What Should I Do?

A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as Utilitarian People-Movers (Part II)

Tuesday, December 7, 2010, 1:08 AM

This post initially appeared on CM.com in June 2009. Given its continued relevance, we're republishing it as part of our 'What Should I Do?' series.

So you’re inspired to try more biking... 

Now what?

If you haven't yet read Part I of this article, please do.  After learning about Peak Oil a few years back, I decided to get a cargo bicycle setup with an electric assist as an alternative to using a car for around-town trips. I had been a cycling enthusiast for about 20 years at that point, and I had prior experience tinkering with electric bicycles. During my college years, I worked in a bike shop and commuted daily by bike. In 1994, I ordered and installed my first electric add-on kit, consisting of a very basic setup - a friction roller against the tire, activated by a two-speed toggle switch on the handlebar. I also happen to have a degree in Physics, which helped a lot with debugging early electric bike equipment that was not quite ready for prime time.

Nevertheless, when I decided to take on this project in 2007, I quickly found out that it wasn’t a simple undertaking, despite my fairly broad experience. The local bike shops were not enthused by this project. They wouldn’t touch electric assist, and ordering an Xtracycle kit to convert my bike to a cargo hauler was something they were decidedly lukewarm about. Given that attitude, I decided to just order the parts through the Internet and do it myself. 

I encountered a huge variety of choices on the Internet, especially in the realm of electric motor kit add-ons. There were myriad motors, motor controllers, and batteries - and a wide range of prices. It took a few months of reading and research before I was confident with my choice. And then the fancy, expensive lithium ion battery I ordered didn’t ever show up (after months of waiting, I cancelled that order). That’s when I decided to get into the business, because if other people had to go through what I was going through, not many would ever adopt this option for an oil-limited future.

Find an open-minded bike mechanic or shop

Fortunately, since that time, I’ve heard reports of quite a few bike shops around the country that are taking these options more seriously. Many shops are beginning to actively support the cargo bicycle concept. Fewer are embracing the electric motor concept, though we’ve had quite a few customers who purchased a motor kit to be installed by their local bike mechanic - and found their reluctant mechanic became more enthusiastic about it during the process. More and more e-bike-specific dealers are cropping up.

Unless you have significant experience working on bikes, it will help to have someone to assist with the assembly and/or upkeep of your new ride. I suggest calling around to the local bike shops and asking. Ask whether they’d be willing to help you with something like an Xtracycle installation and/or electric motor installation, to find out whether or not they treat you like you’re from the planet Mars. If they don’t, then you might have a keeper. If they do respond that way, just call the next one in the list. Another possibility is to check your local Craigslist for people willing to do mechanical work - or you might even post a help wanted ad.

It's not that I discourage learning how to do the work yourself - in fact, over the long term, I think it is a valuable set of skills to develop. If you’re Peak-Oil-aware, you’re likely into self-sufficiency, right? But the initial assembly of such a bike can be quite involved. It is certainly possible to do it yourself, if you have prior mechanical skills and some time/patience. But most bikes ship disassembled to save space and shipping costs, which means they require substantial assembly upon arrival. If you don’t know what a headset, bottom bracket or derailleur is, then I’d strongly recommend that you pick up a book like the Park Tools Big Blue Book of Bicycle Repair and check out Sheldon Brown’s excellent repair site. These resources will give you a better idea of what is involved in building up and working on a bike. 

Recently, some shops have figured out how to ship certain bikes fully assembled, but that adds to the cost. Some brands of bike even prohibit dealers from selling and shipping their bikes fully assembled. Even if you do get a fully-assembled bike delivered to your doorstep, I’d still recommend checking out the above resources to learn how to do it yourself or developing a relationship with a local mechanic who can work on your bike.

Overview of costs

Acquiring a complete electric cargo bike built from reputable, name-brand components is not an cheap endeavor. Typical prices for these bikes are $900-$2200, not including $600-$1800 for the electric motor kits. So a bottom-end electric cargo bike setup is going to cost $1500 or more, and a lighter and/or higher-end setup, as much as $2500. For replacing a car with such a bike, most people find it to be worth the cost. In fact, we’ve had quite a few customers who sold a second car and used the proceeds to buy a cargo bike of some sort. But if it is only going to be used occasionally, that is a lot to spend. Electric bikes without cargo-carrying can be had for less, often as little as $400-$500, though in this price range they aren’t designed for durability. Electric add-on motor kits with batteries start in the high $300’s and go up to $1800 or more. The biggest variation in price in electric bikes and motor kits comes from the batteries. Lead acid batteries are cheap, but heavy, and are not all that long lasting. Lithium batteries are lightweight and longer-lived, but they are expensive.

An electric utility bike setup based on a Yuba Mundo ($900) and a BMC hub motor kit with Nickel Cadmium battery pack and charger. Total system price is $2,097.

In general, the more you spend, the longer-lasting the components, at least to a point. The very high-end includes extremely lightweight bikes and components meant for racing, and those aren’t what you want for a daily-use bike. The best parts to use for an everyday bike are mid- to high-end mountain bike components, such as the Shimano Deore XT and/or SRAM X7. These are designed for the abuses of mountain biking (mud/dirt/rain/etc), and hold up for a long time. I have a Shimano Deore XT gear shifter and derailleur (the part that actually shifts the chain from one gear to the next) from 1987 that still works okay after 20 years of use. I also have a nice chromoly steel mountain bike from 1992 that is in great shape. Cheap stuff won’t last nearly so long.

Some discount and big-box outlets now carry electric bikes. Their price is low, but that’s about all that can be said for them. The bikes aren’t selected by or for people who ride regularly. They are designed for someone who is going to put the bike in the garage and only get it out a few times per year to go to the local bike path. If you get one of these bikes and ride it regularly, it will break down. 

In our shop, we’ve seen many customers who bring us cheap discounter bikes to fix. After a few years, it becomes more expensive to fix one of these bikes than it did to buy it in the first place. And we’re pretty tolerant - we want to help people ride their bikes more, so we’ll fix almost anything. But if you are on a tight budget, I’d strongly suggest that you avoid buying a cheap discounter bike. Instead buy a solid, used mountain bike (typical costs < $100), and convert it with a good, lower-end electric conversion kit (~$400). Then, if you later decide you want cargo-carrying capability, you can add on an Xtracycle kit. The results of this approach will likely be far more satisfactory than a cheap Wal-Mart or Target electric bike.

A 1992 Stumpjumper mountain bike with Xtracycle kit installed. Total cost under $600. Note the wide swept back handlebars (Nitto North Road) and wide saddle, to give a comfortable, upright riding position.

