Not all bikes are created equal. Indeed, it may be said that the pinnacle of bike making passed half a century ago. Since then, the bike industry has chased fashion rather than build serious machines.
Before we begin, please read this legal disclaimer: The information contained in this website is for general information purposes only. The information is provided by the volunteers who run slowcycles.com as a public service of Renaissance Aotearoa Foundation, a New Zealand charitable trust. While we endeavour to keep the information up to date and correct, we make no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, about the completeness, accuracy, reliability, suitability or availability with respect to the website or the information, products, services, or related graphics contained on the website for any purpose. Any reliance you place on such information is therefore strictly at your own risk. In no event will we be liable for any loss or damage including without limitation, indirect or consequential loss or damage, or any loss or damage whatsoever arising from loss of data or profits arising out of, or in connection with, the use of this website. Through this website you are able to link to other websites which are not under the control of slowcycles.com or its authors. We have no control over the nature, content and availability of those sites. The inclusion of any links does not necessarily imply a recommendation or endorse the views expressed within them.
And to explain this in slightly less lawyerish English: The information herein is what we have learned and are passing along to be helpful. There is no guarantee that it is accurate, complete, safe, or that we correctly understand the technical or legal details. We are neither engineers nor experts in bikes or motors. We are nothing more than bike-loving information-gatherers who then buy freely-available products and report on our experiences with them. The information herein is opinion and reports of our experiences, nothing more. Bicycles and ebikes can be dangerous, and misuse of bicycles and ebikes can be hazardous or even fatal. You have been warned.
In specific, we have tested installing an electric motor on a Bella Ciao bicycle (which we think is a great bicycle), but the German manufacturer has made it clear they have no experience with motors on their bikes, have not designed them for motors and assume no liability for our experiments conducted half-a-world away in New Zealand, especially considering they sold us the bikes in Germany where we took delivery. Further, the Chinese based vendor of the motors is a mail-order retailer, and he assumes no responsibility for how his motors are installed or used. The same holds true for other products we have tested or products we have read about but not actually used.
The ebike industry is new, somewhat experimental and it involves variables out of the control of any person or industry. If you wish to experiment, you are on your own and assume full responsibility for your own decisions. Do not rely on the information herein, but verify it independently from experts. If any of this concerns you, but you still want to buy an bicycle or ebike we strongly recommend that you find a certified retail dealer in your country and buy a tested, approved bicycle or ebike that has been approved in accordance with the safety and other standards of your country. Further, if you find any information herein that is incorrect, misleading or confusing, please contact us to tell us what is wrong and what it should say.
What bike to buy?
There was a time (from about 1880 to 1960) when this would not even be a question - everyone would know. Now, however, we find there is not even a commonly agreed upon name for the type of bike. The first name was safety bicycle, and then in English, it was divided into roadsters and sports bikes, where the angle of the steering tube was the prime variable. A roadster typically had 28" tyres and had a more relaxed angle that absorbs shock better - good for cobblestones, rough country roads and the usual challenges of the early days of riding (and for today's potholed streets now that local governments cannot afford to properly pave roads). A sports bike had smaller 26" tyres and a steeper steering angle to the front fork, making it more nimble. But now, we hear these bikes called upright bikes, city bikes, comfort bikes, utility bikes, town bikes, “opafiets”/“omafiets", which exemplifies the confusion in the marketplace. It is further confused when generic frames with angles originally intended for off-road or high-speed on-road racing are adapted by slapping on a swept back handlebar placed higher than the seat. Walk into a bike store today, and be confused! Also note that in the USA, there is a separate retro-style called the cruiser which was popular in its heyday mostly with children - heavy, it's about style not great riding.
The short answer on what bike to buy is a classic or traditional style of bicycle where you ride upright, looking around, enjoying yourself riding on geometry that was perfected in the 19th and early 20th century. The frame will most likely be made of steel, perhaps a specialised steel to make it lighter or give it certain handling characteristics, although with an electric motor, weight savings is not important unless you have to pick the bike up.
