By Bill Moore
If you love bicycles and cycling, Interbike is the place to be in North America. And as is happening in Europe, e-bikes increasingly are claiming not only more floor space but also mindshare among the exhibitors, retailers, media, and the public who attend this annual trade show in Las Vegas. Here's EV World's first report from the Mandalay Bay convention center.
Imagine somewhere between 85,000 and 100,000 square feet (around 2 acres or nearly a hectare) crammed with every conceivable type of bicycle, component, and piece of cycling apparel you can think of and many more you can't even imagine: easily a million or more individual SKUs displayed by more than 1200 exhibitors.
That's Interbike. The largest cycling trade show in North America. And while I spent three days roaming the aisles, I'll admit I didn't see half of it all. I certainly never made it down to the basement 'Lab' area or up to the exercise equipment venue.
Held this year at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, the sprawling show attracts manufacturers, distributors and retailers from across the United States, Canada and beyond. And it attracted me. Cashing in some frequent flier miles, I made my second pilgrimage to the North American bicycling show-of-shows. The last time was in 2012.
I was, of course, on a mission, of sorts. I wanted to ride - in one place - as many electric bicycles as I could to better narrow down the choice of e-bikes we want to offer at ePEDALER, our rental start-up.
Trust me when I say the job has gotten considerably harder in the last two years. The sheer number of models has increased substantially, as has the quality of the technology. Unlike my previous trip to Interbike, which was held at the Sands Convention Center, closer to the center of the famed Las Vegas Strip, the organizers of the show had created an outdoor test track on the parking lot, in the center of which, some 20 or so vendors had set up tents and easily stationed a 100+ e-bikes to ride. Additional bikes from the indoor show floor also could be rolled outside to ride.
I lost track how many different models I tried, all of them a delight to ride. But I have to say that the standout model in my mind was equipped with the Zehus Bike+ all-in-one (AIO) drive system pictured with me below on the test track. The Italian startup, based in Milan, had equipped three different bicycles with their mirror-finished motor. I first learned of their efforts some two years ago. Only now did I finally have a chance to actually try it out.
Virtually all modern e-bike propulsion systems consist of basically three separate components: the motor, which can be either a hub or mid-motor; a battery pack; and a controller/display system, usually mounted on the handlebar. Typically installed on a bicycle with a multi-gear derailleur, the handlebar is a clutter of brake handles, gear shifters, often a thumb or twist throttle, depending if the bike is configured for North America or the more restrictive Europe market where throttles are not permitted. The digital display and often a separate toggle system for controlling the power setting of the motor seems to just add to the confusing profusion of wires, cables, displays, and hand brakes.
Not so the Zehus Bike+.
The only thing on the handle bar are the twin, front and rear brake handles. That's it. You simply get on the bike and pedal. Depending on how you set the Zehus Bluetooth App on your smart phone, which you'll need to operate the power settings on the bike, the Zehus system gives you as much or as little assistance as you want.
Fire up the phone app and you use a slider display on your phone to select from full electric-assist down to no assistance with the bike operating just like a normal, none-assisted bicycle.
So, where's the battery? Where's the controller?
Inside the polished metal hub motor. Your conventional e-bike usually requires somewhere around a 400 watt hour battery, giving it a range from 20-50 miles or so, depending on how much you pedal. The less pedaling, the less range; the more pedaling, the greater the overall range, until the battery is depleted. The battery is usually mounted over the rear wheel or on the down tube of the frame.
Again, not so Zehus Bike+.
Its relatively small 160 watt hour battery and controller are housed inside the hub motor. So far, it is the closest e-bike I have ridden that operates like a conventional bicycle… with one significant exception: it has regenerative braking, just like an electric car.
When I took the first Zehus-equipped bicycle, a urban-style commuter with 20 inch wheels, out for a run around the test track, the battery had an estimated 11% state-of-charge, or SOC, remaining. Marcello Segato, the company CEO, explained that to recharge the battery, I simply pedaled in reverse. This reverses the motor, which now becomes a tiny generator that puts energy back into the battery. It also slows the bike down. The more aggressive the setting in the App, the more quickly the bike slows.
Around and around the test track I went, alternatively accelerating -- the motor has surprising torque -- and decelerating. Pedal clockwise and the drive motor amplifies your leg power from 40% to over 200% is what I believe Marcello told me. Pedal anti- or counter-clockwise, and the bike slows. When I took the bike back to the Italian pavilion, I had actually improved the SOC to 12%.
Since Marcello had let me take the little commuter out to the track, I decided to see if they'd let me take the flashy carbon-fiber Rizoma Metropolitan [pictured above] out as well.
"Sure," he said. It was like handing me the keys to a Lamborghini or walking through the exhibit hall with Federica Ridolfi on my arm. The Rizoma is a show-stopper… and a security guard stopper!
