600 in the saddle

I looked down at my snazzy little odometer yesterday just in time to note that I was going to cross the 600 kilometre mark on my bike since I retrofitted the Bionx system onto my bike. Not too much surprises me anymore these days, but that did.

I used to be a huge bike rider back in my late teens/early 20s. There were times where I couldn’t afford to insure a car, or didn’t have one at all and I didn’t have a choice about how I was getting around, so a bicycle was really the only option for me. In those days, I think my record kilometre count for a season was somewhere in the range of 2400. I know, I know, there are many riders who scoff at that number as minuscule, and boast far more in a season, but for my lazy self that was quite the accomplishment. These days, in the past decade or so, I’ve been variable. I have gone as high as 680km, but then on the other end of the spectrum, I noted in my journals from past years that the 24th of July 2014 was the first time I’d biked to work that year. I don’t have the kilometre count for 2014, but I imagine it was pretty dismal.

So, to be at that number before hitting August, with a good three months of biking ahead was a little shot to the accomplishment meter. I did 161.8km this year before the retrofit happened, so I’m up to nearly 800km in reality for the season. That’s really, really good for me. Just a little acknowledgement and reminder that like many things, consistent effort yields surprising result.

I figured with 600 kilometres under my butt I should give a little more review about the whole Bionx system. It should probably come as no shocker that overall, I love it. There’s more to love than to criticize for me, that’s for sure.

There have been so many times that I have thought to myself how amazing it was to be able to bike like I do, and for reasons that I didn’t even expect. For instance, the other day I left work feeling poorly, having developed a headache and heart unhappy with PVCs due to lack of sleep and just overall felt ick. The last thing I wanted to do was to put forth the kind of effort it would have taken to get home on a regular bike. I was in pain, felt like crap, and there wasn’t a lot of energy to be had. But it was no issue on this bike. I just chose to use the easiest setting and made liberal use of the throttle. I got home with little more effort than I’d have put forth in any car. When I got in the door I was very grateful that I made it without any further draw on my limited somatic resources. It’s these sorts of things that lend themselves to higher kilometre counts, and I don’t think it’s just lazy people like me. Seriously, I have been in similar states before and considering biking over taking a car and I would never have opted to take a bicycle if I felt awful. Now it isn’t just a possibility, it’s the default position, simply because I know I can make it without all the pain or inconvenience. It allows me to choose to bike when I otherwise wouldn’t, which is good psychologically, good for the environment, and also gets me a little more exercise than I would have got otherwise.

In fact, probably one of the biggest concerns I have is that I won’t ever be able to go back. It’s like after I got my first cordless telephone back in the 90s. I wondered how I ever got by tethered to a wall all those years.

I used to ride a motorcycle In the early aughts. I bought the thing thinking about being able to get to work in a fun way, and not having to worry about the expense of another car. At the time, Suz was on a high from Europe, where everyone zips around on Vespas having fun on the cobbled roads, and I caught the bug imagining that for myself. That road took me all around, and eventually to a motorcycle instead when I learned that Suz didn’t want to ever ride a motorized bicycle of any sort. Anyway, I had all these great ideas about getting around on it. The reality that I learned at great expense is that I am not a motorcycle rider. I never felt comfortable on the thing, out in the middle of traffic. Getting on it was seldom ‘fun’ in the way I’d hoped it would be.

Turns out though that sticking a motor on a bicycle was exactly what I thought having a motorcycle would be like. It’s fun, and it isn’t scary at all, and I can go all the places I would go on a bike, and I’m not able to go more than 33km/h, which suits me just fine. This thing–it’s everything I hoped a second vehicle would be.

It would be easy for me to laud this thing for the rest of the entry. But I think that I’ll point out the flaws, because nothing is ever only unicorns and rainbows, and someone who is on the fence right now may benefit. So, for anyone considering going this route, here’s the ‘gotchas’ that I have found so far:

Cost

This project was extremely expensive. When I bought my bicycle, I paid somewhere around $800 because I wanted something nice. And that’s what I got. I really loved it. I still do. To outfit the $800 bicycle with a Bionx system cost three times as much as the original cost of the bike. This is not a modification for the faint of heart, to say the least.

