Giving My Commute Some (Electrical) Help

April 11, 2016   felt_sporte

When I first learned about electric bikes, I was skeptical and didn't really approve. I'd been buzzed by people riding them, which was nervewracking, and I didn't understand how they worked.

I was also trying to make a go of regular bike commuting, but had a pretty long ride: 12 miles each way when I first started a few years ago, but more recently down to 10. Being able to complete that commute each day was a real challenge, and I was proud of myself for being able to do it most of the time, and year-round. Getting help from a motor seemed like cheating.

More recently, though, I realized a few things:

First, I liked my bike a lot, but it wasn't very good for quick trips around the neighborhood, and I didn't like riding it around traffic. Being a longish cyclocross bike, it was hard to have good visibility around me. I also had it outfitted for cleats, which meant I couldn't wear just anything to ride it down to the store.

Second, even though I could do my daily 20-miles worth of commuting, I kind of didn't like to. The benefits were obvious, but it could also be really tiring, and nothing less than high levels of effort could get me in to the office or back home in under an hour, with a required change of clothes on each end.

I never decided to stop riding, I just figured out more excuses to not ride and it only got worse as winter set in.

A few months back, I hurt my back putting my bike up in the racks at work, so the bike stayed locked up in the parking garage for a good six weeks while I tried to get my back into shape to start riding again. During that time, I started researching bikes with electric motors. After a lot of reading and six test drives, I settled on the Felt Sporte.

About Electric Bikes In General

Before I start talking about the Felt, I'll talk about electric bikes in general. There are some things I didn't know going in, and maybe you don't, either.

First, you can divide electric bikes into a few rough categories:

There are factory-made bikes, which are purpose built to carry a motor, battery, and assorted supporting hardware. There are also conversion kits to turn non-electric bikes into electric ones.

Electric Bike Drive Types

In both categories, there are hub motor bikes (the motor is found in the front or rear hub) and mid-drive bikes (the motor is mounted on the bottom bracket). There's a third, somewhat rare, category of electric bike that uses a friction drive: A spinning, grippy surface makes contact with the bike's tire and helps spin the wheel.

As I understand it, mid-drive bikes are a bit more powerful in terms of motor wattage. A drawback of mid-drive bikes is that they can be kind of hard on the chain when shifting. Newer mid-drive motors have shift detection to help with this. The manual for my bike still recommends that you stop pedaling when shifting.

Hub motor bikes more readily allow for the use of a throttle (like you'd find on a motorcycle). With a throttle, you can just climb on the bike, twist the throttle, and take off. With a mid-drive bike, all you have is electric assist: You have to pedal for the motor to engage, and if you stop pedaling the motor stops running.

With mid-drive bikes, you'll typically find the battery mounted on the downtube. With hub motor bikes, you'll usually see it mounted on a rear rack (either stacked on top or hanging off the side, like a pannier). The exception to this seems to be cargo bikes, which have longer frames that afford more creative battery mounting options.

Electric Bike Speed Limits

In North America, most electric bikes are limited to a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour, which allows them to be operated on mixed-use paths (like the Springwater Trail). If you exceed 20 miles per hour, the motor cuts out and you're on your own to keep it moving that fast (and good luck, because the lightest electric bikes still weigh a good 40 pounds). You can buy faster bikes for road use, and you can buy devices that allow you to override that limit.

Personally, I'm in favor of the limit. My experience on the Springwater with fast-moving traffic, even when it's just human-powered, has not been positive. I've seen unsafe and anti-social behavior from people who are more concerned about their speed than the people around them. The thought of opening the trail up to what would effectively be stealth motor scooters isn't a pleasant one.

In practice, that limit interacts with two other variables: Your battery life and your willingness to contribute to the bike's speed.

Getting to the Felt Sporte

I test drove six electric bikes before picking the Felt. I don't remember all the brands, but it came down to being very interested in the Pedego line (because they're quite well reviewed and seem solid) or the Felt (well reviewed, and the Sporte feels more like the kind of bike I prefer to ride, vs. the Pedego "comfort bike" configurations.

I test-rode both the Pedego City Cruiser and Stretch (a cargo bike). They use hub drives, so they have throttles. They both place a huge emphasis on comfort, so there are big padded seats, cushy handlebar grips, and fat tires.

The Pedego's were fun to ride, but they also felt mushy and bouncy. I didn't feel connected to the road at all, which made their simple throttle-based approach disconcerting. I wasn't super happy when a pedal snapped off under my foot because the bike had been assembled in a hurry. You're kind of buying a relationship with whoever sells you the bike, and that felt like a warning.

I also test-rode the Felt Verza (a more upright city bike with a step-through frame). The one I road was slightly smaller than I would have preferred, and it felt a little more like the Pedegos than I liked.

I test drove a few other models I can't remember and set them aside largely because they were taking a hybrid approach but didn't feel quite right to me.

When I climbed on the Sporte, I was immediately comfortable. In terms of contact with the road, it's on a par with my Cyclocross bike. It's more maneuverable, and has a slightly more upright ride that I prefer in city traffic. For all the bikes, I did 100 yards or so of "motor off" testing just to see how they felt pedaling. The Sporte was the only one that felt at all efficient. It'd be a heavy bike to pedal home 10 miles, but it'd be doable. The others reminded me too much of my folding Schwinn: Not really geared for a commute at all, and they felt inefficient and mushy to pedal.