I had no trouble taking the little commuter bike outside the exhibit hall unescorted. Not the Rizoma. The big burly guard at the door stopped me and informed that only exhibitors were permitted to take the bikes out of the hall. So back I walked, hugely disappointed, but still attracting the attention of show attendees. Talk about an ego booster!
I did eventually get to try out the Rizoma on the track. The solution was simple. For a few minutes I was Marcello Segato, according to the ID badge around my neck, and he was Bill Moore. Problem solved.
The curious thing is after getting the gorgeous Rizoma out on the track, I didn't find it quite as stable a bike as the commuter or nearly as comfortable. The stylish, see-through plastic racing saddle was hard, and the handle bars were just a tad too narrow for my liking: both easily remediable changes. However, between the glossy carbon fiber frame -- the fabric weave is visible through the clear epoxy like on the BMW i3 or Tesla Roadster -- and polished steel hub motor, the bike is just stunning. There are no other words to describe it. Oh yes, and the whole rig weighs a mere 10 kg, 22 lbs.
Let me hasten to add that Zehus is not, I repeat, NOT in the electric bicycle business. The three bikes on display were simply there to show how adaptable their AIO ('All-In-One") hub motor system is. It can be strung inside just about any common bicycle wheel from 20 to 28 inches. I also seem to recall Marcello telling me that they are also testing a 16-inch wheel. Zehus is in the business of getting other bicycle makers to use their hub motor.
We didn't discuss pricing since that will be left up to the bike maker. How much Zehus sells the drive for to them, I don't know, but I'd guess it's not cheap. The Rizoma Metropolitan runs €4,200 ($5,400USD), in case you're interested.
The other issue that looms large is heat. Electric motors generate heat and placing batteries and other electronics in close proximity to them is likely to have a deleterious effect on the batteries. Zehus claims they've addressed this concern by using cells produced by Boston Power, the only manufacturer they've found whose battery is sufficiently heat tolerant. I know Marcello told me the drive is system is warranted, but to be honest, I can't exactly recall what he said, so I won't hazard a guess, which is liable to be wrong anyway. Time will tell how durable the motor-battery-controller-in-one is.
Zehus isn't the only start-up working on an AIO e-bike drive. At least two other companies -- Superpedestrian and FlyKly -- have their own projects in the works. Zehus is the first to actually bring something to market.
Marcello noted that Paris' Velib bikeshare organization had successfully tested the Zehus drive on some of their bicycles recently. I want to see if we might do the same here in Omaha.
As promising as the AIO system is, established e-bike manufacturers with whom I spoke remain skeptical. Motor heat and batteries don't mix well, their years of experience tells them. They are much more comfortable keeping the two components separate. This way they also can more easily tune their product offerings to the market, mixing and matching motors and batteries of different capacities.
This is largely why 99.9% of the e-bikes out on the track and inside the exhibit area reflect this time-tested approach. It works, really, really well. It just isn't as elegantly simple as Zehus' Bike+.
While most of the electric bicycles at the show make use of hub motors -- the majority mounted on the rear wheel -- increasingly we're starting to see more Bosch mid-motors mounted on more manufacturers' bikes. If the auto parts giant is seriously getting into the game, then you know something's up. I reported on my experience with a Bosch-powered Haibike Xduro back earlier this summer. It turns out that that bike was just voted 'Best E-bike' of the year at Interbike, beating out Specialized's Turbo e-bike, among others. The winning bike is pictured at the top of the article with the award festooned with balloons.
I sat down with Daniel Del Aquila, the co-founder of ProdecoTech for a video interview, which we'll publish in the near future. I also had a long chat with Don DiConstanza, the founder and president of Pedego, the number two e-bike company in the US. Both men are upbeat about the e-bike industry in North America. The number I kept hearing over and over again at the show was 5: the USA is five years behind Europe in terms of the acceptance of e-bikes by the general public. Where Europeans now are buying somewhere around a million e-bikes annually, that number is, at best, only about 150,000 in the United States as of Spring 2014.
As we've noted over the last year or so on EV World, it is e-bikes that are the growth sector in Europe's bicycle market, buoying the industry there when other sectors have declined. Del Aquila told me that the recently-concluded Eurobike show in Germany, held just two weeks before Interbike, was "65-70 percent e-bikes."
We certainly can't say that about Interbike 2014, but it's clear to me that compared to Interbike 2012, the electric bicycle in America has reached the tipping point. You had but to see the mad welter of e-bike riders racing around the test track in 90+ degree heat to appreciate what's starting to take place on this side of the North Atlantic. People are starting to get it, Millennials especially, based on the demographics of who was riding the bikes the times I was on the track, and clearly having a blast.
Did I accomplish my goal of narrowing down my choice of e-bikes for ePEDALER. In one respect, yes, absolutely, and I'll tell you more about that in at some point in the hopefully not too distant future.
But in other ways, I came no closer to identifying the 'perfect' electric bicycle for ePEDALER, because they are now so many more viable choices: choices of manufacturers, choices of products. That level of healthy competition ultimately will benefit all of us.