Part IV: Eurobike Impressions
The ebike market in Europe showed significant developments this year. Two main trends stand out in my mind that will probably dictate the way the market develops over the next few years. The first trend is the move back towards hub motors. Recently it seemed that mid-drive was the future, but this does not seem to be the case, as new developments from Go Swiss, Panasonic, and Bionx, to name a few, suggest.
Manufacturers clearly see mid-drive engines as ideal for many purposes, and so it appears that the market is splitting, with mid-drive becoming the preferred system on comfort and touring bicycles, and hub motors being engineered into more performance oriented bikes. Now there are definitely crossovers, such as Bosch’s very popular “45” speed engine being spec’d on a growing number of performance bike models, and Bionx’s IGH3 internal rear-hub system found on a variety of city specific bikes. But by in large, the general trend seems to be hub motors paired with derailleurs and mid-drive paired with internal hubs.
The other trend of note is the growth of the speed electric bike category. Switzerland has led the way on this, liberalizing standards and allowing for an easier process of obtaining a license to use 45 km/h ebikes. The rest of Europe is also slowly consolidating standards. With the market gradually being defined by governments across the EU, manufacturers are beginning to embrace the new speed category. At Eurobike, every test rider eager to try a bike would first enquire whether the test bike was a speed bike or the more tame 25 km/h variety. Needless to say, speed was preferred.
The worry, among many in the industry, is that the new speed category needs to be explored with caution so as to not add needless risk. Hardly anyone is in favor of raising the top speed of 25 km/h for the “pedelec” category which does not require a license.
When it comes to my impressions of bikes at the show, there were two that stood out for me as having been implemented particularly well. These two standout ebikes were the Grace MX and the Smart ebike.
The Grace MX is designed around the Bosch 350 Watt 45 km/h mid-drive engine. What is unique about the bike is it’s utilization of a Gates Belt drive, its use of a Nuvinci internally geared hub, and finally, it’s integrated battery. The one problem with the Bosch drive is that it is prone to vibration and a fairly constant noise. The noise is due in part to nylon gears in the engine, but a good proportion is the result of the interface of the chainring with the chain. The Gates belt drive goes a long way to solving this problem, by quieting everything down, and nearly eliminating all vibration. This combined with a smooth Nuvinci transmission, which is not indexed like a Nexus hub, makes for a riding experience unlike anything I have ever tried. It is smooth and incredibly powerful.
The Smart ebike is probably the best urban ebike I have tried. It has a simple 3-speed shifting system that is flawless, built into the powerful Bionx rear hub motor. The design also allows for a belt drive, but in this case, due to the vibration and noise free operation of Bionx, there is complete silence. Even with a 250 Watt motor, the Smart ebike had plenty of power, although, admittedly, the Eurobike test track did not offer much in the way of San Francisco type hills. All in all, the integration on this bike is really unique at the moment and makes for a vehicle that is a pleasure to ride.
Finally, a word on a few disappointments. The biggest disappointment of the show had to do with automatic transmission. To many people, myself included, automatic transmission sounds great. Who wouldn’t want to cut down on handlebar clutter by getting rid of shifters, and in the process be able to concentrate on riding rather than being in the right gear. The reality is not so simple.
I tried two promising systems with automatic transmission. The first was a Kalkhoff equipped with the Nuvinci Harmony drive. The Nuvinci Harmony is a version of Nuvinci’s hub transmission that uses the power from your ebikes battery to shift gears, keeping you pedalling at a constant RPM. You set the ideal RPM with a grip shift that looks much like the traditional Nuvinci display, but with a digital readout.
The problem with the Nuvinci Harmony is that rather than liberating you from shifting, it just befuddles. I had a very difficult time understanding just what the Harmony was doing, and found myself constantly tweaking the RPM setting to see what felt right. But no tweaking could make the system feel right to me, and I finally switched settings to manual mode, which turned out to be quite nice.
The second automatic transmission disappointment was SRAM’s entrance into the electric bike motor field. SRAM’s idea was novel: instead of bringing one more feature packed mid-drive or hub motor to market, why not focus on simplicity. So they set about developing a hub motor with automatic transmission and no console. Simply flip a switch on the battery to turn on the system, and start pedaling. The motor unit senses your pedal pressure and both gives power and shifts you into the correct gear. The concept would allow for beautifully streamlined single-speed ebikes that would appeal to young and old alike.