For that kind of change, you could pick up a used beater car. But then, you’d have to gas it up, maintain it and insure it. This is pay once and beyond an annual tune up, you’re done. Thankfully, I am currently blessed enough that I could afford to do this, and as much as it hurt, I still think it was worth it for me. But this is not for everyone.

Also, bear in mind that there are other options. A full-on e-bike that was designed as an e-bike can easily cost less. And then there’s people who simply buy the parts they need and make their own e-bike. These are far, far less expensive and arguably even better than what I have. Just take a peek at this dude’s ride. I love it. I honestly wish I could build it. But I know that’s not my strong suit. I can’t do these things, and it would more than likely be a profound waste of time and money on my part. In matters mechanical, I am far better off paying for skilled people to do such things for me. Thankfully, this is currently possible for me. Whatever the case, I love that the bike still looks like a bike unless you take a really good look.

It changes your old bike permanently

One of the things that appealed to me initially was the thought that I could still use my bike as a bike if I wanted to. Just turn off the system and away you go. Strictly speaking, you can. There’s nothing that’ll stop you from biking with the system off, and you can get where you’re going in a pinch.

The reality is that this simply becomes too much to handle. Like it or not, that motor is built right into the hub of your back wheel, and you can’t swap it out (at least not easily). That motor weighs a hell of a lot, and the magnets in it create drag on the wheel even when everything is off. You can’t stop magnets from being magnets after all; they have no ‘off’ switch. So biking with the system off is like running after putting extra weights on your wrists and ankles. If you want to get a good workout, it’s fantastic. But if the whole reason you bought a retrofit in the first place was to get around easier, then this is about as counterproductive as it gets.

And the reality is, you can’t un-ring this bell. Once your bike is an e-bike, it will never be a regular bicycle again. At least, not without scrapping the e-bike system entirely. So that $800 bicycle I told you about is gone. I no longer own a bicycle, which in a way is sad. It’s a commuter bike now. If I wanted to do anything else, like say a nice rail trail ride, I’d be constantly worried about range (see below) and the fact that I couldn’t deal with a system that wont turn on while away from home (see above).

Range is not as expected

When I got the bike, I was under an extreme amount of sticker shock (see above). So when faced with choices about which battery to get, needless to say I was quick to grab the least expensive option I could. After all, the smallest capacity was still rated to go 80km on a single charge, which is far more than my commute demands. I assumed, correctly, that this wouldn’t be a hardship for me and my primary use. And in all the time I’ve had the bike, I have never run out of power while riding. That said, I’m not terribly impressed with the projected range I get on my rides.

Bionx is unable to give precise ranges because there’s too many variables at play. I believe them, that isn’t just a cop-out. Even if you can say the range decreases the more pedal assist you use, you can’t account for the hills on any given trip, the weight carried on the bike, the wind direction, the tire pressure, the current lubrication level of the axles, etc. So, perhaps my expectations are unreasonable.

But I can tell you that my commute is about 6.7 kilometres each way, making for about a 14km round trip. If I start with a fully charged battery, by the time I get home, using pedal assist on level 3 of 4 (which I find allows me to get where I’m going in extremely pleasant fashion–quick, and minimal effort so as not to arrive sweaty), I’m a little more than half-full. That means I’m getting less than 30km to a charge under use that I’d consider normal for most people in the e-bike commuter demographic. That 30km fits into most of what I’d want to do in a trip, and one can charge up when finished. But as I said, something like a trip down the rail trail to and from Paris, where the trip is something like 50km round, I wouldn’t be able to do. So that 80km isn’t really practical use, it’s more ideal use (where ideal is ideal for the preservation of battery life, a situation I’m doubtful anyone rides to achieve). And the real kick in the shorts is that this is a new battery under ideal conditions. I imagine that as we hit our cold weather here in Ontario, and the battery ages with each cycle, that range will go down and down.

Moral of the story is to go as big as you can. Get the battery with the most capacity so you can have the most options for as long as possible. This will make your wallet scream like the hounds of hell are tearing it to bits.

