When I first thought of purchasing an electric bike in 2013, my mind fixed on Tesla's recently released Model S sedan. It represented the promise of electric—a fast, smooth, jaw-dropping machine, one built on innovative ideas to make the impossible possible.
This fantasy was dismantled when I stepped foot in my local bike dealer's store. Aside from Vanmoof's 10 Electrified, which had just hit the market, every electric bike on the floor was a parts-bin creation that looked straight out of an episode of "MythBusters."
Today, cutting-edge electric bikes finally have me tempted. Industry leaders have grown bold in the wake of a pandemic boom that boosted global electric bike sales by 190 percent through the summer of 2020. And now that people are venturing back to the office, e-bikes will provide a great alternative to sitting in subway and train cars cheek by jowl with the Delta variant. The mass market is within reach.
Gocycle is hoping to attract new cyclists with the G4, which meshes high-tech features like an LED status bar, a Bluetooth-connected app, and a fully encased chain drive with the portability of a folding frame. The result is a 17-kilogram (37-pound) bike (featherweight next to 23-kg competitors) that folds to fit into the trunk of a compact car.
Gocycle uses the electric drive's strengths to balance the frame's weaknesses. Folding bikes are known for a jittery ride, so Gocycle slapped on wide, forgiving tires. The motor's torque conquers climbs that challenge most folding bikes, which are often geared toward short jaunts. And the drive's weight is down and forward, keeping the bike planted through corners. No bike, folding or otherwise, rides quite like it.
Now that people are venturing back to the office, e-bikes will provide a great alternative to sitting in subway cars cheek by jowl with the Delta variant.
Not all bikes must fold, of course. Specialized's Turbo Como SL reimagines conventional diamond frame design with an integrated battery plus front rack and rear fender mounts, perfect for carrying groceries or gear. The downtube bulges and bolt-on battery packs of competitors are replaced with a friendly, smooth profile. Marco Sonderegger, senior product manager at Specialized, tells me in a video interview that the bike is all about approachability. "It's the inbound city bike," he says. "It's stylish, it's gender neutral, it's a bike for everyone."
This philosophy is more than skin deep. Many electric bikes have motors powerful enough to overwhelm inexperienced riders. Even I, a supposedly competent cyclist, once popped a surprise wheelie at an intersection while riding a powerful but unbalanced bike. The Turbo Como SL has a motor that delivers 35 newton meters (26 pound-feet) of torque, down from the Turbo Como's 90 N·m. It can still hit a maximum electric-assist speed of 45 kilometers per hour (28 mph) but is manageable from a stop.
While the G4 and Como SL don't look anything alike, they share a crucial trait that all electric bikes should embrace: a clean, low-maintenance drive system. The G4 has a fully encased chain called Cleandrive that is protected from road grime and, as a result, it doesn't need frequent cleaning or greasing. The Como SL offers a durable Gates belt drive that requires zero lubrication. This contrasts with other electric bikes, most of which still use a greasy chain. Chains are finicky for riders who don't relish spending time with a can of degreaser. Which is most of them.
Low-maintenance design does have a downside: price. The G4 starts at US $3,999, while the Como SL starts at $4,800 with the optional belt drive. This isn't expensive for an electric bike (the Specialized S-Works Turbo Creo SL starts at $14,500), but it's more than many want to pay.
But if Gocycle and Specialized can bring their ideas to a palatable price, it will surely be the end of parts-bin design—and a boon for electric bikes.
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Matthew S. Smith writes IEEE Spectrum's Gizmo column and is a freelance consumer-tech journalist. An avid gamer, he is a former staff editor at Digital Trends and is particularly fond of wearables, e-bikes, all things smartphone, and CES, which he has attended every year since 2009.