Comfort on the bike

Comfort is an often under-appreciated aspect of biking. The main focus of the bike industry is on racing, and it has only recently begun to address comfort. Racing is generally not comfortable, because one needs a tucked down position to be as aerodynamic as possible. But for everyday riding, comfort and safety are essential to encourage (rather than discourage) everyday use. A more upright position on the bike generally improves visibility to cars, and it also makes it easier for you to pay attention to the traffic around you. 

Comparison of comfort saddle on the left to a racing saddle on the right. They are built for different purposes.

I generally recommend the type of handlebars that give a more upright position on the bike, such as cruiser bars or comfort handlebars. Many bikes on the market - even so-called “comfort” bikes - come with flat bars, the same as are on most mountain bikes. The problem with flat handlebars is that they do not encourage an ergonomic hand position. Try this experiment: Let your hands hang down freely at your sides. Then swing your hands slowly up together in front of you, where they would be if you were gripping handlebars, without twisting your wrists at all. You’ll see that the natural position is to have your knuckles pointed outward at 20-30 degrees from your centerline, not pointed straight ahead. I used to use straight bars, until I started developing wrist pains from my regular riding. Switching over to bars that sweep back at a 30-degree angle solved those problems immediately.

If you ride the bike in an upright position, more weight is going to be on your rear end, so it is important to have a good seat. Seats are a matter of strong personal preference. Some people like a very cushy “gel” seat, while others prefer a bit more rigid seat. One thing to note is that the seats that come with bikes are often not designed for comfort, unless it is a comfort bike. So swapping out a seat is often important to consider. 

Another important goal should be to size your bike properly, so that you are neither too stretched out, nor too scrunched up when you are riding it. Some of the cargo bikes come in only one size but have adjustable stems and seats. If you are a very short or tall person, it is good to mention your height when working with someone to find the right solution, since it can impact which bikes will provide the best fit. You should be able to sit comfortably on your bike without any significant pressure on your hands and wrists (or they will get sore).

For people with back, wrist, or knee issues - and for those wanting the ultimate in comfort - another possibility is a recumbent or semi-recumbent bike. Recumbent bikes put the rider in a seated position more akin to a car seat than a standard bicycle. Recumbents have their tradeoffs. They are typically more comfortable and more aerodynamic. On the downside, they often look a bit odd and bike-geek-ish, and they are lower and hence less visible to cars. Nonetheless, they are becoming an increasingly viable option. More recently, several manufacturers have introduced “crank forward” type designs, which are essentially a hybrid between a recumbent and an upright bike. These brands include Day 6, Electra, and Rans. Rans even makes a recumbent utility/cargo bicycle called the Hammer Truck, mentioned in more detail later in this article.

Recumbent bicycle by RANS (left), and semi-recumbent/comfort bike by Day6 (right)

Convenience

The necessities of everyday bike commuting are quite different from those of racing or mountain biking. One consideration is whether you can wear everyday clothes on the bike and not get them caught in the chain or wheel or messed up with grease. Recreational cyclists often wear cycling clothes to avoid this problem, but most folks who ride for transportation don’t want to don lycra. To deal with this, many of the newer transportation-focused bikes have chain guards of some type, and some even have rear-wheel skirt/pant guards. Chain guards like the Kool Stop Chain Disc can also be retrofitted, if your mountain or road bike lacks one.

Chain guard on Breezer Villager bicycle (left), and Kool Stop Chain Disc add-on (right)

If you’re not springing for a utility bike right away, a rack can be also be quite useful for carrying stuff. Some of the commuting-oriented bikes come with racks, and if you already have a bike lacking a rack, one can be retrofitted to almost any bike for $20-50.

Some will just use a backpack or messenger bag to carry all their stuff while on the bike. That works, but there are drawbacks. In hot weather, you’ll develop a sweaty spot wherever the bag or backpack is in contact with your skin. Plus, for longer rides, the bags often become increasingly uncomfortable. I strongly recommend for regular riding to find a way to get any loads you will carry mounted on the bike rather than on your back, using a suitable rack or utility bike setup.

Lights

Lights are another necessity, if there’s any chance you’ll be caught out after dark. I could write a whole article on lights alone, but I will distill it down to a few key points:

  • Front lights are of two varieties, those to “be seen” and those to “see with”. If you are riding where there are always city lights, you may only need the less expensive “be seen” type lights. If you are riding in places where you might encounter unseen obstacles on the road, you need a “see with” light. They are more expensive. However, if you have an electric bike battery, there are now lights that can operate directly from that battery, so you don’t have to pay for or carry a separate light battery.  They are made by the folks at ebikes.ca in Canada.
  • For the rear, you can buy an inexpensive and very bright red blinkie, such as the Planet Bike Superflash, which can be seen up to a mile away. Most of these blinkies come with attachments, either for a seat post or a bag/backpack. Also, I love the Flash Flags, both for night time and daytime use. They are a fluorescent flag with reflective strips that sticks out to the side of your bike and waves in the wind while you ride. It is highly visible, day or night. I find most cars give more passing room when I am using one of these.
  • I highly recommend that you also consider lights, or at least reflectors, that will illuminate your bike from the side. Some effective and inexpensive options include the NiteIze SpokeLit spoke light and Fun Reflectors that you can stick all over your bike. If you want to get fancier with this, the MonkeyLight spoke light displays wild light patterns in your spokes, and the Down Low Glow casts a large, tinted glowing circle all around your bike. Whichever way you choose, this type of illumination helps reduce the likelihood that a car will pull out right in front of you from a side street, claiming they didn’t see you.

Xtracycle bike with Down Low Glow (blue), spoke lights, and electroluminescent wire (in addition to front and rear lights)

Tires

Tires significantly determine how your bike will respond to the road. The tires for racing bikes are designed for one goal - speed. But those skinny little tires often compromise durability and the ability to safely ride over obstacles like potholes, gravel, grass, etc. A lot of folks in the biking world focus on “rotational weight” of a wheel and tire, because these can have a strong effect on how the bike accelerates. But for everyday biking, I strongly recommend considering wider, heavier-duty tires. They are both safer and more comfortable to ride. In fact, on my bike I now use very large “balloon” tires. I really like the cushy ride they give, as well as the ability to ride over almost any type of surface (except mud or ice). 

Example of a slick “balloon” tire on the Yuba Mundo. It gives a cushy ride, and gives the ability to ride over nearly any surface, including gravel or grass.

Mountain bikes often come with “knobby” tires that have a tread meant to grip in the dirt or mud. While those are great off-road, you will get significantly lower rolling resistance with a smooth or semi smooth tire (often referred to as “slicks”). In my opinion, the optimal type for everyday riding in normal weather is the slick balloon style, ranging from 1.5” to 2.3” in width. If you find yourself riding in snowy or icy conditions, there are even studded bike tires available. I used these when I lived in a northern climate, and they work well, though they can be a bit noisy and they do add resistance. For those on a budget, another option is to set your bike up with “ Poor Man’s Tire Chains.”

