The future is electric

A few days ago, I was carrying a load of groceries home on my cargo bike. Ahead of me, a serious lycra-clad cyclist was cranking a nice-looking bike up the steady incline. Normally, I try to avoid passing hard-working cyclists on hills out of respect for their efforts. But on this occasion, the gap between us was shrinking quickly with the assistance of my electric motor. Cars were approaching us from behind which would catch up to me at about the same time I caught the cyclist. To avoid a situation which might force me out of the bike lane, I quickened my pace and passed the cyclist at more than twice his speed.

Many biking purists scoff at electric bikes, and I can understand why. If my hard-earned athletic achievements were nullified by someone “cheating” with an electric motor, I wouldn’t be thrilled. On the other hand, the boundaries of “pure” biking aren’t black and white. For example, some dedicated cyclists ride fixed-gear bikes (“fixies”) without extra gears and derailleurs. Extreme purists even remove the freewheel for coasting as well as the brakes (although that’s illegal in some cities).

Fixie bike

One could reasonably say that purity ends where non-muscular assistance begins. But that’s where practicality begins as well. The fact is, I wouldn’t have been hauling those groceries up that hill if it hadn’t been for my electric motor. If bicycle-based transportation is going to grow significantly in the U.S., we must broaden the concept of cycling to include motor assistance. We must enable Americans of average fitness to carry stuff uphill on two wheels.

This vision was validated by bike giant Trek when they announced their Transport+ electric cargo bike (see here for further thoughts on that bike). This month, another big company joins the parade: Shimano is introducing its “STEPS” system that includes a 250W front hub motor activated by a torque sensor (like the Kona Electric Ute), an electrically-shifted hub transmission, regenerative braking, and battery-powered front and back lights. Although a 250W motor is, in my opinion, a little skimpy for cargo bikes, more powerful motors and batteries will come. What’s important right now is the products and competition brewing in the electric bike market. I can imagine a day when unpowered bikes will be considered like fixies are today: cool, but for a very special segment of the population.

Shimano STEPS

Will the march of progress stop with the coming generation of electric bikes? Of course not. Will bikes play a bigger role in future transportation, or will they also make way for something like a lightweight, enclosed personal car with no pedaling required? I hope that’s not the outcome, but our individual choices will determine that.

Biking Reconsidered

Yesterday I rode the whole day without electricity: my electric assist battery ran down and I couldn’t recharge it because I was camped out at one of the dozens of hiker/biker campsites that line the canal. And I paid for it: after biking sixty miles unplugged it was excruciating difficult to continue. So last night I swallowed my pride and instead stayed at the overtly commercial Jellystone campground, complete with life size Yogi Bear at the entrance, so that I could charge my batteries there.

This experience has lead me to wonder “How important is physical exertion to the bicycling experience?” If it were possible to bike without getting tired would more people do it? Would it still be fun? I think it would, and this trip I’m on proves it. I think it’s not the exercise aspect that most people are after, but the humaneness that only lightweight slow narrow vehicles can provide.

Bike Trailers vs. longtail bikes

Christiania cargo bike
Christiania cargo bike

There are many alternatives to haul cargo on bikes – a fact that was demonstrated daily on the streets of Copenhagen during the year we lived there.  By far the most popular were Christiania bikes, which were used to haul various daily goods including kids and girlfriends.  There were also quite a few bikes with extended front ends, which look a bit awkward but have the advantage of keeping your cargo in view.

With such a variety of hauling solutions, the one cargo bike I never saw in Denmark is the one I’ve focused on in this blog: the longtail bike.  One might wonder why I haven’t broadened my scope a little.

The main reason is my readership.  Although my blog is read in many countries, roughly 80% of my readers are in the United States and Canada.  Since I’m most familiar with the transportation landscape in North America, I can offer suggestions and opinions that are appropriate here.  My experiences in Denmark strengthen my conviction that transportation must be tailored to local circumstances.

There are three things that make a Christiania bike a better choice for Denmark than the U.S.: flat geography, advanced biking infrastructure, and higher expectations or education about bikes in general.

As I’ve often said, flat terrain is a huge advantage for Danish bikers.  The Christiania bike is heavy and not very aerodynamic.  I rode one once and it required some effort to push it through a stiff Danish headwind.  I’m not sure I could pedal one up a Seattle hill, even without a load.

