Having put many miles into my legs, over the years cycling, I thought I could go on forever. However, now that I have found myself heading headlong at warp factor speed, towards your 80th birthday,
“The crystals will not take much more of this Captain”
Reality has hit home, you can not cheat old father time. Hills get tougher and headwinds become your Achilles heel. The spirit is still willing but the flesh is most defiantly weak.
If I were to keep on cycling touring into old age then an e-bike or a conversion to an e-bike may be the answer, I would give it a try. Now since I already had a decent bike, several really, I chose to convert rather than buy a new one. Now after all the trials and tribulations that entailed, and with over one thousand miles under my wheels of that conversion bike, I feel I can give a summary of how it feels to own and ride.
First off, an electric bike is a pedal cycle with an electric motor and a battery that provides assistance as you pedal. This is important if you have an electric bike that you do not have to pedal to activate the motor, such as a trigger or twist grip that controls the power, then, legally it is considered a moped, and can’t be considered for free tax and registration-free ownership, in the UK or EU. One other stipulation, you will be restricted to 15mph/25kph in the UK, EU, and Australia, (in the US it is 20mph) above that speed the motor should cut out.
The restricted speed more or less disqualified them from fast road bikes. Most lightweight road bike will happily trundle along at 15mph hour after hour with little effort so why carry the extra weight.
I suppose the first question we should ask is “Why do you want an electric bicycle?” if you want it to commute to work each day, and the distances involved are less than 40 kilometres round trip, or you have access to a 240V power source to recharge the battery, an e-bile will do that.
You will be told by the maker the mileage you can expect to travel on a fully charged battery, but there are so many variables to consider. Hills, headwinds, speed, and how much effort you yourself are willing to put in?
When I was considering an electric motor conversion, I did a lot of research on the internet but since most of the information to be found there is supplied by companies trying to sell you something, you will possibly end up even more confused at the end than you were in the beginning.
At the time, the rear wheel seems to be the obvious choice, but it is not that simple, like everything else in life it was a compromise. For instance, I found that gear change and brake levers that came with the kit were for a seven-speed block and my block was eight-speed, and since you have to use the brake/changers leavers that come with the kit, for safety reasons. They are wired directly into the controller and when the brakes are applied the controller will kill the motor.
When it came to fitting the wheel, there was little room to play with at the rear forks and spacers were required to shim the wheel into the position where the disc brakes would line up with its calliper. This was a bit of a pantomime so trying to remove the wheel if I ever had a puncture would have been a real headache. You can of course repair an inner tube without removing the wheel but again this is fiddly.
That said, most e-bikes are heavy and even when the motor cuts out they will freewheel at a great rate of knots down a steep hill, it is then you have to remember this is a bicycle with a bicycle braking system, and skinny tyres, although disc brakes front and rear are now common on modern bikes.
Mountain Bikes (e-MTB)
Downhill riding is great fun but getting up there in the first place that’s the bind. e-MTB can get you to the top fast and with lots of energy in store for the fast exhilarating ride back down. However, you will compromise on handling downhill, something new to learn. Then there will always be that breed among us, that will thrive on the allure of the hard climb up hills, and will find that hard to resist.
Are the least expensive option so provide good entry-level e-bikes. Their upright position makes them ideal for around town or leisure riding, on trails and plodding around the local parks. They will also be a good choice for the daily commute. E-hybrid bikes are often heavy, mainly because they are less sophisticated, no lightweight tubing, aluminium or carbon fibre for hybrids, still, this will only make them stronger and more robust, but it will come at a cost in weight, therefore if you do happen to live in that top flat in your Glasgow tenement, you will be looking for storage at ground level.