Safety considerations

General safety on a bicycle warrants a lot of discussion. Before we can drive cars, we have to go through extensive training and licensing. But anyone can hop on a bike, regardless of training. Consider safe biking to be just like safe driving - it requires some practice and skill development. There are many instructors through the League of American Cyclists who offer cycling skills training, and often local bike shops will offer classes as well. You can also read up on the subject at websites like bicyclesafe.com and Bicycling Life, or pick up a book on the subject, such as The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst.

But there are a number of bottom-line safety issues to keep in mind:

  1. Sidewalks are dangerous. Riding on sidewalks is often the most dangerous way to ride, because drivers do not easily see you and may pull out right in front of you. There are occasional situations where I’ll ride on a sidewalk - for example, if it is the only way to avoid a very busy road of high-speed traffic - but I avoid it whenever possible.
  2. Choose your route carefully. The best way to get somewhere by bike vs. by car is almost never the same route. In a car, you’re looking for routes with high-speed thoroughfares, but on a bike, you’re looking for low-traffic and low-speed minor roads. In my own commute, I bike a few extra miles every day in order to avoid a high-traffic, high-speed road. I don’t mind the extra distance with my electric bike.
  3. Riding against traffic is dangerous. When you are riding against oncoming traffic, nobody has sufficient time to react if there is a safety issue. This can be very bad.
  4. Biking at night without lights or when intoxicated is deadly. In most studies I’ve seen, at least a third of all bicycle-related deaths involved people riding at night while improperly lighted and/or while intoxicated. If you want to become a statistic, this is a sure way to do it.
  5. Pretend that drivers can’t see you. Most of the time, drivers will see you - but sometimes they don’t. If you always assume they won’t see you, and ride accordingly, you can drastically increase your safety. 
  6. Timidly hugging the far right side is not effective. Hugging the far right of the road can, in many situations, make you far less visible, particularly as you approach intersections, driveways, or turn-outs. It also makes you more vulnerable to car doors being opened in front of you. Instead, ride purposefully out in the lane (many state laws allow you to be up to 1/3 into the lane and/or 3 ft from the right side, check to make sure). If you are blocking traffic, then you can slide over to let cars by, with the added bonus that the drivers will be impressed by your courtesy as a cyclist.
  7. Get a mirror. The aware cyclist knows what is going on behind as well as in front. While the majority of danger comes from the front, it brings both peace of mind and additional safety to know what’s going on behind. 

Helmet-mounted bicycle mirror

Overall, people who follow these guidelines tend to do well. (According to some statistics, cyclists fare better than car drivers per mile travelled.) Following good training and advice, you may reduce the risk of accident by as much as 1/4 (see Table 6 at this site). Many people think of biking as “unsafe,” but the biggest reason for that perception is all the untrained and uneducated riders. For people who get proper bicycle safety training, the years that cycling will add to their lives through better health will more than offset any risks cycling might pose. 

All about electric bikes

As I mentioned in Part I of this article, electric bikes are great because they encourage you to ride your bike more often, instead of taking the car. This is particularly relevant for people who live a bit too far out of town, have hills, or hot weather, or are not in peak physical shape. Commuting or carrying cargo on a bike, without electric, works for some people who live in places without major hills or who are truly dedicated to the physical conditioning required, but for the rest of us, electric makes the difference between a practical/usable bike and one that sits in the garage. In the sections below, I will discuss various options and considerations in getting an electric bike or an electric motor add-on kit, and then we'll talk about possible cargo options. The combination of electric with a utility/cargo bike makes a great car replacement for many people. 

Pedelec versus throttle control

There are two different styles of electric assist operation when a motor is attached to a bicycle. The first, called a “pedelec,” operates the motor only when you are pedaling.  It detects your pedaling cadence (revolution rate) or force, and uses that to determine how much electric power to add. Pedelec bikes are the most like regular bikes - you just get on them and ride, without thinking about the electric parts. The electric assist just does its work silently in the background. 

The other style of electric assist is a “throttle control” that uses either a motorcycle-style twist throttle or a thumb-activated throttle to control the power. With this style, you can activate the motor whether or not you are pedaling. When you are pedaling, it just adds power. Some motor systems have enough power that they can carry you uphill without pedaling, but many do not - they will require at least gentle pedaling to move forward on steep uphills. Some users like the feeling of control that the throttle gives; others don’t like to think about it. It really comes down to a matter of personal preference.

Bike versus add-on kit

There are many brands of pre-built electric bikes that have an integrated motor and battery. There is also an increasing number of add-on electric motor kits for converting a bike you already have to electric. There are advantages and disadvantages to each one.

Electric bikes

There are many brands of electric bikes on the market, such as Ecobike, iZip, EMC, eZee, eGo (a scooter), and many more.

Advantages:  Directly integrated battery and electric assist, often stylish and comfortable, successful in stealth mode (being seen as a regular bike instead of an electric bike), some have features like pedal sensing or regenerative braking (see below), and safe when well-built and assembled.  Many models have chain guards to protect pants and skirt.

Disadvantages: Most have only 6-8 pedaling gears, decent but not great drive-train components, not readily upgradable to different batteries/motors, and most of these are at the lower end of the power/speed range.

Ecobike electric bicycle with integrated lithium battery (the black box), chain guard, cruiser handlebars, rack, 8Fun electric motor, and throttle control.

Electric add-on kits

These kits consist of a motor, motor controller, either a throttle or a pedelec sensor, and a battery that all attach to your existing bike. Installation of the simpler styles may take from 1-3 hours for someone who has mechanical experience with bikes.

Example of an add-on motor kit by Nine Continent

Advantages: They recycle your existing bike into a new use, they are typically used to convert mountain style bikes (which have more gears and better drive-trains), they come in a variety of power levels and speeds (low to high), and you typically get more bang for your buck out of an electric-assist conversion.

Disadvantages include the difficulty of figuring out a matching set of components, making sure that they will install on your bike safely and without problems, and that you need to have an existing bike that is suitable for conversion and that you are comfortable on. 

The latter point can’t be understated - a lot of people have an existing bike, but one which is uncomfortable to ride. If the bike is not comfortable, you won’t ride it as often. So if you spend the money to convert a bike to electric, I strongly recommend upgrading your seat and/or handlebars to make sure you will have a ride that is very comfortable for you. It is also important that the bike is in suitable working condition so that you can safely convert it and ride it on a regular basis.

