more biking than before. Running out to get some last-minute cilantro halfway through salad construction, or missing supplies halfway through a a day of house construction, and so on.

In other words, I chose to use the power of electricity as an extension of my biking abilities rather than a replacement. And so far, so good: I haven’t lost any biking condition over the last year, but I have felt an increase in freedom and productivity as I can get around town more quickly, even when I’d normally feel too busy or tired to embark on a bike errand.

The other bonus is that my bike can now hang with standard city traffic on 25-30 MPH roads. I can safely* take a full lane just like a motorcycle without slowing anyone else down, which provides an adrenaline-filled shortcut through certain parts of the city I had previously avoided due to lack of bike friendliness.

A Secret Superpower Against Heat, Heavy Loads, Hills, and Time Itself

Many Mustachians are fairly young and fit, already have bikes which serve them well, and are still ‘stashing cash vigorously for financial independence. For these people, an electric bike is probably an unnecessary luxury.

But for another large group, they could be just the thing. The lawyer who lives in a hot, humid climate and is currently afraid to bike the 4 miles to the office for fear of arriving sweaty. The beginner cyclist in Seattle or San Francisco who lives at the top of a perilously steep hill (especially if combined with kids or groceries in a bike trailer). Even the Longmont, Colorado tech worker who would love to bike to work in Boulder more often but could swing it more often if only that 1-hour ride time could be cut in half. If you have a reasonable surplus of money and feel there’s a shortage of biking in your life, an e-bike could be just the ticket.

The Expensive E-Bike Conspiracy and My Prodeco Storm 500 Experiment

Testing the Optibike R-8, a $10,000 electric mountain bike.

December: Testing the Optibike R-8, a $11,000 electric mountain bike.

As part of this yearlong experiment, I decided to check out more of the electric bike scene. I tested more kit-built bikes from friends, shopped more e-bike shops, and visited the headquarters of high-end manufacturer Optibike, testing out everything they make.

This proved to be a fun visit, as founder Jim Turner has been making ebikes since the late 1990s and seems to care about nothing besides quality. From the custom frame with a motorized crank that drives the chain out to the top-line individual components, these bikes are for wealthy no-compromise buyers. They’re also for record setters, as an Optibike R-11 set the world record for climbing the 14,000 foot Pike’s Peak highway.

My take on Optibikes? Beautiful and without compromise, but I noticed that my homemade high-power conversion based on a cheap city bike was just as fast, at close to 40 MPH**. For real speed in this price range, I’d personally go for the 50MPH 4500 watt Steath Bomber or the highly German Motostrano Spitzing.

riide

June: a visit from the Riide electric Bike

I also enjoyed a visit from Amber Wason, co-founder of Riide, who brought me her low-weight, high-style take on the concept. This thing was a joy to ride, because it behaves like a normal bike. You can barely tell it’s electric.

I noticed a bit of a pattern: the more expensive a bike company’s product, the more they tend to speak critically of cheaper competitors. I would often ask what they thought about the Prodeco Phantom, which you can buy on Amazon for under $1700. “Oh, you do NOT want a Prodeco! Cheap Chinese crap that’ll fall apart!” Yet when I looked at reviews of that same bike on Amazon, they were generally quite positive. Who should I believe?

I decided that the only way to resolve the dispute was to buy one myself. So I forked over the dough and received the shipment a few days later. Since it was mid-winter, I spent the first month testing the bike out both on and off-road during snowfalls.

February: some high-speed snow testing with a Prodeco bike on the local golf course

It was a surprisingly solid bike with good components, smooth shifting and really great disc brakes. It had plenty of power to peg the needle at its safety-limited 20 MPH speed, even when ascending steep hills. Range seemed pretty good as well, at over 20 miles when combining reasonable speed with pedaling.

Since I was already fully loaded with bikes myself, I decided to use friends and family as longer-term test subjects for this bike after the initial month. It has made the rounds and is still performing well for a friend of mine. Just one caution if you’re interested in this particular model – it is very tall, so if you’re shopping for someone under about 5’9″, you might check out the models with step-through frames instead.

So Should you Buy One Yourself?

Maybe. While cheaper than a car or motorcycle, these things are still much more expensive than great conventional bikes, which can be had for under $500 these days.  Many normal people ride a single, basic bike for much greater annual distances than I ride all of my bikes, including the electric ones, combined.

