Here’s a little photo essay about my family’s bicycles. I’m proud to say that we use our bikes a lot. Each bike is tailored to its user: I drive a cargo bike capable of carrying passengers and cargo long distances; my wife drives a slower and lighter but more stylish bike; my 11-year-old daughter Thea and her friend JJ drive bikes tailored to their 2-mile drive to school. (My son Jasper, aged 15, resists having a bike. He pretty much walks wherever he needs to go.) Ithaca is hilly, so it’s important for a utility bike to have an electric motor. I’ve spent a lot of time over the last couple of years experimenting with electric bike motors and other accessories. Maybe you can benefit from my discoveries.
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.
I recently increased the power of my Stoked Big Dummy by setting it up to use two 36v batteries in series rather than only the one 36v battery. (“Stoked Big Dummy” means a Surly Big Dummy extra long bike with a Stokemonkey electric motor.) The change required purchasing a more robust motor controller from the fine folks at ebikes.ca. I also had to open up the controller and solder some beefier resistors in there and make some other modifications. But the result has been amazing. My bike is now very responsive and can easily accelerate to 20mph in a few seconds, and go up hills at 15mph without pedaling. Normally in this blog I rail against speed, but I am discovering that this moderate increase in speed increases the utility and safety of my beloved car replacement vehicle. I can now go on single-afternoon 100-mile trips by bike without it being a big deal “tour”. And I can more easily maneuver in traffic and join the flow. True, I’m now using 20 watt-hours/mile rather than my usual 10 watt-hours/mile, but still nowhere near the 1200 watt-hours/mile that a car uses.
I won’t deny it, speed can also be fun. I recently put together an ebike for my daughter. In the photo above you can see that the bike has a big black front hub. That’s the motor. The batteries are in the bag on the bike rack. Her first ride produced in her the legendary “electric vehicle grin”. She said that her bike was “like a car disguised as a kid’s bike”. She instantly recognized that her new ebike would give her a basic freedom that is denied to kids in our society: the ability to use roads for transportation. Kids in our society are taught from the moment they can walk to stay out of the road. No wonder then that kids must rely on parents and school buses for transportation. No wonder we have an obesity epidemic in this country. The ebike, and the EV grin it causes, may change this sad state of affairs.
I thought this recent post to the Endless Sphere ebike forum by icecube 57 captured the “EV grin” phenomena that is currently only shared by hobbyists but may soon be experienced by the general public as ebikes take off. You can read the original post (along with video) here.
“In other news Im very suprised at the power of this motor. My neighor just moved in her bf. I came home to find them socializing with my wife in the garage. The conversation shifted to my bike. He was like ill try it later. I said you are going to try it now. He gave in. I started him off in Grandma mode. (20mph legal restricted) He was excited about that. The controller still dumps 3500-4000w off the line but it tapers off quickly and he proceeded to take my bike up the huge as hill on my street that I will stall on in grandma mode and it took him up the hill without stalling un assisted maintaing about 15mph. Which I cant even do unless I have a running start. He is about 120lbs lighter than me so I can understand it being easier on the motor and controller. He went around the block and came back. He said take this out of grandma mode. He had a grin from ear to ear…Its one thing to ride your own bike but to see someone else riding it with EV grin hauling ass at top speed in traffic like its a motorcycle”
For the record I only have a temporary interest in riding an electric motorcycle, until the grin wears off. My ultimate goal is to build a lightweight (200 lbs.) narrow (42″) slow (20mph) passenger-carrying “car” that falls within the legal definition of an ebike. I couldn’t see myself succeeding with 36v. I can definitely see it happening with a 72v machine.
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.
Today I took my bike for its first checkup after 7 months and over 500 miles of hill-chewing. As you may recall, I have done no maintenance on this bike other than one application of chain lubricant. Since I rely on it to provide safe transportation for my family, I wanted to ensure that no latent problems were developing.
For the diagnosis, I went to one of Seattle’s pricier bike shops. I deliberately chose a different shop than the one that built my bike, because I wanted a second opinion — especially on those mission-critical brakes. The owner of this shop is a big fan of the Big Dummy/Stoke Monkey bike, and I thought it would be enlightening to talk with someone who is somewhat skeptical of my bike. He has a reputation for pulling no punches, so I prepared myself for some rough sledding.
But actually, things went quite well. The owner found several occasions to point out advantages of the Stoke Monkey, but these were arguments that I’ve written about previously. He complained that the BionX hub motor makes it harder to adjust the rear disc brake calipers, because the hub blocks easy access to the dial that positions the brake pads. He charged me an extra $10 for the additional effort required.