About motor types

The most common motor types available for electric bikes and electric bike conversion now are hub motors, where the motor is integrated directly into the bicycle wheel. The advantages of hub motors are that they are compact, quiet, easy to install, and usually people don’t even notice that you have a motor on your bike. The disadvantage of a hub motor is that for steep hill climbing, it can’t take advantage of the gears on your bike to give it more climbing torque. In order to deal with steeper hills, you can either get a bigger and higher-powered hub motor, or one that has internal planetary gears that gives it more torque (torque is a measure of the overall force that the hub motor can deliver). The internally-geared motors have the advantage that they generally have better climbing ability in a much smaller and lighter-weight package. They also have the advantage that, due to an internal one-way clutch, they provide easy freewheeling when you are pedaling the bike without an assist. They have the disadvantage that they are usually less efficient than the non-geared hub motors, and they can’t do regenerative braking, where you use the bike’s motion to recharge the batteries a bit. 

Common brands of non-geared hub motors include Nine Continent, Crystalyte, Wilderness EnergyBionX, Golden Motor, and E+. Crystalyte is one of the better known brands and has a moderate reputation for reliability. They make one of the largest and most powerful hub motors available, the Phoenix series (sometimes named the 5300 series). These have enough power to convert a bike into a motorcycle, but they are very heavy, at over 22 lbs each for just the motor. In the mid-power range, Nine Continent is up and coming due to their somewhat lighter weight, higher torque, and higher efficiency than some of the other brands. The BionX is unique in several ways, in that it is very high efficiency, it operates in a full pedelec mode where it senses your pedaling effort and multiplies it, and it has regenerative braking. The Wilderness Energy and Golden Motor both satisfy the lower-end of the price range, though reliability can be an issue with some of the lower-end brands. The E+ is a brand new, high-end electric-drive system with the battery hidden in a bike hub itself.

Common brands of internally-geared hub motors are eZee, Brushless Motor Corporation (BMC), 8Fun (Shouzhou Bafang), and Heinzemann. The eZee is a very reliable hub motor for moderate-power use, and the 8Fun is a smaller, lighter motor for light-duty use. BMC makes a range of motors at different power levels, and they are the only company that makes a high-power, internally geared hub motor. The BMC motors are nice in their versatility, but the reliability does not yet match that of the eZee.

eZee hub motor kit incorporated in the front wheel

Drive-train electric assist

A second style of motor is one that interfaces through the drive-train of the bike, either directly through the chain, or through the crank set (where you pedal). 

Picture of the StokeMonkey electric pedal assist installed on a Surly Big Dummy

Advantages: This style of motor i can use your bike’s gearing, which is a big win for steep hills or heavily loaded cargo bikes. They are often more efficient at converting electric to mechanical power as well. 

Disadvantages: Some of these styles are noisy (e.g. the Cyclone), and others make the rider feel like they are being pedaled. With a hub motor it is possible to just stop pedaling and let the motor do the work, but with some of the drive-train motors, you must always pedal. Also, these styles tend to be a bit more difficult to install than the hub motors, especially for those styles that require an interface to the crankset or bottom bracket.

One of the best-known drive-train style systems, designed specifically for electric cargo bikes, is the StokemonkeyThis motor acts like a “stoker,” which is the second rider of a tandem bike. In fact, it uses a crankset designed for a tandem bicycle. It is a quiet and high efficiency setup for those with cargo bikes who don’t mind the idea of always pedaling when in operation. A second common brand is the Cyclone, which mounts underneath the bottom of the bike (the bottom bracket) and interfaces directly to the crankset (where the pedals are attached). Though I don’t have personal experience with it, users seem happy with it, with the exception of two issues:  IIt can be noisy, and the installation can be difficult and time consuming. The third one is the EcoSpeed, designed as a mid-drive system for recumbent bikes.

Other styles

Another style of electric add-on kit is an external motor that is interfaced to the wheel, but not through the drive-train. The most common example of this is the Currie USPD system, which uses a special interface plate on one side of the wheel to drive the wheel using an external motor. The biggest advantage to this setup is its low cost. The disadvantages are noise and potential problems where the motor interfaces with the wheel.

Front or rear

For hub motors, a matter of consideration is whether to use a front or rear hub motor on the bike. They each have their merits. A front motor tends to balance the weight on the bike a bit better, and it also gives a kind of all-wheel drive to the bike (the rear wheel being driven by the pedals), which is good in slippery or wet conditions. The problem with a front wheel hub motor is that it puts extra stress on the bike fork, which is the part of the bike where the front wheel attaches that turns when you turn the handlebars. In our experience, it is a bad idea to combine a powerful front hub motor with any kind of aluminum suspension fork (most are aluminum), because the fork can break. I recently heard a story related to this: A guy buys a folding bike with an aluminum suspension fork and puts a large, powerful hub motor on the front of it. His first fork broke, but, not to be deterred, he convinced the manufacturer to give him another bike under warranty. He broke that one too, complete with a trip to the hospital. Not good for anyone.

That said, steel bike forks are much more resilient than aluminum and should be able to handle low to moderate power hub motors. You can tell whether your fork is steel by holding a magnet up close to it - if the magnet sticks, it is steel; if not, it is something else. 

Rear motors are popular because they avoid this issue altogether, but they come with their own challenges. Most rear hub motors can only handle 7 to 8 gears, so they won’t work directly with 9- or 10-speed shifting systems. They are more difficult to install, because you have to mess around with the drive-train. And they put all the weight at the back of the bike, which already has most of the rider weight on it. My own rule of thumb is to recommend a front motor for those who have a steel fork (or are willing to put one on) and who don’t want a super-high power motor, and to go for a rear motor otherwise.

A BMC hub motor freshly installed on an Xtracycle frame attached to a mountain bike. The install took about 2 hours. Here is a link with more details on the electric motor installation to an Xtracycle.

Battery types

There is a dizzying array of battery types available, and which one you choose will significantly affect the cost and weight of your electric bike system. The lighter options are generally higher-cost and the heavier options are lower-cost. For many years, e-bikes used sealed lead acid (SLA) batteries. A typical 36-volt set might cost $120-180 and weigh well over 30 pounds. The advantage is low cost; the disadvantage is weight and that it contains lead, which must be recycled properly. At the mid-range are nickel cadmium (NiCa) and nickel metal hydride (NiMH). For a 36-volt setup, these may run $250-$400 and weigh just over half of what a lead acid pack weighs, or around 15-18 pounds. Nickel cadmium is usually a bit less expensive and a bit heavier than NiMH, and it poses an environmental concern if not recycled properly.

Picture of NiCd battery pack (top) and Lithium Iron Phosphate pack (bottom)

At the high end of the battery range are lithium ion (Li-ion) batteries, which, for a 36-volt system, can range from $400-700 and weigh as little as 7-8 pounds. The advantage of these is the light weight and small form factor; the disadvantage is the high cost.

