In 1881, France's Gustave Trouvé slapped batteries and an electric motor on a Starley Coventry Lever Tricycle and ushered a new technology into the world. Fourteen years later, American inventor Ogden Bolton developed a direct-drive motor for bicycles that remains relevant today.
Electric-motor-assisted bicycles, or e-bikes, have been further revised and re-imagined over the past hundred years, but the basic elements have remained the same: batteries, a motor and some kind of control unit. That's what you'll find on Matt Blum's e-bike, which the 34-year-old local custom jeweler uses as his primary mode of transportation.
"I enjoy mechanical stuff," Blum says. "Before I got into biking, I had some scooters that I rebuilt, but as soon as it got slippery outside, I had to quit. I didn't get the use out of them I'd hoped, and I was still paying the insurance and registration to keep them."
By contrast, when Blum wasn't able to use his mountain bike, it cost him nothing to have his bike sit. So his friend and occasional riding buddy John Duprey convinced him that the most efficient way to make his short daily commute from his west-side house to his and his dad's downtown store was on an e-bike.
Duprey didn't advocate merely from an enthusiast's point of view. With a background in the solar power industry, he drives a Nissan LEAF (see "Pushing the plug," SimpliCity, Sept. 24, 2014) and has parlayed his alternative energy interests into the locally based E-Bike Company (ebikeco.com). It opened this past March and sells motor kits, solar charging units and other accessories.
"Once you go electric, you don't want to go back," Duprey says. "In Colorado, you're probably going to start from a hill or end on a hill. Electric assist helps, even if you're an experienced rider."
A recent Washington Post article, cautiously titled, "Are electric bikes the wheels of the future or just the new Segways?" notes that 200 million e-bikes are in use in China. It also mentions that electricbikereview.com details more than 400 different models.
To be clear, e-bikes are not electric motorcycles, nor are they electric versions of the old mopeds. Rather, they are bicycles with an electric motor attached, which you may choose to use for an e-assist.
In an 80 rpm slog up a long grade, you'll still work, but the motor will take up a little bit of the slack, allowing for more enjoyment (assuming you aren't seeking to train hard). E-bikes can also benefit riders who might be recovering from an injury, or who deal with physical disabilities.
"The point is to get people out there," says Blum. "I built my first e-bike for my girlfriend with John's help, so she could get used to it. By the time I built my own, she was already biking all over the place."
E-bikes come in three basic configurations: hub drive, friction drive and mid-drive. Hub drives use electric motors housed inside the front or rear wheels of a bike. They're based on Bolton's 1895 design, and represent the most common configuration.
Friction drives, meanwhile, transfer power to the wheel via a roller sitting atop the tire. The electric motor spins the roller, which in turn drives the wheel. These are simple systems to assemble and install, but have a couple of major disadvantages. For one, they don't do wet weather, as the roller loses friction against the tire. Also, most friction systems don't work well with knobby tires, which makes them impractical for mountain bikes.
Blum remembers that when he was assembling bikes years ago, he came across an old friction drive and gave it a try. "It slipped when you needed it to work hard, like on hills," he says, adding, "It wasn't great in the rain, either."
That experience made him forget about e-bikes until Duprey inspired him to give it another go, with a mid-drive. "The idea with the mid-drive," explains Duprey, "is to put the motor in the crank [where the pedals are located] so a rider can efficiently use the gears." It's one reason why mid-drives are growing in popularity, and it made a believer out of Blum, who converted his girlfriend's Salsa El Mariachi under Duprey's supervision.
Duprey says almost every major bike manufacturer is delving into e-bikes, but pre-made ones can be very expensive. For example, Specialized offers its Turbo S e-bike for around $7,000. So he recommends a DIY approach, using parts that already exist in the marketplace.
"It's cheaper, and the bikes are more powerful," he says, explaining that he can install a mid-drive crank, battery pack and control system on an existing bike for just under $1,000. If that still sounds expensive, he says to consider that these e-bikes generally have a range of about 50 miles, depending upon how much assistance you require from the motor. They can travel 20 to 30 mph, and don't require any special licenses to operate, or insurance or registration.
As for charging cost: Using a recent Colorado Springs Utilities electric rate of .1047 cents per kilowatt-hour, he calculates that a full charge of one of his 890-watt-hour packs costs around 9.32 cents. On a basic 5-amp charger, he can reach a full charge in roughly 3½ hours.
He'll gladly take his math a step further. Since most Americans think in terms of their cars, he notes that the Environmental Protection Agency uses a miles per gallon equivalent (MPGe) standard, where 33.7 kilowatt hours is equal to the energy generated by one gallon of gasoline.
His Nissan LEAF gets an EPA rating of 114 MPGe, while his e-bike — when used throttle-only, without pedaling — gets over 1100 MPGe.
While we're on the topic, e-bikes obliterate the competition from those little gas-powered motors you sometimes see (moreso, hear) strapped to bikes. They're equivalent to lawnmower engines, and those tiny two-strokes (which also appear on some scooters) lack catalytic converters, meaning they contribute significant greenhouse gases and air pollution. (EPA data shows that a mower run for an hour pollutes as much as an early-'90s Ford Explorer driven more than 20,000 miles.)
Duprey discovered even more benefits to his solar-charged e-bike while on a Pacific Coast bicycle tour this past June. He used the bike's batteries to charge phones and to inflate a queen-sized air mattress.
Even pulling a 50-pound trailer and using e-assist to climb hills, his solar cells were able to generate all the electricity he needed. On one wet, slick, steep redwood forest hill, he says, the motor's assist was the only way he made it to the top.
Far from the streets, he says that after a recent power failure at home, he's been considering buying an inverter to use his e-bike batteries as backup to run his gas furnace fan. That, for sure, is something Trouvé and Bolton could never have imagined.