Whenever I surf the web to find out what is happening in the ebike industry I get pretty depressed. The US ebike market is a wasteland of cheap underpowered hub-powered ugly ebikes and overpriced underpowered torque sensing mid-drives. *facepalm* It’s no wonder that no one is buying this crap. The biggest problem I see facing the ebike industry is the way they desperately cling to the 750W power limit on all their ebikes. The industry will never mature as long as they continue to do this.
Imagine if the federal government said that all cars sold in the US could go no faster than 65 miles per hour or were only allowed to have 35hp of power (that’s all you need to get up to 65mph on level ground). One of two things would happen, people would either riot in the streets or they would just stop buying new cars. A 750W ebike is only capable of about 1 hp which is just about enough to get a 170lb person slowly up to about 20mph on a flat and level surface. This article will shed some light on why I will never own a street legal ebike (nor would I ever steal one) and why I really don’t have a problem with that.
The entry to the Bill HR 727 that pertains to power ratings read as follows:
``(b) For the purpose of this section, the term `low-speed electric bicycle' means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.
A decent lawyer could argue that while many motors are rated nominally for 750W (like the BBS02) since they have a throttle that will dump 1300W with a 52v battery then technically the BBS02 is not really ‘street-legal’. Bafang makes it a point of stamping a big 750W on the bottom of their BBS02 in case there is ever any controversy around their motors being sold as street legal in the US. Does selling a 1300W motor as a 750W motor count as false advertising? Several of my BBSHD’s are stamped with 750W on the bottom of them but I’m regularly running them with a 50 Amp controller which dumps 2500W into the drive unit. 2500W is 3 1/3 times the legal limit, but a 2500W mid drive has a lot of benefits over a 750W (or less) hub motor. The biggest benefit is that a high power mid-drive ebike can keep up with regular city traffic.
On most freeway where people drive over 65mph it is illegal to go slower than about 40 or 45mph. The problem with slow traffic is that when everyone moves along at about the same rate, it’s much safer. Cars can easily maneuver around each other because the difference in their speeds is generally 5-10mph or so. For anyone who has tried to drive on the freeway at just 45mph in a car it is a harrowing experience. I drove the mother of my son over 500 miles down to Maryland to pick up a large box van (think Frito-Lay truck) she was buying for her new business. She drove it back on the freeway and I followed her about 100 feet behind her in my minivan with my hazards on. The box truck topped out at about 40-45 mph and 18 wheelers went flying by me at 75mph. For 8 hours I was white-knuckling it the whole way home.
Let’s think for a minute about highway speeds. Most roads have a speed limit of around 55mph, while in the cities it is about 30mph. Since only a crazy person would take an ebike on the freeway, and most people on normal highways where I live travel much closer to 60 or 65 we’ll use 60mph as a base point. What is safer, a bike moving at 10mph, 15mph, 20mph, 25mph or 30mph when cars are moving 60 mph? If you ask me this question I would say hands down the bikes are safer moving closer to 30 mph even in the shoulder, assuming they have decent brakes. In the city, for 2 years I commuted with a crappy 250W torque sensing Giant Twist that maxed out at 15mph. It was nice because the low-speed and power kept me out of trouble, but for all intents and purposes, it was the same experience as riding a bicycle in the city. If I hogged the lane cars would honk at me and the obscenities would fly.
Fast forward to last year where I spent the year testing the 50Amp BBSHD Ludicrous controller for Lunacycle on my Burning Chrome build. I rode that ebike like a motorcycle right in the middle of the lane all around the city. I accelerated much faster than the cars did and frankly I got pretty annoyed at how slow the cars really were. Cars clearly were annoyed with me when they saw me at a stop light taking up the whole lane, but once the light turned green I just left them in the dust. This is the way that ebikes were meant to be ridden.
