I love bikes. Anyone who knows me knows that. And they probably also know how I feel about electric bikes. I’m really not a fan.

I ride a bike because the technology is so simple that it makes up for the shortcomings of not having a motor. The more I ride, the more I can ride, and the less effort it takes to climb uphill. Every electric bike I’ve seen in town just seems far clunkier than it needs to be, and don’t really tend to perform much better than a good road bike because of it – and that’s only until the battery dies. A motorized Canadian Tire mountain bike</a., to me, sounds a little like trying to "pimp out" a bulldozer for street racing.

A new design, the "Copenhagen Wheel“, is changing all that. Designed by a MIT student, it’s a back wheel that has a motor and battery mounted on the hub, which converts any bike it’s mounted on into a hybrid electric scooter. I came across it from a comment under a column I did for Raise the Hammer, and really like the elegance of the design.

The Copenhagen Wheel

This design is fundamentally better in a lot of ways. First off, it’ll mount on all sorts of bikes which were never designed for motors – looks about as easy as any fixed-gear or singlespeed conversion. Secondly, it’s very very simple – no more junk on your bike than the average old-school coaster brake, and no harder to use. And it’s designed for bikes (like the one pictured) which are efficient to begin with. Also, it doesn’t replace pedaling, it works with your pedal strokes, measuring your torque and powering up in turn. When you push backward, it engages the “regenerative breaks” which charge the battery while slowing you down (I can’t tell whether this works more like a coaster wheel or fixed-gear from your perspective).
This way you could still get your workout, but travel much further.

I must admit to a few safety concerns. There’s nothing about this bike that couldn’t reach 50-60kph on flat ground with a good rider, even without the motor. And though most riders aren’t that fast, they also aren’t that experienced either. Piloting a bike with 23mm tires at 50+kph, it isn’t like riding a car. Everything shakes, the slightest bumps hit you like a sack of doorknobs, and stopping is a serious issue, since even if you lock both wheels with disc breaks (and this is why most racers don’t use ’em), there’s no guarantee that the bike will stop moving. For most riders, developing the muscles to go this fast means getting the practice and experience to do it safely. Encouraging people to “get into cycling” by handing them a tool which gives them all the power of a professional racer or messenger with none of the experience is downright dangerous.

And while I don’t know that i’ll be buying one any time soon. I’d probably build it myself, anyway, and don’t much like the idea of my biking being radio-tracked. I am glad this kind of thing is getting “out there”, though, because it’s a huge improvement over what I’ve seen so far. Building hybrid bikes needs to start from an intimate knowledge of what an effective bike is and isn’t, not just trying to downsize a Vespa into the legal category of “bicycle”. The bike pictured in this article, if it simply had a normal, entry-level track or singlespeed wheel on the back, would still outperform nearly every electric bike I’ve seen. And that’s a very important factor in building a successful hybrid electric bike. The more efficient the bike, the smaller the motor that is needed, and the smaller the motor, the more efficiently it’ll move overall.