On top of this, the prices on electric bikes will probably continue dropping for the next few years. I wouldn’t buy one if I was in debt for anything besides a mortgage. In fact, I wouldn’t have even bought one (yet) for myself if I didn’t have this blog as an excuse to test it out and report back to you, because I don’t commute to work.

But if it will genuinely replace some of your car use, which costs you about 50 cents a mile, the economic case may be a good one. And if it will entice you to spend more time pumping your muscles out in the real world than you currently do, the case is much stronger. It is hard to overstate the benefit of just getting out there. So if you’re sure you are ready and you can easily afford it, I think it’s a winning invention.

List of Good Mid-priced Ebikes:
(I have no affiliation with these bike companies, just happy to support the growth of this good technology. Please suggest more in the comments and I can add them to this list)

Kits:

My 500 watt Ebike Kit
(^^^ watch for their occasional 15% sales and use coupon code MMM for 6% anytime)
A promising looking cheaper kit on Amazon
Possible Battery for Above
The Hill Topper Kit (clean Republic)

Full Bikes:

Riide

RadWagon (just found this Aug 2016) – looks great for the price
Bikes from Evelo (note the Omni wheel)
Stromer ST1 (expensive but you could try a nationwide Craigslist search)
Prodeco Phantom
The Copenhagen Wheel (available someday)

Honorable Mention:
Jason Kraft from EbikeKit has a neat side project in development for those not looking for 2-wheelers, the Liberty Trike is a 7.5MPH adult mobility machine that seems much more capable than similar stuff on the market. A huge advantage for those currently car-dependent for medium-length neighborhood trips.

* Safety tip:
As a frequent rider on city streets, I have always found that oncoming cars tend to turn left and cut me off dangerously, even when I have the right of way.  The extra speed of the e-bike made this problem even worse. But by adding really bright LED front and rear lights and leaving them flashing at all times while riding in the city, this problem was virtually eliminated overnight. It tells the drivers that you mean business and they treat you more like a motorcycle and less like a bike. You still need to be on guard at all times though, ready to hit the brakes and hurl a few Driver-Educating Expletives just for good measure. 

** A word on speed:
Commercial e-bikes for on-road use are generally limited to 20MPH (throttle) or 25MPH (pedal assist). This is a fine rule and beginner cyclists will find this to be plenty of speed.

Kits have no such limitation, which is why my bike goes much faster, which technically may make it slightly illegal. However, this is a rule I don’t mind breaking with caution: on bike paths, I keep the speed down as they tend to be curvy and narrow. And of course I slow right down if other people are present on the path. On the other hand, on the open road the speed is very welcome.

If phone-wielding teenagers are allowed to legally drive 3-ton 300 horsepower pickup trucks on residential streets, then surely it is acceptable for a 185 pound man with a motorcycle license and some basic motocross training to enjoy his 0.6 horsepower electric motor without a speed limiter installed. But I am definitely increasing my risk by riding at higher speeds!

  • Scott Crosby October 15, 2015, 10:06 am

    E-bikes rule. Having been a spandexed bicycle commuter for many years (San Francisco -> Mountain View), it felt like cheating to throw on a motor, but once the kids came along it wasn’t much of a decision.

    Been taking the kids to school in SF for over a year on an Xtracycle. They are expensive but but high-quality and the load capacity is good @ 400 lbs. If you know SF, you know the hills are a bitch, and I could take 2 kids up to the top of Potrero (~12%) one way and up Bernal (~17%) on the way home, often fully-loaded with groceries. It’s still work but doable.

    Mine is a (Canadian) Bionx-powered 350-watt li-ion rear hub motor, but the new Bosch-powered crank motor bikes are even better. I tested the new Xtracycle (http://www.xtracycle.com/edgerunner-electric/) up a 24% grade in Potrero with both kids on the back and it was fine. Xtracycle is based in Oakland, the frames are made in Asia, the kid seats are by Yepp of the Netherlands (http://www.yepp.nl/en/#0). Quality is high on all these. And the owner, Ross, personally contacted me to try out their new stuff. Really cool dude making a real difference in the gridlocked bay area.

    The Xtracycle or something similar was the only way to ditch the car for the school drop-off, given the topography. $6k is some cash but I made that back quickly after having sold the car. DMV fees alone were 10% of that.

    If you live in the bay area, check out the New Wheel in Bernal Heights. They only do e-bikes and related stuff.

