A few weeks ago, we checked out a new bike shop in San Francisco, The New Wheel. The New Wheel is marketing itself to a particular niche in San Francisco, and I suspect they will be successful. They sell only electric pedal-assist bicycles.
For this trip I rounded up two other families from our daughter’s preschool to keep us company and so I could get the opinions of people who’d never ridden electric-assist bikes before. Preschool was the obvious place to recruit other families interested in electric-assist bikes; as Matt puts it, the building “looks down on us like a Tibetan monastery.” From asking around, we knew that other biking parents (okay, dads) had tried to haul kids up that hill in trailers and on bikes. Like us, they’d given up after a couple of tries.
Cyclists in San Francisco do not give up easily. There is no avoiding the hills in this city, and there are a few intrepid riders who climb preschool hill every day solo. But not pulling a trailer, which one dad reported actually dragged him back down the hill while he was attempting to pedal up. I have discussed before the reasons that parents in the city don’t typically ride with trailers (can’t be seen in traffic, don’t fit in bike lanes): that’s another. Let’s not even discuss what it would be like back going down that same hill. In summary it would be fair to say that there is intense interest in electric-assist bikes in our preschool community.
So we all headed to The New Wheel one Sunday. It was fascinating. In a lot of ways, The New Wheel is not yet our kind of shop. Although they are interested in the family market, they are most strongly focused right now on pedal-assist bikes for commuters. They can attach a child seat or a trailer or a Burley Piccolo to their bikes, but they don’t offer cargo bikes. It turns out that there is a reason for this.
What I learned from the owners at The New Wheel is that there is a wide range of reliability in electric assists for bicycles, and particularly in batteries. As they are focused not just on selling equipment but maintaining it, there is a very short list of systems that they felt were worth selling: BionX and Panasonic. BionX motors sit in the rear hub and respond to torque on the pedals; the harder you push, the more help you get. I’ve written about riding with the BionX before. The mid-drive motors attach to the chain, and add power throughout the gear range. These are stronger motors, but they are significantly more expensive and they work best when riders maintain a steady cadence. After trying one, I can attest that doing that involves a learning curve.
Because they are very interested in the family market they had considered stocking the Yuba elMundo, which comes with the eZee assist. However they found that customers had so much trouble with eZee motors and batteries, which evidently have a nasty habit of cutting out in the middle of the hills where people need them most, that they are negotiating with Yuba to develop and sell a BionX-assisted Mundo instead. The trade-off for increased reliability, of course, is a higher price.
Having this discussion with them made it pretty clear that for our needs, a BionX system is probably our best choice. After-market mid-drive motors, although they themselves are great, evidently have some of the same battery issues that other systems do, namely that there are not many consistently good ones, and no one is currently making cargo bikes with the integrated Panasonic assists. So it would seem that BionX is the most reliable option for cargo bikes, unless you know a lot about batteries or get lucky.
All of the bikes The New Wheel sells are built as electric-assist bicycles from the ground up, and they all come with integrated BionX motors (e.g. the Ohm line) or integrated Panasonic mid-drive motors (the German bikes). They felt both of these systems worked well on steep hills. The mid-drive motors were more useful for weaker riders. One of their customers, an older woman with a recent hip replacement, was using one of their mid-drive motor-assisted bikes to commute up to the top of the Berkeley hills every day. That is an extremely long and unforgiving grade.
Having already tried a BionX-assisted bike in Portland, I went out for a test ride with one of the preschool dads, Paul, on a mid-drive bike. He took an Ohm with a BionX assist. I was very curious about how it would feel to ride with the more powerful mid-drive motor. The New Wheel is conveniently located in Bernal Heights, next to some brutally steep slopes. After taking some time to figure out how our respective assists worked, we rode up and down the hills for a while. It was such a hoot!
When I rode with a BionX, I liked that it felt seamless with the pedaling and was almost completely silent. Other than feeling like I’d grown massively stronger, I barely noticed the BionX was there.
The mid-drive motor was different. It makes a slight rattling sound as the chain runs through the motor, which I found kind of annoying. It was hard to tell that it was more powerful, because the assist felt so subtle. I suspect for riders who are already used to going up hills, there may be less difference between the two systems until the cargo load gets quite substantial. And it was hard for me to maintain a steady cadence and pressure instead of reacting to the hill by gearing down and pushing harder, which meant that I wasn’t getting the greatest benefit from the system. As a result, Paul consistently passed me on the way uphill even though I had a stronger motor.
So although I liked riding up hills with the mid-drive motor, especially hills that I could barely move on by myself (I tried turning the assist off halfway up the hill a couple of times; it was unspeakably brutal), I didn’t like it any better than riding a BionX-assisted bike. Yet I suspect that I would feel very differently about these two systems if I were a novice rider. The owners of The New Wheel said that in fact they steer experienced riders to the BionX-assisted bikes like the Ohms, and novice riders to the mid-drives. I suspect that’s because if you have practice going up hills already, you’d have to relearn how to ride effectively with the mid-drive motors. Basically you have to convince yourself that neither the motor nor the hill is there, and just pedal blissfully on. In contrast, if you’re getting an electric bike in order to start riding a bike again, you don’t have to unlearn any existing hill-climbing habits. This information, by itself, was worth a trip to The New Wheel.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that The New Wheel is really, truly committed to family biking, even if they don’t yet stock any real family-hauling bikes. The proof was in their children’s bikes, which were the nicest I have ever seen. The preschoolers could not stop riding their gorgeous balance bikes. Our son test-rode a beautiful 20” Torker (not listed on their website) and has been begging us ever since to trade in his Jamis for this bike. He is willing to put his entire saved allowance to the cause. This was, however, not even the nicest bike available; they do not currently stock, but they do sell, a German bike for kids that comes with an internally geared hub, dynamo lights, fenders, a double-kickstand, and a chain guard. They said they didn’t stock it because they assumed that no one would be willing spend that much money on a kid’s bike. I only wish The New Wheel had been in business when we bought our son’s bike last Christmas. It would have spared us a trip across the bay and he’d be on a better bike right now. At any rate, if you are looking for a child’s bike, I have never seen a higher-quality collection. And they also have very nice children’s helmets, and they know how to fit them, too.
If I were in the market for an electric-assist commuter bike to handle the steepest San Francisco hills, I would start at The New Wheel. It is a great shop with incredibly nice owners and they are impressively informed about electric assists. We will almost certainly return when it is time to buy another kid’s bike. My only regret is that they do not yet sell family-hauling cargo bikes that can handle steep hills. For that, you still have to go to Portland.