The bike infrastructure in Copenhagen enables a diverse ecosystem of bikes.  For example, many bike lanes in Copenhagen are wide enough for one Christiania bike to pass another without impinging on car lanes.  Contrast that with my own city, where some bike lanes aren’t wide enough to accommodate a single Christiania-sized bike.

Finally, these kinds of bikes are viable because Danes use their bikes differently than Americans do.  They tend to ride relatively short distances at a relaxed pace.  They are accustomed to seeing all kinds of citizens on bikes, including many senior citizens who are more comfortable on a tricycle than walking.  Bikes of many shapes and sizes are optimized for diverse needs.  Here’s a video that illustrates what I mean. Check out the guy carrying 4 kids, a kid’s bike, and a whole bunch of other stuff on his bike:

Bike trailers

Bike trailers represent another cargo hauling strategy that I rarely saw in Denmark.  I’m guessing that’s because the added length, the extra wheels, and the location of the cargo farther behind you make a trailer difficult to maneuver in cozy urban settings.  But I’ve been getting occasional emails from readers wondering about towing a trailer with an electric bike, so perhaps it is time to tackle the subject.

Before I start, I should say that I have never used a trailer, and I’m in the precarious position of expressing opinions that aren’t based on actual experience.  I’m hoping that my trailer-towing readers (I know there are some of you out there!) will let me know if I say anything stupid.

From a price standpoint, a trailer-based cargo bike has some advantages.  If you already own a bike, you can buy a nice trailer for about $500.  If you were to add an electric motor and lithium-manganese battery for less than $1000, your outlay would be at least $800 less than the least expensive electric longtail bike I’ve described in previous blog posts.  So how do they compare on features?

The trailer gets points for flexibility.  When you’re not carrying cargo, you can enjoy a nice electric bike that’s a little more nimble than a longtail.  It will fit on the rack of a suitably-equipped bus – not something most longtails can do.

Fridge on a bike trailer
Fridge on a bike trailer

The trailer can also carry heavier or awkward loads due to its longer cargo deck and lower center of gravity.  For example, here’s a story of a guy moving a refrigerator using a bike trailer.  That’s not going to happen on a longtail!

However, if you’re thinking of using your cargo bike for more common daily chores (carrying kids and/or groceries, for example), a trailer will be overkill.  It’s not going to be as easy to pack or to ride.

Everything I’ve said so far might be obvious, so the real question is how the electric motor is going to perform with a bike trailer.  Since it’s going to provide a significant boost to your leg power, the motor will

  • Decrease your effort
  • Increase your speed
  • Increase the amount of weight you can haul
  • Increase the slope of hills you can climb

The last 3 items on that list arouse some safety concerns.  Since the wheels of the bike trailer don’t have brakes, the momentum of your cargo will add stress to your bike’s brakes without adding weight to your wheels.  This increases the chance of skidding.  As I discovered here, a skidding front wheel radically diminishes steering control.  That would be a bad situation on a normal bike, but the bike trailer adds another complication.  Unless you’re stopping in a perfectly straight line, the trailer will impart a sideways force to your bike during hard braking.  I’ve seen enough jack-knifed trucks to be sure I don’t want to see a jack-knifed cargo bike.

What does this have to do with the electric motor?  Nothing, except that the extra power and speed provided by the motor will complicate emergency stops.  A hard stop at 25 m.p.h. is qualitatively different from the same stop at 15 m.p.h.  If my experience is any guide, it’s hard to resist the temptation to open up the throttle when there are no obstacles in sight.  Unfortunately, it’s the obstacles you don’t see that lead to emergency braking situations.

My gut feeling (again without practical experience) is that bike trailers excel at transporting big loads at moderate speeds over relatively flat terrain.  An electric motor would be helpful to get the load moving without shifting through all your gears.  Your safety sense must be your guide in determining how fast you allow that motor to propel you.

I have one other concern.  There’s a reason you don’t see a trailer hitch mounted on a Toyota Prius: the car’s drivetrain isn’t designed for it.  Likewise, most bike motors weren’t designed to tow heavy trailers.  Even if they work for awhile, the extra wear and tear may not be covered by the manufacturer’s warranty.  Anyway, it’s something you might investigate before pursuing this course.

If you use a bike trailer, and especially if you’re using a motor, I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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.

Portrait of an Electric Cargo Biker

I recently filled out the following survey questions and I thought that my readers might enjoy the answers I gave. Enjoy!