Storage a problem,
Not if you have an electric folding bike. Travelling on public transport, other than the intercity buses that have a large boot space that will take a fully grown-up bike, otherwise, you will require you to buy a folding e-bike (many tour operators will not take e-bikes on board). Their lightweight and foldability make them ideal for commuting to and from work or the nearest bus/train station. And for those weekends away, they will not take up much room in the boot of the car either. Most will have the battery hidden in the frame, making them very compact, and their light weight gives them a good range from a fully charged battery. Many folding e-bikes are made from aluminium or carbon fibre, which makes them more expensive than the run or the mill hybrid bike, but the flexibility of a folding bike more than pays you back in all-around usability. On good weather, you may wish to commute all the way into the town, but if the weather is iffy, only as far as the railway station, that is the flexibility of a folding e-bike.
The motors on electric bikes can be mounted as a wheel hub therefore gives the bike drive in the normal way, front or rear. Middle motors are slung below the bike on the bottom bracket and driven through the powered train of gears and chain. The biggest advantage of the mid-motor is the low centre of gravity, so stability is less of an issue, but will give less ground clearance, so could make off-roading problematic.
Rear wheel drive is popular, this places the motor low down and where most of the weight (the rider) is carried, making for good grip, and generally good handling.
Front wheel hub motors are a little more tricky for they will affect the steering and with less weight over the front wheel, reducing road grip. They do have a big advantage over rear-wheel motors when it comes to removing the wheel, if that becomes necessary, yes, even e-bikes will get punctures.
All e-bikes will be powered by rechargeable lithium-ion batteries, for their low weight and outstanding performance, along with a rapid recharging ability, normally only a few hours. With batteries, you get what you pay for. The bigger the battery, in Amp-hours, the more miles you will eek from each charge.
Mainly there are two systems for controlling the output from the battery to the electric motor. These are by torque or cadence sensor, it is they that will send information to the controller and in turn to govern the flow of electricity from the battery to the motor.
Most kits come with a cadence sensor, this is a magnet that fits down at the pedals, as you turn the pedals the sensor reacts to the cadence (speed) that the pedals move at and the faster you turn the pedals the higher the flow of electricity from the battery, through the controller, to the motor. The speed along the ground will depend on the gears you have chosen on the bicycle and the assistance you have preset on the screen display – normally 1 to 5.
The torque sensor, on the other hand, detects the force you are exerting on the pedals, and you have to supply around one-quarter of the power all the time. If you take a break so will the motor. The magic happens with some very clever electronics in the torque sensor controller, either in the motor’s gearbox in the case of a unit fitted to the bottom bracket, or the cadence sensor can be exchanged for a purpose made bottom bracket torque sensor. The torque sensor will pass on the information to the controller and in turn the motor. This will range from 50% power to 300% full power and will be displayed on the screen in Watts. The advantage of this system is that it rides more like a bicycle with a bit of assistance.
The cadence sensor has an obvious disadvantage, as soon as you hit a hill, your cadence will drop, and so will the supply from the battery to motor, just when the opposite is required.
On most e-bike conversion kits, the cadence sensors will have a thumb trigger, that will override the system and deliver electricity straight to the motor, the further you push the trigger the faster the bike will go, but it will also be depleting the battery at a much faster rate of knots.
Warning, few kits come with a battery, so although they may appear to be inexpensive, you will have to factor in the cost of a battery, which can be as much again as the motorised wheel. My front wheel conversion came with a built-in battery and controller so a neat package. The battery can be removed for recharging or recharged on the tricycle. Since everything is contained within the wheel itself it requires only one wire from the unit to the screen display on the handlebars, or if you wish you can use your mobile phone to programme it so no wires at all.
My rear wheel conversion has a battery that was designed to fit the water bottle braze-ones. But when it arrived it was so big, it would not fit inside my small frame. Likewise, the control box should have been housed onto the rear of the seat down tube and in front of the rear wheel, but again there was insignificant room to accommodate, ho hum.
Knowing what I know now I would have bought a battery that fitted as a normal rear carrier on a bicycle. However, since my bike already had a rear carrier, my initial thoughts that if the heavy battery was placed on the front down tube, this would help spread the weight. I finally made up a board and the battery and control box was firmly attached to this, then the whole lot secured to the rear carrier.
Alas when I came to fit it to the carrier, I had once more to modify it, by screwing blocks to the underside I was able to raise it up high enough to allow my pannier bags to be attached to the carrier. Lessons learned.
