A couple of weeks ago I set out on a 240-mile journey from my home in Ithaca NY to the New York Yearly Meeting (a Quaker gathering) in Silver Bay. Silver Bay is a resort on Lake George in the scenic Adirondacks. My vehicle of choice: a Surly Big Dummy cargo bike equipped with a Stokemonkey electric motor. I had made this journey last year covering the distance in three days. This year I planned to tackle the distance in two days, going 120 miles each day.
Last year my strategy was to charge my batteries en route using three solar panels supported over the rear of my bike. The solar panels were helpful, but couldn’t generate as much electricity as I needed. This year I upgraded my bike to use two 36-volt LiFePo4 batteries in series (for 720 watt-hours), and for this trip I carried an additional pair of 36-volt SLA batteries (for an additional 600 watt-hours). All of these batteries together weigh about 70 pounds.
I purposefully limited the amount of power my bike could draw from the batteries. My 72-volt system can easily push my bike over 20 mph, but at that speed my distance would be limited to about 60 miles. However, if I kept my speed between 10 and 15 mph I could get a full 120 miles out of my batteries, though I would have to be in the saddle 12 hours.
The first day went smoothly. Last year I had headed north first in order to connect with, and possibly camp on, a section of the Erie Canal which skirts Syracuse. The bike path along the canal looks great in pictures, but I discovered in actuality it is unbearable because of the mosquitoes. This year I avoided the canal. I headed east through gorgeous pastoral landscapes, then up to the Hotel Utica where I spent the night and recharged my batteries.
The next day did not go so smoothly. When I was ready to hop on my bike I discovered a flat tire. This turned out to be the first of three flat tires I would have to fix that day. (I should count my blessings though; I had seven flat tires on my trip last year.) The next 80 miles or so went smoothly enough. However, I was troubled by a low voltage reading when I switched to my lithium batteries. Sure enough, the motor cut out when the voltage fell below the limit. I tested all the connections and replaced the fuse to no avail; one of the batteries was low. In desperation I called my wife and asked her to pick me up. After thinking about it however I realized I could access some of the power of the good battery by connecting it in series with the charging port of the depleted battery, thereby temporarily bypassing the depleted battery’s BMS. I called my wife and cancelled the rescue. I hacked off the end of my charger cord and made my second field repair of the day.
I felt sure I could eke out enough power to make the rest of the journey. But after 10 miles or so the motor stopped again. I needed to find an outlet. I struggled forward under leg power alone. I felt like an electric vampire, desperate to sink my two prongs into an unsuspecting outlet. Finally I came upon the Fox’s Lair, a bedraggled bar at a crossroads. They gracious allowed me to charge my batteries there. After a beer and a burger I felt renewed. I continued my trip. I was in electric heaven again.
Then after another 10 miles my motor started making a funny noise and was no longer propelling me forward. The freewheel on the motor was busted. Aaargh! I knew the freewheel was worn but I had delayed replacing it. Now I was paying the penalty. I tried another field repair, removing the motor and adjusting the freewheel, but when I put it all back together the motor still kept spinning in place. Again I tried calling in my wife for a rescue. But by this time she was at Silver Bay which was out of range of cell phone service. I realized that I would have to make the last 20 miles of the trip manually, including the 800-foot climb up Graphite Mountain with approximately 180 pounds of bike and batteries. I mustered my resolve and got back on the road.
Words cannot describe the painful ordeal that ensued. I alternated pushing and riding my bike up the mountain, bit by bit, taking two hours to cover the five miles uphill. There were several points where I had to stop and coax my trembling limbs to continue. I felt a bit faint. I could easily have lapsed into panic and given up. But instead my physical exhaustion and the eeriness of my surroundings made it a spiritual moment, a time I will always remember. I was alone on the road. A full moon guided me, and lightning flashed in the distance. Finally I reached the summit. I was weak but I managed to climb into the saddle and brace myself for the exhilarating 1200-foot drop over five miles on the east side of the mountain. It was a wonderful release to glide downhill the rest of the way at 35 mph. I finally reached the Silver Bay Lodge at 2 am, staggered into our room and collapsed.
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