Monday, June 23, 2014

Aggravated battery

Got a call from a wealthy summer resident last month asking if our shop would receive and assemble three or four Stromer electric bikes for him. He's been a dedicated pedaler for many years, but those years have a way of adding up. Mr. X gave up riding the Mount Washington hill climb a year or two ago.

One of his friends is executive chairman of a corporation known for battery powered tools. The chairman has been into e-bikes since Lee Iacocca had his fling with them in the 1990s. We've gotten to see the evolution of the type as he has brought in various broken ones from his fleet. Apparently he is an energetic advocate. Since he took up the Stromer brand he has hooked up several of his friends.

One of those friends brought in two older Stromers. They've lost the keys to the battery compartments. The customer service guy at Stromer told me they can't replace those.  They're apparently not cross referenced to the serial number. Both bikes also have an intermittent electrical problem causing the pedal assist to cut out randomly. Intermittent problems are always great fun to track down. The manual says to check the right brake sensor. Just for grins I checked both of them.  To do that I had to make a test lamp because I don't keep any kind of electronic diagnostic equipment here. The sensor is just a push button anyway. I needed to see how sensitive it was so I could determine whether a rider who rests a hand on the lever could cut the motor out with only a slight twitch.

To get the sensors out I had to remove the lever blades. Electric bikes are bulky, heavy and complicated. Some combination of those factors -- weight, size and complexity -- makes even a simple job take a lot longer.

The Stromers weigh at least 60 pounds. About 25 pounds of that is the rear wheel. The wiring for the motor connects back there. The rear axle is keyed so it goes in the right way. So any job that involves removing the rear wheel means you have to juggle this heavy wheel as you guide it into its nest of cables, past the rear derailleur, sliding the brake rotor back into the caliper, with the axle oriented the only way it will go in.

The older Stromers have Avid cable disc brakes. The levers used on electric bikes have to be set up to accommodate the brake sensors. These levers predate the introduction of cable disc brakes, so their leverage is set up for traditional cantilevers. This means when you pay upwards of two grand for a fancy electric bike with cable disc brakes they feel mushy. Admittedly I've only seen the e-bikes that have wandered into my shop, but every one of them across the price range has had the same lame brake levers hooked up to mushy cable disc brakes. You'd think the e-bike industry would have caught up with the times by retooling to make a sensor-equipped lever with the right pivot distance for the brakes they're actually operating, but that kind of organized thinking seems alien to the battery brigade.

The new Stromers I assembled have Magura MT 2 hydraulic disc brakes. There's only a sensor in the right lever, so you could ride the front brake while still powering the motor, but how many people use the front brake by itself? I do, but I'm a deviant.

The rear brake on one bike went really mushy without making a puddle of fluid to indicate a leak. There was a little fluid around the caliper, but nothing to indicate exactly where it came from or when it got there.

To bleed the brake the bike needs to be oriented so the hydraulic lines run upward to the lever. Stromer puts the rear brake down on the chainstay. Magura says to remove the pads and push the pistons back all the way before bleeding the system. So that means the 25-pound wheel needs to come out and the bike needs to be held in the work stand with the front end pointing at the ceiling.

My bleed kit was improvised late in the last century. After two rounds of bleeding -- completely reassembling the bike to check each time -- the brakes were better, but still not great. Interestingly, there were two black bikes in this shipment and the brakes felt a bit mushy on both of them. The brakes on the red men's bike and the white step-through felt much firmer.  The color is coincidental, but perhaps it indicates production runs with different personnel or even different factories.

A new bleed kit is on order. Friggin' hydraulics.

If you're thinking of getting an electric bike, don't. Just go the whole Hog, as it were, and buy the new electric Harley Davidson. The pedal assist thing is novel, but when it quits on you you're left with a bike that handles like a truck. Imagine pedaling a truck. A two-wheeled truck with sluggish steering. The heck with that.

The older Stromers I've worked on have twist throttles you can use when the control unit is set in the proper mode so you can just twist its ear and feel it leap forward. It takes more out of the battery than any other mode, but it cuts right to the best part of having a motor: putting out no effort to fly through space. Pedal assist not only requires that the pedals be moving, you also have to put at least some pressure on them. That sounds exhausting. And because the power comes on in spurts based on your own output it can make the bike surge a bit erratically. I suppose you adapt after riding electric bikes long enough. I only get to play with them for a few minutes at a time.

In the repair shop the bikes take up a lot of room, especially when you start taking them apart. Information about their innards is hard to get, even from the manufacturer. Manufacturers seem much more interested in pumping more products into the market than in helping existing customers keep existing bikes running smoothly. It seems to be part of the inherent nature of electronics that things work perfectly until they don't work at all, whereupon you junk the whole rig and start over. But some of these characteristics apply to all modern manufacturing and many modern products. Shimano shifters, for instance. And all manner of consumer electronics.

If I did not have an immensely wealthy person's name to drop, I wonder if I would get the level of service I've received so far. Even with the magic name the quality of service has diminished. I think the Stromerians may have crunched the numbers and decided they don't need to be quite so responsive to get their trickle from the trickle-down. No sense wasting deference when profit remains the same. Even a high profile customer is just another existing customer. In modern business ethics, existing customers get taken for granted while the energy goes to snaring new customers. Customer loyalty does not engender manufacturer loyalty, it breeds contempt. That attitude has afflicted the bike industry since the 1990s. No one can tell them how foolish and shortsighted it is. They'll have to learn the hard way, if consumers ever wake up and decide they're sick enough of it to support a different model. A whole lot of shit will have to hit a whole lot of fans for that to happen. So maybe the contemptuous manufacturers are right not to worry.

Mixed in with the electric shenanigans were plenty of brain teasers involving conventional bikes. Repair season is upon us, though business seems to diminish every year. It's not going to competing shops...much. People just don't seem to be around, let alone spending money.


Janice in GA said...

I've thought about getting a pedal-assist bike, but I haven't, largely because of the reasons you've outlined here. (And the expense -- I'm not wealthy.) I can just imagine how hard it would be to get one serviced, and what a hassle upkeep might be.

Good luck to you.

cafiend said...

I toyed with the idea of a smokeless moped after I discarded the idea of a vintage BMW motorcycle my friend was selling. Some days you just don't feel like pedaling. But anything motorized gives up a lot of the immunities a bicyclist enjoys. The moped retains some of them, but you look like a real wanker using the bike path even where it's not outright illegal to do so. And the more I observe the electric bike category as a whole the less inclined I am to buy into it. The incompatibilities in the bike industry and its offshoots are as stupid as making a refrigerator that isn't compatible with all kinds of food.

august west said...

I have a Stromer ST1 Platinum that I got used. It's an absolute blast to ride. Quality pedal assist or pedalec bikes are a game changer for all that try them.

cafiend said...

Tried 'em. My game is unchanged. I work on them. I see their place for people who need to arrive looking fresh in hilly terrain, or who are carrying loads, as with a cargo bike of some sort. The pedals are just a rule beater. But as the civilized world ages, people will be able to remain mobile longer with adaptive aids.