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.

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