Adieu, Old Friend
Well, I’ve been trying to use my 1993 Raleigh MT200 as my pack mule over the last two years, as you may know. The goal is to avoid using the $45,000 Ford diesel pickup for errands and grocery shopping trips, campsite scouting and area exploration. I simply won’t be able to afford to replace it unless I’m willing to give up some other costly activity like, oh, say, eating.
The trouble with using the Raleigh has been that my bad ticker limits my range even on level pavement, and I’ve found precious little of that in my travels. As a result, I’ve had to use the Ford for too many short trips that a bicycle could normally handle, and that kind of driving adds up mileage in short order. This violates the Defiant’s Prime Directive, which is purposed to preserve the vehicle over the long haul, as well as decrease fuel and repair costs to a minimum. It also violates my doctor’s directive to get sustained exercise at controlled levels. For me, daily walking is okay a few times, but then gets monotonous. Something in my DNA wants to cover ground.
My realization that the Raleigh wasn’t going to cut the mustard came in my second year of full-timing, when I got out of the flat confines of Quartzsite, Arizona and wintered in an LTVA near Yuma, which is perched on top of a windy, weary climb of several hundred feet. The long way around was paved and relentless, while the short way was a real wheezer at points, over dirt, gravel and sand pockets. That was the kind of trail where heroic efforts to pedal were met with more tire slippage than forward progress, and I had a very limited supply of heroism available. Yuma itself was well out of reach, being close to thirty miles away, with some great produce stands a little closer.
Moving to the delightful town of Wickenburg later was the decider. I was camped just four miles from the essentials in town, but getting back to camp required a climb of some 400 feet. Local road-bike cyclists use that two-lane to keep in shape, but for me it was an open invitation to periodically give up and walk, or face the consequences. Later, Paulden drove the need for assistance home, with its mix of nice cruising and abrupt, rough climbs that were taxing even to walk up. If I wanted to keep cycling and keep camping in pleasant areas, I was going to have to make some hard decisions. The burn rate on the Ford was unacceptable.
While it’s always nice to play mass consumer and buy a new gizmo on some flimsy excuse, buying a power-assisted bicycle is a different animal. There’s no way to justify such a considerable expense unless the thing can eventually pay its own way. Being as I’m an unrepentant cheapskate, you can imagine the soul-searching that has taken place around here recently.
The least expensive way to add power-assist to a bicycle is to strap on a small electric motor and battery pack, driving the rear wheel though a roller that presses against the tire tread. This is a temporary, short-distance hobby approach, not suitable for any more than a trip around the suburban neighborhood. It’s also not suitable for my existing bike, as its pedaling position is not upright enough for me and cannot be made so. Any type of conversion won’t hack it in this situation.
About as inexpensive is to add a tiny gasoline engine to an existing bike. Many folks do this, and it works just fine for them and what they do. As with the electric motor mod, I’d need to replace the Raleigh for a more upright bike, and add the engine to that. Because of spectacular fuel mileage on these little engines, this is a good, affordable long-distance approach. I hesitated to pursue this however, because I don’t want to store gasoline or go back to dealing with a carburetted engine. Neither would I be willing to tuck it out of sight inside the trailer if I had to leave it for a prolonged park somewhere. With these gas engine kits being Chinese in origin, service parts can be a serious headache to obtain depending on which engine and drivetrain you choose. And the engineering tends to be kind of a backyard level, just good enough to last for awhile before needing improvement. My experiences with several forms of yard care equipment as well as older automobiles has made me unenthusiastic about relying on a gas-engine device hard and daily. I don’t need a new hobby. I much prefer a reliable system that will stay nearly maintenance-free over many hard miles and years of use.
Those preferences pointed me back toward electric bicycles, but there is a hard truth about these beasts: you get what you pay for. Electric bicycles tend to be spectacularly expensive, so many people understandably go for entry-level bikes with a fairly weak electric motor built into a wheel hub, powered by a common sealed lead-acid battery through a pretty crude controller. The price point for these is around $500, about the cost of a bottom-tier mid-quality plain bicycle.
But there’s no free lunch here. What you get is a Walmart-quality bike with its short-life bearings, very poor hill-climbing ability, and only a few miles of range before the battery gives out. You can’t really stuff in a much bigger battery, because the existing one is already a bit too large and heavy for the bike frame as it is. Most of these bikes wind up sitting in the garage unused, because they aren’t much of an improvement over a standard bicycle. After a year of use, the glitzy whiz-bang aura of having a real electric bike is long gone. The battery is ready to be replaced, and the thrift-minded owner has written off the bike as proof that electric bikes are a weak, clunky rip-off. Most of these bikes quickly wind up as giveaways, or gather dust in a storage unit somewhere.