1. occupation/where work

I make websites. I founded my own company called Knowledge Town.

2. how long have you been commuting

I don’t commute to work by bicycle. I walk to work since my office is only a few blocks from my house. I use my cargo bike for errands such as shopping, taking my kids places, and long-distance travel.

3. where/when do you commute (ie. work only, other places, daily or few days a week, year round or seasonally, etc.), distance/ terrain

I use my bike three or four times a week year-round. A typical errand is 5 to 10 miles round-trip. Almost all of my trips require carrying a heavy load up very steep hills. It seems like any direction I go in Ithaca requires climbing a hill. When I step out of my front door my choices are South Hill, East Hill, West Hill and Cornell, which is on a hill to the North.

4. any advice or tips you have for new or potential commuters re: getting started, hills, winter, cargo, passengers, route planning- whatever your experience has taught you that might be helpful

If your goal is to replace your car or reduce the amount you use your car, you will need a cargo bike (a bike specifically designed to have a large cargo capacity). And in hilly Ithaca you need an electric motor for a cargo bike to be practical. And you need an electric motor connected directly to the drive chain rather than a hub motor, since this will give you the advantage of low gearing for climbing with a load. As far as I know, the Stokemonkey (described in the next question) is the only motor set up like this.

For long trips it is useful to use the Google Maps “bike button” to map your route. If you use an ebike, it is worthwhile to purchase a second battery to double your range. I am also experimenting with using a solar panel attached to my bike to increase my range.

For winter riding it is very important to put studded snow tires on your bike. It is nice to have platform pedals so that you can wear boots while riding. If you have an ebike, try using electrically-heated glove liners and sock liners hooked up to your bike battery. I used these last winter and I am experimenting with ways to make this more convenient. Also if you have an Xtracycle-compatible cargo bike you can keep your passengers warm by constructing the Bike Wagon canopy as described on my website.

5. type of bike, any accessories you find helpful (or that you’ve tried and weren’t) and why ie. panniers vs. backpack

I have a Surly Big Dummy cargo bike frame. To this I’ve attached a Clever Cycles Stokemonkey electric motor which came as a kit.

The Big Dummy frame adheres to the Xtracycle cargo bike standard, so there are many accessories available for it. I have the Xtracycle Long Tail and Cargo Van rack kits.

One advantage to an electric bike is that you have a big honkin’ battery that you can attach accessories to. My bike has very bright front and rear LED lights that are always on day or night when I am riding.

6. why do you commute by bike? what do you like about commuting?

I bike because biking is faster than walking.

(Here I must explain this answer. When people ask me why I bike they are showing a hidden bias. They assume that for me driving is the norm, and biking therefore requires some sort of explanation. For me biking is the norm. I bike because that’s how I get around. And furthermore I like to turn this question around and ask people why they drive. This often leads to a good discussion about our car culture and the damage it has done.)

7. has it changed your life in any way- how? (ie. lost weight, less stressful, have more energy, save money…)

I find that spending so much time outdoors has made me tougher, particularly my skin. I’ve noticed I don’t mind temperature extremes and being in the rain and snow as much as other people.

It would be easy to save money relative to what I spend maintaining a car. But I haven’t been trying to save money because my biking is tied up with my inventing. I have this idea that I am spending money to help other bicyclists. For example I spent hundreds of dollars and dozens of hours developing my bike canopy so that other bicyclists can build their own canopy in a few hours for about $150.

I’m at a time in my life when I’m realizing that I won’t last forever. So the biggest change in my life is that I’m doing what I love before it’s too late: biking, inventing, and going on adventures.

Electric Ute official debut, Trek coming

Finally! It has been months – even years – since rumors of an electrically-assisted Ute cargo bike first surfaced on the web.  Kona recently posted its 2011 catalog online, and there it was: the Electric Ute in all its beauty.  At $2599, Kona has allowed the Yuba elMundo to keep its low-price crown ($2297 including tax and shipping).  However, the Ute and the elMundo are such different bikes, price should be among the last factors to consider if you’re choosing between them.  There have also been changes in the elMundo since I last wrote about it, so there are good reasons to take another look at both these bikes.

