Electric Experience

 

It’s a year since I converted my Trek 830 MTB to front wheel electric hub assistance in response to the replacement of my left knee and deterioration of the other, which has generally been successful – both the conversion and the knee replacement.  The knee operation took place in early 2015 and by that summer, after a regime of turbo training and short, flat circuits on the Airnimal Joey, I was back on the then unconverted Trek MTB and Dawes Audax bikes, achieving rides of up to 15 miles and then 30 miles the following year.  In 2016 I even managed a successful cycling trip back to Normandy.

Notwithstanding, I subsequently started to find both knees, especially the ‘good’ right knee, were increasingly painful after a ride and during the first half of 2017 undertook very little cycling at all.  At this point I feared that after more than 50-years in the saddle, I might have to face reality and hang up my wheels!  I had already played with the idea of going electric and now faced with such a potential outcome, as something of a last resort finally decided to go electric by converting my Trek MTB, having previously considered and tested off-the-shelf electric bikes which I generally found quite unsatisfactory.

Using a 250W front wheel Cyclotricity kit purchased for £800 from Electric Bike Conversions (including an upgraded 17aH battery), I found the actual conversion much easier than feared, though some of the instructions could have been clearer.  Initial rides in 2017 went well and, as hoped for, I especially liked the feel that it was my old familiar bike with just a bit of assistance when needed, that I mainly used on hills and otherwise set at low or off.  However, though helpful in reducing knee pain, I decided to take the winter off and resumed this spring – which has so far gone well.

So what of the electric conversion after a year?  Overall I’m pleased with the kit and how it works but there are some issues and niggles + outstanding questions which I’ve outlined below:

Electric Wheel

From the outset I had trouble setting up the front brakes.  First, let’s be fair and say that cantilever brakes are more difficult to set up compared with today’s more popular v-brakes but taking a close look at the wheel I think it is not dished in order to ensure the hub and therefore rims are central.  This is simply unacceptable and just goes to support my view that e-bike equipment is just not of the same standard as found on conventional bikes.  After extensive fiddling I’ve got the front brakes to work better but I’m not happy with this situation.

When riding the bike there’s a discernible squealing and clicking noise from the front wheel which coming from the new wheel and I’m suspicious may be due to problems with the spoke lacing*.  To my eye the spokes do not seem to be properly positioned, with a small but visible kink around the hub casing + spoke tensioning seems a too slack.  As the supplier is based in the north of the UK I’m continuing to ride with it through the summer for now but will be keeping a close eye on things.

*Postscript (30th July 2018): purchased a larger spoke key to fit this wheel – gauge 13 – and tensioned a number of loose feeling spokes last weekend.  It’s early days but after a long ride today all now seems well.  This is, of course, potentially good news but does not reflect well on the original wheel build – I had my suspicions from the start!    

Spokes
Spokes bent over hub casing

Fitting & Safety

As previously mentioned, the fitting instructions were at times unclear and often ambiguous; changes had clearly been made to the kit subsequent to the instructions,  which were not updated or enclosed with the kit.  One such item was the torque washer, which slips into the front dropouts and is intended to stop the increased torque produced from the surge of power from the electric rotation pulling the axle out of the forks or so-called spin out.  Given the poor photo in the instructions it was not clear which way round the washer should be fitted – a critical point – but thankfully a call to the supplier soon got it sorted, though clearer instructions would have been better.

TRA retrofitted

More significant is the absence of a torque reaction arm (TRA), which at the time I understood was not required for front wheel conversions.  Subsequent correspondence and advice from specialist mechanics familiar with the issue made it clear a TRA is an essential piece of safety equipment for front as well as rear electric hubs.  Since learning this I’ve sourced a TRA and fitted it (see photo above) but I consider that as an important safety feature it should have been included in the original kit or at least made available as an extra, depending on specifics of the forks.

