Friday, 3 September 2010

Going Electric

I've been a bit infatuated with the idea of having an electric bike for years and have looked at various designs over the year without seeing any that really got me excited. That was until surfing the net for electric bikes on a whim one cold, wet sunday afternoon a couple of months ago to stumble across solar bike's conversion kit (http://www.solarbike.com.au/).
What got me excited about their conversion kit was that it was a throttle based, front wheel driven electric bike, where the drive wheel slotted into most front forks and you were away.

This just seemed like such a brilliant idea to me as it overcame all the problems I had with rear drive kits where you seemed to have to replace the whole drive chain system, with much fiddling about, and where you usually ended up with some three to five gear system. I watched the online assembly video (it was only 15 minutes) and thought instantly that even I could install this kit.

After a few email exchanges with the very helpful owner (Matthew) over in Perth, I took the plunge and laid down my $845 (Now $890 due to increases in shipping costs) and waited for it to arrive.

Now, I should say at this point that electric bike design seems to be going through some pretty significant advancements at the moment (I even notice that velovision are putting out an electric bike magazine soon) and there are lots of things to think about including:

battery type (I think lithium is fast becoming the base standard, though cheaper batteries are still out there)
battery location (rack or frame mounted)
power (200watts is the legal maximum in most States of Australia as far as I understand it, but you can buy up to 1000 watt units),
throttle control (motorbike style, thumb throttle, peddal throttle),
rear vs front drive,
new bike vs conversion kit
and then evertything from colour to style.

I found a really good overview in a recent (2010) copy of Velovision magazine that gave a really good summary of many of these options, and would recommend it and lots of web surfing if you're thinking of going electric and the idea of dropping from $1,000 to $2,000 makes you think twice about the path.


Note how bolt won't align with fork gap,
and also how much I've had to file off inside
of fork to get it to fit.
But, back to my story. The wheel arrived the following friday (5 day delivery from Perth to Hobart) and I excitedly unpacked it that night, pulled the wheel out ... and found that it didn't seem to fit into my front forks no matter how hard I pushed. Now, not panicking, I recalled that the instructional video mentioned that a few bikes require a little bit of filing to get the tyre to fit, so after a trip to K&D on Friday morning to purchase a small metal file, I set too with some trepidation.

This is where the fairytale started to go wrong. After filing about half to one mm off the inside of the front forks, I then realised that (a) the wheel was never going to sit fully inside the forks as it was just the wrong concave shape at the top, but I also realised that (b) there didn't appear anyway that I'd be able to tighten the bolt (it is bolt lock only, not quick release due to the stress on the axle) as the bolt provided was too big, and would hit the forks before it tightened.

I won;t bore you with the long story that unfolded over the next few weeks, but I learnt a number of lessons for others to be aware of. Firstly to remove the bolt, I had to disconnet the electric connections. This was a fairly easy task, but anyone electrically challenged like myself will feel a bit daunted. I then also found that the bolt is slightly bigger than a half inch imperial bolt, but didn't come anywhere near a metric bolt size, and so I couldn't just replace the bolt with a smaller one.



Thinking I had dud forks, I tried it on my other two mountain bikes (don't ask) and found that it didn't fit either of them either. However when I measured the axle width, it came up perfectly to the 1cm specification that should fit. Strangely when I took it down to my local bike shop, they managed to fit it onto the first bike he tried, but I was looking at $150 for a new set of forks, plus installation ... this wasn't the quick and cheap switcheroo I was expecting at all.

Eventually, after a bit more filing, a bit of fancy use of washers and much more time than I'd like to have spent, I got the wheel in place, ready for my first test ride.

Again this was a bit of a saga with more lessons to be learned. The wiring that I had disconnected, didn't want to reconnect very well, and I think several of my neighbours now live in fear of the screaming idiot on his bike who seemed to think it should be going forward without him peddaling. I also discovered (again with the help of the ever patient and helpful Matt) that there is a safety connection which essentially mutes the power of the bike. After fixing up my wiring problems and disconnecting this safety wire, suddenly the bike had punch and it felt like it was getting somewhere near the 20-25kms an hour promised.


I had to adjust the brake pads as advised, and also move the brake levers. I also hit my final problem here ... there was no way with the new grips that I could get the downshift lever for the rear derailer to pull in properly (see pic) but I figured I'd sort this out later.

It was time for its first test ride.