I allowed about 20 people to test drive my street bike with the 50 Amp controller. Every single one of them who tried it absolutely loved it. They didn’t just love the looks (it does look awesome), they loved it because of how it felt when you torqued on the throttle. I geared the BBSHD pretty low so that in the lowest gear it was all wheelies all the time. The ebike topped out at around 35mph which was fine with me, as I don’t really feel that comfortable riding an ebike over 30mph anyway. The top speed of your car is way more than what you regularly drive it at. Would you be happy with a car that had just enough power to get up to that speed and nothing more? Probably not. America is obsessed with power and automakers clamber over each other to build cars & trucks that produce way more power than most people will ever use. Yet in the entire ebike industry has somehow decided that there is nothing wrong with a 350W ebike.
Nobody wants that crap, and they just can’t see it.
Let’s take the Boar Surface 604 for example. These guys are really nice and it’s not fair of me to pick on them since they offered to ship me a demo bike to test (I refused because I knew it would be a bad review). Here is a nice fatbike with a frame battery that looks like it could actually be decent in the snow. Yet they chose to sell this $2500 efatbike with a crappy 350W nominal motor and a tiny 13.5 Ah 36v battery. So many online reviews hail this as such a great ebike like EBR says:
The Boar ranks among the most fun, sturdy and beautiful fat e-bikes I’ve tried in a long while.
Are you kidding me? I’ve never tried the Surface 604 but I find it hard to believe that I would give that much praise to a 36v 350W nominal fat bike no matter how awesome it looked. The entire industry is stuck pushing underpowered crap while the entire ebike reviewer world heralds each new ebike as the ‘next best thing’ while they are all just obscenely underpowered. The last 3 winters I’ve gone out and rode every single day in the winter regardless of the conditions. Last night it rained and this morning I went out with my 50Amp BBSHD Phat Phuk with 5.5″ Snowshoe 2XL tires. It was miserable slogging through almost a foot of heavy wet snow uphill. Without 2500W of power I could NEVER think of riding today at all. A ‘street-legal’ 750 Watt peak hub motor fat bike is only going to be useful on groomed trails or with less than an inch of fluffy snow on the ground. In a word, for my application these underpowered bikes are for all intensive purposes, completely and utterly useless.
I like the Boar Surface 604, I like the design and execution and the tire options of the bike. It just needs a decent mid drive (even a BBS02 would be better, although a BBSHD would be best) and a real 52v battery. These ebike companies need to start building ebikes that have the power that people really want, instead of what these ebike companies think people want.
Direct Drive vs Hub motors
I don’t want to spend a lot of time talking about the advantages and disadvantages of hub motors (read this article here), I will say only this. I’ve never ridden a hub motor that I’ve liked. If you want a Direct Drive motor (DD) that doesn’t totally suck you’re looking at a 25lb rear hub motor with custom torque arms and over 3000W getting pumped through it. There are hordes of ES builders that follow this formula which works OK for build street bikes, but is completely useless for the trails. It should be obvious why having a 25lb hub motor spinning around on your rear wheel is not going to be any fun on singletrack trails. Am I alienating all the endless-sphere and other large DD fans out there? Probably. Do I care? Not really.
I’ve destroyed every geared hub motor I’ve ever touched. The clutches and gears just can’t deal with real power and the motor is trapped in it’s shell like toast in a toaster oven. In every way they are just a bad design when you’re talking about pumping out lotsa watts. When you are talking about plowing through deep, wet snow you need insane amounts of power and your motors geared very, very low. The BBSHD is geared down 15:1 and when I’m going through deep powder I have a 30T in the front and a 36T in the rear meaning the motor is geared down to a whopping 18:1. The pedals spin so fast there is no way I can pedal along (futile in the extreme) but man does that baby plow through deep snow. Basically, you need to get going fast enough (over 5mph) that the bike will actually rise up on top of the snow and float along, as soon as you lose you’re momentum the back wheel is digging itself back down into the snow and you’re stuck. Riding in crappy conditions like that is hard, but it’s more fun than you can possibly imagine.
Since Mid drives have the bike gears to gear the motor down a real 2500W mid drive is going to perform better in my opinion than a 5000W DD motor, a 1200W BBS02 will outperform a 2400W DD hub motor and so on. You get twice the torque for about 1/2 the power usage because the electric motors can spin the speed that they WANT to spin at (fast) instead of the speed the rear wheel is turning (very slow). It’s just physics, nothing more.
