San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

This is actually quite an accurate depiction of what it’s like to ride an electric-assist bicycle in San Francisco.

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.

Electric-assist bikes: interesting!

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.

These are the kinds of bikes they sell.

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.

For the time being, this is the only kind of family bike that The New Wheel is selling.

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 these bikes have the motor integrated into the design; the mid drive motors are placed inside a massive chain guard.

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.

I rode the extremely girly “Emotion” bike. I’m not particularly proud, but this kind of marketing leaves something to be desired. Bad manufacturer; no cookie!

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.

My son’s desire for this bike has not waned in the slightest.

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.

The New Wheel: stop by and check it out!

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.

10 Comments

Filed under bike shops, destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Yuba Mundo

10 responses to “San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

  1. I’m curious about where e-bikes fit in legally. That is, are they legally entitled to any bicycle-only facilities or is it something that’s just not enforced? Are they regulated in speed to a certain mph?

    • Electric assist bicycles are legally classified as being bicycles as long as they meet certain restrictions on the assist. E.g. California says they’re bicycles as long as their maximum speed is limited to 20mph. Some countries/states also add restrictions on power (e.g. a max of 250 watts) and federal law restricts the maximum weight (the bike can’t weigh more than 100 lbs). In Europe and Japan they add the restriction that they aren’t legally bicycles unless they’re pedal-assist ONLY; in the US, you’re usually allowed to have a throttle to take over in lieu of pedaling as long as the pedals operate as well. So if your bike meets those restrictions, in the eyes of the law it’s no different from a pedal-powered bicycle.

      All that said, it is a Wild West out there on the bike paths. There is a guy on a motorized Xtracycle that we see in San Francisco sometimes. Our bike shop told us his motor is 2000 watts (which is illegal in California) and they have begged him to take it off because the Xtracycle frame can’t handle it and they are sure it will snap in two. He rides it like a motorcycle in traffic and is an accident waiting to happen. I suspect that some of the rental e-bikes I see in San Francisco are near or over the line in terms of California law.

      There’s not much point to any of this in my opinion, given that bikes in California can have all the assist anyone would ever need in San Francisco completely legally.

      • Thanks for the detail. Personally, I think the 20 mph limit is a totally reasonable criteria for giving an e-bike all the rights of a pedal-only bicycle. I really don’t see the need for pedal-assist.

        One more question: If a police officer were to challenge your use of a bike lane or path, is there anything on your bike that “proves” it’s legal for bike facility use?

      • That’s a good question. I’m guessing it would be less of an issue with a recognizable system (BionX) or bike (A2B) and more of an issue with something obviously home-hacked. Maybe those bikes put information on the battery case?.

        Like with anything else where you’re sure you’re right, my guess is the best bet is to request an official citation, take lots of pictures, and contest it in court. I know people have done that when they were hassled for carrying kids on the bike and won, informing the police department in the process what the law actually is. It would be a hassle though, definitely a “take one for the team” approach. Although around here I’m sure SFBC would take an intense interest and show up in court as well.

  2. mizshan

    Thanks as always for the thoughtful and thought provoking information. I visited the New Wheel last weekend and liked it too – I bought my 2 year old his first backpack, so he can carry his own stuff! It’s about time! :-) Just one correction: I know you guys don’t made to southern SF much – the shop is in Bernal Heights, not Potrero Hill.

    • Ack! I actually knew that! When we went we were all, “Hey, this is the first time we’ve ever been to Bernal Heights!” But you’re right that when I think about the south side it sort of runs together. We’re trying to get south of Market more; there is so much cool stuff down there (Tartine, Bi-Rite, Rainbow, StrEAT). Thanks for the catch, I have updated.

  3. GRJim

    Suddenly I’m following your blog and don’t really know why…

    Consider the Xtracycle Edgerunner, coming out soon; e-assist, 20″ rear wheel for lower center of gravity. I don’t work for them, just saw one and it looks great.

  4. DaveC

    Thanks for this posting, really! We’re in Brattleboro, VT and debating getting the BionX on our Mundo rather than the ElMundo. We actually convinced our local bike shop to become a Yuba dealer.
    I’m wondering if The New Wheel has moved forward with the BionX Mundo.

    Many folks in the ebike world hate the BionX because of the proprietary batteries and the regenerative braking, which they think is just a gimmick. I just want to get something that will work well and begin to get folks here out of the car haze we live in.

    So, my question is if there is any evidence if the BionX on a Mundo is less prone to overheating than the Ezee on the El Mundo. We have long extended climbs here. We know we are not going to conquer every hill, but most of the rides we will use the Mundo for are hills at least 2 miles in length and at least 4% grades. Do you think the BionX is a better bet?

    Dave Cohen
    Brattleboro, VT

    • Hi Dave! Thanks for writing. When I last spoke with The New Wheel the Mundo with BionX was still in the “maybe someday” phase. However I heard that Practical Cycle in Sacramento once put a BionX on a Mundo.

      For your needs I’m not sure it would be necessary, given the extra cost. When we talk about steep hills in SF, we’re talking about grades in the 30%+ plus. E.g. Prentiss Street, in Bernal Heights, was measured at a 37% grade. There are also grades above 30% around Potrero Hill and Nob Hill. Where we live, Mt. Sutro, grades top out at about 25%. Based on the conversation at The New Wheel, my understanding is that it’s when people hit grades like this that the eZee stalls out. It’s hard to believe that a 4% grade, even for an extended period, would seriously challenge the eZee.

      Personally I like the BionX a lot because it’s pedal assisted, silent, and seamlessly integrated with the gears, and because it can handle these kinds of hills, albeit at the cost of increased effort. I’d agree that the regenerative braking is a bit gimmicky, but it can add some range near the end of a charge, which is not without value. By contrast the eZee will be noisier and is usually a throttle assist–push a button and go, no pedaling required. But given that the elMundo is ready to go out of the box at a very appealing price point, I doubt very much that I would go to the effort of trying to swap it out at extra cost if I lived elsewhere. If you want a really informed opinion, however, I’d recommend writing to Brett (brett@newwheel.net), who can answer these questions much better.

      There are actually a lot of elMundos in SF now, and they can get people to many destinations in the city, particularly people who live in the flatter western and southern ends. I don’t think I’d attempt to take my kids to the Randall Museum on one, but there are short-term car rentals for trips like that. I actually think that the elMundo is a fantastic option for showing people what cargo bikes can do; I think of Yuba as the Ikea of bicycles and I mean that as a compliment. They are making something widely accessible that was formerly inaccessible. There are some compromises with respect to the quality of components, the speed and weight of the bike, and arguably with aesthetics, but these are trivial relative to the fact that they are getting A LOT of families on bicycles.

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