Unfortunately, the SRAM system I tried did not hit a sweet spot. It was noisy, due to the metal gears chosen by engineers for durability sake, and the shifting was beguiling like the Nuvinci Harmony. Again it seems that simplicity can easily come at the price of less control over the bike and a frustrating riding experience. And on top of it all, the power of the motor was extremely underwhelming. It could well turn out that the system I tried was not production ready and the one that finds its way onto manufacturers bikes next year is different. I sure hope so. If not, I don’t see the SRAM catching on in any significant way.
Part III: The Mountain Bike Moment
Passing through the San Francisco international terminal a week ago, a particularly well put together exhibit caught my eye. Along two long walls at the back of terminal, behind tall glass panes, was a line-up of mountain bikes in exquisite condition. On one end was the very earliest example, a Schwinn with motorcycle tires, and on the other, the most cutting edge carbon fibre, full suspension twenty-niner.
The mountain bike is legendary in the bicycle industry. It upended everything, taking what was once a staid, largely winded business with flat sales, and making it fresh and innovative. As was clear from the history display, and is recounted often by industry veterans, the mountain bike made brands, toppled others, and generally made cycling interesting again for millions of people. The exhibit, showing the evolution over 40 years of a now ubiquitous machine from it’s humble beginnings in Northern California until today, seemed to me to be a prophetic send off.
In 2005, Mike DeVisser of Ohm Cycle’s recounted to me, they were one of probably a handful of brands displaying electric bicycles at Eurobike. A sales manager for Currie Technologies told a similar story of Eurobike obscurity, with their booth being placed by organizers at the furthest reaches of the convention, the Zeppelin Hanger (yes, right next to a Zeppelin aircraft).
Today all that has changed. The comparison I heard over and over was between the current electric bike craze and that of the mountain bike explosion in the 80’s. But this time, everyone I talked to assured me, the electric bike will be even bigger. Perhaps the best hint at how monumental the electric bicycle is for the bike industry is this: when mountain bikes came onto the market, how many car companies developed a mountain bike for mass production? Plans for developing electric bikes are underway at VW, Audi, BMW, Peugeot, and Ford, to name a few, and Daimler has already brought a bike to market with the Smart ebike. The reason for so much interest by some of the largest manufacturers on earth? The electric bike is already revolutionizing the way people get around, not just the way they spend their free time.
Every major European brand had at least one electric bike on offer. Many brands displayed and promoted their electric bike models almost exclusively. And all of this makes sense when you consider how electric bikes have already changed the idea of a bicycle among consumers. While the average selling price of a bicycle is around 500 Euro in Germany, an electric bike often sells for at least triple that. For a machine that can offer unprecedented mobility and convenience, people are willing to spend much more, not just on a quality motor system, but also on quality components that make the bike a joy to ride. Not just that, but a bike that is used more often to do more things also encourages riders to spend more on maintenance. This in turn supports a vibrant retail sector with high quality service and well paid staff. It is a virtuous circle.
It appears that the virtuous circle may soon be stateside. The most exciting news from Eurobike is that the Europeans are ready to make a big push for the electric bike in North America. Already Grace has announced their entrance into the U.S. market, and will display at this years Interbike show in Las Vegas. Currie Technologies, recently bought by the Dutch electric bike giant Accell group, is preparing a number of big announcements for Interbike as well. And Stromer, recently purchased by BMC Switzerland, is readying a relaunch of the brand in the U.S. market after a rocky first few years under a distributor. These are but a few of the exciting developments in the slumbering North American ebike market.
We call ourselves at The New Wheel “an optimistic bike shop.” We are often asked what exactly our motto means. The motto is meant just as much as an affirmation as it is meant as a statement about the business we are in selling a product that we believe can make for a better future. Optimism has been required as we have sought to build a sustainable business on integrity, quality, and service in an industry that has often lacked those qualities. Going to Eurobike and seeing the existence of so many quality companies offering quality product has helped to renew my optimism. And now the Europeans are going to export their product and approach to North America. It appears that 2013 could well be the mountain bike moment for the electric bike in the United States.
Part II: Demo Day at Eurobike (Conventional Bikes Need Not Apply)
It didn’t look to be a fun demo day for Marin Bicycles of California. Their pitched tent was crowded with reps and brand new bicycles, waiting to be asked out for a spin. But of the thousands of bicycle industry people who had descended on the small town of Ratzenried for Eurobike’s annual Demo Day, hardly a soul was interested in trying a Marin bicycle.