Weight

The battery and the motor add somewhere between 12 and 15 pounds to the bike. In a world where people sometimes select their wardrobe for the weight it adds, this is a nontrivial addition. In my world where I couldn’t care less about the weight of my clothes, the issue is in getting it in and out of storage. To ride my bike requires that I move it up and down a couple flights of stairs with each use. Believe me, you feel that weight. Without the motor assisting you, you feel it much more. If you’re not actively riding this thing, the bike is a pain in the ass to get from place to place.

Misc

There’s a handful of little things I’ve noticed about the setup. These may or may not be true for anyone else.

  • I’ve noticed a decided imbalance has occurred in the bike. I tend to take my hands off the handlebars sometimes when I am biking. Sometimes to adjust my helmet or my glasses or take care of whatever loose thing is about to fall out of my pack. If I do this, there is a decided wobble in the front wheel which I would not want to let get worse. Where I used to be able to ride no hands indefinitely, now I have about 10 meters before I feel like I’m going to lose control of the thing.
  • There was also a problem with the added weight and my existing kickstand. The kickstand that came with the bike was unable to handle the weight. I could adjust the thing all I liked, and the bike would topple over if I left it for even a few seconds. This was corrected by buying a heftier, rear-wheel mounted kickstand to replace the centre mounted OEM one. This may well have just been Brodie cheaping out on the accessories.
  • The Bionx RC3 controller ring that sits on the handlebars was and is not compatible with the gear shift changers on the bike. There was no way to position this thing so that I could both work the controls for the Bionx system and change gears (which yes, you still need to do, but I don’t do nearly as much these days). The solution was to literally file off half of the downshift switch. It’s still useable, but it isn’t what I started with, and is a little annoying.
  • The Bionx DS3 console, for all that it costs a mint, uses pretty cheap parts. Specifically I take issue with the plastic that covers the screen. This has got to be some of the softest plastic in the world. It scratched within three days of my purchase, and I can only see it getting worse. I take good care of my things, too–especially the costly items. But this is a bike, for god’s sake. It’s like a pair of sneakers. You can’t actually use it without getting it bounced around. You’d think given that knowledge, and the amount charged for them, Bionx could construct their components with better materials.
  • You cannot fudge your numbers. I wanted to add the 160 some odd kilometres I’d biked this year to the total of the odometer since I got the retrofit. The system won’t allow this. In fact, the console is just a dumb terminal. All the smarts are in the motor itself, and it tracks how much distance you go and reports it to the console for display. In this way, it’s everything like the odometer on a car, and you cannot mess with it.
  • Jumping off that point, I’m not convinced the company is really all that customer-friendly. I imagine total kilometres travelled is only the very surface of the data collected by the motor and battery. I know that the battery keeps talley of cycles and I know that all of this data is used by Bionx to determine your eligibility for warranty repairs or replacements. I haven’t had to deal with the company on this front as yet, but the online community doesn’t laud them. My expectation is that if I’m ever dissatisfied, they will look to every last bit of data my system will cough up to wiggle out of any kind of warranty work. By reputation alone, they don’t strike me as customer-first. More technology first. Or maybe profit first. But that’s business. More and more I’m convinced that people only matter anymore in any field as sources of income. Beyond that, they’re pretty disposable. But that’s the cynic in me coming out, and this post isn’t about that. Thankfully, as much as there’s lots of upset people who have dealt with the company, the overarching feeling is that this is a quality product. I hope I’ll never be unhappy with it–at least not until it doesn’t owe me anything anymore. That time will come for me sooner than I ever would have imagined when I bought it.
  • Everything, and I mean everything, is proprietary and non-user serviceable. These guys give Apple a run for their money on this. If anything at all goes wrong, I cannot fix it myself. Hell, they even recommend bringing the bike in to the shop if you get a flat rear tire because removing the wheel from the frame will wreak havoc on the system so as to possibly make it unusable. That’s a huge pain in the ass for a cyclist. Most people I know of at least want to do basic maintenance like oil and change flats and adjust the handlebars or whatnot. Not a bit of it here. It’s pretty hands off. You want something done that in any way touches the retrofit from opening the motor to disturbing the wiring, go to the shop. You want something replaced? It’s got to be made by Bionx, or it won’t work. There’s zero options outside the ecosystem. As a long time Apple fanboy, I understand the benefits of this, and as someone not particularly mechanically inclined, it doesn’t bug me that much, so I give it a pass. But I could see where that would just be a deal breaker for many people who ride bikes as anything more than casual cyclists.