Kona Electric Ute

Kona Electric Ute - Click for larger image

Despite its workman-like name, the Ute gets my nomination for most beautiful cargo bike.  Kona has paid attention to the details, and the electronics are nicely integrated.  The Ute approaches my ideal of a bike and motor that were designed together.  Unfortunately, Kona’s marketing is a little coy about what their design target really is.  For example, the website introduces the Ute with this sentence: “The Electric Ute is a battery-assisted version of our very popular Ute, a long wheel base bicycle designed to carry loads of up to 100kg-perfect for transporting goods in the urban environment.” [their emphasis]

This might be an accurate statement in a superficial sense, but it deserves some careful disection.  If you live in an urban environment that is relatively flat, and if you can fit your load into the comparatively small Ute side bag, the Ute will be perfect for you.  On the other hand, if you manage to load 100kg (over 200 pounds) of cargo on the bike (that might require some creativity), you’ll find the motor is not powerful enough to help much on even moderate inclines.  During my test drive (see my in-depth review here), the motor shut down while climbing a short, steep hill of about 15% grade – no load, medium assistance level.  At first, I thought the failure was a battery issue, but now I’m pretty sure the controller was temporarily disabling the motor to prevent overheating.  If you live in Seattle or San Francisco, you may have to pedal up the steep hills without assistance from the motor, just when you want it the most.  I also have concerns about the ability of the front rim brake and rear disc brake to safely stop a heavy load in an emergency.

Kona’s description of the Ute ends with this: “Serious power for carrying heavier loads. Ditch the truck, people.”

I’m not a marketer (and thankful for that), but is it really necessary to hype the bike past the point of reasonable expectations?  I mean, the Ute is a great bike for commuters who have some extra stuff to carry.  It feels more like a normal bike than its bigger and heavier competitors.  Maybe those facts aren’t sexy enough for the marketing department, but this is a bike that could satisfy many customers.  The big question is how it will compare to Trek’s bike which will be released late this fall.  I’ll talk about that shortly.

Yuba elMundo

Yuba elMundo - Click for larger image

The elMundo has quietly undergone some changes since I corresponded with a company representative in late spring (here).  The only clue that the bike has had another transformation is the addition of “v3.0” to the bike’s name.  Photos on the website have not been updated.

Yuba has ditched its 750W motor from Aoetema and now uses a 500W motor from eZee instead.  The fact that Yuba mentions the brand of the motor on its website is progress, but I still have a question.  The only motor I know of from eZee is rated for 400 watts nominally, and about 800 watts peak.  Is the 500W figure quoted by Yuba fudging a little?  Not that I’m focused exclusively on the wattage of the motor: even at 400W, the geared eZee motor might deliver more power when it’s needed than the Aoetema motor.  But the effort to be scrupulously accurate on these specs would be a welcome development in the cargo bike market.

I would love to know what inspired the motor change, but I have a couple of guesses.  First, the eZee motor uses internal planetary gears, which should help deliver higher torque at low speeds for climbing hills.  The elMundo is a big, heavy bike (due to its high-tension steel frame), and it really needs a high-torque motor.  Yuba is also calling attention to the disc brake mount on the motor.  Although the standard elMundo comes with a rim brake on the front wheel and a disc brake on the rear, I would encourage anyone who intends to descend hills with a loaded elMundo to invest in a front disc brake. 

Interestingly, Yuba has removed any mention of cargo weight capacity from its descriptions of both the Mundo and elMundo.  The company previously claimed an absurd figure of 400 pounds, plus rider.  Although the frame may be able to handle that, it was hard for me to imagine the brakes (and perhaps the tires) would be capable of stopping that load in a reasonable distance.  If my complaints helped motivate this change, I am pleased.

As before, I must add a huge caveat to my descriptions of the elMundo.  Although I’ve read blogs and emails from people who are very happy with their Mundo bikes, I’ve never ridden one or even seen the bike in person.  The scarcity of Yuba dealers in my area makes that challenging.

The elMundo is also likely to have a competitor in the upcoming Trek bike, so I’ll move on to that.

Trek Transport+

Trek Transport+ - Click for larger image

The entry of bicycle behemoth Trek into the electric cargo bike market is huge news.  Trek’s annual sales are at least 100 times those of Kona, and I couldn’t even find sales figures for Yuba.  If Trek decides to put any weight into the marketing and support of their bike, other cargo bike manufacturers are likely to become asterisks in the margins, at least in the U.S. for the next couple of years.  Besides my bike, I’ve never seen an electric cargo bike being ridden in my city.  At this point, I’ll bet the first one I see will be a Trek.

