Monday, August 18, 2014

Stroming around Wolfe City

In the process of diagnosing the latest Stromer electric bike fiasco, I had to go on extensive test rides.

Poor, deluded souls are invariably impressed with the distinctive-looking machines. When they express this admiration I have no choice in my OCD but to take the time to try to explain all the reasons they should question the substance beneath the eye-catching looks. Or I just grunt, pretend I didn't hear anything or smile wanly and try to get away as quickly as possible. But even if no one says anything I know what many of them are thinking: "Hey, there's another one of those neat bikes. Maybe I should look into getting one."

Noooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!! I'll wake up one morning and everyone but me will be a pod-person! Actually, POD stands for Power on Demand on the Stromer console. PAS stands for Pedal Assist.

The price tag for a Stromer stops most casual inquiries. But if the unaffordable version sparks sufficient interest, the interested party can find plenty of other offerings at lower price points, and lots of happy people on forums to say how great the machines are and how simple every little process is. You can find answers to just about every question that will come up when you try to reduce your workload by increasing the weight and complexity of your bike with electric motors, batteries and control circuits.

I feel like an idiot riding around on the thing. I know that's my own problem, but since I would not own one and I would not advise anyone to get one, I feel very keenly that I function as an unwitting ambassador for the concept when I'm tooling around out there. Adding to my unease, I know a lot of pedalists who think anyone on an e-bike is a wanker. Please! I'm not one of them! I'm only doing my job!

So there I am, tooling around the steepest nearby hills in Wolfeboro, trying to get the bike to malfunction in the way described by its owner. The bike has an absurdly wide saddle that makes a squeaky, metallic fart noise with every pedal stroke. I can't stop pedaling, because the bike only screws up in pedal assist mode. So I'm grunting up Friend Street, Pleasant Street, Forest Road, and connecting them with bits of Main Street, Sewall Road and short side streets, going squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart, over and over around the course, waiting for the pedal assist to quit on me as the owner says it does. I pass walkers and real bicyclists with a pained smile and eyes averted. Squeak-fart, squeak-fart, squeak-fart.

The assist in pedal assist is not a magic effort eliminator. You have to give to get. I topped out on the hills breathing hard and sweating. I simply got there faster than I would under my own power on my own bike. Having a motor allows you to go faster and perhaps work less, but because the assistance comes on and goes off in response to your effort, the drag of the motor cuts in whenever you let up, slowing the bike more than an unassisted bike would slow down from gravity alone when you let up momentarily on the pedals. The bike yaws as the power fluctuates. It's pretty annoying, especially if you're predisposed to be annoyed.

Nothing about the ride made me suddenly feel, "Hey, I want this." I just wanted it to be over.

Because the bike never misbehaved, I could only go on what my research discerned. The lithium-ion battery probably cut out because it had not been charged lately and the long grade the owner was climbing threatened to over-discharge it. Either that or the system was overheating from the long effort and cut out because of that. The battery was pretty low when she brought it in and went flat overnight. But my first test ride on a shorter course with the low battery did not trigger a malfunction. My longer test ride, after fully charging the battery, did not cause any trouble either.

Bikes functioned happily for a century without electrics or hydraulics. Think about that.

Every time I have to wrestle with the problems of someone's ultra-modern marvel, whether it's a high performance carbon road rocket, a kinkily articulated full suspension mountain machine or a three-ton behemoth of battery power I go over and kiss my own bike hanging on its hook. You and me, baby. Simple pleasures.


Steve A said...

Our car-free waitress likes her e bike very much. She rode a conventional bike of unknown type up to about a year ago. No place in Ocean Shores fixes e bikes, or regular ones either, but is only a 45 minute bus ride to the nearest shop in Hoquiam. No e bikes there that I noticed.

cafiend said...

I have not met anyone who owns one who hates it. Mind you, most of the people I know who own them are extremely rich. Something goes wrong, they scrape it off on a technician to straighten it out. They need parts, someone shakes the tree very high at the requisite company and stuff appears. The few strangers who have come through with them still seem like they have plenty of funds.

E-bikes are great as long as nothing goes wrong. I don't suppose they're all that complicated to an electrical whiz. Maybe in a decade or so the technology will mature, but looking at computer stuff I doubt it. Someone will always have a cooler idea and the means to implement it.