Portland's bike shops make me want to gut myself in envy
I am not usually good at getting to the point, so let me try here: I am so buying the BionX.
Despite the fact that I have speculated about electric assist a lot, until this week I had never tried one. I knew enough to know that I wanted a pedelec system (which works only when you’re pedaling) rather than an off-on throttle (where pedaling is irrelevant). Otherwise I might as well just buy a scooter. I just want to be a little stronger, so that going uphill is less of a Bataan death march at the end of a long day, or to ride with my daughter to preschool.
Surly Big Dummy with BionX
So before I went to Portland I wrote to Splendid Cycles, knowing that they carried cargo bikes with electric assists. Joel, one of the owners, said I was welcome to take one of their bikes up a hill in Portland (and they do have some hills there). They could not have been nicer, all their bikes are amazing, and most of them would be appropriate for hauling kids and/or cargo up the side of a mountain. I ended up riding a Big Dummy with the BionX PL350, a system widely praised in reviews, apparently the most responsive of pedelec systems. It adds about 17 pounds to the bike, counting both the motor and the battery. (BionX also has a 15 pound version with comparable power and a longer battery life. It costs more.)
Todd on the Bullitt (I took this picture for his wife)
Joel rode an assisted Bullitt, which is very cool in its own right; it was the first box bike I’ve ever seen in person that I have thought would be practical in San Francisco, as it is lightweight and narrow (and fast). Because my kids were already in up in Washington with my mom, I was cargo-less. So I brought my friend Todd along. Todd and I went to grad school together and although we are both pretty junior he’s now the chair of his department at Lewis & Clark. Guess which one of us makes our advisers proud? But he remains a relentlessly good sport about the crazy things that I propose. At 145 pounds, Todd is cargo overkill, the equivalent of almost four kids. But better too much weight than too little; my kids are growing.
Todd doesn’t really ride bikes, so Joel carried him in the Bullitt while I was figuring out how to use the BionX on the way to the hills. And I carried him back to the shop on the Big Dummy.
Most of Portland, to my mind, is pretty flat. The neighborhood streets we first rode on certainly were; on those streets, on an unloaded Big Dummy, turning on the BionX was wildly entertaining, but hardly seemed necessary. You turn it up and you go a little faster. It’s like magically getting stronger without the bother of having to train. There are four levels on the way up, which are activated by pushing the + button. I perceived them as ranging from “I barely notice anything” to “I barely need to pedal.” There are also four levels in the other direction (push the – button), for regenerative braking to charge the battery a little; this was fun, because it meant that I barely needed to use the brakes.
And then we got to the first hill. Todd hopped off the Bullitt and onto the Dummy. From a dead start on an incline, I could barely move the bike. With the assist on level 1, we were moving slowly. And with it ramped up to level 4, getting both of us up the hill was like going up a slight incline with an unloaded bike. It was unbelievable. On the way down, the regenerative brakes slowed us to a crawl even though together with the bike we weighed ~350 pounds.
On the second, steeper, longer hill, still with Todd on board, I was already moving on the way up, and managed to make it about 100 (very painful) feet before I switched on the assist. Near the top of that hill I was back at level 4, moving pretty quickly, and laughing so hard I couldn’t speak. And it was at that point that I realized that I would, if necessary, give up almost anything else I owned to have this assist.
Although there are hills in Portland, the city has built switchback ramps to make the climbing easier. Let us take a moment and contemplate this.
The BionX doesn’t take the experience of hills away; it was still work to get up that second hill. But even with a person who weighs more than I do on the back, on a heavy bike, going up was manageable, and it didn’t make me want to die. It made we want to find an even bigger hill and storm up that one too. I didn’t want Todd to get back in the Bullitt; it was more fun to talk with him on the Dummy. He commented that the motor was completely silent. “If I didn’t know it was there,” he said, “I’d just think you had really strong legs.”
With Todd on board I ended up keeping the assist on level 1 or 2 for the stop signs, even on the flatter ride back. Starting a bike loaded with kids has always been slow for me; it takes time to get that much weight moving. But with the extra boost of the assist, we took off at the intersections at the pace of a racer.
The BionX has some quirks. Some of them are counter-intuitive. It is responsive to pressure on the pedals, so to get more assist on the way uphill, I learned to shift up to a higher gear. The harder I pushed, the harder the motor worked. This happens automatically at intersections, but on the hills sometimes I geared down low enough that I wasn’t getting as much help. I suspect gearing down to reduce the assist would actually be a useful way to train to ride hills unassisted if one were so inclined.
There is an awful lot going on at the right handlebar grip on a BionXed bike; occasionally I found myself changing the assist level when I meant to shift gears, or shifting gears when I’d intended to brake. I’m guessing that this kind of thing is temporary.
Finally, the motor cut out once. We were on a flat street, fortunately, and when I asked Joel what happened he said the sensor had jogged loose. He nudged it and the assist starting working again. There is a reason it is so twitchy, evidently, but I didn’t understand the explanation. However it is also apparently possible to set up the control so that it doesn’t cut out like that.
Todd drove me back downtown after our ride, patiently listening to me babble gibberish, which was something along the lines of “OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD!!!” I couldn’t stop grinning, not even when I was sideswiped by a jogger on the walk back to the hotel. I found myself laughing randomly when I tried to explain what riding with the BionX was like to other people. I’m laughing now.
The BionX would change our lives. A lot of our remaining driving miles are, “No way am I riding up THAT hill” trips. Joel said he’d taken a fully loaded Bullitt+BionX up a 25% grade. We have a hill like that near home and we find alternative routes even when we’re driving. He noted that the BionX could get overheated on steep, extended climbs (>20 minutes) in hot weather, at which point it would reduce the assist level to protect the motor from overheating. But our hills are short and broken-up with stop lights, and it never gets hot in San Francisco. With really serious cargo loads an EcoSpeed would be better, but two kids and groceries are evidently not what people have in mind when they talk about serious cargo.
How much do I love this assist? I would have bought one on the spot if it would work on the Breezer, even if I had had to talk Splendid Cycles into prying one off of a bike in the shop. But I will have to give up my Breezer to use a BionX; it won’t work with an internally geared hub. That’s not going to happen right away—there’s the non-trivial issue of figuring out what bike to ride instead—but it is most assuredly going to happen.