Power packs will be made up of Lithium-Lon batteries and some also contain the controller, making them very neat and much smaller than the older models. The market is changing so quickly with new products arriving almost daily. You may find by the time you have unwrapped the one you bought, it is already obsolete. The beauty of this, there is that bargains to be had, so long as you are not a follower of fashion, and only the latest technology is for you.
I find it truly amazing how far battery technology has advanced. For something that you can hold in the palm of your hand to have the ability to hurtle you up the road for the next 40 kilometres, and be recharged in 2 or 3 hours, remarkable. I remember having to take the accumulator, for the radio, down to the local electrical shop to be recharge, a trickle charge at that time would take 12 hours min. You’re giving your age away again Hamilton.
These little hub motors, at around 300W, can certainly pack a punch, they are also high torque (around 40Nm) and brushless, so extremely quiet and with no brushes to wear out, what is not to like. I have also found them to have very little drag if any, even when pedalling around town with the motor switched off it feels just like a normal bicycle.
With the cadence sensor you only need to pretend to be pedalling to get full power, you can simply use the throttle. With the torque sensor, you are always helping. Even at 300% level, you are still providing one-quarter of the power yourself. However, if you are still fairly fit the torque sensor bicycle will feel much more like riding a normal bicycle but with power assistance, the pedals will feel light, like you have young legs once more, and you do not have to fiddle with screens or triggers, and a fully charged battery will take you much further, because you are helping.
Best of both worlds.
The only bicycles I have found that has both a cadence sensor combined with a torque are the Smart Motion and Pace/Catalyst, which allows you to select which mode to ride. Torque sensors are very complicated, which is reflected in the price, and the main reason I suspect why most kits will come with a cadence sensor. You can if you wish buy a torque sensor bottom bracket separate from the kit and replace it with the one on your bike. The main reason for doing so would be to make it fully compliant with the law as an e-bike and still keep the override capability for those really steep hills.
When it comes to bottom bracket motors the market leader at this time is Bafang but not to worry, you will not have to take nigh classes in Chinese instruction come in many languages. These motors replace the bottom bracket on the bicycle so first, you need to know what type of bottom bracket your bicycle has, and crucially its size. Also, you will require special tools to remove the peddles and bottom bracket, and possibly press a new shell into place. You would be wise to find all of this out before parting with your cash.
Both the Bafang BBSO2 and the BBSHD motors come in a variety of widths to fit several JIS and BSA bottom bracket shells.
Personally when it comes to bottom bracket motors it is best left to the professionals to fit. And when you weigh up the cost of conversion, it would possibly make more sense to buy a new e-bike.
Last year, before anyone had heard of coronavirus, and before the bikes conversion, I caught the bus over to Glasgow and cycled back to Kincardine via the Forth Clyde canal. At this point, I had intended to catch the bus from here home, but with a strong tailwind and a fine day ahead, I cycled all the way home along the coast. It was a long, long day, with little stopping, but proves if you can plan your journey driven along with the prevailing winds, it is as good as an e-bike when it comes to touring.
I have done just over one thousand miles on my converted bike, what have I learned?
Yes, having a 300 Watt motor assisting you up the road will keep you on your bike. But it is so easy to use it as an electric scooter than a bicycle, you get lazy and pedal-less and less. Is that a good or a bad thing? If it gets you out of the house and into the fresh air when you would otherwise not be able to then it has to be a good thing. I have been using my conventional bike to keep some resemblance of fitness in my legs. Believing in the old adage, “If you don’t use them, you lose them”. My hope is that an e-bike will keep me on the road for many years to come. Hope, is a good thing, maybe the best of things.
P.S. I have a front wheel with a self-contained motor. It can be programmed from your smartphone or by a single wire to a switch on the handlebars. You can change from a normal bike and back again to a conventional bike in a matter of a couple of minutes, with no fiddly wires or connectors. £200.00 and it’s yours. I am buying a purpose-made folding e-bike to take on public transport, extending my range of travel.