To make things more confusing, there are various kinds of lithium battery technologies, each of which fall under the term “lithium ion” but use a variety of different chemistries, in addition to the lithium, that give different properties. Lithium cobalt oxide (LiCoO2) batteries are super lightweight but also unstable and unsafe for bike use (think of laptop or cell-phone batteries that catch on fire - those are nearly all LiCoO2).  Lithium manganese (LiMn) is considerably safer but also heavier than cobalt oxide batteries, though still substantially lighter than the nickel or lead acid batteries. This is a good lower-priced option for those wanting the light weight of lithium on an electric bike. Lithium iron phosphate (LiFePO4) is the latest lithium technology` and is both highly stable (hence safest) and long lasting (if properly cared for, as many as 1500 or more charge/discharge cycles can be achieved). LiFePO4 comes in a variety of formats that range from extremely lightweight prismatic/polymer style cells to heavier duty cylindrical cells meant for larger electric vehicle use. The main downside of LiFePO4 is its cost - it is the priciest of all battery options.

Battery pack construction is a critical consideration in buying an expensive lithium or nickel battery. To achieve voltages like 36V, battery packs use a set of individual cells strung together in series, each one contributing a bit of the voltage. With lead acid batteries, it usually only requires three individual 120-volt batteries to get a 36V pack. But for nickel chemistries, a typical 36-volt pack may use as many as 30 individual cells. And for lithium chemistries, a 36-volt pack is composed of 10-12 individual cells (depending on type). For the nickel batteries, and especially for the more finicky lithium types, it is important that the manufacturer of these strings of cells knows what they are doing. We’ve seen many inexpensive packs fail because they weren’t assembled properly and used battery-management systems (the brains that keep all the cells healthy) that are sub-par. If you don’t mind tinkering with electrical stuff, an inexpensive pack can save some money, but may require an investment of time. For those without interest in that, I strongly recommend spending a bit more money for a well-built pack from a reputable seller.

Battery mounting

Battery mounting is one of the perennial challenges for electric bikes, since batteries can be a bit bulky and, in some cases, heavy. Having a cargo bike often makes this easier - for example, I carry my LiFePo4 battery in the pocket of my Xtracycle, and it works great. But for those without a cargo bike, there are several options. One is to get a rear rack for the bike and carry the battery in a bag or pannier on the rack. Another is to mount the battery to the frame, using large, heavy duty straps or a bracket of some kind. A few brands like the BionX provide batteries that mount directly to the frame using the water bottle cage mounts, if the bike has a holder in the appropriate location and of sufficient strength. This is where pre-built electric bikes really shine - usually the battery is integrated right into the frame design.

BionX battery mounting in the center triangle of the bike.

Regenerative braking

One of the most common questions I hear is, “Will the battery recharge while I’m pedaling?” A lot of people want to get something for nothing, which is understandable. But so-called “regenerative” modes don’t give something for nothing. All they do is take your mechanical energy and turn it into electric energy that gets put back into the battery. But that conversion process means that you will be slowed down, because mechanical energy is being subtracted. So if you are recharging the battery while pedaling, it will feel like you have the brakes on. Most people don’t want to be slowed down while on the bike, they want to be sped up. The only practical purposes for “regen” on a bike are for coming to a stop or for controlling speed when descending a large hill. On systems like the BionX that have regenerative braking, typical energy recapture might be 20% or so, which means that you will get a bit of extra range out of them if you have the feature. Most of these systems use a sensor that activates "regen" mode whenever the brake lever on the bike is activated by the user.

Cost

For electric bike add-on kits, a complete low-end kit with lead acid batteries can be had for $300 or so. At the high end, sophisticated, lightweight kits like the BionX and E+ go for $1,800 or more. Electric bikes themselves can be had for as little as $400, though at that price range, the components are usually of quite low quality. The better-quality bikes start around $600 and go up from there. Most of the bikes with lithium batteries and higher-performance motors are well over $1,000. If you are on a budget, I highly recommend starting with an inexpensive, but good quality, used mountain bike, then adding a good, reputable quality hub motor kit, like the Nine Continent or Crystalyte. If you value light weight and having a pre-packaged kit, the eZee (or BMC) motor kits might fit the bill. If you like the idea of regenerative braking and a “bionic” pedal sensor, then the BionX is worth serious consideration (but note, the BionX is not great for very steep hill climbing, although it does fine on moderate hills).

In the following paragraphs, I get into a few more technical details that the interested reader may want to learn about in choosing an electric bike. Non-technical readers may wish to skip ahead to the section on utility/cargo bikes.

About voltages

Voltage is one important measure of the electrical system on a bike, and essentially represents the electrical “force” that your system can provide. The most common voltages for electric bikes are 24 volts (V), 36V, and 48V. The industry seems to be converging towards 36V at the moment, because it provides a good balance of power, speed, and safety. However, an increasing number of electric-assist systems are using 48V, and some go as high as 72V. A typical 36V bike or kit will travel 16-20 mph as a top speed, whereas a typical 48V system will travel 23-27 mph as a top speed. In contrast, a 72V system might be as fast as 40 mph (or more), which isn’t really classified as a bicycle, more like a motorcycle. Some people have set up their batteries for a series/parallel operation, where in series they are in “turbo” mode at 72V, and in parallel they are in regular mode at 36V. This kind of setup can provide the best of both worlds, acting just like a regular bike most of the time, but occasionally switching into turbo mode for fast traffic or uphills. That setup can be a bit expensive to achieve, but my shop has done this kind of setup for people who requested it.

In case you wonder about the weird increments on these voltage numbers, these are based on good, old, lead-acid car batteries, which come in 12 volt increments. Since that became a sort of a standard, most people still use it, even though other battery types are increasingly in use. For example, many lithium ion batteries that are labeled 36V are actually closer to 38-39V during regular operation. 

About amp hours and range of a bike

Amp hours (Ah) are another important measure for an electric bike that relates to the capacity of the battery and the range you will get out of it. The range of the bike is a function of two things: How much power you use, and how much power your battery carries. As a general guideline, if you have a 36 volt, 10 amp hour battery pack, you may get from 15 to 30 miles of range out of it. If you use the electric assist heavily (e.g. lots of uphill), it might be closer to a 15-mile range, but if you do a lot of pedaling, you may easily get 30 miles or more. If you have a longer distance to travel, you can increase the amp hours. If you get 20 miles of range out of a 10 amp hour (Ah) pack, then you should be able to get at least 40 miles of range out of a 20 Ah pack. The downsides to doing this are cost and extra weight.

Aside from the capacity and your pedaling, another factor is motor efficiency. This describes how good your particular motor is at converting electrical energy into mechanical motion, and motors vary significantly in their overall efficiency. It can be somewhat difficult to track down precise efficiency numbers for most motors, though for the geeky types there is a nice hub motor simulator at ebikes.ca that can give you an idea of the efficiencies for various motor types. If you talk to a reputable dealer, they should have at least some idea of where the efficiencies of various motors/bikes they carry are. If they don’t, shop around for another dealer.

