The crackup of Bionx
We were heartbroken when Bionx, our primary electric assist motor supplier, went into receivership in 2018 and slowly vanished away. I think the only person in the office for a while was the battleaxe who collected the bills, but even they seem to have left. Bionx in Germany supported us for a while, but we could not order parts from them. I am yet to tell a Bionx customer of mine that they are up the creek without a paddle-assist — that the expensive Emotor system I sold them is unrepairable — but I know that day will come. We helped some some customers by just donating parts we had, and they are all still on the road. Truly, this was the most dispiriting supplier loss since BikeE locked up shop in 2002 and tiptoed off.
So what now? An overview of the current tech
You’ll see two types of bicycle electric assist kit out there, hub and mid-drive. Hub motors have been our mainstay for a while, and I’ve had the most experience with them. Bionx supplied rear wheel hub motors. These were easy to retrofit as most every recumbent has a regular bicycle rear wheel. All the rear wheel hub motors mounted a typical multi-speed cogset in the back for shifting with a rear derailer. That’s a problem for people with internally geared hubs, who would have to sacrifice that nice item in doing an electric assist conversion. Front hub motors exist, but they have significant safety problems. We haven’t really supported those for at least 15 years.
Mid-drive motors are something of a misnomer. They replace the crankset up at the front of the recumbent, where your pedals are. The motor force transmits through the chain, putting load on your drivetrain and transmission. But this also allows you to use your transmission to optimize motor speed and torque. In performance, we’ve found that mid-drive motors are better for steep climbs, which is what most people are looking for help in. Hub motors are better at sustaining higher speeds. We’re finding better range figures from mid-drive motors as well. The major players in the bike industry have focussed on mid-drive electric assists.
Most of what you see now uses a control system we call “pedal assist.” This means the electric assist system senses how much power you are putting into your pedaling. It then directs the motor to give a proportional amount. You don’t work a throttle. You just pedal, but the work load seems considerably less. This requires a smart algorithm to blend seamlessly, and some brands do it better than others.
What is out there, and how Easy Street can help
Overall, this mid-drive system made by the Japanese bicycle components powerhouse is our favorite. It is the standard system used on ICE trikes and AZUB bikes and trikes. Unfortunately, it requires a specially made frame to mount it. Fortunately, on many recumbents, the frame is modular and only the part called the “boom” needs to be specially made. Unfortunately, someone needs to make that special boom. If you are buying a new AZUB or ICE and want STEPS, then no problem. AZUB will sell you just the boom to do a conversion on an AZUB model that you already have. ICE will not, and will only sell motor booms on new ICE models.
What we like about STEPS is that parts and accessories are well-developed and accessible to retailers. Support and training is all there. Shimano is aimed at helping retailers to support their customers. Besides that, retailers have a lot of ability to program and modify STEPS systems. Shimano can be controlling about how these systems are set up, which is a problem with recumbents which often use non-standard arrangements of parts, but these limitations are manageable.
Bosch Ebike Systems
The well-known German electric motor maker has stuck its toe into the e-bike market with this mid-drive system. It is quite similar to STEPS. This is the system TerraTrike chose for its current EVO Rambler model. If you have a TerraTrike Rambler, All-Terrain, or Gran Tourismo then we can get a “Boost Kit” from TerraTrike and retrofit your trike with it. This is not currently an option on the Rover, the Sportster, or older models based on the Tour platform, including the current Tandem Pro model.Bosch makes a fine system and we are comfortable with their level of reliability. Besides TerraTrike, no other ‘bent maker has embraced this system.
One problem with Bosch is that they don’t work with dealers like us. They work with the manufacturer, like TerraTrike, and TT is expected to have a support person on hand for us. There are many programming options that are not available to us, which must be passed to TerraTrike. Another concern I have is just how committed Bosch is to the Ebike System. Long term reliability depends on replacement parts and tech support.
This is the most popular mid-drive electric assist conversion kit that does not require a special frame part. We’ve installed a few of these to date. The system has gone through a few revisions over recent years that have addressed various problems, such as a shift sensor that backs off power when a shift is detected. These kits can be run by pedal assist (sensing torque at the pedals and assisting proportionally) or by throttle.