With an MSRP of $2679, the Transport+ has the Ute squarely in its sights.  Like the Ute, the Transport+ includes a bunch of accessories at the base price: folding rear load racks, front rack, Bontrager Transport cargo bag, fender, wide-stance kickstand, front and rear lights.  With the front rack, rear side racks, and bigger cargo bag, the Transport+ appears to be more serious about hauling cargo than the Ute.

These features alone could justify the extra $80 for the Transport+, but Trek’s choice of motor is an even more compelling reason.  It comes with a beefier 350W motor which is essentially the same direct drive BionX motor I have on my bike.  This motor offers superior load-carrying and hill-climbing capabilities compared to the Ute. It is quieter, the pedal activation system works a little more smoothly (in my opinion), and it offers regenerative braking which takes some of the load off your brakes.  The advantage of direct drive (as opposed to planetary gears) is that the BionX motor is very, very quiet.  The downside, as I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, is that motor assistance starts to fade at speeds below 6 mph, and this can be a challenge when hauling a heavy load up a steep hill.

BionX has incorporated additional features since I bought mine a year ago.  When you turn the console light on, the lights in the front and rear of the bike turn on too, powered by the same battery.  On my bike, I have to flip at least 4 switches to turn lights on and off, and I have to keep all those separate batteries refreshed.  This is a welcome advance!

Trek explains their “Ride+” motor technology in a series of videos available here.  One of the videos mentions a 250W motor, but that’s a less powerful version than the one Trek is using for the Transport+.

Another feature I like about the BionX system is the integrated battery/controller.  If you compare the photos of the Ute and the Transport+, you’ll see the latter doesn’t need the extra black box mounted near the cranks on the Ute.  The console for the BionX also gives better feedback about the level of assistance requested and received from the motor.

It’s always easy to get excited about a bike when it’s merely a photo and a set of specs, so I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm for the Transport+ until I can actually ride one.  There are still opportunities for Trek to misstep.  But with an attractive bike, good technology, a large dealer network, and marketing muscle, it seems like this is Trek’s game to lose.  But we’ll all be winners if this bike helps bring cargo biking into the mainstream.

Big year for cargo bikes

A year ago I was shopping for an electric-assisted cargo bike.  None were available pre-built from a manufacturer.  The state of the art was an XtraCycle like the Surly Big Dummy driven by a Stoke Monkey, but it wasn’t easy finding a bike shop that wanted to build one for me.

Today we have ready-made electric bikes from two manufacturers, and the biggest U.S. bicycle company is about to enter the market.  I’ve been riding my bike almost daily for 11 months.  There have been few problems and virtually no close encounters with cars.  My blog receives over 1,000 unique visitors per month from all parts of the world (but mostly U.S. and Canada), indicating an encouraging level of interest in this transportation alternative.

Sometimes the pace of change seems slow, but looking back, a lot has happened this year.  I wonder where we’ll be next year about this time?

More about my Hammer Truck

I recently received the following email from a reader:

I was researching cargo bikes and just kept seeing your blog pop up. I am very interested in doing a similar set up as yours.  I also was interested in elMundo initially.  A sidenote on the weight of the elMundo: they are now selling it with the electric components already attached and the shipping weight of the bike and box was 100 lbs. which seemed like a lot.

My question is pretty simple. I haven’t tested a Rans Hammer Truck in person since this is just the planning phase.  I read the height of the bike had a 31- 38 inseam. I am 5’5″.  I wondered about the comfort of the frame.  And if your wife was shorter than you and found the Hammer Truck comfortable… ?  Also just to pick your brain (and thank you very much in advance)  how did you like the Hammer Truck handling without the electric assist? You mentioned you test rode it for a day…

My plans are just like yours, I want to use it to take my 2 kids to school and errands and fun – reduce car use in general.  The kids are 6 and 4 and the bike trailer is just not cutting it these days.

Oh yeah! one more question. I read your post worrying about brakes.  Currently with the bike trailer I often hop off and just walk up the hills.  My question is, is a cargo bike easy to walk with when it’s carrying about 50- 60 lbs.?  Or very tippy? 

Thanks for the blog. I am surprised the Yuba people haven’t offered to let you test drive their bike. Surfing I ran across another cargo biker’s blog who actually bumped into the founder/owner while on a bike tour in Europe and had a very good impression of him and a good talk with him.

Thanks again. Happy biking! I am so happy I stumbled across your blog.