    Next project is modifying my Cannondale tandem with the e-bike kit 500w hub motor so I can (more comfortably) take the wife and 3 kids on a single rig (Yepp stem-mount kid seat, trailer for 2 kids). As it is now, a 3% grade is a challenge on that beast.

    Reply
  • FreeTim October 26, 2015, 6:36 am

    Like you, I too have the Prodeco Phantom X2; Yes “cheaply” made but I like it!! I’ve had it 2 years now with no real issues! I commute 8 miles (each way ) in Boston traffic. I have NEVER run out of battery (it’s 16 miles round trip, I only charge it at home.) For 1499.oo it was a good deal. The frame on mine FOLDS UP so I can stick it in my hatchback when I’m visiting my sister (she lives 120 miles away so I need car for that trip.) My point is, yes it has some plastic parts but I really like it, I’d buy it again. Just a happy owner, I’m no shill for them/ no relatives of mine work there.
    PS – despite the warning, you CAN ride it in the rain (I do) just cover the rear light switch with some tape (that’s the water issue) – and you’ll be fine.

    Reply
  • David November 3, 2015, 11:57 am

    I just found your blog and I’m really interested in getting the e-bike kit. My car is paid off and I would love to convert my bike to save money. I live in Parker and I work in the DTC area. My commute is about 19 miles (6 interstate). I mapped it out and I could go normal roads that would make it around 16. However, I also live near the cherry creek trail. Would anyone recommend taking that as an alternative to normal roads? The other challenge is my WIFE. I haven’t mentioned this to her yet but I’m sure she will think it is a stupid idea. Any tips on that too? Great community on here.

    Reply
  • Jane December 29, 2015, 3:34 pm

    My husband purchased an e bike last March. He uses it to commute to and from work, a total distance of around 55km per day. He bikes daily in all sorts of weather. What he has found is that riding the bike is quicker than driving into his city based workplace. It is also quicker than taking public transport. Above all, it is cheaper than any other mode of commuting. He is also fitter than he has ever been. The bike helps him up hills and against the wind but he still has to work muscle. We estimate that with money saved on train fares, the bike will have paid for itself after 2 years of riding. After that, his commuting costs will be almost free!

    Reply
  • Embok January 29, 2016, 1:58 am

    This article was very helpful to my husband and me; we recently bought a pair of Pedego interceptors, which both provide pedal assist and a throttle. We live in the hilly outskirts of the Los Angeles region, and are not in shape to ride an ordinary bike competently through the local hills. Our Ebikes have given us instantaneously the ability to do so. We are starting to use the bikes for local errands, as well as for recreational exercise. It is the only form of exercise I have been able to persuade my husband to do. The information in this article, as well as in electric bike review website, was very helpful to us in making our decision to buy; and I am optimistic that this portends a change in not only how we get around, but in how much exercise (which we badly need) we get.

    Reply
  • Craig March 23, 2016, 5:35 pm

    Thank you for this article. After reading it, I became very interested in ebikes and marveled at how far they have come since the early versions. I recently bought a BBSHD kit and it is fantastic.

    Must admit I was initially one of those hardcore exercise folks with the usual hangups about ebikes. But I was totally missing the point. I am getting rid of my car now because it sits around collecting dust. The ebike gets me anywhere without effort, and recharge only takes two hours. My wife has a car for the kids, Zip cars are always around in a pinch, and rental cars for work trips.

    I think it is an encouraging sign for humanity, because getting rid of my car never occurred to me before. But I don’t need it now. Ebikes are more convenient and fun getting around the city. I am guessing others will find the same as their popularity grows – which is likely with the increases in quality and price (not to mention great blogs like this).

    Reply
  • CO_Singlespeed Rider March 31, 2016, 8:59 pm

    MMM-

    Have you test the Sondors ebike? It’s received good reviews and at $500 seems to be a great buy. I have not risen one but am considering placing an order.

    Reply
  • Momma Lotte April 1, 2016, 11:20 pm

    I’d like to know more about converting an adult trike to an e-bike. I’d love some suggestions. I live in the Pocono Mountains of PA and end up commuting up to 50 miles one way, up through the Catskills of NY state.
    It’s important that I maintain control of speed for safety; sometimes stopping on short notice, deer running out in front of me, and other times speed up quickly, bear, bobcats, and foxes like to share the road too. The roads are twisty at best and loaded with hills. I’ve already encountered eagles on the road along Delaware River Watershed and at the same time need to keep the city slickers that migrate up this way at bay, as well. They usually show up from May through September totally disregarding anything or anyone in their path. We have lots of seasonal homes and camps up here. Unfortunately with that comes a lot of disrespect.
    Hence the interest in some hidden petal power while looking inconspicuous.
    Thanks, Momma Lotte

    Reply
  • Will Bloomfield August 16, 2016, 9:08 am

    I recently took the plunge and ordered the E-Glide electric bike. See here: https://e-glidebike.com/. The price is a little over $1,000, which is very good, and I love the bike. I’ve also received excellent customer support from David at E-glide.