To explain the problem, most of the bikes in the bike shops today are either catering to a real racing audience (real road racers, real off-road riders - AKA mountain bikes or MTB) or selling uncomfortable bikes based on those racing designs sold to hapless buyers who end up with the wrong design for normal riding on city streets and country roads. The first tip-off for a market-driven rather than comfort-driven design is the handlebar. a pipe bar set at a 90 degree angle to the bike frame makes a lot of sense off road, where the forces on the hands when hitting a stone, stump or gulch requires maximum counterforce. It does not make sense riding on normal roads, and it is a lot less comfortable. There is a reason the handlebar is curved on a classic bike... today's word is ergonomics, but in the old days it was comfortable; based on decades of bike riding to work out what shape fit the hand and body best.
Part of the problem with the bike confusion has to do with the nature of bike stores. Too often their sales staff are enthusiasts into off-road or high-speed racing. They have enough customers to support this business. They create the market. Then the big-box bike stores emulate these specialised bike businesses. The novice customer, not knowing any better, buys what is on offer. They never experience the pleasure that comes from riding a bike designed for leisurely rides. Too often the bike ends up collecting dust in the shed.
If you walk into a bike store and all you see are bikes with straight handlebars, even if the salesperson tries to convince you the bike is a "hybrid" designed for city streets, head toward the exit; you've got the wrong store. If the bike has a straight bar, like a length of plumbing pipe,, you have a market-driven bike (unless of course you are actually looking for an off-road bike in which case you're reading the wrong web page... please exit this web site and go to http://www.mtbr.com/).
If you can't find the right store in your town, get on to the Internet and go to a site like LovelyBike blogspot to become oriented. Once you find the right bike, either find a vendor that sells them (a good excuse to fly to Europe if your airline will take it as checked luggage without an obscene extra charge) or then convince your local bike store to carry them on a drop-ship basis. Once the word gets out, that shop may find a whole new class of customer... many of them older, remembers their 3-speed from childhood, wanting high quality suitable for their slowcycling needs.
Frame: You can change almost any component of a bike, but the frame is where it all begins. The geometry of bicycle frames was perfected many decades ago, and the variations today are built for different purposes such as crashing down a mountain-goat path or road racing where the rider who covers the distance in the shortest time wins. These sorts of designs makes no sense for normal riding, defined as a leisurely ride punctuated by potholes and bad road repair. However, bike stores convince normal riders to buy inappropriate designs because that's what the distributors shipped. Don't do it. Instead look for design, materials and bike geometry to fit your ride.
In frame material, your best bet is still steel but your choices are getting wider all the time.
- Steel frames can last a lifetime, and if well made will absorb shock and give a well-balanced ride. Steel tubes come in two flavours: basic and premium. Basic steel tubing is inexpensive and heavier but can give a very good ride for reasonable money. Premium is a tube made by Columbus, Reynolds or another specialist company carefully engineered to vary the thickness to achieve lower weight and a better ride (but not as good carrying luggage or other extra weight). You buy premium for a particular feel (and performance) while riding or to cut down weight if you carry your bike up stairs. Good steel bikes tend to last for generations. They get surface rust but rarely structural rust unless abandoned outside.
- Carbon fibre is the trendy material, and the Taiwan frame makers have brought the price down, but they tend to focus on the racey market rather than slow cycles.
- Aluminium frames are becoming more popular, but their ride qualities are less forgiving, and reportedly they have a shorter life - if you choose aluminium, learn more before making the purchase. Our experience with aluminium finds we don't like the frames as much because shock is transmitted from the road. Our first ebike was an Italian-designed, Asian manufactured aluminium bike equipped with shock absorbers. It weighs 29KG. In contrast, our steel Bella Ciao weighed 10kg before we added the 4 kg motor and 2 kg battery.
- Titanium can make a phenomenal classic bike but their price puts them in the bespoke category. If you know what to look for in a titanium design, you don't need this web site. As you begin to educate yourself about frames you will soon discover Sheldon Brown. Click here to read his treatise on bike frame material (and then spend the rest of the evening reading everything he has to say. He is a legend (Born 1944 - Died 2008).