Thank you, Jessamin.  Your email reminded me that there are still a few things I can say about the Hammer Truck.  For many months, I have felt a bit uncomfortable about my bike’s relatively high cost, and I have been researching less expensive bikes that might appeal to a broader market.  That has been an interesting project, and I intend to continue doing it for a while.  But I don’t own these bikes or ride them on a daily basis.  My real expertise is my particular bike, and answering your questions gives me an opportunity to return to familiar territory.

To answer your question about bike height, my wife rides the Hammer Truck very comfortably.  At 5’4″, she is a little shorter than you.  As you can see in this photo, the seat stem for the Hammer Truck is angled at approximately 45 degrees.  When you lower the seat an inch, you also get an inch closer to the handle bars.  This seems to scale well for most body types.

Hammer Truck seat stem

While you’re looking at the seat, I will also mention that the inclination of the seat is adjustable.  When I first started riding the Hammer Truck, I had the seat almost parallel to the ground, like a normal bike.  However, the Rans web site shows their seats tipped forward, so I tried it.  It feels a bit like standing and leaning against a wall.  Tipping the seat puts a little more weight on your feet, and that’s what you want when you’re riding.  The slight curve of the seat back allows you to dig in for a little extra leverage when you need it.  These are all helpful when you really need to crank!

The Hammer Truck worked fine without the motor.  If we still lived in Denmark where it’s notoriously flat, I wouldn’t have needed the electric assistance.  I’ve spent so much time on this blog bemoaning the hills in our neighborhood, I decided I really needed to show you what I mean.  Yesterday afternoon, I put my 9-year old son behind the camera, and he took a video of me pushing my daughter up the hill, riding without assistance, and riding with the motor providing maximum assistance.

As you will see, this hill is a monster.  When I write about heating issues with my motor and brakes, you need to understand that I’m pushing both to a limit that most people won’t encounter.  Despite my occasional complaints, it’s pretty amazing that this bike can handle this kind of challenge.  (Note: the scraping noises heard in the video aren’t the bike — my son was balancing the camera on a mailbox to keep it level, and scraping as he pivoted the camera.)

You can also see from the video, pushing the bike uphill is possible, but not fun.  The side bars that carry loads so well are approximately where you want to put your feet, so you have to lean over a little.  It might be hard to see in the video because I’m already leaning against the hill so much.  It’s not as tippy as I thought as long as both hands are on the handlebar.  It would be almost impossible to do one-handed.

You might notice my slightly hunched posture when I’m riding in this video.  With the Hammer Truck, you generate power by pulling back on the handlebars, engaging the same muscles you would for rowing.  In my case, I can produce more cranking force this way than I would standing on my pedals on a traditional bike.  It’s more of a full-body workout, especially when I turn the motor off.  However, this might not be a good idea for people with fragile knees.

Speaking of cargo bikes on hills, this is probably a good place to mention one of my favorite web pages: Cargo Weight Calculator.  The calculator which gives you a rough idea about how much weight you can expect to haul up hills of varying steepness.  Another page on the same site shows you how to measure the grade of a hill.  Every time I turn off my motor and I’m reminded how hard it is to climb a hill with a load, I return to this web site, punch in the numbers, and I’m assured that there are real, mathematical reasons why it’s difficult.  It’s not because my motor is making me lazy.  🙂

Sometimes I get distracted by all the details of this project: the specifications, the prices, the compromises.  My blog is kind of heavy on that sort of thing.  I occasionally need to remember that there is an emotional and even inspirational side to cargo biking, and my favorite blend of practicality and inspiration comes from the Couch Potato to Full-Time Cyclist blog.  If you haven’t seen it, check it out — it’s really a great counterpoint to what you read here.

Yuba elMundo Questions and Answers


June 7, 2010

Dear Yuba,

Hi.  My name is Don, and I write a blog about electrically-assisted cargo bikes.  Although I’m pleased with the performance of my Rans Hammer Truck and BionX motor, many of my readers are interested in less expensive alternatives.  The Yuba elMundo and Kona Electric Ute are two possibilities I’ve mentioned in my blog.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot of information available on the web to help prospective buyers make an informed purchasing decision.  To help fill the void, I was able to arrange a test ride of the Ute, and I posted a fairly detailed review here:

Sadly, I haven’t been able to find a Yuba dealer in my area to test the elMundo.  I don’t know anyone who owns an elMundo with whom I can correspond.  Lacking first- or second-hand experience, I’m hoping you can answer some of my questions to help me and my readers understand where the elMundo fits in the assisted cargo bike marketplace.  With your permission, I would like to post this letter and your responses on my blog within the next couple of weeks.