My observation is that the center of gravity in the electric bike world is toward cruisers, comfort bikes, and city bikes. The hybrid commuters seem less common. It seems pretty clear that the industry is trying to appeal to bike novices and newbies. When I test rode the Pedego, I was told to not even bother using pedal assist: I was told to stick the bike in throttle mode and stay there for my own safety and comfort.

The Felt Sporte

So, the Sporte.

Like I said, it's a hybrid. It has a stiff, aluminum frame and a comfortable saddle. Mine came with lights (powered by the bike battery), a back rack, fenders, and a bell.

There's a small control console/computer mounted on the handlebars that shows you speed, the amount of power the motor is contributing to your ride, and remaining battery. You can cycle through a series of other stats, including remaining range, trip time, trip distance, bike odometer, average speed, and max speed. It also has a button to toggle the lights. Buttons positioned by the left grip allow you to control the power mode the bike is in and cycle through the different information displays.

The battery mounts on the downtube, and you can remove it to charge it, or charge it in place. The charger is small enough that it's not terrible to stick it in my pannier, but as I'll get to below I've figured out how to not need it for round-trip work commutes plus a little extra travel each day.

Battery Life, Power Modes and Speed

Most electric bikes have some way to set how much help you get from the motor. The Sporte has four modes:

Under Eco mode, my bike reports it can get about 60 miles on a charge, but the bike is contributing very little help. Realistically, it's probably not a lot more than what it takes to offset the added weight of battery and motor.

In Touring mode, the bike reports closer to 40 miles of range on a charge. Having done a few commutes in this mode, I'd say it allows me to average 20 miles per hour over my 10-mile commute with about as much effort as I would have put into maintaining an average of 15 miles per hour on my cyclocross bike.

I haven't done much with Sport mode.

Having experimented a little with Turbo and Touring modes, I've learned a few things:

So for my ideal use case, I can leave the charger at home and have enough battery left for a run to the store after work if I go fast one direction and slightly less fast another. The charger is so light, though, that I don't really mind packing it along and plugging in at the office, which means I've got way more juice for getting around at the end of the day if I don't want to go straight home.

In terms of speed in each mode, I've found I can complete my 10-mile commute in about 38 minutes in Turbo mode, and closer to 41 minutes in Touring mode. In Turbo mode, I can peg the bike at 20 miles per hour without a lot of effort – I didn't even sweat under my rain gear a few days ago. In Touring mode, it hangs around closer to 17 or 18 miles per hour and there's a bit more effort to keep it there (but not enough to make me sweat a ton).

I like Turbo mode for the sense of getting somewhere fast, but it powers the bike so much that it's constantly reaching 20 mph and cutting back the motor, which is disconcerting and feels a little weird as resistance comes and goes to the pedals. I don't have to really expend a ton of effort to get it to that speed, so it's constantly backing off. I need to experiment with the Sport mode, which could be a sweet spot in terms of speed and battery life for how I want to use the bike.

The Riding Experience

You know, I like it a lot.

The bike itself is pretty comfortable. The ride is upright, so I feel like I have better 360 visibility. The stiff frame and road tires make me feel connected to the pavement.

Biking under power is a pretty nice experience, really. I wasn't sure what to expect when I started all my test rides: Would the pedals move on their own? (No.) Would it surge ahead and feel out of control? (No.) Would it be loud? (Not really, and only when going up hills or in the process of getting up to cruising speed.)

You have a sense of being helped along, but because there's shift sensing and because the motor cuts out if you squeeze the brakes or stop pedaling, there's never a sense of precarious control. The hydraulic brakes do a great job of stopping even at relatively high speeds.

The things I've paid the most attention to in the week I've had it have been:

Downsides? Mostly that I have to pay attention to the battery. I've got a long commute and I'm still enjoying how much more quickly I can do it without being drenched in sweat at the end, which means I'm using faster modes and chewing through the battery quicker. I've considered splurging on a second charger so I can just keep one at the office and not have to pack it along each day.

I'm also a little self conscious about it. I can go pretty fast relative to most of the commuter traffic around me. The Hawthorne Bridge, for instance, has become a very new experience to me as I come to grips with the fact that even coming up off the ramp from the trail, I've got a speed advantage on most of the people on the bridge. I can do 17 or 18 mph up the hills I encounter, too. I use my bell religiously when passing, and I try very hard not to slide back into my lane until there's plenty of space between me and someone I passed.

That self consciousness isn't a terrible price to pay, though, for enjoying my ride so much more, and not paying quite as big a time penalty to come in by bike. With my cyclocross bike, a commute realistically took an hour for the ride plus cleaning up on the other end. That made it pretty much a wash compared to my Max commute (also an hour with walk to the station thrown in). I don't know what it would be like in a car, but that's a non-starter: Our family has managed to keep ourselves to one car, and I hate the thought of paying parking, gas, and all the rest for a daily commute that I'd despise on the best of days. With an electric bike, I have a faster commute that's less tiring while still helping me get some exercise in.

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Things is © 2015 Mike Hall.