Once the material is selected - and for slow cycle purposes that means steel - take great care to select geometry that fits your purpose. The classic diamond frame (traditionally for men, but no rules about that anymore) and the classic Frascona curve in the women's frame is a good place to start. To be safe, look at the established European brands who have been making them for decades - they know what they are doing. Having said that, today Taiwan builds excellent frames in high volume, and many European brands have their frames made in Asia.
Design: Two bikes sitting side-by-side may look the same, but ride completely differently. Read a blog like LovelyBike blogspot to get a sense of the differences... but note that her reviews are best for women similar to her size and build... the same bike may feel entirely different for a taller, stronger male. Nationalities tended to make different bikes. Even today, these national preferences still are valid:
- Dutch bikes are solid, made to be left outside, ridden on pancake flat land, carry a passenger, absorbs shock. Forget carrying up stairs, too heavy. Totally upright riding position, exceptionally comfortable. Narrow handlebars. Gazelle is the best known, but there are many other varients.
- The classic English 3-speed (think Raleigh) offered roasters (like the DL-1) and sports models that were more nimble than the roadsters but transmitted more shock. Pashley is a classic English bike that has survived the great cull. Still making them in Stratford-on-Avon (since 1926). In contrast to find a new Raleigh that reflects its grand tradition, you have to go to Denmark, where they still make the classic under a license. We recently rescued and converted a 1951 Raleigh DL-1 with an ebike motor kit (we had to cut down the bottom bracket width to 68mm though). With its 28" x 1 1/2 tyres (we upgraded to Schwalbe Delta Cruisers) and the relaxed fork it rides with exceptional comfort. One rides high, almost like riding on a horse. The frame itself is not that heavy, but when you add a Sturmey Archer X-FDD front hub brake/dynamo, rear NuVinci N360 hub with Shimano roller brake, chrome steel rims, original steel fenders, original pressed steel rat-trap luggage rack with a hand-made leather pannier, high stem and wide handlebar, lights and locks, a wide Italian double stand, and a huge fat Lepper Dutch leather saddle, plus of course the motor and battery, it gets seriously heavy. We love it! It gets ridden more than any other bike in the stable and gets more comments on the ferry. Forget carrying it though, it's a beast when the wheels are not on terra firma.
- The Swiss Army was famous for its bikes, solid-as, but also heavy-as.
- The Italian bikes tend to have a good balance of style, sport and lighter weight. Both our Bella Ciao bikes (Italian frame, German assembly) have ebike motors. Italy is a world unto itself with classic bikes. Well worth a three-week holiday after doing your research. Buy a city bike, ride it for three weeks (best way to see Italian cities, but be sure to buy good German locks) and bring it home on the plane. For the most part Italians still make their own frames (except for the big companies), but buy some standard unversal components like Shimano and some Made in Italy components that as usual are designed with style.
- The Danish bikes are harder to find in our English speaking world, but Velorbis offers some classic models that are quite nice and ride a bit different.
- Then we have the New Bike manufactures who have rediscovered real bicycles and are starting to "manufacture" their own. These are small businesses run by passionate believers who buy universal components (like Shimano) and design a range of frames for various price points. Public Bikes, for example, are designed and assembled in San Francisco with the frames made in Asia. Paper Bicycles does the same thing, only assembled in Scotland. in contrast Workcycles in the Netherlands makes their own frames. Bella Ciao fits in this category as well, except that the frames are made by an Italian family business that has been making frames for over a hundred years. The key with all these bikes is to understand what the frame is intended to do. Geometry, materials and assembly will realise very different performance characteristics.
- Today, the Taiwanese have developed a reputation for first-class manufacture but when it comes to design, it's all over the place, driven by marketing rather than experienced slow-cycle riders who know what they want and need. This makes it especially confusing to get the right bike or even know what it should feel like. 18 years ago we bought a Wheeler city bike having been sold on the idea that it was based on classic European design but built to Taiwan quality standard. It sat in the garage. When we bought the Bella Ciao bikes and were able to compare, we understood why the Wheeler sat. It worked, it did what a bike was supposed to do, but it just did not feel right. It lacked that smooth, silky feeling even though it had the same sized tires. The aluminium frame transmitted to much road-jolt, it did not feel like it fit; its details were wrong. This is the challenge with buying a bike today.