Top Speed vs Power
A decent 750W nominal mid drive will go about 25mph when geared right, 1000W nominal will go over 30mph and a 1500W will hit 35mph. Anything over 30mph you start really having to contend with a lot of drag from the increased air friction so it takes a lot more power. I have no problem going 40mph with 2500W of power, but in all honesty, it’s pretty scary going 40mph on a bicycle. The statistics are clear, you are much safer going 30mph than you are going 40mph on a bicycle. If you do get in an accident your chances of not dying at 30mph are much higher than at 40mph. I also think it’s crazy to ride any ebike without a helmet on trails or on the street, but I’m not really that crazy about helmet laws.
Is the stock BBS02/BBSHD even really street legal?
This is an interesting discussion that I’m not going to really discuss at length. If you program your BBS02 for 25Amps (most are) then, no it’s not legal. If you program your BBSHD for 30 Amps then again, not legal. Ebike manufactures and kit dealers will sell this motor as a 750W nominal motor but since the throttle puts out well over 1200W it just doesn’t fit the legal definition laid out in HR 727. Do I care? Not really. If you want your BBSxx mid drive to be ‘legal’ you need to program it to run at only 15 Amps so that the peak power is 750W. In all honesty, I can say you’d be pretty stupid to do that. It’s better to have the power available in case you need it (high power saved this woman’s life) than to dumb down your drive system because you think anyone really cares that it’s street legal or not (they don’t). If I lived in some place like Europe or Australia with a 250W limit I’d be just as belligerent or more so than I am about the US wattage limits. Legally if an ebike in the US has more than 750W it must be registered and insured as a ‘motor vehicle’ and have turn signals, mirrors and lights. That’s just not gonna happen with any of my ebikes.
Bafang is a Chinese company so they don’t really have to worry about American lawsuits that happen with accidents from ebikes equipped with their drivetrains. This leaves the ebike dealers who sell ebikes with the Bafang motors on them to have to deal with the liability of selling a motor for ‘street legal’ use that is really not street legal. Why am I even talking about this at all? Because more power is the direction that all the other ebike manufacturers need to move in if they want to start actually selling any real number of ebikes in the US. The biggest threat that faces these dealers is accident liability. America arguably has the most laughable heath care system in the world and whenever anyone ends up at the hospital the first question they have to answer is who are they going to sue to pay their medical bills.
Let’s look at current sales numbers. Pedego is the number one selling brand in the US and expects to sell a whopping (sarcasm here) 10,000 ebikes this year. Most of those will be sold in one of their 83 Pedego dealerships across the US. This breaks down to about 120 ebikes sold per store on average, or about 1 ebike every 3 days per store. While that might seem like a lot, just consider this, there are over 300 Million ebikes in China right now. Ebikes in China cost just over $300 on average and they are sold in every Grocery store I set foot in when I was there 10 years ago. They got so out of control that many large cities have banned ebikes (known as ‘silent killers’) from the major roads to cut down on the massive number of traffic fatalities that happen from people riding ebikes. Ebikes have the potential to solve most of the traffic problems in many of the major cities (not to mention global warming), but instead of embracing them in the US lawmakers shun them entirely. The only state to enact reasonable ebike laws is the sunny state of California where e-bike sales are booming. The California law defines three different levels of ebikes of which Type-3 is the only one I’m going to discuss here. Type-3 ebikes are not allowed on bike paths, they do require helmets and they can go 28mph on all bike lanes. In my opinion 28mph on a pedalec is a reasonable speed limit, while 20mph is not. It’s just too slow, the reason people get ebikes to begin with is to go faster than they could on a bicycle. My non-ebike roadbike will easily get up to 15mph on the level and it takes very little effort to keep it at that speed (think no sweaty crotch). If people are going through the trouble and expense to buy\charge\ride an ebike they want it to be significantly faster than a comparable non-electric road bike (more than 5mph).
