Viking E-Bikes, Vol. 4: Performance Updates

eprodigy-bikeWelcome to the 4th installment of my series of posts covering my experience in Viking E-Bikes, a program at Western Washington University (my employer), promoting electric bicycles as a sustainable transportation alternative.

As mentioned in the last installment, the experience so far has been a mix of good and bad. As it turns out, a miscommunication between the program and the bike shop they’ve partnered with for maintenance and repairs resulted in the bike not having had its quarterly maintenance.

So, that explained most of the problems I experienced.

The bike was returned a few weeks ago to the shop for the tune-up it didn’t have, and to address specifically the following problems that I reported when I turned the bike in:

  • Rear wheel badly out of true, causing the whole bike to wobble severely
  • Spongy breaks
  • A clicking sound coming from the front wheel
  • Broken chain guard, causing contact with the chain and a resulting grinding noise

Within a minute of riding the bike once it was returned from the shop, I was delighted to find that all of these items had been fixed: the wobble was gone, the breaks adjusted and trustworthy, the clicking sound gone, the chain guard replaced, aligned correctly, and the grinding sound gone.

However, I’m sorry to report that another issue I mentioned in my last post — the poor experience with how the shifting of gears and power assist work together — is now, inexplicably, worse than it was, and the throttle — the on-demand power lever for when you need immediate assistance, often in safety-related situations — only works intermittently.

Imagine, if you will, these three experiences from just one day this past week:

  1. It’s raining hard, wind blowing the rain in your face, normally an unpleasant cycling experience, but in addition, you approach a hill of any size or degree of incline, you shift down as you would normally do, this works pretty well initially, it’s easier to pedal as you start to climb, but then you want a little power assist, so you bump it up to level 1 or 2, any level actually, but the assist doesn’t kick in immediately as it should, and the immediate affect is that of the breaks having been applied — when they have not been — at the very moment you need help moving forward to most, rather than help stopping, the bike feels heavy and sluggish until the motor gains power, and by then it’s been a hellish minute or so.
  2. You’ve reached the apex of the hill, the road levels out and even starts to descend somewhat, but before you can shift gears and adjust the power assist level the motor just drop in power abruptly, wildly out of proportion to the momentum you’ve gained from the descent, and once again it feels like you’ve applied the breaks when you haven’t, maddeningly at the very moment when you REALLY want to enjoy the relief of the end of the climb. In response, you first try the throttle for immediate relief and nothing happens on repeated attempts, then you shift down as fast as possible, until you are spinning wildly, the feeling that the breaks are on finally goes away, and only then do you gradually shift back up to where your gear should be.
  3. At the bottom of this hill that you are descending is an intersection at which you must stop, you need to turn left at the light, where you will immediately head up another hill, you are thankful, in theory, that you have a throttle, so that as soon as you turn and hit the incline the cars waiting behind you don’t get impatient and make a potentially dangerous move to go around you while you’re shifting down and pedaling your ass off, only the throttle doesn’t work right away, you bump up the pedal assist level, but the response from the motor is so slow, by now, you’ve nearly ground do a halt.

There are at least two possible explanations for this behavior:

    1. Calibration: While I don’t fully understand how the bike is engineered and how the technology all works, it’s VERY possible that there is a calibration procedure that should have, but has not been, completed by the mechanic whenever a tune-up was performed; some process using the LCD display, perhaps, but possibly also involving physical adjustments to what’s called the ‘cadence sensor’, which the makers of the eProdigy Jasper describe as, “[helping] alleviate the burden to pedal hard or apply torque to pedaling.” Yeah, that’s clearly not happening!
    2. Poor Design: It just may be that the eProdigy Jasper is poorly designed, either in its entirety, or in that it is too susceptible to the calibration getting out of whack. As mentioned in my last post, the bike got good marks for smooth shifting and power assist adjustment when it was reviewed, but then I’m sure the bike was in it’s finest shape when the reviewer took it for a spin. Additionally, the bike can be ordered with an “optional NuVinci continuously variable transmission (CVT), which adds to the price and weight, but requires less maintenance, is very quiet and can be shifted at standstill, reducing wear from the mid-drive system vs. standard cassette and chain”, And so, perhaps this was not included on the bike I’m riding, and maybe the absence of this technology is a contributing factor.

For now, I’ve ridden my 5-mile each way commute route a dozen times since I got the bike back from the shop, and I’m disappointed to conclude that I’m gonna have to turn it back in. The performance is just way too uneven for me, causing considerable annoyance and frustration, but worse, in some cases, dangerous moments of the bike not responding when and how I need it to, a considerable safety risk that I’m not willing to take.

I’ll mention to the coordinator of the Viking E-Bikes program my suspicion that it could be a calibration issue, but I’ll end this post with one last observation that I think is very important in the context of the program’s mission of promoting electric bikes as a viable sustainable transportation alternative.

Reliability & Maintenance Level/Cost

It’s asking enough of prospective buyers to consider spending several thousand dollars on an electric bike — when they could easily walk into REI and get a decent conventional commuter bike for $500-$600, or half that if they buy at Walmart or a used bike via Craigslist — but many buyers are intimidated by all of the technology, the more parts, moving or electronic, goes the saying, the more that can go wrong. And even if they can perform simple conventional bike maintenance, like cleaning and lubricating their chain, adjusting breaks, or changing a tire, the learning curve for maintaining or repairing the added parts and electronics, or the prospect of regularly having to pay a mechanic at a shop to do it, could be enough to ward them off, and in the case of buyers who might not cycle at all if they can’t have the power assist, fossil fuel burning automobiles may be the only alternative for them.

Add to that the possibility that, since electric bikes are still so relatively new on the market and greatly outnumbered by conventional bikes, who knows if the mechanic at your local shop even knows how to maintain or repair one.

I am a prospective buyer. It’s the main reason I signed up for the Viking E-Bikes program. I’m 53 years old, and while not grossly out of shape, the 5-mile each way commute I have now, and the hills that come with it, is sadly out of reach for me on a conventional bike.

But I LOVE cycling and my hope remains that either this bike I’m using now can be calibrated correctly, so that it functions as it should, or that a better bike is out there, with only my research and test driving in the way of finding it.

Meanwhile, it’s back to the shop once more, and I’ll provide an update in my next post.

Stay tuned!

 

 

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