If you’re planning to do more than dabble with a new throwaway toy, the only option is to man up and pay up. The main influence on price is the battery. Lithium batteries are pricey, and the trade-off for your hard-earned money is power density and lifespan. Think of power density as the zap per pound. Lithium batteries have it. Compared to a lead-acid battery, lithium batteries can carry much more usable energy in a smaller and lighter package, and survive many, many more uses as well. Better power controllers mean more distance per charge because they absorb less power themselves, and allow you to adjust for only as much power for motion as you actually need. Better bearings mean many more miles between servicing intervals, no ongoing adjustments to compensate for wear, and no loss of lubricant from exposure to weather. Because of the better battery, a more powerful motor becomes an option, and slopes can be more easily handled. The bike is still heavy, but its weight can be better distributed. I’d guess that the bottom tier for a decent e-bike starts at around $1,500, and the practicality is greatly improved even at this price point.
From there on up, you start to get into e-bikes designed from the ground-up to be e-bikes rather than conversions. This gets you into frames designed to handle the increased weight and shock forces, and suspensions become an option. Once you get up in speed over bad pavement or dirt roads, adding some form of shock insulation helps protect both you and the bike’s frame. If you don’t face either, you don’t need a suspension and its extra weight. But in my experience, a bicycle’s front fork is the weak point for stress, not the frame proper. At higher-than-normal bike speeds and loads, I view a front suspension as a safety device, pillowing the critical joint between the fork legs and its stem that goes into the headset of the frame.
Time for a reality check. Why worry about bike weight if you have an electric motor helping you? Answer: There isn’t any power to spare in these things, and extra weight decreases range. E-bikes are a far cry from motorcycles, being engineered as an assist or helper to your pedaling, rather than as a primary source of power. You still remain the primary power source, and if you back out of that role, the bike’s range is cut in half, at least. Better e-bikes have controls that do allow you to choose between having the motor help you pedal, and keeping the bike going while you just sit there like a lump, enjoying the ride. How much they help you pedal is also adjustable.
Again, even using lithium, the battery remains the limiter. You could carry a sixteen-pound battery instead of eight, but at some point the extra weight affects how you perceive handling. This is most apparent while you’re maneuvering tightly at very low speeds, walking the bike, or parking it. The extra weight can, depending on location, make the bike top-heavy and more prone to falling over.
Getting maximum range out of an e-bike means watching weight (including yours), decreasing the rolling resistance of the tires, limiting speed against the natural air resistance it creates, operating the thing at the motor’s designed speed of best efficiency, and using a drivetrain that absorbs the least amount of power possible. These are all captivating topics, but I will spare you. You’re welcome.
If all you’re going to do is hop on and go the mile to the grocery or just bike for exercise, choosing an e-bike is no big deal. Keeping an eye on quality level, nearly anything will do that will make the distance you need. Many younger people in urban areas have gotten rid of their cars and use their bicycle or e-bike and mass transportation to get around. The e-bike is especially handy for those who wish to arrive at work not drenched with perspiration. Weather limitations aside, this works. The more essential an e-bike becomes, the more carefully one must think about features. The bike moves out of the hobby category and into the “essential tool” category.
There is sage advice on the Internet to stick with manufacturers who use generic components, the advantage being that replacements are readily available when needed. If something happens to the bike’s manufacturer, you can still get parts from the conversion market. This is good advice, and I chose to ignore it. Conversion parts serve the do-it-youself end of the market, and if you’re not a DIY person, unique proprietary features that enhance a bike’s usability in my situation may be worth pursuing as long as the manufacturer appears viable and readily offers replacement parts. It’s a choice, not a mandate. You might well choose differently.
But hey! Think outside the box! What about a battery-powered trailer? Just hook it up, string its control to the bike handlebar, and go! It carries the battery and motor weight, leaving the bike intact. Couple of problems with this for me: Still need a new bike, no assist without the trailer attached, and the sole manufacturer has ended production.
