19
Sep 2010
by larry

How to Bike Long Distances on Your Electric Cargo Bike

I am on a bike trip to Washington DC.–I am hoping to do more and more of my long-distance travel by electric cargo bike. I’m getting pretty good at it. Many of you are probably wondering “How can I too make such journeys?”

The hardest part is justifying taking the time. Expect a bike trip to take four times as long as driving. Use whatever rationale works for you: you’re saving the environment, you like to experience nature firsthand, you want to get in shape, whatever. I’m driven to bike out of a sense that it’s the way things should be, a way to make our transportation system humane (see a previous post about my vision).

The next hardest part is responding to the objections and warnings of your family and friends. They will say things like “Why don’t you just drive like a normal person?” They will imagine that biking on a lonely bike trail at 15 mph is somehow more dangerous than driving in dense traffic at highway speeds. Furthermore, there is an insidious bias in our culture that bikes are for recreation and cars are for utilitarian purposes. Therefore, the thinking goes, if you are on a long bike trip you must be on vacation. And you shouldn’t be on vacation if you have to do the serious business of getting to somewhere. This thinking makes it impossible to consider the bike as a valid long-distance transportation tool.

I went on several long bike tours in my college days. Those trips were basically fun ordeals. Long-distance bike trips don’t have to be ordeals any more. What has changed? The two big innovations are smart phones and electric assist for bikes.

When I bike I have my smart phone in one hand to tell me where I am and a printout from Google maps in my other hand to tell me where to go. I would be lost (literally) without them. Here’s how it works. Before I go on my trip I visit Google Maps and enter my starting and ending points. I then click Google Maps’ “bike button” to choose a bike-friendly route. I then print out selected portions of the route. The print outs are good insurance that I can find my way even if I can’t get a mobile phone signal. When I’m actually on my trip I stop periodically and use my phone to make sure that my current location corresponds to a spot on my printout. The phone has another use: finding hotels and campgrounds. I don’t reserve hotels in advance since it’s hard to know where I’ll end up. So when I get near my destination I simply search on hotels or campgrounds within a five mile radius, pick one, and dial. I wish I had had that feature in 1988!

The last step to going on a bike trip is the easiest: physically moving the pedals around. Plan on going 80 to 100 miles a day. I know that sounds like a lot to those of you who are experienced bike tourists. But electric assist changes the bike touring game: you can go a little bit faster and farther, carry a bit more, and work less hard. I remember that when I went bike touring 20 years ago I could expect to go 50 miles a day at 10 miles an hour. I carried about 50 pounds of stuff. Hills just about killed me. Now I plan to go 80 to 100 miles a day at 15 miles an hour. I can carry 100 pounds. And with electric assist, hills don’t require much more effort than flats.

The main drawback to traveling on an electric cargo bike is that you have to find an outlet to plug into at the end of every day. For that reason I mostly stay in motels. Motels are cheaper than hotels with the added advantage that since the rooms are at ground level you can wheel your bike into your room. I also carry camping equipment so I can camp out if necessary.

I am hoping that by next year I will be able to recharge my batteries completely with solar power on long trips. On a previous trip I was able to gather about one eighth to one fourth of my power from the sun using bike-mounted solar panels.

What does the future hold? More bike paths? Better batteries and motors? Really smart smart phones? And a kinder gentler transportation system? Let’s not just wait and see, let’s make it happen.

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  • http://mark.stosberg.com/bike Mark Stosberg

    Great post.

    I’m interested in some of the technical details about getting 100 miles
    one one charge.

    How many amp hours is your LiFePO4 battery rated to hold? Did you get
    your battery from Cycle 9, or another vendor?

    What is the max amps your controller is rated for?

    And how much do you use the assist during the day? Some what
    continously, or only on significant hills? How many amp hours do you run
    through in the day?

    I have an E-Mundo with a 10AH LiFePo4 battery and a 35A controller. I am
    considering upgrading to a 15AH battery.

    Our experience has been that although the 10AH battery was rated for “15
    to 30″ miles, our theoretical estimates found that our use could get us
    60 to 90 miles on one charge, because we weren’t using it continuously.

    • admin

      > I’m interested in some of the technical details about getting 100 miles
      on one charge.

      First of all I carry two 10ah batteries, so that’s only 50 miles each. Secondly I planned my trip distances based on terrain. I only planned to go 100 miles on days I was on level bike trails most of the day.

      > How many amp hours is your LiFePO4 battery rated to hold? Did you get
      your battery from Cycle 9, or another vendor?

      I got my 10ah LiFePo4 battery from e-bikekit.com. It was one of the batteries Clever Cycles recommended to go with my Stokemonkey electric motor kit for Xtracycles. I was excited recently to see a 15ah battery offered by Cycle9 that did not weigh much more than my 10ah. (See http://www.cycle9.com/c9store/batteries-c-7/36v-15ah-lifepo4-batterycharger-p-148.) And with seasonal gift-giving only a few months away.

      > What is the max amps your controller is rated for?

      I’m not sure about the controller, but the battery is rated for 20 amps continuous current and 25 amps max. I think my controller may be limited by a setting of my Cycle Analyst ebike computer.

      > And how much do you use the assist during the day? Some what
      continously, or only on significant hills? How many amp hours do you run
      through in the day?

      When I’m in town on a short errand I basically hold the throttle down the whole time I’m on the bike. So a busy day will use 200wh over 10 miles. (I am used to thinking in watt-hours rather than amp-hours.) But on longer trips like this post describes when I’m in hilly country I only use the electric motor on hills and even then I limit myself to 400 watts of power. With that frugality I can go 50 miles per 10ah battery. I carry two batteries for a 100-mile range.

      > Our experience has been that although the 10AH battery was rated for “15
      to 30″ miles, our theoretical estimates found that our use could get us
      60 to 90 miles on one charge, because we weren’t using it continuously.

      This trip was unique in that a good portion of it was on rail or canal trails that were extremely flat. I had power to spare on such terrain, so I experimented to find the best way to use my watt-hours for speed: continuously holding down the throttle, going faster in bursts, etc. It felt like I got better efficiency at higher speeds (so for example 200 watts enabled me to go 20mph but 150 watts only enabled me to go 12mph). I’m not sure why higher speeds would be more efficient. It’s possible the momentum of my 120-pound bike helped overcome the friction of the rough trail surface at higher speed, or maybe the higher speeds gave me a psychological boost so that I pedaled harder.

      I found it also helped to rub cayenne on my battery (inside joke :-) ).