Brushed versus brushless

Another term that you may encounter is “brushed” or “brushless” motor. In any electric motor, there are sets of copper windings and sets of magnets. The electrical current alternates between different sets of windings to activate electromagnetic fields that attract the magnets to make the motor rotate. In brushed motors, the electric current is alternated between different sets of windings, due to a mechanical contact made by a “brush” inside the motor (the brush is usually a carbon block). In brushless motors, the current is alternated by a separate controller circuit that uses analog or digital control circuitry to alternate between distinct coils (sometimes called phases).

The advantage of brushed motors is that they are less expensive, and they are often quite reliable due to the simplified external motor controller that is used. However, in a brushed motor, the brushes must be occasionally replaced (once every few years in typical use) which requires opening up the motor case. The advantage of brushless motors is that they are higher efficiency (meaning longer distance) and often provide more torque due to the ability to change the timing of the electrical pulses according to riding conditions. The key to a successful experience with a brushless motor is to get a reliable motor controller. 

To further complicate matters, some brushless motors have "Hall sensors" inside. These detect the position of the magnets in the motor at any given time and are necessary if you want the motor to give power from a dead stop. However, some brushless motors don’t use Hall sensors; instead they begin operation once the motor is up to 3-5 miles per hour. Most folks seem to like having power from a dead stop, and so use motors that incorporate the Hall sensors. However, doing so can decrease reliability, since either the sensors or the thin sensor wires that go from motor to controller can become damaged, which will render the system inoperable. So for the utmost in reliability, some people choose the so-called “pedal first” controllers that do not use hall sensors. These only work on non-geared motors (Nine Continent, Crystalyte, etc).

All About Utility and Cargo Bikes

For the rest of this article, I’ll refer to these interchangeably as utility bicycles. The utility bicycle is one that is designed not only to move the rider around, but to also move passengers and/or cargo around as well. I will first cover longtail bikes, and then discuss a few other options.

Longtail bicycles

The Xtracycle was the inspiration for a new movement in cargo/utility bicycles that go by the name of “longtail bike.” The longtail bike is simply a bike with an extended wheelbase to enhance its cargo- and passenger-carrying capacity. Longtail bikes are typically narrow enough to negotiate trails, sidewalks, or narrow roadways, and they tend to be more efficient than cargo trikes. They handle almost like a regular bike, except for very tight turns. In fact, in some instances their climbing ability is enhanced, due to their longer wheelbase. 

Rider and child on longtail bike consisting of a steel mountain bike frame that has been extended using an Xtracycle Freeradical kit.

Xtracycle

Xtracycle is still the biggest name in the longtail market, with their flagship product, the Xtracycle Freeradical conversion kit. This is a conversion kit that converts a regular mountain/hybrid/touring bike into a longtail bike by extending the wheelbase. It can handle up to 200 lbs of cargo, though you may want to upgrade your rear wheel to a heavier-duty one if you are going to regularly carry that much, as most standard rear wheels aren’t designed for that much weight. However, for light loads (< 70 lbs) you can often get away with just using the standard wheel, after a check for proper spoke tension.

The Xtracycle uses a modular plug-and-play system for accessories, like a “long loader” to carry long loads like ladders/kayaks/sailboards, a “wide loader” to carry loads like television sets, computers, kegs, sofas, and footsies to carry passengers.

Footsies

Advantages:  This is the least expensive way to get a longtail utility bike, because you can often find a decent older mountain bike for around $50, and then get the conversion kit for $489. It is a modular system with a growing array of accessories. It adds only 6-10 pounds to the bike (depending on options). When unloaded, your bike will handle mostly like it did before conversion.

Disadvantages: First, when it is heavily loaded, the rider will often notice some flex, since the bike is essentially two pieces. The key to minimizing the flex is to make sure loads are carried tightly and as close to the rear wheel as possible. On some bikes installation is complicated due to unusual designs. Also, the installation of the kit can change the steering a bit, sometimes making it a bit more sensitive. The extra weight bothers some people. The bike may not fit up narrow stairways, in small elevators, or on some bus racks.

Regardless of these disadvantages, after trying one for a while, many people (myself included) cannot imagine going back to a regular bike for things like shopping, running kids around, etc.

Kona Ute

Kona is a down-to earth company that has been making great road and mountain bikes for many years. They were one of the first companies outside of Xtracycle to realize the benefit of the longtail concept, and their rendition is the Kona Ute. This is a bike built from the ground-up as a longtail cargo hauler for under $1,000. I haven’t tried one in person, so my perspective on them is limited, but here are some thoughts based on what I’ve read. 

AdvantagesIt is made with a lightweight aluminum frame, with room to accommodate two very large panniers and/or a passenger. It has disc brakes (unique in this price range for cargo bikes) and an 8-speed drive-train with chain guard. It is lightweight and a good component set for the price. 

Disadvantages: Some people see the aluminum frame as a disadvantage for a cargo bike, because it is quite difficult to repair if broken, and aluminum can tend to fail more quickly than steel. It also lacks a “wide loader” option. Larger loads can be strapped on top of the platform rack, but the advantage of a wide-loader like on the Yuba or Xtracycle bikes is that large loads are carried down low, for a better center of gravity. 

Rans Hammer Truck

Rans is a company that makes airplanes and recumbent bicycles. They are one of the most recent entries into the longtail market, with their “crank-forward” Hammer Truck

Advantages: The crank-forward design provides a comfortable riding position that is a bit like a recumbent, but more upright and visible than a standard recumbent. The Hammer Truck has a modular system akin to the Xtracycle. Initial user reports are enthusiastic. The combination of the crank-forward design with cargo hauling is rumored to be quite a good one.  

DisadvantagesThe component system doesn’t comply with the open-source Xtracycle component standard, so they are not interchangeable. Riding a crank-forward bike takes some getting used to. The Hammer Truck is one of the more expensive utility bikes (but it also has a nice component set.) 

Rans Hammer Truck

Surly Big Dummy

This longtail utility bike is made by Surly for use with Xtracycle components, using a one-piece chromoly steel frame that has more stability and torsional rigidity than the typical Xtracycle conversion. After riding an Xtracycle for several years and carrying many big loads with it, we got a Big Dummy for more stability and handling performance, and we were not disappointed. It is, in many ways, the ultimate Xtraycle utility bike platform.

Surly Big Dummy with Xtracycle kit and eZee electric hub motor. This bike also has a continuous variable Nuvinci hub.

Advantages: It accepts all of the Xtracycle accessories out of the box, so has most of the same advantages as the Xtracycle, in terms of the variety of loads it can carry. It handles incredibly well, is highly stable, and has just enough flex to give a bit of a “suspension” feel. Even when judged as a “regular” bike, it handles and performs quite well.

