Following a short ride with DT’s Drew Prindle on several bicycles equipped with Bosch’s eBike pedal assist system, I asked the folks at Bosch if I could get a loaner for an extended period to see what living – and actually commuting – with an ebike is like. Fortunately, they agreed.
Digital Trends is headquartered in Portland, Oregon, a city that has worked hard to make the streets safer for people who would rather pedal than drive to get around. As such, Portland is rightfully identified as one of the most bike-friendly cities in the United States – and the world in general. A lot of people get around on bikes here, self included. I ride to and from from work most every day (a 16-mile round trip), and I wanted to test out Bosch’s ebike system in a real-world commuting scenario.
I headed for Cynergy eBikes, which only sells bikes that incorporate an electric motor in some fashion, and took possession of a Felt Sporte 95 for two weeks. The Felt 95 is a fairly high-end commuter rig, with sorta-skinny tires, a standard frame, hydraulic disc brakes, mountain-bikerish bars and regular old pedals – no toeclips or clipless devices needing special shoes. Just get on and ride. Well, after paying the fairly steep price of admission: $4,000. More on that later.
How the Bosch eBike System works
The Bosch system is the “pedal-assist” type, as in there’s no tooling around under pure electric power, you must pedal to activate the system. Coming from a motorcycle background, I was at first highly skeptical of this arrangement. I mean, what’s the point? I still have to pedal? Here’s your dumb bike back.
Just kidding! As I quickly learned, pedal assist is an unlikely but perfect marriage of electric motor and bicycle. The Bosch Performance system on this bike features four levels of “assist,” ranging from “Eco” (least assist), on up through Tour, Sport and Turbo (hooray!). Each level adds in more power, but also drains the battery faster. The system can also be “on” and give zero assist (you’re supplying all the pedal power), the reason being you still get the data points on the LCD display, and you can key in some assist at the touch of a button.
To be clear, Bosch doesn’t make the bicycle, Felt does. Bosch works directly with over a dozen bike makers including Felt to incorporate the system into existing models with a bit of modification to the frame. The system is available on numerous types of bikes, including cargo bikes and yes, mountain bikes.
The Bosch eBike system consists of four primary pieces: the electric motor, the battery, the system controller button and an LCD display. The motor pod assembly replaces the front chainring assembly and the frame is re-jiggered by Felt at the factory so the fit is seamless, it’s not “tacked on” to a regular production bike like some kits are.
The 400-watt battery mounts to the frame downtube in a quick-release cradle where a water bottle goes, a rear rack-mounted battery is also an option. The system controller takes the form of a three-button switch on the left bar and there’s a handsome LCD information panel on the center of the handlebar. The controller buttons choose power output levels and cycle through the display’s myriad info points. A power button on the LCD quickly boots up or powers off the system. There is no “throttle” like you might expect, the expected handlebar controls are all normal.
My expectations are low: just how much can the little motor and battery add to my forward progress?
This setup allows the bike to continue to operate just like a normal bike when the system is off or on. With the eBike system disengaged, you pedal the bike just like any other bike, with the usual result. The difference is there is no front derailleur any more, so all the gear changes happen at the back.
In the case of the Felt I was given, the back end sported 10 cogs — plenty for my needs. Of course, the motor and battery system adds a fair bit of weight but if you out-ride your battery, you can at least still get around with no problem, unless you live at the top of Nob Hill or something. Even then, with the gearing available, you can likely get up any hill with a modicum of effort. Early bicycles weighed this much anyways and only had one gear, so stop complaining already.
Ready to ride?
At the shop, Cynergy added commuter bits including a bell, fenders, mirror and a rack. Once I got it home, I proceeded to load it up even more with the gear from my regular commuter rig. I transferred over my panniers, myriad lights, phone holder, tool kit, bell, pedals with toe clips, and aired up the tires to 70 psi. Now properly loaded up for true urban transport, I set out to see how the Felt and Bosch mashup worked in the serious grind of Portland’s bike commute rush hours.
It’s eight miles each way on my commute and the morning ride into work could best be described as slightly downhill in some spots (Portland is fairly hilly overall) as I roll in from the outskirts to the downtown core where Digital Trends is located. Just to get a feel for the bike as it sits, I boot up the eBike system but leave the pedal assist set to “Off.” This makes the Felt Sporte into a “regular” albeit heavy bike with a really nice LCD display/control panel, showing speed, time, energy output, battery level, motor assist mode and much more.
Getting underway on pure pedal power, it’s immediately apparent this is a top-shelf bike. Despite the added wight of the motor and battery, the bike is fast – really fast. Handling is sharp and steering is neutral. The hydraulic disc brakes are top notch and can lock either wheel with a firm squeeze. Even the seat is great. The bike is a joy to ride even without dipping into the power assist.
But after a short stint on pedal power alone, it’s indeed time to see what this thing can actually do. My expectations are low: Just how much can the little motor and battery add to my forward progress?
I click the system into “Eco” mode using the controller on the left handlebar and there is an immediate but progressive surge in speed as the system engages. Eco mode provides the least assistance of the four modes, but the effect is still surprisingly pronounced. The speedometer quickly jumps from from my legs-only 15 mph cruising speed to 20 mph – at which point the assist energy promptly evaporates. Wait, what the hell just happened?
