Electric Bicycles: A Workshop with an Assembly and a Test Ride

Peter Talmage owns two electric bikes, one a recumbent and another the enclosed ELF bike.
Peter Talmage owns two electric bikes, one a recumbent and another the enclosed ELF bike.

On Saturday morning I awoke to grey skies with promise for a nice-looking day, and joined a dozen others up at the Gill Town Hall. There, Peter Talmage, a science professor at GCC was giving a talk about the current state of electric bicycles. Peter explained that he was looking for an easier way to commute to Greenfield and realized that the new pedal-assist electric bikes provided a sweat-free means of transport, and at 20 mph, it’s a great alternative to the car.

He began his talk by showing the various options available today—which have made great strides as all technology does. The most inexpensive kits you can buy to convert a regular bike to electric assist go for around $300, but that means heavy lead-acid batteries. 

There are also kits that use a second chain and a heavy electric motor to propel the bike. Joining us at the talk was bike-advocate and People’s Pint owner Alden Booth, who had just invested $518 in a kit to convert his mountain bike into an electric-assist vehicle. The company he bought it from, Clean Republic.com, offers 8-40 mile batteries and the prices range from $499-1200, including a new wheel, tire and the motorized hub which powers the front wheel.

Electric bike workshop in
Electric bike workshop in

Talmage explained that there will always be purists in the bike shops who scoff at the notion of electric assist. To them, Talmage, says phooey! because being able to use your bike more and not be stopped by hills gets more people out on their bikes. And once you glide up a hill with the electric assist, you will be hooked!

Talmage owns two electric bikes–one is a three-wheel “tadpole” recumbent bike where you sit down on a big chair and it has a 1200 watt motor. The other is an enclosed ELF bike with a solar panel and a large motor, which you don’t pedal as much as a regular electric bike.

There are a range of options, from the kit that Alden bought that will go 10 miles (or further depending on how much you use the pedals and the motor) to beefier models that can go 40 miles. The two battery choices most popular now are lithium ion phosphate, and lithium manganese. These are lightweight compared to the old style lead acid batteries, and offer a much better experience if you can afford the extra cost.

Alden Booth rides his converted bike...he bought a quick release hub but I doubt he's going to want to take this neat little motor off after he gets used to it!
Alden Booth rides his converted bike…he bought a quick release hub but I doubt he’s going to want to take this neat little motor off after he gets used to it!

I first got excited about electric bikes when I saw a video of the Copenhagen Wheel, a kit that contains a motor and controller inside the wheel hub, and uses the iPhone as a device to control the speed and provide all sorts of data. But despite its great promise, the only thing consumers can do today to get one is to pay $800 and wait. No one is yet cruising around with the ballyhooed Copenhagen Wheel as of today,  so your choices are to visit other websites and choose.

There are elegant bikes now on the market that offer nearly hidden batteries and small wheel hubs so they barely look like they are electric. One particularly sharp looking bike is the Pedago City Commuter, at $2495, with a 40-mile range.  But there are many many options if you just want to convert your bike to electric, like the Hilltopper, that Alden bought.  There are even folding electric bikes that run around $1500.

After we opened up the kit and tinkered with the front fork (it needed a little

A cargo bike, made possible with electric assist from Clean Republic.
A cargo bike, made possible with electric assist from Clean Republic.

scraping to fit right) we fitted the new wheel onto Alden’s old mountain bike. Then he ran the cord that connected the wheel to the battery and secured it to the bottom of the saddle. Then he snaked the throttle cord with a little white run button to the handlebars. It was time to for a test ride!

It’s a true rush to set out on the bike peddling, then go up a hill, and then push the throttle button. Suddenly you’re zipping up the hill, and while you do continue pedaling, it’s surprisingly quick.  This kit isn’t designed to replace pedaling, but as you pedal, you’re amazed by how much faster you go.

I think these bikes are going to be a really big deal in the years to come.  Already you see them everywhere in New York City, and in China, there are millions.

Welcome to bike riding, 21st century style!

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