My concern with Bafang is their lack of a US support and distribution center. There are numerous online retailers who bring in a containerload of kits, spec’ed to their preferences, and they deal with the end user. Some have offered us a small discount if we purchase several kits, but for the responsibility we’re taking on that doesn’t cut it. If you want to put a Bafang mid-drive on your recumbent we can do the installation, which isn’t simple, but it is up to you to choose your supplier. If there is a problem then you would be responsible for getting the replacement parts. While I don’t consider myself an expert with these systems (at least not yet), we’re not unfamiliar with them. As with many things, when everyone brings their problems to you, you’ll start gathering some useful knowledge.
The Copenhagen Wheel by Superpedestrian
This system made a splash a few years back on Kickstarter. They are now much more established, with a US distribution and support center. It is a dedicated pedal-assist system and no throttle option is available, nor are brake sensors (cuts power when braking) or regenerative braking. We’ve bought a few of these systems through an electric scooter shop that we’re allied with, and will likely move to become a dealer for these, though they aren’t perfect. One problem we’ve seen with it are that Superpedestrian can run out of product and everyone is left waiting for weeks for the next shipment to come in. The wide diameter motor will only go into 26″ or 28″ rear wheels, limiting its application. Another problem is that the battery, and thus range, is not very large.
The system is designed for simplicity, with all the equipment inside the rear hub. Installation is simple, though the wheel is heavy since it contains not just the motor but the battery as well. There is no external controls or display. You use your smart phone, running an app, connected by Bluetooth, to the motor. The range is about 30-50% of what Bionx systems claimed, with a 10-15 mile range certain and “up to 30 miles” claimed, assuming optimal conditions (flat, no stops, low assist level). Still, it works reliably and is well supported, so if your assist needs fall within its constraints then it is worth considering.
Falco makes an “open source” hub motor kit which can run by throttle or pedal assist. They are non-proprietary, meaning you can hook up your own battery without the system making a fuss. Indeed, you can hack about anything you want until you made a fine mess of things. Falco has US distribution and support. We used to be Falco dealers, but I’ve found their pedal-assist algorithms “buggy.” Falco did give me lots of support while I was selling them, and I needed it. Systems would have slow response, where you have to pedal a bit before the system kicks in, and would keep driving a few moments after you cease pedals. The motor could get “ghost” signals and kick in when stopped, sending a trike rolling across the room.
Falco makes motors in a variety of sizes, and I learned the problems with using a too-powerful motor with pedal assist. You’d could get sudden leaps of acceleration. You’d also get sudden halting of power, leaving your pedaling foot to crash into a wall of resistance when the motor quits. I’m inclined to wish these folks the best.
There is a whole zoo of online suppliers for all kinds of electric assist kits. Golden Motors, Heinzmann, Chrystalite, various other brands that someone else’s design rebranded, house brands of bigger shops, and the list goes on. Whatever you get, we can perform installation on your trike or bikes. Just understand that quality and reliability problems with parts are between you and whomever you purchased it from.
One last idiosyncratic thought
Don’t go nuts over motor power. Measured in watts, you’ll find systems ranging from 250 to 1500 watts. Some buyers fixate on the “more is better” assumption. They also think they shouldn’t be limited by the tyranny of a 20 mph speed limit. Indeed, I see electric assist kits or complete bikes advertising 1500 watts, 72 volt batteries and 40 mph top speeds. So, you get an extra heavy motor, dangerous levels of voltage, and speeds that bike frames weren’t designed to handle, with extra weight, torque, and often no suspension to keep you from being socked around by bumps in the road.
Ebike riders often report the problem that other drivers don’t expect them to be moving at the speeds they are — the other driver sees “cyclist” and underestimates their speed — and these are people with 20 mph max systems. Pedestrians and other cyclists don’t want to share narrow pathways with someone blasting along a automobile speeds, nor do nature lovers out on wilderness trails. People using 350 watt STEPS systems paired with NuVinci continuously variable hubs report some impressive range and hill climbing ability. Let me encourage you to “right-size” it. If you want a motorcycle, go buy a motorcycle.