Your website provides a brief description of the elMundo, several photos, and a tantalizing price for a bike in this category.  I’m especially excited to see a lithium ion battery and a 750W hub motor.  However, there are few details for those of us who obsess over such things.  For example, who makes the motor?  How did you decide it was a good match for your bike?  Does it have internal gearing to help deliver good torque at low speeds?

Besides the low price, there is a significant advantage of having a motor integrated by the bike manufacturer (as opposed to an after-market build like my bike).  Customers will assume that the manufacturer has carefully matched the capabilities of the bike and motor.  The manufacturer will analyze loads and stresses to enhance the reliability of the product.  The bike will be tested under strenuous conditions, and a single warranty will cover both the bike and the motor.  Can you assure us that this analysis and testing has been done on the elMundo, and can you provide details regarding your warranty?

Yuba elMundo

The Yuba Mundo is rated to carry loads of up to 400 pounds, excluding the rider.  Since there is nothing to the contrary on the web page for the elMundo, I assume that the weight limit is the same.  With the help of that powerful motor, it will now be possible for people to carry some pretty heavy loads up an incline.  Of course, what goes up must come down.  That’s why I was surprised to see only rim brakes in your photos of the elMundo.  From my perspective, that seems a little risky.  I know disc brakes are now an option on the Mundo.  Are they also available for the elMundo, or does the hub motor preclude the possibility of a front disc rotor?

It also seems possible that your motor is likely to produce new stresses on the front fork that didn’t exist on the non-electric bike.  Have you made any modifications to strengthen the fork?

Finally, I’m curious how much the elMundo weighs.  Is the battery removable for remote charging, and can you also charge it on the bike?  How long does it take to fully recharge?  Do you have any estimates regarding the lifetime of the battery and motor?

If you have any customers who would be willing to share their thoughts and experiences on this bike, I would love to talk to them.

I look forward to hearing from you.



July 7, 2010

Hello Don,

Great to hear from you.  I have visited your blog many times before and I did find the content extremely interesting, your analysis and opinions are well documented. Also this is the first email we are getting from you asking questions about the elMundo.

If you were interested we could put you in touch with a few users of the elMundo Cargo Bike, these users are mostly in the Bay Area. Also one our dealer Cycle9 specializes in electric bikes and cargo bikes and has supplied electric Mundos to a numerous customers. One of them Mark Strosberg has been commenting on your blog, he purchased his Mundo from Cycle9.

Currently the elMundo is a Mundo Cargo Bike frame with an after market electric kit installed on the bike. So a lot of the questions your are asking can’t really be answered since it seems that many customers are riding electric Mundos with different motors or battery packs. The model supplied by us integrates a battery placed between the rack and the seat stays, it is removable but doesn’t need to be removed to be charged.

The motor is made by Aoetema, we have tested various combinations of motors and like this specific 750W version for many reasons one of them being the torque it gets for hill climbing.

The 36V LiPO4 battery offers about 20 miles of charge on flat terrain. Motor, battery, controller are under warranty for a year.

We do ship the elMundo with disc brakes installed on the rear (although it doesn’t show on the pictures!).

We have no doubts that the Mundo bike is the best platform for an electric Cargo Bike in the market place due to the strength and solidity of the Hi-ten steel frame. So the elMundo can take the rider, the loads, the passengers and the electric assist.

The battery can be removed and the current combinations gives a range of about 15-25 miles depending on the conditions and terrain.

Let me know if you have further questions or comments.


After this email exchange, I asked Yuba further questions about the weight of the bike and clarifications regarding the warranty, but I haven’t received a reply.  If or when I do, I will post their answers.

Yuba’s first response was a bit of a mixed bag, from my perspective.  I’m happy to hear the elMundo now comes with a rear disc brake.  This seems to be a fairly recent development, and it’s a welcome step in the right direction.  However, it doesn’t alleviate my concerns about stopping this bike when it’s carrying a load.  Stopping distances for cargo bikes in general is a topic I hope to investigate in the future.

The Hi-ten steel frame of the Yuba is an interesting feature compared to the aluminum frames of the Ute and the Hammer Truck.  It is heavier, of course, but steel will bend under stress rather than break.  If you’re contemplating moving heavy loads on a cargo bike, that might be important to consider.  But in that case, remember to test those brakes and upgrade them if you need to.