Here’s what happened: legal regulations. In order for electric bicycles — even pedal-assist types — to be legally sold in the U.S., most states limit their top speed to 20 miles an hour while electrical power is engaged. The Bosch system keeps powering the bike up to that point, but the assist slowly signs off as the 20 mile an hour mark approaches. Just how much power the system is providing at any moment is shown on a bar graph on the LCD display, and at 20 miles an hour, it’s at zero.
At first, this limitation pissed me off. 20 mph? I can run that fast (OK, maybe only if I’m being chased by a bear). But I can certainly bike that fast with a little extra effort. But the law is the law (for now). And as I soon began to understand, the true benefit of the pedal assist system was not to go super fast, it was to go fast in more places, more of the time. And at that, it absolutely excels.
The real eye-opening moments came on my ride home from work, which is slightly uphill most all of the way with a few short, steeper climbs included for good measure. The first ascent is up a bridge that crosses the Willamette River. It’s not a granny-gear climb by any stretch, but on my regular bike, I usually get up out of the seat and power through the climb, going less than 10 mph. I ticked the power setting up to Tour and, while adding a bit more personal oomph to my pedaling, I powered by every other rider slogging up the incline. The speedo read 17.5 mph. It was exhilarating. I was suddenly Greg LeMond ascending the Alps. So long, suckers! The feeling is hard to describe. Since you are still pedaling and not just along for the ride, it has a certain “hand of God” feeling as the bike pushes you up the hill while you pedal “normally.” Ticking the unit up to Sport or Turbo just piles on more power, allowing you to go up a gear or two and adding in even more speed. But I had a long way still to go, and wanted to conserve power, so I left it in Tour.
Back out in the flat and on more gentle inclines, Tour mode enabled me to easily fly by other commuters (both bikes and traffic-bound cars) at 20mph. It was too easy. It felt like cheating. Additionally, except for a slight whir, the system is almost silent.
Emboldened, I opted for the “big hill” route I usually take when feeling my oats since it has a long uphill (over a mile) with some true granny-gear sections. I ticked the system up to Sport and geared it to about 3 rings above granny (1st gear) and while pedaling with some enthusiasm (but still sitting in the seat, not standing on the pedals), the system absolutely flattened the hill with an average speed of 15 mph. Again, passing other riders huffing up the rise made me laugh in my helmet. One clearly experienced (thin/strong/spandexed) rider on a spendy carbon road bike shouted out “No fair!” with a laugh as I blew by him.
What goes up eventually sends you back down, and the Felt hit a solid 40 mph on the backside of the rise as I descended, pedals spinning fast in top gear, the bike rock solid and stable. The downhill section also revealed what I consider a small miss on the part of the system: There’s no energy regeneration ability.
The Felt 95 is a fairly high-end commuter rig, and it rings in at $4,000 – or more.
Despite cranking up hills most all the way home, only two bars on the five-bar battery level indicator were gone when I arrived home, and the system is good for about 80 miles worth of Eco-level assist in the flat (favorable conditions) according to Bosch. Add in bigger hills and higher assist levels, and that number falls, of course. Not having the ability to add range back in with some sort of regen is too bad, but it is a limitation of a system where the motor is not in the wheel but up in the crank area.
Could it be added in? Maybe, but it would also likely add in weight, so pick your poison: more power and more weight, or less power and less weight/complexity (and likely a bit more range). Recharging is as simple as plugging in the charger to the battery holder, so in the end, the lack of regen was never an issue.
And again, the bike rides as normal if you run out the battery, it’s just heavier. If you want to drop more cash, you can reel in another battery and carry it with you if you have some sort of death commute, just be advised they are neither cheap nor lightweight. But you can swap them in about five seconds.
The ability to climb hills so easily and dramatically increase your overall speed is the real magic of the Bosch eBike system. It instantly turns you into the bike commuter you always dreamed you’d be: fast, powerful, with crazy hill climbing ability. You’re still pedaling, but it makes you feel a little bit superhuman, or maybe LeMond-human at least. Got hills? Not any more. The system works as advertised and is both effective and nonintrusive. There’s no lurching, weirdness, or sudden acceleration. You “get used to it” in about two minutes – and then you’ll never want to shut it off. And if you were wondering, yes, you can get the system on numerous mountain and cargo bikes as well.
The DT Accessory Pack
The big issue, of course, is the big price. Four thousand dollars (or more, kitted out) for a commuter bicycle? That seems exorbitant when you can walk out of Walmart with a fairly capable commuter bike for $489. Heck, four large buys a decent used car or an even more decent used motorcycle. But this is a solid case of You Get What You Pay For – and also a case of What Are Your Priorities?
This is some top-quality kit that, properly cared for, should last for decades. Yes, it’s expensive, but as opposed to a car or motorcycle, consider what you’re not paying for on your commute: gas, insurance, parking, complex and spendy repairs. And if you live in a traffic-clogged city (which Portland is fast becoming), you can also shave a lot of time off your commute. Of course, this doesn’t even begin to speak to the important exercise factor – because you still have to pedal. If you’re green-minded, that aspect speaks for itself.
Granted, if you’re rolling four kids to school each morning and then driving 20 miles to work in the minivan, you’re probably not going to be opting for bike commuting anytime soon. But if it’s just you, a briefcase and a coffee mug stuck in traffic each morning, maybe it’s time to seriously rethink how you get to work- and how much you’re truly paying to get there.
Going back to my purely pedal-powered commuter bike will not be easy.