If you have the luxury of a bike store that carries a wide range, or live in an area where many bike stores compete, ask to take test drives, or even better to rent their demonstrator for a day. Read the numerous web sites, but be careful to note who is writing - there are a disproportionate representation of go-fast enthusiasts whose interest is not at all aligned with the pleasure of slow cycling.
One of the latest designs to be marketed by large bike vendors is the hybrid bike, which in effect uses a mountain bike design and then adapts it for normal use. Normal means riding within ten miles of home, to or in the village, town or city. Make no mistake, for most slow cycle buyers, the hybrid is a marketing thing, not a great design for the purpose.
Another aspect of frame design is aesthetic. For example, traditional design used lugs rather than a welded tube. Lug design has its engineering benefits, but it also adds detail that makes the frame more beautiful. If you buy a bike as a life-time investment, make sure you will love how it looks.
Handlebars: You want upright handlebars that are higher than the seat. These have all sorts of names... Northroad, comfort, swept back, and so on. Your hands grip them like shaking hands or holding a tennis racket. There is very little weight on the wrists and the hand grips are best if they are padded. Avoid the straight bars made for mountain bikes. They are made for a different purpose. If you are riding slow cycles, you will also find that the drop handlebars used for road bikes move your body forward, so that your head is naturally looking at the road. This is good to race... less wind resistance, more torque to power the wheels, but for leisurely riding its not smart. You want to sit up, enjoy the ride, make eye contact with folks and enjoy yourself. The Northroad handlebar found on the classic 3-speed is the answer. Note that different bikes place the handlebar at a different height than the seat. The Dutch bike has the handlebar high above the seat, so riding is like sitting in a chair.
Saddle: You ride on a saddle, not a seat. Your legs and arms share the load. The more weight you put on the saddle, the wider you want it. Be careful because bike stores will want to sell you a saddle designed for road bikes where your weight is as much on the wrists as your bottom. If you can afford it, invest in a Brooks Saddle. The B72 or Flier range come with springs - you want springs or a sprung seat post. If you buy a Brooks, either have a quick release post and remove the seat every time you park the bike, or get a keyed bolt that makes it hard for an opportunistic thief. Of course if you travel and happen to pop over to Holland, have a look at the Lepper leather seat. Yes, I said seat because this thing is as wide as your bottom. It is the ultimate in comfort. We bought ours from My Dutch Bike in Sausalito CA (bike heaven), and later found out it was a one-off for a project they never got to. You may want to contact them to encourage they bring them in. If the word got out, they would be doing a booming business in Lepper leather seats.
Gears: For gears, the timeless 3-speed internal hub has proved itself. You are not racing, so why complicate life? The internal hub stays cleaner and it is easy to use. If you have steep hills, go to a 5 or 7 speed internal hub (or an electric assist motor - see below). Sturmey Archer has made hubs for a century, and when it went bust Sunrace of Taiwan bought everything. They found that the English tooling was worn out so they invested in state-of-the art technology, and their gear is reported to be better than it was 20 years ago. Shimano is the other familiar name in internal hubs, with a good 3, 5, 7 and 11 speed. They also produce two hubs with 8 gears (Nexus and Alfine) of which the modern versions are considered very reliable. The Shimano 3-speed looks less classic than the S.A., but it is more "transparent" meaning you don't notice it working because it works so well. Unless you need the extra gears, avoid them... it adds weight, costs money and more to go wrong. A Sturmey Archer S3X 3 speed hub weights 1 kg vs a Rohloff 14-speed hub at 1.85 kg... not an issue when riding, but the sort of thing that is noticeable when carry up the stairs. Another manufacturer is SRAM who produces 3 speed hubs and also the SRAM Automatix which is a 2 speed hub that does not require a shifter on the handle bars. We also have tried the NuVinci N360 hub, which does not use gears and gives an amazing range that can be shifted while pedalling. The N360 is a good combination with the Bafang BBS01 mid mount chain driving ebike motor. However, ignore all of this iIf you live on flat land, try a single speed. You will discover a certain pleasure in its simplicity.