Although I have no experience with the Aoetema motor, the reviews I’ve found on the web have been mostly favorable.  It appears to be a reasonable choice for this bike.  However, it sounds like Yuba views the motor as an after-market product, so I’m guessing they would refer you to Aoetema if you had any warranty issues.  This negates one of the advantages I was hoping would come from an integrated product.  When you buy a car, you get a single warranty that covers the whole car.  You don’t have to go to different companies to deal with motor issues, frame problems, etc.

The one year motor/battery/controller warranty is okay, but only half the duration of the BionX warranty.

Although the elMundo remains an interesting option in the electric cargo bike market, I’m hesitant to recommend it without trying it.  Ben didn’t give me hope that I would get a chance to do that any time soon.  If I could find a Yuba dealer in Seattle, I’m betting they wouldn’t have an elMundo ready to ride.  Like Kona, Yuba seems reluctant to vigorously pursue this market.  I would love to know whether that is due to technical issues, or if these companies are skeptical about the size of the market.  In either case, the cargo bike revolution is off to a very leisurely start in America.

Solar Xpedition Day 2

I was frustrated about having to repair a flat tire every hour or so and I was concerned that I might run out of patches. I needed to get to a bike shop soon. There was a Walmart 12 miles away in Rome. Could I make it? Long story short I made it. I bought three inner tubes, two patch kits, a floor pump, a tire, and a file in case I needed to convert my presta rim to schrader.

Any kook can slap a solar panel on a bicycle and call it a solar bike. How am I any different? Mainly in my lack of ambition. I don’t want to create a ground-breaking product that will rocket me into the halls of fame. I just want to charge my battery however much I can within my budget. I just want to do the experiment to find out if adding a solar panel to my bike is worth the effort and expense. And if it is, I want to post instructions on my blog here so others can follow in my footsteps.

People see my bike and they expect that the solar panels power the bike completely. The reality of course is that the solar panels are an accessory to an accessory. First of all the electric assist is an accessory to you the bicyclist who is pedaling. Secondly the solar panels are an accessory to the electric assist. The solar panels supplement the electric assist’s batteries in those few instances where you can’t get to a power outlet. So despite the panels’ physical prominence on my bike and in our imaginations, currently they have only a minor role in actually making the bike go forward. Not insignificant, but minor.

What would it take to give the panels a major role? At least a four-fold increase in power. Currently the panels produce about 25 Wh per hour. 100 Wh per hour would be very useful for a long trip since it takes me about an hour to use up 100 Wh. That means I could accumulate energy about as fast as I use it. I could go indefinitely (on a sunny day). I think it’s entirely possible to get a four-fold increase with existing technology. Just adding more panels is a start (perhaps as a canopy over the driver). And it may be possible to make the panels more efficient by adding a charge controller with sophisticated electronics (such as Power Point Tracking).

Bicyclists out there may be wondering “If the power you get from the solar panel is so small, why not just take all that crap off your bike and pedal the damn thing?” This is a very good question that has been nagging at me throughout the ordeals of this trip. I have to keep in mind that this is just a beginning. The point is not to just reach my destination here and now. The point is to pioneer a new type of vehicle. It’s not a solar car–it has pedals so that its human can supplement its power if necessary. Is it a bike? Whatever it is, it is a vehicle that is so lightweight, narrow and slow that even the meager power of the sun can power it.

Adirondack Gateway Campgrounds = heaven

catching photons in Hinckley State Forest

Solar Xpedition Day 1

The day began overcast. Not a good start for the Solar Xpedition. But by midday Mr. Sun broke through and the watt hours came rolling in. I ran with my solar panel connected to the working battery (rather than the spare). It was exciting to see the power drop as I went up a hill and then gradually be restored by the panel.

My power use went very well the first day. I didn’t even need to get out the spare battery. It’s hard to know how much of the 500 watt hours I used the first day was supplied by the panel since I don’t yet have a way to measure watt-hours output. But I estimate that the battery had 360 to start with, the solar panel added 70 and charging at a restaurant while eating dinner added 70.

Many things didn’t go well, in particular 7 flat tires and swarms of mosquitos at my campsite.

Stay tuned for day 2.

Pompey NY

the wonderful Erie canal trail

charging up while I take a nap.