But is a mid-scale e-bike cost-effective? You can buy a lot of gas for a thousand dollars, and twice as much for two. In the case of the Ford though, payback takes place more rapidly. In short, I looked at the annual mileage it racks up while transporting the trailer cross-country, and then while doing other tasks which could easily be handled by an extended-range e-bike in the dry Southwest. I tend toward planting the trailer and then not moving the trailer for as long as possible. I was surprised – horrified, actually – to see that local trips added up to substantially more miles than major cross-country treks despite my obsessive concentration on consolidating errands together.
Then I looked at the operating cost per mile on fuel alone, and the maintenance and repair costs that are mileage-related. Given that even the Mighty Furd has a finite mechanical life, anything I can do to avoid putting mileage on it is a serious financial plus in the long run. Even when an alternative vehicle cost runs into a few thousand dollars, that cost is chickenfeed compared to the financial penalty of racking up mileage doing local errands in the truck. I came to the conclusion that, in my situation, it was time for some short-term financial pain in order to extend the Ford’s service life in years.
I really didn’t want to deal with the Illinois licensing and insurance issues of a motorcycle and the like, or the thought of trying to wrestle it up onto a rack for transport. Or the maintenance issues, or finding a dealer for that brand. I’d already been through that in my younger days. Not for me, now. I just want to continue to hop onto a bicycle for my errands, but to go much longer distances than I can now, only that bike will need to help me with the stout headwinds and the relentless uphill slopes I frequently face. Since I’m entirely on solar power, even the meager pennies normally needed to recharge an e-bike are not a consideration for me. There are many paths to economical transport, and mine began to glow among the many.
I wanted something that could go up to 60 miles round trip, if it had to. Taking over for the truck, it had to be able to haul forty or more pounds of groceries, largely produce, up and down rocky, gravel slopes and long paved grades that would make a fit mountain biker breathe heavily. It had to be able to make it up those hills, period. Speed in doing so wouldn’t matter to me, but it had to haul the oats without stalling out or blowing the motor’s thermal protector. Within its operating range, it would need to be ultra-reliable, need little maintenance besides simple lubrication, and not falter in performance to where it was always needing just one more modification to help it overcome a major deficiency. It had to allow me an upright, cruiser pedaling position to get weight off my abused wrists, be able to accept my beloved Spiderflex bike seat. A front suspension was essential, since I found that to be an additional plus for my wrists. Rear suspension? Fine, if I could get it. You can actually get tired (at my age) standing on the pedals during a two-mile descent on washboard dirt grades. The bike’s battery would need to be chargeable by my existing solar setup. Rather than never seeing rain or blowing dust, it would need to be able to survive full-time outdoor exposure, 24/7, not just in the dry and dusty Southwest but in the rainy and humid Midwest. Tall order, and perhaps too much to expect of any e-bike.
Oh yeah, and it would need to somehow survive the Bonneville Salt Flats. On my last trip there, I found that the needed distances to photograph the various speed events were impossible on my Raleigh. I had difficulty merely getting there and back in the wind from my campsite, let alone going halfway down the ten-mile run just once. Its humid salt surface is highly corrosive. Worse, it was easily thrown onto the Ford’s chassis, where it took a very long blast with a pressure washer to remove, in town. Mind you, I had idled the truck out there at a slow walk, and on coming out, a long mass of salt a couple of inches high adorned the wheelwells and running boards. Salt is death for electrical connectors and electronics, and worse if you create a fine salt spray while trying to rinse it off. For an e-bike, full-coverage fenders are a really good idea, even if they are useless in more normal locations the rest of the year.
Rather than simply climb onto the feature wagon though, it’s best to think about any qualities or abilities needed that go beyond basic power and range in an electric bike. I’ve already spelled out some of my own unusual needs, which amounts to an ability to be used daily in rather abusive conditions. Not too many people I know leave their e-bikes outside and use them as car or truck replacements. Only one, in fact.
Let me list my needs and wants in a more orderly way, because those drive my own choices. It’s unlikely that you would share many of these, but that’s why picking an e-bike needs to be a thoughtful, individual process. Simply buying an e-bike because that’s what a lot of other people are buying is not a good idea unless hobby riding is all you want to do.
- Errands and grocery shopping trips involving distances up to 30 miles one-way. Some towns within this range can be safely accessed by bicycle, while others pose an unacceptable traffic risk, so range doesn’t guarantee access, but it sure helps when a longer, alternate path can be used. Google Maps and a GPS are your friends here, and if you’re uneasy with this task on a bicycle, the traffic-matching qualities of a motorcycle might be a better choice.