Brakes: The most common brake set up was a coaster brake on the rear (reverse pedal and it stops the wheel) and a caliper brake on the front. When derailleur gears (the road-racer 10-speed) became popular, rear caliper brakes were necessary. The third option is the hub brake, cable operated but internal in the hub. These are now available with hub gears as well. Most recently, disk brakes have come on the market. What you buy is dependent on what the frame will hold. The frame needs mount points for disks, calipers and cables. Also there is a variation on disk brakes (which require mounting points on the bike frame), called the Shimano roller brake - in essence a disk brake that does not require a pre-brazed frame mount. When retrofitting this can be a good solution. We have put them on several classic bikes we are restoring. Just make sure you get the one with the extra cooling if you ride down mountains.
Price: If you can afford it, buy a new bike that will last. If you can't, buy an old bike, like a Raleigh Sports or DL-1, that has already proven that it will last. Avoid the cheap discount store bikes - you won't enjoy the ride and things will break. For an excellent column on advice see Lovely Bicycle's vintage advice. For a new classic bike, probably buying in Europe is the best bet €600 to 1,000 will get an excellent new bike, whereas by the time the same bike is brought to America or down under, the price will be higher. This is because the same bike overseas is a specialty item being sold by an enthusiast who needs to make a living on a much smaller volume of bikes. This gradually will change, and it is worth shopping around. However, the best of both worlds is to sign up for a one or two week bicycle tour of France, Italy or Germany, etc, and buy the bike rather than rent. If you do, however, buy your Brooks saddle beforehand and break it in before you arrive in Europe. No fun having saddle sores when you are supposed to be enjoying your holiday.
Experience: Expect to buy a bike, learn more, read more and find you want to sell your first bike and buy something better. Also, expect that the more you ride the better your body becomes, and you may find you want a different bike because you are a better rider. Read a lot of the blogs and web sites. Get opinions on bikes, and then see if you can rent or borrow the ones that interest you. Learn the subtle differences and the delight that comes from riding a bike that really does feel exceptional. Of course, the problem with "exceptional" is that there are so many variables. The only way to really learn is to experience your bike in your real-world setting. Do you ride your bike on weekends to the same cafe for a flat white and the morning paper, or is it your sole mode of transport rain or shine? Do you take it out with a picnic basket on the weekend or go to town after work to haul the groceries home for a family of five? Your "home range" will be different than the next person, and what you do on your bike will be different. Ride and learn.
The Electric Bike
Electric motors on bikes flatten hills. They can completely change the bicycle experience for folks who do not live in the flatlands. When you see so many bikes in Italy, Holland, Germany and student towns like Oxford & Cambridge, you will note the land is flat. Biking is easy. But when you walk out of your door and have to ascend a twenty degree hill to get anywhere, the bike starts to rust in the shed. The electric motor changes all of that.
The electric motor bike is a relatively recent phenomena in terms of popularity, and it comes in three flavours: inexpensive from China, very expensive from America/Europe and (as usual) over-the-top, totally insane, speed-demon motors that turn bikes into absurdly over-powered, injury-prone, skinny motorbikes. Unfortunately most of the internet sites devoted to DIY ebikes are populated by the speed demons.
The electric bike business is exceptionally confusing, more so because the technology has been evolving so rapidly. This bike in the photo is typical... stretched to carry a very big, very heavy 8.8 aH battery with a rear hub motor that has gears attached to it but does not use them. The controller is the black box under the battery. The other typical location for the battery is in a double-decker rear rack.
While many bikes on offer today (2013) look like this, battery technology has advanced. Now a 11.2 Ah, 403 w/hr, 36V 29E battery will weigh 2.2kg (4.8lbs) and is 75mm x 83mm x203 mm (3" x 3.25 x 8"). This means it can fit into a saddle bag, out of sight and is small enough to be carried into the office during the day to recharge (the charger will be about the same size as the battery!).