Disadvantages: The Big Dummy is not cheap - the frame alone is just over $1000, and depending on what components you use to have it built into a complete bike, can be over $2,000 complete. Most of the people I know who ride a Big Dummy use it as a car replacement to justify the cost. It is only rated for 200 lb cargo/passenger loads, whereas some of the other utility bikes like the Yuba and the Madsen are rated for considerably more weight.

Xtracycle Radish

After years of making only the Xtracycle add-on kits and accessories, the company decided it was time to come out with a complete bike of their own, based on the longtail, Xtracycle-compatible concept. The result is a relaxed, California-cruiser-style ride called the Radish. It actually comes as a two-piece frame that uses an Xtracycle extension, with the difference that the frame is specifically designed for the Xtracycle with the proper geometry to make it handle well. 

As with all of the Xtracycle equipped bikes, it is designed for up to 200 lbs of cargo on the back, in addition to the rider. The Radish is a one-size-fits-all bike, though we've found it works best for folks under 6’ tall. The complete bike retails around $1200, and comes as a 7-speed setup, with chain guard and cruiser-style handlebars. 

Advantages: It rides well, it is highly stable, and novice riders particularly like it.  It uses all the same accessories that the Xtracycle extension does. It is has the conveniences like chain guard and cruiser bars built-in. It is a good value at the price.

DisadvantagesIt is a one size fits all frame, which I find is best for folks under 6’ tall. Not everyone likes the relaxed cruiser-style riding position. It has a limited gear range, which could be an issue carrying cargo in hilly places.

Xtracycle Radish, with kid-carrying setup including “stoker” bars and “magic carpet” seat pad.

Yuba Mundo

Ben Sazarrin was involved in the Xtracycle project early on, but wanted to take the longtail concept in a different direction by providing a more inexpensive and heavy-duty longtail bike that would satisfy the needs of developing and developed countries alike. The result of his efforts is the Yuba Mundo, a longtail bike made of a solid steel frame with super-beefy rear wheel, capable of carrying up to 400 lbs of cargo. The complete bike retails for $899 and comes standard with a 6-speed system, comfort/cruiser style handlebars, and a fairly relaxed riding position.

Advantages: The price is right. The Yuba comes with wide-loader platforms built in, so big loads can be carried with a low center of gravity. It can haul huge cargo weight. The Yuba is made of weldable steel. There is a huge pannier available for it. This is a one-size-fits-all bike, and it seems best set up to accommodate people 5’5-6’3 or so. The Yuba rides the most like a regular bike when unloaded. It is the most solid and well-handling of the longtail bikes we’ve tried when heavily loaded.

Disadvantages: The Yuba doesn’t work with the plug-and-play Xtracycle system. The 2008 models are limited to six speeds, though there is now a retrofit kit to convert to 18 speeds (and the 2009 model has 18 speeds). It weighs a lot - the 2008 models weighed around 70 lbs unloaded. The 2009 models promise to be a bit lighter.  The components are only mid-grade.

Erika riding the Mundo (top). Dave carrying his Roto-tiller on the wide loader of the Yuba Mundo (bottom).

Madsen Bucket bike

The Madsen is a very interesting new take on the longtail bike. Rather than providing panniers for carrying loads, the Madsen sports a bucket - a bathtub sized one that can accommodate up to four children (or two adults) sitting seat-belted on bench seats. Like the Yuba, the Madsen is a steel-framed bike designed for heavy duty hauling of loads up to around 400lbs. Aside from its astounding kid-hauling capability, the Madsen can carry items that don’t work well in panniers - e.g., a load of wood chips or soil for the garden. We have even filled up the bucket with water and used it as a small, portable bath for the kids. We’ve also seen people fill up the bucket with ice and use it as a deluxe party drink distribution vehicle. Our family regularly uses a Madsen (with electric assist) for kid hauling.   The standard Madsen with cargo bucket retails for about $1200.

Advantages: Carry up to four kids at once on bench seats with seatbelts, a feat no other longtail can accomplish. Carry loose items (or use it as a traveling bathtub). Loading up groceries into the Madsen bucket is a bit easier than loading them into something like the Xtracycle pannier. The price is reasonable. It has a great, wide-stance kickstand that can keep the bike upright even as kids climb in. People immediately recognize the concept of “utility bike” when they see a Madsen, whereas with the other longtails, many people ask questions like “what is that”?

Disadvantages: The bike handles pretty well, though when loaded with flailing kids it does take some riding experience and strength to manage. It has the most road noise of all the bikes, due to the sound-amplifying bucket, metal chain guard, and fenders. It handles the least like a regular bike of the longtails we’ve tried, though it is not “bad” handling per se - it just feels like you’re riding a bike with a bucket. The built-in seat is quite hard and not comfortable for many people. Some of the componentry is not all that high-end.

Carrying three kids in the Madsen longtail utility bike with bucket option. This bike also has an eZee electric hub motor kit.

Other types of utility bikes

While longtails have some great features as utility bikes, there are a variety of other bike types that address the utility cycling crowd. A few are mentioned below.

Bakfietsen 

Bakfiets were invented in the Netherlands, where everyday biking is a way of life. The term Bakfiets literally means “box bike,” integrating a wooden bucket with bench seats into the front of the bike or trike (3-wheeler). The Bakfiets have some similarities to the US-designed bikes, like the Madsen and Xtracycle, in that their goal is to transport kids and cargo in comfort and style. There is a comparison of the Bakfiets and Xtracycle-style bikes on the Austin Bike Blog. Another type of Bakfiets and trikes are the “work cycles.”

Advantages: Built solidly for every day riding. There are accessories such as a rain cover to keep kids warm and dry during rainy weather. They have chain and skirt guards to keep regular clothes clean when riding. The Bakfiets are a fashionable, European way to transport kids and cargo.

Disadvantages: On the heavy side, expensive, not ideal for narrow roads or hilly areas.

Long Johns

These are utility bikes that have an elongated front end, rather than an elongated tail. They are quite similar to the bakfiets in many regards, except that many lack the built-in “box” of the Bakfiets. There are actually several North American makers of these bikes, including Bilenky, CETMA, HPM, and Metrofiets (the latter two have an optional box like a Bakfietsen).

Advantages: Versatile, large load carrying. Stylish. Available from North American framemakers. Sturdy. Bench seat for kids (with box). Great as delivery vehicles.

Disadvantages: Steering a long-john-style bike can take a bit of getting used to. Most of these are on the pricier end of the utility-bike scale. 

