The elephant in the room

It was only a matter of time before somebody said some (mildly, politely) disdainful things. Jim gave me my first link (thanks!), and some comments ensued, and I replied there. I hope I didn’t sound too defensive. I have struggled in the past to avoid getting steamed by what are, after all, innocently common misperceptions about how the product fits (or doesn’t) into a bicycling life. I still get steamed. I have to learn to deal more gracefully and effectively with the elephant in the room: I’m pitching a motor to bicyclists — not like the other motors in their lives that they accept as a matter of course, but a motor for one of their bicycles. The suggestion often goes over like a fart in a crowded elevator. I might as well be hawking machine guns to Zen archers. It’s totally uncool.

There have been many bicycle+motor products, mostly miserable failures, and no conspicuous successes. Failure in most cases was well-deserved by the products themselves, I think, but among the few pretty good designs that have come to market, most seem to have suffered from really bad marketing. That’s easy to say after the fact. I’m a reluctant salesperson with no claim to skill, but I do think it’s basically suicidal to position my product like any of the others, even to the small extent that its design would permit that at all.

Most assisted bikes are marketed to drivers who don’t, can’t, or won’t ride regular bikes. Instead, I see my market largely as bicyclists who don’t, can’t, or won’t drive cars, or at least who’d prefer not to. People whose bicycling youths have foundered on the shoals of “success” — house and kids, maybe dodgy knees, maybe a few more years at a business-attire job too far away; people who have too great a love of bicycling to submit happily to the yoke of a car, and who won’t blink at a bicycle costing more than a car payment or three or five, if it can truly let them ride instead of drive for all but the longest hauls, which in many cases won’t be frequent enough to warrant car ownership.

It’s a niche, to be sure, but sometimes you need a solid toe-hold before you can take a bigger step, such as when oil goes over $100/barrel. I’m looking to build a vanguard of models for the as-yet unwashed masses of drivers: bicyclists who function as well or better than they do at the tasks presumed erroneously to require a multi-ton vehicle, such as hauling spouse, kid, and a week’s groceries over the hills. Bicyclists who do it with 1/30th the energy of a hybrid car at a tenth of the cost, before operating costs.

In this light, marrying the product to Xtracycle is far more than an engineering expedient; it is, after all, possible to run a motor through a bicycle’s transmission, whole or in part, without one (this is the key to good performance, by the way). What Xtracycle brings to the whole is cargo capacity sufficient to justify help among cyclists who might not otherwise be caught dead on a power-assisted bike, as vain or righteous as that may be.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “The elephant in the room”

  • Tanya

    Questions! What’s the max speed you can attain with the power-assist (assuming its flat and you aren’t doing any pedalling) How far can you travel with it on a charge?

    I think most keen car-free cyclists don’t believe they need a motor :) and most non-cycling types have many reasons they don’t cycle that go far beyond the exertion factor. So it definitely is a niche market.

  • Todd

    Tanya, it depends. The motor drives the pedals, so ultimate speed and climbing ability depends on your gearing. With stock motor gearing, the motor can sustain 450W at a cadence of 77; if you have a suitably high gear, that’s enough to take you to 29 MPH assuming no special aerodynamic treatment or especially heavy load. This works out to about 53/11 for MTB wheels – if your MTB has the clearance? More detail: /bike/cp/performance.html

    It’s generally illegal to power a bike to that speed on public roads, and high speeds kill range through aerodynamic losses. A more commonly desirable use for the power is maintain reasonable speeds in lower gears uphill with heavy loads, or into stiff headwinds, or to accelerate a passenger or 2 snappily off the line through an intersection. I’ve gotten 480lbs up a 31.5% block in San Francisco, slowly but surely.

    The motor driving the pedals also means that there’s no realistic possibility of not pedaling. It’s just like a tandem bike; at the very least you must spin along lightly if you want your stoker to do the work. You provide as much power as you like, shifting to regulate your joint cadence as the power requirements vary.

    As for range, it all depends on how much power you use relative to how many batteries you are carrying. Power is on-demand, via a throttle. I plan to sell battery packs that are good for about 30, 50, and 75 minutes of near-maximum output, but in-the-saddle time will be much longer unless you’re “flooring it” the whole way. 20 miles with hills and modest cargo is easy in the least case. You can carry multiple batteries in the Xtracycle to go 200 miles faster than a fit regular roadie, but I suppose the roadie would have more fun not managing such a heavy load, and certainly enjoy a better conditioning benefit.

    You are absolutely right that most keen car-free cyclists don’t need a motor, and they are fortunate. It’s a self-defining group with high attrition, though: the ones for whom regular bikes no longer cut it cease being car-free. My product can keep many of these cyclists from going over to the dark side in the first place as their lives unfold, and also help reluctant motorists ride more often. I was a happily motorless 5K-mile/yr cyclist in hilly San Francisco and environs before I became a parent in 2002, and I admit that my deteriorating knees played a role: dropping out of a hilly 300k brevet at mile 175 in 2003 with screaming knee pain made me think hard about how to stay on the bike as much as I wanted/needed. This way worked for me.

  • nathan

    There was a lot of discussion about the (un)acceptability of motor-assist on the Icebike mailing list last winter, if you feel like going through the trouble to search for it. The person who committed the deed ;) got the assist so he could continue to make his longish commute through the winter.

  • Todd

    Thanks Nathan. Looks like the Icebike archives and search feature are available only to subscribers. Somehow I can imagine the discussion anyway. Or was there something surprising?

  • [...] In addition to seeking design feedback, my sending a kit was partly a psychological experiment. Would these strong, proud, hard-riding young people living in a flat city be caught dead with an electric motor anywhere near their bikes? Some of the softer guys rode it first, but it took Dave breaking his leg to set up his alibi. [Soft guys: thanks for the reports!] After many days of cruel non-disclosure that something interesting was coming together, this morning Brother David Sunshine blogged the result: [...]

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