Cycling’s dirty little secret?

The Information

I’ve continued to research the market in electric bikes and I’ve discovered some interesting things. At the same time, I’m finding it hard to settle on a purchase. Good information is hard to come by. There are a couple of YouTube channels that review e-bikes, and the odd web site, but the truth seems to be that there are a lot more e-bikes out there than there are reviewers. The limited number of reviewers means everything’s filtered through the preferences and prejudices of one or two people. Or the reviews are so generally positive they’re bland. Especially when it comes to finding out about more recent models, you’re kind of on your own. I thought there would – obviously! – be a magazine dedicated to e-bikes, but when I went to the big W H Smith in Milton Keynes, there appeared to be nothing available.

(An online research reveals an American title, but even then the latest issue shown on its web site dates from December 2015.)

It’s also hard to see them in person, unless you happen to live near a specialist retailer. Even then, most retailers tend to carry a limited number of brands, so there really isn’t anywhere you can go to see a wide variety.

Even a thorough trawl through the online reviews isn’t much help when it comes to current or forthcoming e-bikes. A YouTube review of a bike from 2014? In this fast-developing market, 2014 is ancient history. As Ferris Bueller said, in his documentary about e-bikes, “Life moves pretty fast.”

I think I know what the real problem is, and we’ll get to that. First, let’s talk about design.

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I’ve never been a fan of the e-bike that has a rear hub motor and its battery on a rack over the back wheel. That’s a lot of weight over the back wheel, and it looks ugly, too. Bikes designed like this tend to be the older and cheaper ones. The motor can be placed in the front wheel instead, but your driven wheel is then also your steering wheel – and it still looks ugly. The ugliness is in the design (or lack of it): these are clearly regular bikes with electric motors glommed onto them.

As the market has grown – and it has clearly been growing – the designs have improved, and we’re starting to see electric bikes that are designed from the ground up as electric bikes. It’s increasingly rare to find a rear hub motor on a latter-day e-bike. Most manufacturers are offering a crank motor, which places the centre of gravity low and which responds more directly to your pedalling input. The key advantage of these in design terms is that both wheels can be a more conventional bicycle design, depending on the genre of the bike.

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Trek Conduit+

Still, it’s common to see the battery attached to the rear rack or stuck on top of the downtube. We’re getting closer to the idea of an electric bike being true to its own nature, but I still think they’re ugly. The Trek Conduit+ made my original shortlist but I’ve discovered enough other options that I won’t consider it now.

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Scott E-Sub Tour

The closer you get to a nice-looking e-bike, the higher the price. Forthcoming models from Specialized and Giant (see previous post) are going to retail between £2k and £3k, which makes your eyes water a bit. At least the Trek is closer to the £2k mark, as is the Scott E-Sub Tour. This latter is typical of the kind of design that’s making some effort to incorporate the battery into the design.

It’s in the hub

Which brings us to the Germans, and their Swiss/Austrian cousins. Once you get into the high Sierras of £3000 plus, the e-bikes start looking very nice indeed (though I have an issue with the drab colourways). Just look at this Rotwild.

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German engineering

The battery-incorporating downtube doesn’t look any fatter than that on my carbon road bike. You’d pay similar money for the (Swiss-made) Stromer ST1, but that still has a hub motor. Stromer’s high-end ST2S, with electronic gear-shifting and a 180km range, comes in at a cool seven and a half grand. 

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Stromer ST1 has a rear hub motor

One thing I’ve discovered you have to watch out for are the so-called “speed” models, which are capped not at 25 but 45 kph. This means they have to be registered, licensed, and that you have to wear a proper scooter/motorbike helmet when riding them. You can usually tell it’s a speed bike because the motor is 350 watts – whereas the legislation limits the bike to 250 watts if you don’t want to register it etc. I can imagine that hurtling along at close to 30mph will make you want to wear a helmet, anyway.

So I’ve ended up looking at two manufacturers in the main. The first is Kalkhoff, which offers both regular and “speed” designs based around its “Integrale” design (the name refers to the integrated battery), and other models with the battery on the back of the downtube. The second is Scott, which offers its elegant-looking E-Silence in a variety of configurations.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 10 has derailleur gears – like most e-bikes

It’s a complicated business. One thing that has been giving me anxiety is the combination of derailleur gears with the electric motor. Even without a motor, derailleurs are a pain in the arse: fine while they’re working, but I have proved myself over decades of cycling to be absolutely hopeless when it comes to maintaining or adjusting them. Why have gears at all? You might well ask. You’d think that with a motor, you could just have a single-geared bike and let the engine do the work. But these pedal-assist bikes all require you to be pedalling at a steady cadence, which means you have to keep your legs spinning at the same rate, even on the hills – hence the gears.