All that said, as of 600km in, my verdict in spite of these gotchas is that if you’re so inclined, and can afford it, this is a terrific system.

Better. Stronger. Faster.

So I had my first commute with the newly-minted beast. Yeah, it’s cheating–big time. And yeah, I don’t care.

Much like the legendary Steve Austin, my little hybrid commuter bike rose from the ranks of the normal, and became bionic. All it really needs is to play that cool little sound effect every time I hit the throttle. Now that would be hilarious. Are you listening, Bionix? It should be an option! Teehee.

Anyway, I left the house today concerned about the weight of it all. It’s a pig to lift the rear wheel when it’s fully tricked out:

  • Kryptonite Lock
  • Pannier 1: with laptop and notebooks and work-related stuff
  • Pannier 2: with additional lock, lunch, charger and rain gear where applicable
  • My fat ass
  • The weight of the actual hub motor

I was worried the thing would buckle under all that downward pressure, but apparently the wheels are rated for 300lbs, and I’m happy to say that not even I can tip that scale at the moment. Still, I’d hate to have to carry all this.

The bike, however, did not seem to give the slightest fig about the weight. I keep the tires pretty hard, at around 90psi, so that makes for a smooth albeit more bumpy kind of ride. The whole way in, there was zero issue with the pedal assist, which I set to three (probably overkill for me, but I didn’t want to have to work to get to where I was going), and the throttle was just plain amazing. I mean, yes, it’s not going to win any torque competitions carrying the weight, but the bike had no problems getting me up to the maxmum cruising speed of 32km/h on the straightaway, and also made it on the uphill, although for that it did struggle a bit.

The whole ride took up less than a quarter of my available power, and that was fully loaded with weight, level three pedal assist the whole way, and liberal use of the Button Of Much Happiness (or BOMH! for short). I will have no troubles using this for commuting, and I probably won’t even need to bring the charger in the future.

That there under the main cluster is the Button Of Much Happiness, aka the throttle.
That there under the main cluster is the Button Of Much Happiness, aka the throttle.

But the main thing is, I arrived to work in more than enough time, far faster than I would have on my own power, I didn’t break a sweat, and it was more fun than I’ve ever had on a commute. I loved that the dude on the bike behind me couldn’t pass me like they always do. Yeah, I know. I’m motorized and electrified and they’re not. Doesn’t matter. I giggled with glee as I peeled away from him.

I’m sure I’ll find some ‘gotchas’ as I continue to commute this way, but for now it’s e-bikes FTW. Way cheaper than a new car, and seriously fun.

Bionic man

indicative of what I am thinking
indicative of what I am thinking

So last week sometime, I was biking home up Keats Way. The way home from work for me tends to be a little more difficult than the way there. While my commute by way of elevation is sort of a U shape, with high points at both ends and a dip in the middle, the U favours the way to work. Getting home requires more effort. Keats Way is one of the roads where 2/3 of it is slope-y one way, and one third the other. It’s easier to get to work than home. So, I was huffing my way up Keats Way when I saw a woman on a bike behind me in my rear view mirror. It isn’t uncommon for the university students to pass me on their bikes on my way. They are, after all, younger and more get-go-ish, and also do not have heart concerns. I envy them so much for that. Anyway, so I wasn’t all that shocked when this woman gained on me, but when she passed, I was surprised. She wasn’t one of the University crowd. She may not have been older than me, but she wasn’t a student. And she was on a cruiser bike with fatter wheels and a retro look, and she was putting out pretty damned well no effort at all to pass me. It was sorta disconcerting. I didn’t get it at first, and then just as she was passing me, I clued in to the fact that she was on an e-bike. And away she went, leaving me panting away. She was a good 150 meters up the road when I lost sight of her.

This left enough of an impression on me that this week, I did a considerable amount of research into the niche subculture that is the electric bike. I was pretty taken with the idea by the time I was through.