Now my whole reason for wanting an electric bike is that I live about 8km's from work, and the ride is all uphill from work at the end of the day. Quite frankly commuting to work five days a week on the bike was a bit too much in a Tasmanina winter, but to drive the car to work and get a reasonable park meant having to leave home at about 7am (Hey, I'm a Hobartian and I still expect to be able to park right outside the shop I want to visit, and I expect that to get to work at 8.30am I shouldn't have to leave home any earlier than 8am). An electric bike seemed to be a cool solution to this problem. I was assured by Solar Bike that although I'd still have to pedal, it should feel more like I'm cycling on the flats than pushing up the hill the whole way.

Heading down the Southern Outlet in the morning was a bit unnerving as I half expected the forks to collapse and my life to come to a crashing end, but other than taking it a little slower than normal, all went well, and it was a pleasure at the bottom of the hill to just turn the throttle and basically glide all the way to work down by the docks barely having to pedal the whole way. So far, big smiles.

After a beautiful morning, the rain came in in the afternoon, and I was a little nervous for the ride home as I set off at 5:26pm. Exactly 30 minutes later I pulled up at my gate with a big smile on my face. I'd cut 15 minutes off my usual commute, and it had been a doddle.

As a cycling friend had pointed out to me earlier in the day, 200 watts is what your average recreational cyclist would put out, so it was like having two of us on the bike for a change. I barely needed to turn the pedals on the flats, and for most of the climb I was able to sustain an average speed 5-10kms above my usual speed on my bike with less effort. I particularly enjoyed overtaking another cyclist just after bend two, you could almost see that look on his face saying "how the heck is that guy catching up to me so fast?" I know that look as I usually practice it a lot with other cyclists who overtake me.

I also really liked that on the few stepper sections, I could still get up out of the saddle and put in an extra effort, so still get a bit of a workout, plus you had that added bonus that when you sat back down the bike still kept going forward with the momentum provided and the extra power from the engine.

So ... thoughts after day one.

I think I'm going to really like the bike for my commute.

However there are some issues to be aware of:

1. The installation can be a lot more difficult that you'd think if you'r mechanically challenged.

2. Storage could be a real problem. You can't just disconnect the expensive battery and take it with you.

3. The whole bike is very heavy with the front wheel and battery so any place where you had to carry your bike up stairs, hang it in lockers or on wall hooks will be a problem. I'm lucky that we have a bike cage t work I can lock it in. But this storage problem also limits its use for running around town.

3. Whilst the bike is whisper quiet, well no more than a slight hum, when operating at speed on flats or slight downhills, as the grades get steeper the engine can get up the volume of a quiet hairdryer, so don't go expecting a quiet cruise home if you live up hill.

4. You either have to carry your gear on your back in a backpack, or you can do what I did and move it all into a Topeak rear rack bag that has side panniers and a bit more room on top. This is working pretty well for me so far.

5. I think a puncture will be a real hassle, as you have to carry a large shifter with you to undo the bolts, plus you'd have to cut the cable ties holding the cable in place on the forks so you can get the tube out. I'm just hoping this doesn't happen.

6. After all my fuss of wanting a front wheel drive, I found on my first ride that you use your gears a whole let less than normal as you tend to use the power of the throttle to adjust speeds. I haven't yet solved the problem that i can't change up gears on the rear derailer to my satisfaction. I currently have the gear changing mechanism about 5 cms inside the brake leve, and I change with my other hand. Not optimal.

However, you also have to look at the pros: It's always been faster for me to cycle to work in the morning (15 minute ride door to door) compared to driving (best case scenario, 10 minute drive and 10-20 minute walk) as it's pretty much all down hill and I can ride right into my workplace, but it's been slower to ride home (45 minute ride compared to 20-30 minute drive). However now with a 30 minute ride home the bike comes out in front in terms of overall travel time, plus I save $2-$3 in petrol and running costs per day.

Just by way of comparison, a return bus trip for me on a metro bus card comes in a poor last at 35-45 minutes each way (30 minutes travel time + 5 to 15 minutes getting to the bus stop and waiting) and a return cost of $6.60 after taking into account the metro greencard discount.

Overall, I suspect I'll ride my normal bike to work Mondays and Tuesdays, and my electric bike Wednesdays and Thursdays wen I'm feeling less motivated, and take the car on Friday (I like to get to work early, and leave early so parking isn't a problem and it means I can head out after work).

The bus will be kept for those particulalry cold and rainy days where I've cycled to work and it just isn't worth the misery of riding home.

We'll see how I go in a month or so.

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