One afternoon early this summer I was cycling my go-to route from Seattle to Mercer Island on the I-90 bike path. I noticed a rider about 1/4 mile ahead of me. On the flat middle section of the bridge the gap between the other rider and me began to close and I expected to catch up. To my surprise, when the rider hit the hill on the Mercer Island side, the gap quickly grew and the rider disappeared from view. I realized: “That’s an e-bike.”
Since then, I’ve noticed more e-bikes, both on the I-90 bike path, as well as on my downtown bike commute. It’s still a surprise when an e-bike or a cargo e-bike passes on a hill at a high rate of speed.
I recently met with Dean Kuzara, the regional Stromer e-bike rep, and David “DJ” Johnson, owner of Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest to test drive a few models and understand more about the growing popularity of e-bikes.
First question: Who buys e-bikes?
DJ explained his situation. His daily commute is about 26 miles one-way. Driving is a pain because of traffic, and cycling is more efficient because he can use the commute to get exercise. However, cycling 52 miles a day on a regular bike would be too time-consuming, tiresome, and sweaty. Commuting by e-bike enables DJ to get in a reasonable workout every day, arrive at work and back at home without too much sweat, and on his bike there is one less car crowding the streets.
At least here in Seattle, they told me, e-bikes are more of an alternative to cars than an alternative to conventional bikes. For those Seattleites who would ideally prefer to bicycle commute, our hilly terrain is a big sweaty challenge that makes commuting on a conventional bike unappealing. In fact, Seattle’s hills are cited as a reason that the Pronto bike share system has been a failure, and it sounds like the current system may be replaced with a new e-bike program.
DJ also mentioned that an increasing number of parents are opting for cargo e-bikes as a way to get around their neighborhoods and do errands with their kids.
Second question: How do they work?
The basic idea is that the electric motor, which can be in one of the wheel hubs (front or rear drive) or in the bottom bracket area (mid-drive), provides pedaling assistance, meaning that when you start pedaling the boost engages. Depending on the way the boost settings are adjusted, the assist can range from nothing to a spirited acceleration.
I tried two e-bikes:
1. A mid-drive Felt Sport-e 95 S at a retail price of about $3,000. This model has three boost settings up to 350W, a 10-speed rear cassette, and disc brakes. It has a single bright light up front. The battery is in a case mounted on the down tube.
2. A rear-drive Stromer ST2 S, at a retail price of about $10,000, which puts it close to that of a used or low-priced automobile. This model has lots of bells and whistles to justify that price. Three boost settings up to 500W, torque adjustments (to fine tune its hill-climbing ability), a double chainring, a 10-speed rear cassette, Shimano Di2 shifters, and disc brakes with an integrated regenerative braking sensor. Up front are a set of running lights and a bright night light, and in the rear a brake light. The battery is inside a lockable cavity in the down tube. This Stromer model also includes their “Omni” electronics system, which connects to a smartphone app that provides diagnostic tools and an anti-theft gps system.
No surprise, because of the battery (among other things), both bikes are heavy compared to conventional bikes, with the Stromer weighing in at over 40lbs.
The Test Ride
From Electric & Folding Bikes Northwest on 17th and Leary in Ballard, I did a ~2 mile loop west to 20th, then north to about 63rd, then back south to the store via 17th. Northbound there was a slight hill with about a 2-3% grade.
I rode the Stromer first. Since I was (am) a complete newbie to e-bikes, it took me a while to get the hang of using the boost and mechanical shifting. Similar to what is noted in this Outside magazine article, after the initial acceleration from a standstill there was a bit of a pause before the boost re-engaged at a steady level. I played around with the boost settings on the uphill section and found that it was quite difficult to pedal when the boost was at the lowest setting, and at the highest setting it was almost effortless to go 18mph. This Stromer also has a temporary boost option which can be used to accelerate from a standstill, or help get the bike moving from a standstill on a hill. This Stromer model accelerates up to 28 mph, but I kept it under 25mph.
With an initial trial in my legs, I had a better idea about what to expect during the second trial with the Felt. I didn’t notice the same kind of acceleration pause in the Felt, though that may have been part a result of the learning curve. I played around with the boost settings on the uphill section and the feel was similar although the Stromer had noticeably more power coming from a standstill. My takeaway was that there is a short, easy learning curve in regards to mixing and matching the boost and mechanical gearing.
Since the Felt was lighter than the Stromer it did bounce around a bit more on Ballard’s uneven pavement. While most conventional bike riders generally prefer lighter weight equipment, I could see how a heavier e-bike might be preferable to some folks because the feel is more stable. In my brief research, I noticed that some aficionados have preferences for mid vs rear hub drives. Performance-wise I didn’t notice any significant differences in that regard during my short test.
If you think you’d rather do a bike commute, but hills or distance are keeping you from making the switch, an e-bike might just be the perfect solution.