Viking E-Bikes, Vol. 5: Wrap-Up

eprodigy-bikeI can’t believe it’s been 10 weeks!

This is the 5th and last post in my series on my experience with the Viking E-Bikes program, offered by my employer, Western Washington University, a program promoting electric bicycles as a sustainable transportation alternative.

As I mentioned in my first post in the series, the program provides participants with a loaner e-bike, specifically the eProdigy Jasper pictured here, for the length of a 10-week academic term, asking only that the participants write a little about their experience, to be shared on the Rider Stories page of their website.

In my 3rd post, I made a simple Good and Bad list, with my findings up to that point, and as promised, here are my updated and final observations:

The Good

  • Staci at Earl’s Bike Shop — the shop contracted to perform maintenance on the Viking E-Bikes — is awesome! When I needed to return the bike a second time, with suspicions that the calibration was off, Staci offered to pick the bike up at my home, which was a huge gift. As mentioned, with the bike being so heavy, I’m unable to put it on my car’s bike rack, and also unable to get it in the car, and so I would otherwise have had to ride the bike to the shop and then get a ride home. Staci then delivered to bike back to my home when the work was complete. Like I said: awesome!
  • As for the calibration, it turns out that this was indeed the problem. Somehow, the bike’s computer had been switched from MPH (miles per hour) to KMH (kilometers per hour) and this threw everything off. I don’t fully understand the technology, but I suspect that if the bike is set to KMH the sensors on the brakes and gears need to be calibrated differently than if the bike is set to MPH. Sure enough, the first ride out once the bike was recalibrated to MPH was a dramatically better experience, from shifting gears and power assist levels, to using the throttle.
  • The power assist is simply exactly what I need in order to continue to be a bicycle commuter, and I REALLY want to be a bicycle commuter, as I feel SO much better leaving the car at home and reducing my carbon footprint. As mentioned previously, the 5-mile each way commute, with hills in both directions, would be prohibitive without the power.
  • As also mentioned previously, several other features of the bike were very much appreciated: the upright riding position, the suspension, the fenders, and the built in rear rack with provided pannier were all great.
  • The battery, while unfortunately heavy, was more than adequate for my daily commute. I suspect that I could even get two whole days use out of it before recharging, but I opted to just bring the battery in every night and charge it.
  • Jillian at Viking E-Bikes is awesome! She gracefully put up with my complaints about the bike and was very responsive, making arrangements for getting the bike to and from the shop in a very timely manner.
  • The Viking E-Bikes program is a GREAT idea! It’s incredibly useful to have 10 weeks to ride and evaluate an electric bike, especially considering that it’s several thousand dollars to buy one. Normally you’ll get one or two test rides. Getting to take the bike home every night allowed me to experience the entire commute routine many times, in various weather conditions, and I even was able to fine tune my route in order to reduce time spent in traffic.

The Bad

  • The eProdigy Jasper is simply not the bike for me.
    • Weight
      • At nearly 55 pounds, I found it really cumbersome to move around; I was unable to put it on a rack on either my car or a bus and unable to put it in my car
      • Power assist was needed on the flats to compensate for the weight, and I could only ride without any power assist at all when descending a hill
      • I have concerns about the weight as a safety issue: in a situation where a sudden danger presents itself, it’s hard to imagine being able to maneuver the bike as nimbly as can sometimes be needed in order to avoid accident and injury
    • Geometry
      • While it is true that I enjoyed the upright riding position of this bike, which is partially the result of the bike’s geometry, I do suspect that the geometry plus the weight contributes to the overall clumsy experience riding, that feeling of a lack of nimbleness that evoked safety concerns as I mentioned. I’ll need to test this theory when I test ride other e-bikes.
    • Lights
      • Love that the front headlight is powered by the bike’s battery, though the mount isn’t well-designed. The screw where the light pivots comes loose very easily due to vibrations of the bike.
      • Also, it seems silly that a rear light is not provided and powered also by the bike’s battery: I REALLY don’t like burning through AAA batteries.

So, I handed my bike in this morning and I was a little sad to do it

It didn’t help one bit that this had to be done on the first day of spring, as the number of rainy days decrease, the daylight hours increase, trees are exploding with buds and blossoms…

…heavy sigh.