I used to think that e-bikes were only those stupid looking bikes that tried to make themselves look like scooters. I never liked those things. They seemed to always gum up the roadways with their girth, and the drivers were often treacherous on the MUPs, when I saw them there. I still maintain those ones are not to my liking at all, but what I didn’t know was there’s options that don’t look anything like that. There’s e-bikes out there that are pretty well indistinguishable from a regular bike, much like the one that smoked me on Keats Way. In fact, they look super nice. I found out that you can even retrofit your existing bike to an e-bike with little effort.

The thing that hooked me is that I came to understand that being on e-bike doesn’t mean you’re somehow cheating the system, or will get no exercise. At least, not for me. You can do that if you want, but it isn’t necessary. We are a single-car family, and I am the one without the car 90+% of the time. I spend that time on my bike, and while it’s fine, I really am demolished by the time I get home, and not in a good, fun, “I have had a workout and I feel great” way. More like, “this is going to kill me, and I hope it isn’t today”. And in spite of the fact that the hills by and large favour the way to work, I still get there all sweaty and shitty and panting and I look like some hobo off the street about to have a cardiac event rather than the information-worker professional I’m supposed to be.1 Biking for me is really only fun when I’m not in a hurry and can enjoy the ride, which invariably isn’t what I’m doing. As a cycle commuter, I’m always in a damned rush to get anywhere; for better or worse, it’s well and truly my primary use case in biking these days. An e-bike apparently solves that issue.

I was intrigued enough that this weekend, I went down to Cycle Electric and took a couple of bikes out for a test run. The first one I took out was a folding e-bike from Emmo. The reason that I took it out was because it was an inexpensive option (and that is saying something here—if there’s one thing I’ve learned, this rabbit hole is preposterously expensive), and because I could fold it and presumably bring it into the office with me. I was thinking that the best theft deterrent there is, is to park the bike in my cube. A folding one might make that feasible. And it seemed weird to me that I could get a whole electric bike for considerably less cash than even a retrofit.

The ride was… okay. I didn’t get the feeling that I was much better off using it, to be honest. I don’t know if that was because my expectations having read so many sites and viewed so many YouTube videos were skewed, or maybe because I was riding it wrong somehow, or maybe the geometry of the bike was so very different from the diamond shape bikes I’ve been riding since just after birth ;). It was fine, and I think it made life a little easier, but beyond the throttle function, I wasn’t nearly impressed enough to go with something like that.

But then I tried a standard hybrid bike treated to an e-bike retrofit from Bionix. Now, that was different! My god, it was strange. I was pedalling away from the shop and I was wondering if it had even come on because I couldn’t hear a thing out of the motor, but when I looked up, I was doing nearly 20km/h without exerting any more effort than I usually would, and I didn’t even realize it. Somehow, this system offers pedal assist that just sorta works. It took me some time to realize that putting forth a third of the effort I usually put on the bike resulted in more speed by nearly 5km/h than I would normally get, and that wasn’t even on the highest level of assist.

And the throttle on that thing! It’s just wrong. It’s wrong that I could be on a hill, not wanting to pedal anymore, hit a single button and the bike just takes over and climbs the hill all on its own. That was the real kicker. And given the amount of battery power the kit provides, I should technically be able to get myself to work and home again and never rotate the pedals once, if that was what I wanted to do. That throttle is just awesome.

That test drive pretty much sold me on the idea of a retrofit. It felt so much better than the built-in one, it was sorta crazy. I get that probably the higher-end folding dedicated e-bikes would be able to compare, but then they’re kinda silly for the price. For that, I could probably get a decent used car. The retrofit does indeed seem to be the way to go.

I’m about 85% of the way to deciding to get this done. My holdouts are honestly only the cost, and the concern about theft. If I’m going to magically make my run of the mill little hybrid commuter a valuable target I need to rethink my lockup strategies, especially in light of the fact that we’ve already had one bike stolen right out of the racks at the office this year.

But I keep on thinking, “wouldn’t it be awesome to get to work and not be a sweaty mess in fear of my life?” and then thinking, “Yes, yes, that would be good indeed…”

Hmm.

  1. Yes, I am aware that one can get to work, shower and change. My work place is not well set up for that. While we do have one shower, I sorta fear it, and I’d really rather not use it, to say nothing of the overhead it’d take to bring clothes along every day—the bike is heavy enough, thank you very much.