Which brings us to the nub, or hub, of my decision-making. On the one hand, I’ve never quite trusted the mysterious technology of hub gears. You can’t see them working, and even when you look at animations of how they work, I still don’t understand how they work. It’s all smoke and mirrors, man.

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Belt drive? Oooh.

But then you see the words belt drive and you think, oooh.

A belt drive means no chain. And no lube. And no mess. Hub gears are sealed, designed for low maintenance, which means for a daily commute you could just get on and ride without worrying about the whirrrrr-click of a derailleur or the filthy gunk that accumulates on a chain in all weathers. A lot of people get a hub geared bike for winter riding anyway, but in the context of an electric motor they make even more sense.

So I’m pretty certain I’m going to plump for the belt drive option. The Kalkhoff S11 has Shimano’s latest and greatest 11-gear hub, but unfortunately it’s a speed bike, so it’s off the table. If they offered the 11-gear hub with a 250 watt motor I’d jump at it.

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Kalkhoff Integrale 8 Ltd – belt drive and Shimano hub gears

A further disappointment came when the UK distributor said that the Integrale 8 (Shimano 8-gear hub, 250 watt motor) was sold out. But, they said, they have a few limited edition white ones arriving next week. These have a rigid front fork instead of  the standard suspension fork and mudguards but no rack. That’s okay: I have a rack. So that’s one option (see above).

My other option is a Scott, but their only belt drive model is the E-Silence Evo (below) which is (a) not out yet and (b) closer to £4k than £3k, so way out of my budget really. Why are we even talking about this? Well, because instead of a Shimano hub gear, it has a CVT – a continuously variable transmission. This is the Nuvinci N330, which offers a 330% range of gearing with a technology even more mysterious in its workings than a hub gear. It’s an automatic gearbox for bikes: you set the speed you wish to pedal and the bike automatically adjusts its gearing, keeping your feet spinning at the same rate – assisted by the motor, of course.

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Scott E-Silence Evo with continuously variable transmission and belt drive

“Cheating”

I was talking to someone the other day, and I mentioned my plan to get an e-bike and they said, “That’s cheating.”

Which brings us to cycling’s dirty little secret. You start researching this and you realise how big the market is, how much competition there is, and yet how hard these things are to see on the high street. Evans cycles, for example, are happy to sell you an e-bike on their web site, but when I went into their big shop in Central Milton Keynes the other day? Not a single e-bike.

The shop I went to in Dorking to drop off my carbon road bike for repair had one in the window – a Trek women’s model.

Your basic retail problem is that the staff in these places often display the same kind of twattishness common to guitar stores and record shops. They’re the kind of people who spout macho nonsense about suffering up the hills and sticking to The Rules (Rule #5: Harden The Fuck Up). You’d no more want to ask one of these people about an e-bike than you’d want to engage a music shop employee in a conversation about music.

This is the Strava crowd, the King of the Mountains crowd, the hypercompetitive macho manboys. I’ve been using Strava to keep a record of my rides for a while, but I’d been thinking maybe I ought to not use it when I get an e-bike, because it would belie my true status as the 450th fastest rider out of 750 on that particular hill.

But then, what better way to subvert the bullshit than to shoot up a hill twice as fast as usual and drive them all crazy?

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2 thoughts on “Cycling’s dirty little secret?”

  1. When I used to hang around in the Mercedes showroom having tyres swapped etc, there were always some tempting looking belt driven Smart e-bikes on display for around £1500. Daimler/Merc/Smart have stopped making ’em now though.

    I guess you’ve looked at the Pedelecs site which has a huge range of bikes. For example, when I typed in a price of £1300-£2000 (which would be my sweet spot) there were about 144 bikes.

  2. Yes, I’ve used that site in my searches. There are lots of bikes to choose from – that’s the problem! One frustration I’m finding is that you find interesting models on manufacturer web sites, but then no dealers seem to hold them in stock.

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