Driving around Ithaca last year I decided to blow by a cop sitting in traffic on my ebike in a bike lane doing over 30mph. Much to my chagrin, I was completely ignored. The reality in the US is that if your ebike looks like a bike you can probably go 30 mph where ever you want and get away with it. I understand why the sue-happy state of NY is hesitant to embrace ebikes, but I’m not going to wait around for the legislation to catch up with the technology. I’m just going to see what I can get away with and deal with the court systems if and when I have to. In the 40 years I have bicycled obsessively, I’ve been hit by cars 3 times (all on bikes not ebikes) and only once was it my fault, the other 2 were hit and runs (probably didn’t want to get sued and both times I ended up unconscious and in the hospital). The reality is that most accidents involving bikes are generally the automobiles fault, and I’m hesitant to even ride on the roads as most drivers are phone obsessed zombies propelling their 4000 lb rocket of steel down the road while trying to text their friends or update their facebook posts. No thanks, I’m much happier in the woods where the trees don’t move and all I have to worry about is getting shot by disgruntled hunters.
Why am I writing this article other than to just rant? I really would like it if the ebike dealers in the US would wake up and start selling products that people actually wanted to buy at prices that they actually wanted to pay. If they insist on peddling underpowered 350W craptastic motors then they should be selling them dirt cheap like the $693 shipped Sondors e-bike that Ivars Sondors has sold 17,000 of. If they want to charge more, then the bikes should actually perform better. Why would anyone in their right mind spend $5800 on a Felt Lebowski with a 400W motor? The price/performance ratio on a bike like that is just not there. For less than half of that price I can build my own fatbike with a much better motor, battery and bike like the Phat Phuk for $1850. If you’re too lazy to build your own then for $2953 you can get the 4 Seasons 3000 KHS ebike with Snowshoe XL tires and a 50 Amp Ludicrous controller and a 20Ah battery that will put out 50 Amps cont from Lunacycle right here. I was so impressed with the 4 Seasons 3000 when I visited Lunacycle that I actually bought one from them to build up with a BBSHD Ludicrous controller (review here). For half the price you get an ebike that is 2500W instead of 400W and has a 52v 20Ah battery that will dump 50 amps rather than a 36v 11Ah battery. Court from EBR rated the Felt Lebowski a 10 out of 10, I’ve ridden that e-bike and I’d rank it a solid 3 out of 10 for the insane price and total lack of power
. Ebike reviewers may have a heavy slant towards the bikes and brands that are advertising on their site, or maybe they just have low expectations (I find that having low expectations helps my wife get by in dealing with me).
The best ebike to electrify is one that you already have. If you have a fatbike, I’ll bet you my favorate hamster that once you electrify it, you’ll never go back to riding a non eFatty again. Right now you can get a 52v 13.5Ah shark pack and a 100mm BBSHD that will do 1500W all day long for $1099 right here. Think 2-3 hours to install on any 100mm fatbike and another $50 for a 30T Luna Mighty Mini ring and your winters will never be the same again. Be aware that at high power levels (over 1000W) on a mid-drive that is ridden hard, stuff on the bike is gonna break. Bicycles are designed for about 350W of power (all you can put out) not 1200W-2500W so breaking bike parts is the natural order of things. Suck it up and learn to fix stuff yourself, it’s worth the time and effort. Luna ebikes come without a warranty because at 2500W you’re pretty much guaranteed to trash stuff on the bike and not having a warranty keeps the prices insanely low. The important thing is that the battery and the motor hold up to the abuse, bike components are generally cheap to fix.
The time has come for an ebike revolution. Don’t waste your money on crappy, overpriced ebikes with tiny motors and tiny batteries. Build an ebike that have plenty of power and is still reliable enough to last (I’ve built 15 of them). When it comes to the many ebike review sites on the internet I’d take them all with a grain of salt, whenever I read them I have to wonder ‘what are these people on, and where can I get some’? Whatever you buy, make sure it’s got a big 52v battery and make sure that it doesn’t have a hub motor. For deep, wet powder and soft sand the 50Amp BBSHD Ludicrous is the king, tandem and cargo bikes BBSHD will do just fine and for singletrack dirt trail riding I still feel the BBS02 is the best weight/performance/value out there.
High powered mid drives all the way. Nothing else compares.