    I cancelled my $70 per month parking and have begun bike commuting the 10 mile roundtrip commute to work. I do it in a suit, have encountered little traffic, and even the hottest days of August have not caused too much perspiration. When it’s hotter in the evening, I take off my suit jacket and store it in my pannier saddle pack. And best of all, I’m loving it! It’s been so much fun. I love getting outside and I feel much better after my ride. And to go 5 miles, it might take 2 minutes longer on my bike than it did in my car, so it really has only marginally extended my commute.

    Unfortunately, today, it rained, so I could not ride in and I carpooled. I still need to order fenders and a bike poncho, as well as some cold weather gear for when Michigan’s weather cools off in Fall. But if I can bike 8 months of the year, I should earn all these costs back in the first year (or sooner), and then begin reaping the financial rewards. I’m already reaping the physical, mental, and emotional rewards of riding a bike to work.

    Reply
  • Jackahm Webb October 20, 2016, 10:02 am

    Commuting by eBike is a great solution to the traffic and congestion in US but most bicyclists don’t get that. Had researched electric bike kits but the bike you put it on needs to be high quality, especially if you want to go fast. Ended up going with the ProdecoTech Phantom ebike. Built in USA. Cheaper than most. I weigh 200 lbs and it gets me up hills and cuts through the wind like a champ. I have had it for 8 months now and no problems. They are having huge sales now so may get one for my fiance.

    Reply
  • Koen November 7, 2016, 8:27 am

    Really happy to live in the Netherlands where almost all roads have a seperate cycling path next to it. I think this should be done by more countries. Tip for the best quality bike brand: Gazelle. They are expensive so I buy them used myself.

    Reply
  • Lauren December 20, 2016, 11:32 am

    Thanks for the nice e-bike review. I’ve always been a non-motorized cyclist, but I recently got a job that is 8 miles from home and requires fancy business clothes everyday. I never thought it would happen, but suddenly I find myself researching the crap out of e-bikes. I never would have considered an e-bike if it weren’t for a former roommate who has started his own e-bike conversion company. His approach is that a customer purchases an e-bike conversion kit from his website and then chooses a local bike shop to install it. He is working with bike shops all over Seattle to teach them how to install his kits. Its a really neat business model that encourages folks to utilize their local bike shops for their e-bike needs. Check it out here: http://www.bikeswift.com/. I’m shopping craigslist for used mid-tail cargo bikes, that I’ll likely have Henry (of BikeSwift) electrify for me.

    Reply
  • Eric March 8, 2017, 10:03 pm

    Another great reason for an e-bike: it allows you to ride while recovering from injury. I screwed up my knee playing ultimate frisbee this winter and haven’t been able to ride my bike to work in a couple of months. Broke out the electric bike today and it was great! I still get exercise, I’m not driving a car for my 16 mile (round trip) commute and I don’t have to worry about putting too much strain on my still recovering knee.

    Reply
  • Jon June 29, 2017, 7:18 pm

    I ordered a RadWagon a couple weeks ago. So far I’m happy with it but a word to the wise, assembly is more complicated than the video suggests as both front and rear brakes and front and rear gearing wasn’t “right” on arrival. The jury is still out on if the rear disc brake will be okay — upon arrival and even after two attempted tunings of it, the rear wheel spins only 2.5 rotations when spun hard. After re-tuning the front disc brake, it will spin for dozens of rotations on a similar push.

    Rad claims there’s a 25 mile break in period where the brake may rub until things settle out. Handy then, that there’s an odometer on the electronics. We’ll see how it is after 25. I’m sure I can fix it in any case by replacing parts until it works, but I’m not keen on having to do that on a new bike.

    Also, if you’re going to bother to set the cables for shifters, either do it right or don’t bother and just include it as something I have to assemble. Don’t promote that it is ready to ride when it isn’t because of poor QC.

    Reply

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