Pedelec vs ebike: In Europe a distinction is made between the pedelec and the ebike. In other countries it gets more confusing. Technically a pedelec motor only works when the rider pedals, due to a sensor built into the crank. Bicycles controlled by a hand throttle are called ebikes. European law only allows electrically assisted bicycles to be called bicycles if they are pedelecs, using a 250W (nominal) or lower-powered motor and cut off when they reach 25 kph. In New Zealand, the law stipulates that to be considered a bicycle the electric motor must be no greater than 300W. How the bike is controlled (pedal sensor or hand) and top speed under power is not covered. We find the pedelec on the new Bafang BBS01 mid-motor to be quite good. It is internal, part of the motor, and it kicks in much sooner. However, if you have the choice, buy it with the thumb throttle as well.
In discussing ebikes, we will ignore the speed-demon market entirely. On the road they are classified as mopeds, tend to be a hobby of a very small number of enthusiasts and need no information pages like these. In the other two general classes of ebikes - cheap Chinese or expensive Western, you can either buy a complete bike, or you can buy a normal bike and add an electric kit. For the most part, for premade, motors are available for the rear hub, front hub or centre crank. Aftermarket kits are evenly divided between front and rear hub.
From slowcycle classic to almost-a-moped: Many e-bikes today look more like mopeds with pedals purely to qualify for the no-registration rules while providing an electric mobility experience. It is not unusual to see people riding these without pedalling, or only lightly pedalling. At the other end of the spectrum, you find traditional slowcycles that have an accessory motor attached to help get up the steeper hills. With the latter, the rider slowly finds they use the motor less and less, as they become stronger, but when the killer hill hits, they glide up it without screaming legs and lungs. In the middle, you find the bikes that look like classic bikes, except they are extended with a big battery behind the seat post.
All of these serve a purpose, a different market. The moped style are mostly focused on who makes the most powerful motor, how reliable they are, how to get the most power while staying within the ebike regulations (that vary country-to-country) - or not!. When you get to the slowcycle end, you enter the world of bicycle design, where the subtleties of geometry, tube thickness, lugging, front fork design, sitting position and a host of other details (that are then too often compromised by market strategy) is a knowledge base of its own. This web site tends toward the classic design, and looks for ebike power as a way of making slowcycling more attractive for a larger audience.
Mid-mount, bottom-bracket Motor: The mid-mount, bottom bracket motor is the future of ebikes. So say the experts, and we tend to agree. Unlike hub motors, the mid-mount drives the gears, thus it works like a car. When going up hills, the lower gears allow the motor to drive with lower power), but once on the flat, the motor provides an assist to go faster. With a hub motor, you have to choose...(a) high torque for hills, but no top end (b) good top end but can't push up hills, or (c) a very powerful motor (say 500W and 48V) that is illegal in many countries, but also turns the bike into a moped with inadequate brakes, suspension, tyres, lighting and frame which means you no longer are deriving the pleasure (and safety) of a slow bicycle. In Europe Bosch makes a mid-mount motor, but only sells it to manufacturers, so you have to buy a complete ebike and they are expensive. Gruber Vivax makes a very expensive (€2100 now €2499 plus €159 installation!) aftermarket motor that fits down two specific sizes of seat tube and connects to a set of gears that drives the crank with a 200w motor and a very small battery. Kalkhoff - a premium German brand - uses the Panasonic motor as well as the new Bosch. In March 2013, we tested the prototype Bafang BBS01 mid-mount motor and wee impressed - enough so that we phased out our hub motors completely. The Bafang is designed to fit into the standard 68mm wide, 33.5 mm diameter bottom bracket and it can be purchased by end users. The controller and pedelec are built in, meaning two less things to worry about. It comes in 36 volt 350W and 250W (for Europe, Australia, etc), 350W and they offer a 48 volt 500W and 750W model that they recommend only for heavy duty bikes, such as the cargo bike, due to the additional power the motor sends to the chain and rear gears.
Front Hub motor: These are the easiest bolt-on because the front wheel rarely does much other than brake. No gears to worry about. If the front brake is a caliper brake, you can order a kit in the same wheel size (700c recommended) and bolt it on. Make sure the diameter of the motor hub (often 10mm) will fit in the front fork (sometimes 9mm) or be prepared to take the motor or fork to a machine shop and make sure the machining will not compromise safety. If the forks have a fitting for a disk brake, get a front hub motor that will take a disk. If your front fork is not suitable, you may be able to buy a different, stronger fork with the right fittings and bolt it in. However, the down side of front is in performance and safety. On steep hills they can spin, worse if the road is wet or gravel. Also we find several had a habit of spinning off the front fork. Not sure why, but it is essential to add a torque arm to keep the motor from coming loose and spinning off. In addition, front forks are not necessarily designed for the addition strain of a motor. Imagine you are flying down the road at high speed, loving the wind in your face, and the stressed front fork hits a small bump and decides it's had enough and it breaks off... road in your face is less exhilarating, so don't say we did not warn you... know your bike and be especially careful with higher-powered motors on aluminium or carbon fibre front forks.