Controls

On the whole I’ve found the controls to be good, though originally the wrong PAS disc and sensor were supplied.  It did take some effort to fix the monitor / control on standard width handlebars but the electronics fitted together well and worked first time.  I especially like the thumb throttle which I’ve fitted next to the left hand-grip and can provide a squirt of power when required at short notice e.g. on a short rise in the road or pulling away at junctions.  Like most electronic instructions I’ve yet to figure out how the control console works and only use it to change and monitor the assistance settings.  For mileage and other basic distance, speed and time information I’m continuing to use the bike computer that I’d already fitted.

Throttle
Thumb throttle great for quick squirt of power when needed

Cabling 

Cabling is, of course, extensive but needed additional cable ties of my own and some Velcro straps to properly secure.  At the very least I would expect the manufacturer to supply a few more cable ties in the kit.

Battery rack

The rack which came with the kit was a pain to fit but provides good support of the quite heavy battery, that when necessary can be unlocked and slid out of the rack for off-bike charging or security.  Hoping to use the bike for at least day tours or maybe more, I wanted to use the rack with panniers – standard rear Ortliebs – but the clearance between the upper rack bar and battery is so small that there is not enough space for the pannier fixing clip to be securely attached.  I consider this to be completely unacceptable – I’m probably using the world’s most popular panniers and the manufacturer did not ensure that they would fit the rack with the battery in place.  Unfortunately this just seems to be another example of poor attention to quality and detail that I’ve come across throughout the electric bike world!

Rack
Nice rack and battery, pity nobody checked it would then take panniers!

Contrary to the above issues I’m still generally happy with the converted bike but, as I’m learning is common in the world of electric bikes, for now most things are built or supplied to a minimum standard and priced at a maximum.  Hopefully in time this will change but for the moment it is clear that this bandwagon will provide a good living for good and unscrupulous suppliers alike.

Once put together and the problems sorted, my electric converted bike is fun and a pleasure to ride.  Moreover, the impact on my cycling and knees has been transformative.  After some 600 miles cycling I’m learning how to get the best out of the ‘new’ bike and especially the battery.  In general I use the lowest PAS setting possible to achieve the best outcome for the rider, in my case knees but am not shy of using higher  power when riding uphill – this is an ongoing period of trial and error and will differ for each rider and situation.

Probably the most unclear and often confusing issue with electric bikes is the distance that any said bike will go before the battery runs flat.  Like a vehicle’s mpg, the difference between what the manufacture claims bears little resemblance to what happens in reality.  Of course there are many variables other than the battery – rider weight, cycling style, terrain, load, tyres and tyre pressure, wind etc. – but when you’re starting out be aware all is not as it might seem and you don’t want to get stranded with a flat battery miles form home!  As a guide when looking at the battery: volts x amp hours = watt hours, which when divided by 20 will approximate the full range of a battery using full power.

I purchased the most powerful available 36v 17aH rack battery, which the above calculation theoretically indicates a range of about 31 miles.  However, from experience to-date, using a careful mix of high and low assistance, I’ve so far achieved a range of at least 50-miles from one charge over varied terrain with residual power still in the battery and could probably go to 60 miles or more.

Controls
Plenty of juice still after 50 miles

So after one year of electric cycling what’s the bottom line?  Such are my knees today, especially the ‘good’ one which I’m now trying to manage, the assistance of an electric motor has literally kept me on the road. It should be said this is an assisted electric bike not powered, like say a moped and still requires rider power all the time to a greater or lesser degree.  In fact it’s clear to me that electrically assisted bikes can and hopefully will play a major role in: (a) providing sustainable transport within towns and cities for all, (b) encouraging people who are otherwise put off cycling to literally get on a bike, or like me (c) prolonging a life of cycling that might otherwise come to an end due to ill health or physical deterioration.  On the one hand I’m thinking that my days of ‘normal’ cycling i.e. without assistance are at an end but am very pleased and grateful that the option of electric assistance is now available.

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