Trikes

 As mentioned in Part I of this series, there are a lot of trikes (three-wheeled bikes) in use every day in China for transporting people and stuff. There are several manufacturers and importers of trikes in the US, including Industrial Bicycles, Sun, etc. Trikes may be a good option for someone looking for short-distance cargo hauling in place where there are wide road shoulders or sidewalks. There are also recumbent trikes, which give a more comfortable seating position with a lower center of gravity, and trices, which are three-wheeled bikes with two wheels in front and one in back. However, I’m not aware of any recumbent trikes or trices with substantial cargo-carrying ability.

Advantages: Upright trikes have great cargo-carrying capacity and an upright, stable riding position for those who can’t or don’t want to balance a two-wheeled bike. They are inexpensive.

Disadvantages: Typical trikes come with only one to three gears, and so aren’t ideal for hilly areas. They also have a wider stance than longtail bikes, and so aren’t good for narrow roads. They can tip over suddenly when cornering at speeds. Most of them are heavy.

Other noteworthies

There are a few other noteworthy utility bike efforts. One is the Rwanda Coffee Bike, a longtail designed by Tom Ritchey, who donates the proceeds from this project to help provide longtail bikes for African farmers to bring their coffee to market. Another is a concept longtail bike called the El Ranchero, designed by heavyweight Gary Fisher (whose brand is now owned by Trek bicycles). We don’t have further information about whether or when it will be put into production, but prototypes were being shown around in late 2008. There are also many custom framebuilders who’ve joined the longtail bike revolution.

Trailers

Another classical solution for cargo/utility purposes is to hitch a trailer up to your bike. This is a fairly popular solution, and there are many types of trailers available from companies like Burley, Bob, and HPM (to name just a few). They have various means of bike attachment, and they come in sizes from small to very large. We know of one local fellow who regularly carries furniture on his bike trailer.

Advantages: Some can carry huge loads. You can use it when you need it, but avoid the extra weight when you don’t. Okay for small kid hauling. Versatile.

Disadvantages: Often you don’t have the trailer with you when you need it, (e.g., for unplanned shopping trips on the way home from work). A trailer makes your vehicle much longer. It can flip over and adversely affect handling. They don’t travel very well unloaded.

Overall recommendations

Now that I have presented a dizzying array of options and features, what do I recommend? Since the ideal setup depends on your situation, it is impossible to recommend only one product. My first and foremost suggestion is to find a reputable seller who can identify the right solution for your needs. 

For those looking for a low-cost cargo-hauling electric setup, I recommend starting with a good, steel-framed mountain bike, then adding an Xtracycle and a motor kit like the Nine Continent or Crystalyte. You can start with sealed lead acid batteries and mount them in the free space in front of the Xtracycle platform. Total cost would be around $1,100-1,200. Then, when budget allows it, you can upgrade to a better battery system using a lithium or nickel battery. This is the type of combination we first used to get into electric cargo biking ourselves. A similar option for someone who doesn’t already have a bike would be to add something like the NineContinent kit to a Yuba Mundo, for a total of around $1400.

Our first generation electric utility bikes. On the right, a ’93 Specialized Stump Jumper with an Xtracycle extension, and a modified Currie USPD electric kit. Initially it used 24 volt lead acid batteries, then was upgraded to NiMh and finally LiFePO4 batteries.

Our first electric utility bikes. On the right, a ’93 Specialized Stump Jumper with an Xtracycle extension, and a modified Currie USPD electric kit. Initially it used 24 volt lead acid batteries, then was upgraded to NiMh and finally LiFePO4 batteries.

Another option for those with kids to haul would be the Madsen cargo bike with an eZee electric assist kit. When the Madsen is loaded up with kids, it can be quite challenging to pull uphill. The eZee is an internally-geared hub motor with a fair bit of torque for hill climbing, and the kit comes with a lithium manganese battery to keep the weight down. We have a Madsen/eZee combination that we use frequently for kid-hauling, and it works well.

Questions to Ask Yourself

This list isn’t meant to be comprehensive, but here are a few key starting points in making a decision.

1. What is your budget? Can you afford to buy everything you need all at once, or do you need to take it one step at a time? If one step at a time, what are your priorities?

2. How hilly it is in your area? If hilly, then an electric assist can be particularly helpful.

3. What kind of roads you will travel on? If you are in town and have bike paths, then some of the wider-profile bikes like Bakiets may work well. If you regularly travel country roads or narrow paths, a longtail bike might be better.

4. Do you need a utility bike? Regular electric bikes can carry some stuff in panniers or on a backpack. They’re not so good for full shopping trips or kid-carrying, but can be a great starting point to get into utility biking.

5. Will you carry kids or passengers? If so, how many? The Madsen and Bakfiets are the best options for carrying multiple kids.

6. Will you go off-road/touring with it? Then an Xtracycle or Big Dummy is a great option.

7. Will you be riding in wet or snowy weather? Then disc brakes are a great option to have.

Going car-free can be fun and rewarding, both mentally and physically. Regardless of which biking option you choose, the journey is worth enjoying. Good luck! 

About the Author

Dr. Morgan Giddings is a former recreational cyclist who turned into a utilitarian cyclist after learning about Peak Oil. After unsuccessfully attempting to work with local bike shops to obtain an electric cargo bicycle, she became frustrated at the difficulty involved in ordering all the bits and pieces needed and making sure that they would work together. So in the midst of a busy career as a professor and parent, she co-founded Cycle 9, a bike shop focused on putting together practical solutions, including cargo bikes and electric bikes, that help people ride their bike more and use cars less. She is also the creator of The Definitive Bicycle Thread on CM.com.


This What Should I Do? blog series is intended to surface knowledge and perspective useful to preparing for a future defined by Peak Oil.  The content is written by PeakProsperity.com readers and is based in their own experiences in putting into practice many of the ideas exchanged on this site.  If there are topics you'd like to see featured here, or if you have interest in contributing a post in a relevant area of your expertise, please indicate so in our What Should I Do? series feedback forum.

If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:

This series is a companion to this site's free What Should I Do? Guide, which provides guidance from Chris and the PeakProsperity.com staff on specific strategies, products, and services that individuals should consider in their preparations.

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3 Comments

miltonics's picture
miltonics
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Nov 30 2008
Posts: 2
Re: A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as ...

So, how would these bikes fare in the city?  Theft is a major issue where I live...

SingleSpeak's picture
SingleSpeak
Status: Gold Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 1 2008
Posts: 430
Re: A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as ...

Dr. G,

Thank you so much for such a well-thought-out article. This is a valuable resource for us novices that are considering taking the plunge into the utilitarian bicycle world.

SS

robie robinson's picture
robie robinson
Status: Platinum Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 25 2009
Posts: 633
Re: A Quiet Revolution in Bicycles: Recapturing a Role as ...

Thank you,

This read is an absolute joy. Something to refer the naysayers to, as I pedal to the local for a brew.

Robie

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