That wasn’t the case for Riese und Müller, or Felt, or Haibike, or Stromer, or any other brand that brought their ebike line-up to the outdoor demo. For those with ebikes, the problem was keeping the batteries at full capacity, and having a few bikes available for the line of eager riders. Yes Eurobike’s demo day, like the rest of the European bike market, is now all about electric bikes.
And the darling of the European ebike market at the moment is Bosch. Introduced to the market in 2010, Bosch is now the system spec’d by a growing roster of manufacturers. The Bosch is a mid-drive system, meaning the motor drives the front chainring, taking advantage of the gears in the rear. It’s popularity, manufacturers tell me, is due to a combination of great reliability, competitive pricing, quick to market innovation, and, most importantly, performance.
Demo day was my first experience of the system. What was my take? That will have to wait for my wrap-up post later in the week, but suffice it to say Bosch is very nice. The good news, or bad news, depending on how you look at it, is that Bosch is not the Microsoft - or Apple - of drive systems. Competition is fierce, and the market is developing at a feverish clip. Panasonic has introduced larger capacity battery packs, further adding to it’s edge in having something for everyone - you can have a Panasonic battery of up to 604 Watt Hours now - along with a new hub drive. TransX from Taiwan was also out in force, delivering a mid-drive system that many manufacturers are experimenting with. And Bionx is still being built into many bikes, especially by the German brands Wheeler, KTM, and Grace, although many in the industry grumble over Bionx’s lack of focus after Daimler ordered up 15,000 of their motors for their Smart ebike.
There are also a growing retinue of proprietary, or semi-proprietary systems by manufacturers, with Stromer, BH Easy Emotion, and Kalkhoff chief among them (Kalkhoff has developed their own “Impulse” motor system to sell alongside Panasonic and a little Bosch). The more proprietary route allows for easier integration, but also makes retailers anxious to know if they can trust the brands to stick around. The bigger the brand the better when it comes to proprietary technology.
When all the systems and technologies and implementations are taken together, the variety can be a bit overwhelming. Coming from the U.S. where quality options are few and far between to then see so many good systems vying for primacy takes a bit of time to recover from. There is a war going on in Europe right now, and it is for the future of ebikes. The exciting thing is that we won’t be on the sidelines for ever…
Keep posted. More to follow.
Part I: Electric Bikes are Changing the World (Swiss Edition)
It’s nine in the morning, 70 degrees, and I’m cycling up a hill in the Alps on an electric bike. Welcome to Zurich, Switzerland. I’m not on vacation; this is all business. Truly. Zurich is the first stop on a business trip to Eurobike, the world’s largest bicycle convention. I have come half-way around the world from our electric bike shop in San Francisco to learn from the European’s about the future of personal transportation. Zurich is the perfect first exposure to the mobility revolution underway.
The electric bike I’m riding is built in Switzerland by the Swiss brand Flyer. It is a bike share bike offered by the City of Zurich and run by recent immigrants and asylum seekers through a program designed to help along integration. The electric bike itself was provided by M-Way, another interesting story. M-Way is one of the largest electric bike retailers in Switzerland. It’s parent company is the large Swiss coop Migros, with a range of businesses from supermarkets to gas stations.
Yes, electric bikes are in the mainstream in Switzerland. As a store clerk at City Cycles, a large bicycle retailer in Zurich, told me after I lamented about the dearth of quality electric bike brands available in the U.S., the problem in Switzerland isn’t a lack of manufacturers, it’s just the opposite: too many. But that doesn’t seem to be slowing things down much. The same associate estimated that over 30% of the sales of bicycles at her shop were electric, and she motioned exponentially upwards with her hand when talking about the trend of late. Walking around Zurich, that isn’t surprising. Everywhere you look there is an electric bike locked up, or zipping by.
It hasn’t always been this way though. Electric bikes began to take off in Europe about six years ago, and accelerated greatly in only the last three years or so. At Eurobike now, over half the show space for bicycles is dedicated to electric bikes, a sure sign of how bullish the industry is these days.
What this means for life in Zurich is quite clear. While urban cycling has wide participation, electric bikes are expanding the places traveled to and from, and the demographics of riders. A common sight are what are called “Speed Pedelecs” - abbreviated as s-pedelecs - distinguished by higher top speeds and required license plates affixed to their fenders. These speedy ebikes allow easy and quick travel from the outskirts of the city downtown, making cycling even more attractive to everyone from the weekday commuter to parents, who can often be seen with children in tow.
It’s an exciting time to be living in the Alps.