Interbike 2010 Day 1: E-bikes get a jolt

The Spot Acme, featuring a Gates CarbonDrive belt. See all our photos in our Day 1 gallery.

Interbike 2010 Day 1: E-bikes get a jolt

By Karen Brooks

It was just one day, but already we’ve seen some interesting and possibly game-changing things going on in the world of bicycles.

One mission (of many) for us on this Interbike trip is to learn as much as we can about e-bikes, light electric vehicles, pedal-assist bikes and the like. Starting, perhaps, with nailing down the correct term for them… Generally, we’re talking about anything with a battery-powered motor that gives a boost to the rider’s own pedaling power. In the past, such bikes were heavy, clunky things with unimpressive ranges, but as with most electronic gadgets, advances in technology are progressing rapidly and e-bikes are getting lighter and more capable all the time.

This time last year we began to explore e-bikes and came away with favorable impressions. A few weeks ago, we began to hear tell from Eurobike that e-bikes were the hot ticket, with lots of companies entering the market and choices abounding. It seems that some of this buzz has crossed the pond – at this year’s Outdoor Demo, we’ve found plenty of new and improved e-bikes to check out. Today Karl and I rode models from Ultra-Motor and Kilowatt, and we’ll try out some more from Currie and OHM Cycles tomorrow. I gotta admit, it’s quite fun to casually speed past a fully kitted-up roadie huffing and puffing up the hill of the Outdoor Demo test track.

An important distinction between e-bikes we’ve uncovered so far is how the motor is engaged, with a throttle alone or by pedaling. The Ultra-Motor bike we rode, their sleek-looking new Metro model, uses a spring-loaded twist throttle on the handlebar. Its action was smooth, but you had to keep it turned to keep the motor on and at a consistent output, and it was possible to “rev” the motor when not on the bike.

The more motorcycle-savvy riders might prefer this style, though. The Kilowatt uses a BionX pedal-assist system that doesn’t kick in unless the rider applies pedaling force – this type of bike is known as a “pedelec” to distinguish it from the throttle type. It was intuitive to use and didn’t cause any surprise jolts, but one couldn’t ride along passively as on a throttle-equipped e-bike. These are just first impressions, and we’ll need to get our hands on some of each type for a longer-term test to really explore their strengths and drawbacks.

We saw a couple of cool developments in drivetrains, a new version of Gates’ Belt Drive called Center Track and a new version of the continuously variable transmission from NuVinci.

The NuVinci shifter was way cool – it basically shifts from one end of its “gear” range to the other in one sweep rather than in steps, like a volume knob. We’d ridden an earlier version, the N171, at the Sea Otter race in April, but it had a slight “hitch” to it; the new N360 system felt butter-smooth, and lighter by 30% than its predecessor.
Gates has tweaked their almost ubiquitous Belt Drive transmission – it’s now called Center Track, as the chainring and cog each have a “fin” running around the circumference that fits in the center of the belt’s teeth.

This center track keeps the belt from walking off the chainring or cog, helps the system shed mud, and allows both chainring and cog to be made smaller. Oh, and by the way, we learned that the proper term for both “chainring” and “cog” in a belt drive transmission is actually “pulley” – thus pulley and belt, versus chain and chainring (and cog).

One last bit of wisdom gleaned before the end of the day: there’s something so very right about listening to Johnny Cash with a backdrop of crickets, helicopters and laughter that is nighttime in Las Vegas.

Tour of England part three: Moulton

While the previously reported Brooks and Pashley factory tours were amazing, the highlight of the whole journey was a hour spent with a 90 year old man by the name of Alex Moulton. I really had no idea what I was getting into as we approached his modest home in Bradford-on-Avon.

What the? Is going on here? Who the heck is Alex Moulton? Turns out Mister Alex Moulton’s great grandfather, Stephen Moulton, brought Goodyear’s vulcanizing process to England back in 1840 or so. Alex himself was also a rubber pioneer, developing the hydrolastic* suspension that, along with the smaller wheel size, allowed the original Mini Cooper to be so mini. We got a look at one such Mini at the Moulton Museum residing on the estate.

In the late 50’s, Alex turned his attention to the bicycle and pioneered a design that would become quite the rage in the early 60’s. And remain relevant 50 years later. Small wheels had not been considered seriously against the then-standard double-diamond “Safety” bicycle, but Moulton was eager to challenge the staus quo after observing the benefits of smaller wheels in automotive use.  Thinking that the lower inertia of small wheels made for faster acceleration and an easier-to-mount frame design. And while Moulton’s were not designed as folding bikes, they were easy to disassemble for travel. And if that is not enough, Moultons were fully suspended for a comfy ride. How about that for ahead of your time?

Moulton showed his bike to Raleigh in hopes of licencing the design them to manufacture. But Raleigh was not interested. So Moulton set up his own factory and went ahead anyway. The Moulton bike took off in the early 60’s; their bicycle factory became the second largest in England behind Raleigh (Who I’m told was making like 7000 bikes per day). Moulton sold 200,000 bikes before Raleigh knocked off the idea and took over the market with their RSW series. Moulton wound up selling out to Raleigh in 1967, just in time for the Raleigh Chopper to steal the limelight and rush the market.

That’s the ancient history. Much more has happened through the 70’s and 80’s, yet today the Moulton factory still sits in a former stable on the same property where it all began. Let’s take a look.

Inside the blue door on the right, the Moulton team is hard at work making bikes.

By hand.

And barely have time to stop for a photo.

With these kind of results. This New Series model is made of stainless steel, and is worth near $15,725 American. It’s called a Space Frame and there’s a whole bunch of little tubes that come together to form one. It’s no wonder they are expensive.

But Moulton, being connected with Pashley, has some more affordable offerings being made in the Pashley factory in Stratford-Upon-Avon, ranging from $19-3600.

But Alex Moulton awaits. We have been granted a one-hour audience with the man. He is 90 after all so we understand. We are led into his great room and gather around a rather large dining table to talk. Whereupon Mister Moulton share some of his exploits. The cat listens in.

Alex shared his thoughts on his first and only mountain bike ride, which left him wondering why anyone would do such a thing as ride down a mountain. Perhaps if he had bigger wheels the experience might have been better? Alex talked about how he didn’t like the crossbar on the conventional bikes of the day. He liked recumbents but found them unstable. Small wheels were the answer. We also heard about the numerous records that have been broken riding Moulton bicycles over the years. And looked through his biography, full of pictures and drawings of his designs.

I myself was in a bit of awe at this guy nearly twice my age. Pretty cool. He’s done so much.

Got to ride some bikes as well, around the test track on the property, a good time to blow off a little steam after so much travelling. And think. About all the people that have influence the bicycle through history. On and on…

* (From Wikipedia) The system replaces the separate springs and dampers of a conventional suspension system with integrated, space efficient, fluid filled, displacer units, which are interconnected between the front and rear wheels on each side of the vehicle. Each displacer unit contains a rubber spring, and damping is achieved by the displaced fluid passing through rubber valves. The displaced fluid passes to the displacer of the paired wheel, thus providing a dynamic interaction between front and rear wheels. When a front wheel encounters a bump fluid is transferred to the corresponding rear displacer then lowers the rear wheel, hence lifting the rear, minimising pitch associated with the bump. Naturally the reverse occurs when it is a rear wheel that encounters a bump. This effect is particularly good on small cars as small wheelbase vehicles are more affected by pitching than long wheelbase vehicles.

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