- Campsite area scouting to locate approachable sites for the Defiant (and prevent Bad Trailering Situations). This is the price you pay when you want to boondock in the spacious, decadent luxury of a vintage tub like the Defiant. You find a place to park near the entrance and break out the bike. Trust me, it’s worth it, especially if you can easily dismount the bike from its carrier and cover some serious ground without expending much physical effort. If you haven’t found an accessible, decent site or turnaround area within five miles, it’s time to move on. This is where selecting a quick-release bike carrier pays off. You have to look at the whole thing as a system, or it’ll take you five minutes to unstrap and unscrew your superb bike from its make-do rack. Perceive something as a pain in the neck, and you’re going to avoid doing it and then deal with the result.
- Area exploration. Tourista! I’m tired of missing the sights because I’m reluctant to add a lot of nonessential miles to the Mighty Furd, most especially crawling down rough dirt trails and short trips at 9 MPG. The thing’s design is biased toward hard towing work at speed, so prolonged idling and not getting up to full temperature will lead to incredibly expensive maintenance issues in the long run. It’s right there in the manual, though the wording is more upbeat. I’m voting for a long, happy life for it. A bike is just a better way to explore and experience anyway, as long as there are no critters around with an ingrained chase instinct, lovable family members named Pookie or Scout included.
- Exercise. If I want to stay upright and ambulatory in my doddering old age, I have to get out there and redistribute some sludge around my circulatory system. Regularly. Since I’m unenthusiastic about taking invigorating exercise in the magnificent Great Outdoors, but like biking, it’s a good way to prod myself out of my sincere devotion to lethargy. An e-bike simply dampens the overly-demanding segments of any ride, preventing overexertion and the medical problems that would result, in my case. Lengthy exercise = good, busting a gut = bad.
- An upright, cruiser-style pedaling position, to get weight off my wrists and hands. Numbness and pain are not all they’re cracked up to be.
- A front suspension, also to ease the stress of rocks and washboard gravel on my wrists. Alternative: really, really fat tires, though they have high rolling resistance.
- A fully enclosed multi-speed hub, to allow a full set of gear choices without a pronounced vulnerability to damage and filth.
- A mid-drive motor, to make it a little more likely to make that next hill without absolutely trashing the battery range. I’m willing to trade flatland range for that.
- Full-coverage fenders, to decrease the corrosive effects of getting out there to see the action on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Yes, I really want to view this at least once. Except for Bonneville, fenders aren’t needed, so demountable ones would be even better.
- Controls that include both a throttle for no-pedaling cruising, and pedal-assist for automatic help during pedaling.
- The power to pull a bike trailer large enough to haul forty pounds of groceries over the trails I normally encounter.
- The ability to recharge using my existing solar setup. In other words, the battery charger can’t pull much more than 200 watts, nor exceed a 6-8 hour recharge time. I can technically hit 300 watts, but that would limit recharging to daytime only, on full-sun days only. Not a good idea for a primary form of transport. Not every place is like Arizona, and sometimes Arizona isn’t, either.
- Basic weather-resistance of the electrical system, electronics and bearings. True weatherproofing would be nice, but mil-spec bikes just don’t exist.
- An ability to carry a couple of sizable water bottles. It’s dry out there, and keeping water available is a lot more than a refreshing convenience.
- Middleweight 26″ tires, at a minimum. Thick gravel and especially sand have a way of undoing narrow front tires, making the bike want to lose steering and dump you.
- A step-through frame to allow easy mounting, especially with a loaded rear basket sticking up.
- An ability to somehow mount and use my existing Garmin GPS, which can lay a route for me among many (but not all) of the major trails in addition to regular roads. The ability to power it would be even better, since it can run by itself for only so long.
- An ability to have/mount a rack or bag for mounting item storage for minor groceries, packages, or camera equipment.
- A round-trip capability of 60 miles. That’ll require carrying a spare battery, but that’s acceptable as long as there’s some way to carry it. Most trips in most areas will be less than 10 miles. Many of those miles may be without pedaling.
Easy, huh? There are many decent e-bike brands available now, representing a wide range of design approaches. You can spend between $1,500 and $12,000, believe it or not. In the American marketplace, most brands are simply Chinese-made bikes, partially assembled in cartons, which are received and sold by the various American and Canadian brands. One is truly American-made, one is Chinese-owned and imports all the parts needed for local assembly, and the rest are straight off the boat from China, with a few American fingerprints on the carton. That’s not necessarily bad, since bicycles and e-bikes are heavily used in the Chinese and Asian area in general. But their ideas about acceptable quality tend to differ from ours, and they will skimp where they think they can get away with it, to lower costs further than the low wages allow. They leave it to you to discover where.