Rear hub motor: Remove the rear hub and either turn your bike into a single speed, or get a gear cluster that uses the derailleur shifting. If it is a Chinese hub, make sure to ask about the gears before buying. They use the older threaded system (Bafang now offers a rear CST motor that uses a cassette system). Pay attention to the brakes... if you use a coaster brake, going to a motorised rear hub motor deprives you of rear braking unless you can add a disk brake or caliper brake. Rear hub motors are the 2nd generation standard and most ebikes use them. They come in geared and direct drive. For the purposes of slowcycles, do not buy direct drive. They are huge, heavy and when not under power have drag (like pedalling through molasses). In geared hubs, look for higher "turn" or lower RPM motors so you have torque to get up hills, rather than an assist on the flat.
Battery: Sane kits come with 36v batteries. Get the latest technology (do not buy lead-acid) and expect to pay several hundred dollars. In 2012, we wrote "if you are confused, look at the A123 26650 technology for long-lasting, safe and reliable batteries". In 2013, the Samsung 29E INR battery is the leading edge technology. It changes that fast. Our saddlebag A123 battery puts out 6.6 aH and weighs 3.9 kg. Our new order of Samsung 29E batteries will put out 11.2 Ah and weigh 2.2 kg, and its a lot smaller (and it costs less). In 2014... who knows? By the time our batteries wear out, they will probably be smaller, cheaper and more powerful, which is another reason to buy a kit rather than a complete ebike.
In battery technology, the higher the voltage, the more power and heavier the weight.
- Voltage gives you power. We recommend 36-39V batteries. Voltage is like how big a motor in the car.
- Ah and w/h tell you how long you will go between recharges. Amp/hrs and Watt/hrs is like how big the fuel tank
- C rating (the discharge rate) is like how big the fuel pipes are. At 1C there is not enough "fuel" delivery to feed the motor, you want at least 2C
A 48-volt-powered MAC 500W rear hub motor will rocket you to 55 kph, which is overkill and dangerous (although it does keep up with city traffic). A 36-volt battery weighs less, has less power, but seems to be more suitable for slow cycling.
Where to buy: Google will find vendors everywhere with prices that vary widely. Much of the price variable seems to have to do with volume and payroll. A small US distributor needs to charge higher prices to cover overhead than a Chinese manufacturer who has a potential market of a billion Chinese. We bought from three different Chinese vendors, and concluded that only one was safe... because it is run by an expat Englishman in China who is a bike enthusiast and understands the importance of quality. Contact Paul, who goes by the name Cell Man. His prices are cheap by American or European standards, but a bit higher than the low-ball vendors on eBay. More importantly, his kits are strong and he takes care when assembling batteries to assure no bugs in them. Pay using Paypal, and delivery takes a few weeks by air or a month by sea. If you can, put together a buying group on batteries from him because the shipping hits its sweet spot at 23kg.
Technology: It used to be that when one bought a typewriter or camera, it was intended to last decades. Now computers have a half life of three years, and cameras that cost more than a bicycle are lucky to last beyond the warranty. With ebikes, technology is moving fast as well. New batteries, controllers, motors and designs seem to come out all the time. If you buy an ebike, it probably will not come with the best equipment and the frame may be an aluminium frame that will not last decades. Thus, if you want a lifer, best to buy a traditional slow bike and then purchase a mid-mount motor with a 36v battery. Be sure to check the bottom bracket size. On our Raleigh DL-1, we had to cut it from 75mm wide to 68mm. Also, you may have to add or remove chain links unless your front chain ring is 46 tooth (or you get another sprocket size... the market keeps changing).