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E-Bikes: Turning the pedals with a little help

While much of the transportation industry seems to be focused on electric cars this year, another electric vehicle is increasing in numbers on city streets – the e-bike. An e-bike, is a bicycle that incorporates an electric motor to assist a rider’s power output. Already popular in Asia with 21 million sold last year in China alone, e-bikes have struggled to find space in our car-centric culture.


Last month, when I was offered the chance to try out the latest in e-bikes, I was somewhat hesitant. Having logged 6,000 miles this year on my collection of human powered bikes, I am decidedly not the target demographic for a battery-assisted bicycle. The idea of a using any kind of motor on bike somehow seemed like cheating. But, I figure that anything that encourages people to get out of their cars and get some exercise deserves a  second look.

I spent a week testing an Optibike and an OHM XS750, two of the dozen or so brands available in the United States. Both look and pedal like regular bicycles, though weigh about three times more than a typical road bike. It is when their drive systems kick in that you really notice the difference.

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Optibike 850XLi


price: $9,995

modes: fast and economy

range: 45 miles electric only, 57 miles with moderate pedaling

battery:  22ah 36v Li-on

weight: 58 pounds

The Optibike has been called "the Ferrari of e-bikes," which means it is fast and expensive. The manufacturer says that their 22ah 36v lithium ion battery, the same used in Tesla cars, is the most powerful of any e-bike on the market.

Optibike earned more bragging rights last August winning the 24-mile race up Pike's Peak. Two Optibikes competed the course with a total 7,700-foot elevation gain in 1 hour, 47 minutes, more than half an hour ahead of the first conventional bike and 73 minutes ahead of the next e-bike.

When I first saw the Optibike, I was impressed how much it looked like a regular mountain bike. The high capacity battery is hidden and protected inside a custom made frame. A motorized bottom bracket shares the drivetrain with the rider.

Riding the Optibike was a treat. The bike uses the same Fox front and rear suspension system as many high-end mountain bikes and felt like it could handle the roughest terrain. Because mine was a loaner from commuter Dan Rowell, I figured Baltimore city streets were rough enough.

Optibike uses a thumb-throttle, so it is up to the rider to decide when to get an assist. It was a little tricky finding a balance between my pedaling and the motor. Most of the time it felt as if I were assisting the motor as opposed to it helping me.

On my first day on the bike I took a 20-mile route into work that included 1200-feet of climbing. On the dreaded climb up Bellemore Road between Falls and Roland, the Optibike proved itself, powering up the steep grade at 15 mph. On my road bike, I would have been off the seat, struggling to maintain 10 mph.

My normal commute is a six-mile, 19-minute sprint from Towson to downtown Baltimore. The elevation difference is about 400 feet so my ride home from work usually takes about ten minutes longer than the ride in. The Optibike essentially erased the gradual climb, getting me home in just under 19 minutes.

Despite riding a 65-pound bike, I managed to average over 20 mph for the 46 miles I put on it in three days. Even with the electric assist, I still felt like I had gotten a workout.

E-Bikes: Turning the pedals with a little help
OHM XS750

price: $3,799

modes: 4 assist levels

range: 56 miles with moderate pedaling

battery:  10ah 37v Li-Mn

weight: 53 pounds

If the Optibike is a Ferrari, then the OHM XS750 must be a Prius. It may not be as powerful, but it makes up for it with green technology.

The amazingly quiet BionX motor built into the rear hub has the ability to capture and store energy when braking and going downhill. It even has an indicator similar to the Prius that shows how much energy you are using or producing.

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The bike uses a 37v 10Ah lithium manganese battery pack that can be removed from the bike for charging, very handy if you don't want to haul the entire 53-pound bike to the nearest outlet.

While the OHM has a thumb-throttle available, a rider can choose from four levels of automatic assistance that kick in seamlessly while pedaling. A sensor in the motor keeps the power output proportional to the effort of the rider. If you are a glutton for punishment, you can even set the bike to generative mode, charging the battery while getting a thorough workout.

The same 20-mile route on the OHM took 15 minutes longer than the Optibike. While it was a bit slower climbing Bellemore Road (about 11 mph), the most noticeable difference was going downhill. At somewhere over 20-mph, a governor kicks in, slowing the bike and generating power for the battery. I really had to work hard to get the bike over 25 mph going down one hill that I regularly top 40 mph on my road bike.

The XS750 model comes with front suspension and all terrain components but I would hesitate to take it on anything rougher than the NCR trail. The bike handles the city streets fine but there was a noticeable rattle between the frame and the battery with every bump in the road.

The OHM really shines as an equalizer. My wife, Karen, is fit and likes to ride but hates trying to keep my pace. Riding the OHM she had no problem keeping up with me on my road bike and thoroughly enjoyed kicking my butt up the longest hill of our ride.



The Bottom Line

Although my family might argue otherwise, I still struggle to find enough time to ride my bike so I enjoy every calorie I burn on my six mile ride to work. If my commute was 20 - 30 miles each way, I think I would be considering an e-bike.

Hopefully, by the time I am in the market, there will be a bike with the power and durability of the Optibike and the seamless assist and regenerative technology of the OHM. 

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