After looking at the choices, I decided that I needed to research fully enclosed multi-speed hubs, and what’s called a mid-motor drivetrain. The enclosed hub gearbox is nearly impervious to dust and rain, but the mid-motor motor takes a small explanation.
Hub motors are mounted at the center of either the front or rear wheel. Since the spokes are tied directly to it, when you turn the hub motor, you rotate the tire. Pour on the power, and it rotates faster. Simple, direct, and reliable. It’s like a ceiling fan on steroids. Electric motors produce maximum torque at zero RPM, which is good, but how efficiently they use power is the issue. All electric motors are “tuned” to be most efficient at a certain rotational speed, but the lack of gears gives the hub motor no mechanical advantage, and getting long range out of them demands relatively high speeds and easy terrain. Some designs include two-speed gearing inside the motor hub, which helps a lot. Efficiency and reliability are not quite as good, but as a general category, hub motors offer superior range and good, reliable performance.
A mid-drive motor (also called a mid-motor) is mounted on or in the crank housing (called the bottom bracket), the place where the pedal cranks lead to. This motor drives the front sprocket, the same as you do when you pedal. If you have some kind of multi-gear derailleur setup or a gearbox hub, the motor can automatically take advantage of those gears in the same way that you do. This difference isn’t a big deal while you’re cruising along on a flat road, and in fact, the complexity of the mid-motor drivetrain creates a little extra drag and less dependability than a hub motor. Where the mid-drive pays off is going up steep hills or facing a brutal headwind. Since it can take advantage of the additional leverage that lower gears provide, the mid-drive should get you up hills that would stall a similarly-rated hub motor, and do so closer to its maximum-efficiency RPM. The catch is that the trip up will be slower, because of the lower gears being used to gain leverage. Just how steep a grade it can take is up to how low the available gearing goes. To my way of thinking, lugging a total weight of 300 pounds up a steep grade with just 250 or even 500 watts of motor power is asking a lot, and being able to take advantage of gearing will be essential. Adding an even more powerful motor to this setup would help even more, but is a bad idea in the long run since bicycle sprockets and chains are not engineered to withstand that much power. You need to let the gearbox do its job, and accept any lower speeds that result. In my world, successfully ascending a hill is important, while speed is not.
One thing I was sure of was about gears. I needed plenty, but would no longer accept having to deal with the fragility and pouty nature of derailleurs. My Shimano units were always slowly working their way out of adjustment, refusing to upshift, or shifting when I didn’t want them to. Constantly coated with fresh layers of dust, they couldn’t deal with it. My indignantly ruling out derailleurs instantly ruled out the great majority of e-bikes. Only a few offered enclosed multi-speed hubs, cousins of the old 3-speed Sturmey Archer units found on old Raleigh lightweights. Those were as reliable as a hammer. The new ones – maybe not so much, because they’re packing up to nine gear changes in nearly the same size hub. Things can start to get finicky when you pack three pounds into a five-pound bag.
The difficulty with these geared hubs is that they can’t reliably shift under high pedal pressure, so downshifting requires letting up on pedaling and power for a moment for each gear change, which is not especially handy on a mid-motor e-bike while you’re trying to push your way uphill. The momentum loss is too great. Upshifting requires much the same. A primo way around this is to use an infinite ratio hub which, well, changes ratios without skipping from gear to gear in steps. It’s a smooth climb or descent in ratios without any steps, and without any need to throttle back, ease up on pedal pressure, or pedal in order to shift. There is no “third gear” or “fifth gear”. You’re sliding up and down a gear ratio slope, not a stairway, trading speed for leverage or vice versa. It’s pricey, but solves just about all the problems that both derailleurs and traditional multi-speed hubs present in everyday use. Regardless of what you’re doing or not doing, a twist of it’s handlebar collar control alters ratios, period. I see it unlikely that it can match the wide range of ratios produced by the Raleigh’s 21-speed setup, but there are ways around this to suit my needs. The only real drawback is more mechanical complexity, but at least it’s fully-protected complexity, sealed for life, and it’s tough.
Next up in this series: the e-bike I settled on, why it’s a great choice for me, why it isn’t a great choice for me, and what I’m doing about it. After that: road test!