The total bill was $75 for labor. He adjusted and lubed my derailleur to recover my lost gears, cleaned and tuned the brakes, and lubricated various cables. I paid another $25 to upgrade the front brake cable for better responsiveness, but that wasn’t critical. Using the $75 figure for essential maintenance, I calculate a cost of about 15 cents per mile. On the one hand, this figure is probably high due to the difficult geography this bike has to tackle. On the other hand, it’s probably too low on an annualized basis, because I didn’t have to replace any parts this time. In another 6 months, I may have to replace at least one of the disc brake rotors and possibly the pads, but that shouldn’t cost more than $50. As I suspected, the regenerative braking of the BionX motor seems to be extending the life of my brake components. What isn’t clear is how often other components will need to be replaced, and how much that will cost. Although it will be pretty cheap compared to repairs/maintenance of a car, the number of bike miles will also be less, so it remains to be seen which is cheaper on a per-mile basis.
Just to be complete, the electricity to help propel me during this time period averaged about 1/2 cent per mile. Hardly worth mentioning compared to the maintenance.
One sweet moment occurred while I was paying my bill: a customer was admiring my bike and asking questions about it. He was initially attracted by those huge Xtracycle-incompatible pannier bags. He was really intrigued when I told him the bike was assisted by a quiet (and virtually invisible) electric motor. He was standing less than a yard away from the owner’s Big Dummy at the time, but it was my bike that caught his eye. I have no doubt that the owner had him converted to a Big Dummy shortly after I left the shop, but my bike and I had our moment.
I plan to return to the same shop after another 7 months and 500 miles. The owner did a good job and seemed to know what he was doing.
I went to the “Sustainable West Seattle Festival” with my family on a rare sunny Saturday afternoon, hoping to see a Kona Electric Ute that a local bike shop was scheduled to show there. It was fun to see many like-minded people showing various sustainable choices — bee keepers selling local honey, farmers selling organic chicken feed for your home-raised chickens, Zip cars, small wind turbines, and various kinds of electric bicycles. Unfortunately, the Ute was not one of them. Apparently, the Kona rep had not gotten a Ute to the bike shop in time for the festival, so this elusive bike foiled my best efforts once again. I know a bike shop in our area that definitely has one, but it’s a bit of a drive and a ferry ride to get there, so I’m hoping to combine that trip with another outing sometime.
If my efforts to see a Ute have been challenging, getting a demo of the Yuba elMundo seems nearly impossible at the moment. There is only one bike shop within 100 miles listed as a Yuba dealer. When I contacted them about the possibility of seeing the elMundo, what I got instead was a strong recommendation to steer clear of this bike as well as the Ute and any other inexpensive cargo bike. The bike dealer recommended the Surly Big Dummy with a Stoke Monkey motor as a superior way to handle our hilly geography. This came as a surprise to me, because the Big Dummy was the bike I first intended to buy, but I was disuaded by several factors. I’ve listed these elsewhere, but the main problems were the size of the bike (my wife wants a bike that is easy to ride) and maintenance of the Stoke Monkey (frequent alignment is necessary to avoid problems with the second chain).
The bike dealer pointed out that the Stoke Monkey is better for climbing hills, because it works through your bike’s gears. In contrast, a hub motor like the BionX applies torque after the gears. When you climb hills, a hub motor is running at low speed where it is inefficient. I can verify that: on the steepest part of my hill where you want the most help, the motor does not feel like it is working as hard as you would like. The bike dealer says his Big Dummy climbs 20% grades (steeper than mine) with less effort than my bike.
So, if you’re serious about replacing your car and hauling big loads up steep hills, the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey are probably the best choice for you. But unfortunately, it requires a custom build, and it’s a pretty crude system compared to my bike. This video shows what I mean:
Everything demonstrated here seems like it’s a generation behind my bike. The controller and burrito bag seem pretty crude: my controller must be built into the BionX battery case, which is beatifully mounted under my cargo deck. Putting that big battery in the XtraCycle bag seemed primitive in comparison. I could go on, but you can watch the videos and form your own opinions. (If you haven’t seen my bike video, it’s here.)
I hesitate to criticize the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey, because it’s a great bike and people have done a lot of amazing things with it. For example, the BikeForth.org blog is one of my favorites — the author is pushing the boundaries of car replacement with weather coverings and solar power for his Big Dummy. It’s really great stuff, but I sometimes feel like he’s quite a bit ahead of his time. My practical side is struggling to find ways to get more people on bikes, even if only for some of their trips. I would love to jump directly into a future where bikes are as prevalent in my country as they are in Denmark, but to enable that future we have to find a way to make our bikes more mainstream. I feel like my bike is closer to that practical ideal than the Big Dummy/Stoke Monkey, but the price is still a barrier unless you’re completely replacing a car. Even as a cargo biking advocate, I still drive our mini-van, frequently. With our current infrastructure and suburban location, it’s not possible for me to transport my busy family without the car at this time. So the cost of the bike comes on top of the cost for the car, and that is a challenge for many family budgets.
On the other hand, I don’t want to recommend the Ute or the elMundo if their inexpensive price comes at the cost of reliability, functionality, or safety. Until I see them first-hand, or a good bike magazine does a thorough review and comparison of them, I can’t say if these are good candidates for advancing the worthy cause of cargo biking.