But, I’ll probably be buying my own e-bike soon, so hopefully I’ll be back in the saddle before too long.

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!

 

 

Viking E-Bikes, Vol. 3: The Good & The Bad

eprodigy-bikeI confess, thanks to holiday interruptions, snow, and general laziness, it’s been several weeks of not riding my Viking E-Bike.

(As the title of this post suggests, this is the third installment in my continuing series on my experiences with this loaner electric assist bicycle.)

BUT…this week I’ve been back in the saddle, despite freezing temperatures, and I have some Goods & Bads to report:

The Good

  • There’s simply no way, at least in my current state of fitness, that I’d be able to do my 5-mile each way commute without the power assist.
  • I am still getting a workout, since I’m only using just enough power assist to make the hills manageable. And, with research suggesting that riders of e-bikes, on average, may get as much exercise as riders of conventional bikes — because they ride more often and for longer distances — I’m excited about getting in better shape!
  • The upright riding position of the eProdigy Jasper is incredibly comfortable! After riding a hybrid bike with mountain bike geometry for 20+ years, I can’t believe I went so long just tolerating how uncomfortable and fatiguing the hunched over riding position was.
  • The suspension — Suntour front fork combined with seat post suspension — does a nice job of smoothing out the ride, especially welcome as some of the road shoulder along my commute route is bumpy and pothole-ridden.
  • The factory installed front headlight provides excellent visibility; critical given that the time of year has me riding to and from work in the dark. That it’s powered by the bike motor’s battery and there’s no need to change AAs or AAAs or whatever all the time is a big plus.
  • Though I haven’t braved the rain yet (forecast says this ends on my commute home this Friday), I can already tell that the full front and rear fenders will be great to have. Additionally, this bike has unusual side fenders that I’ve never seen before, two plastic panels on either side of the rear wheel, and I’ll be interested to see how they contribute to rain protection.
  • The throttle is a nice feature. With the bike as ridiculously heavy as it is (see below), if you’re at a stop, in traffic, it can be a lifesaver, to get you off the line and out of the way of cars, trucks, and buses, especially on hills.

The Bad

  • As mentioned in my last Viking E-Bikes post, the eProdigy Jasper is WAY, WAY too heavy for my taste. Pushing the thing around is ridiculously clumsy and laborious, riding it on the flats feels like the brakes are engaged, it feels like I’m riding a motorcycle, or at least a scooter. It gives the bike, despite the motor, an incredibly sluggish feeling, but worse, from a safety perspective, it feels like it would be very difficult to maneuver in a crisis moment that demands a quick, agile, response.
  • No factory installed rear light seems odd, given the front light is included. (Luckily the Viking E-Bikes program outfitted their bikes with well-made third party rear lights.)
  • The experience of shifting gears and adjusting the power assist level feels like it’s not engineered well. While I’ve not ridden other electric bikes, I HAVE read a lot of reviews, and smooth shifting and level adjusting is a primary desire, and while the eProdigy Jasper got good marks for this when it was reviewed, I find the process choppy and annoying. This could possibly be the fault of the shop — where these bikes are tuned up quarterly — not having adjusted the gears correctly.
  • Several other shop-related and no fault of the manufacturer problems: 1. The rear wheel is WAY out of true and wobbly, not fun or safe on icy roads or in the rain, and so the bike is headed back to shop today for this and the other issues; 2. The brakes are spongy, and are either not adjusted correctly or the pads need replacing; 3. There is a clicking sound coming from the front wheel, could be a loose spoke; 4. The chain guard is broken and the chain is rubbing on it when in the lowest gears.
  • The LCD display is annoying and I don’t like it. Unlike many e-bike riders who LOVE all technology (some bikes come with an app with which you can communicate with the bike using your smartphone), when I’m on a bicycle I don’t want the IT in my face. For the duration of my ride I do not need to know the time, the temperature, the speed at which I’m traveling, the number of miles I’ve ridden, etc. The battery level is useful, but redundant, since there is a battery level indicator on the battery itself, and one learns very quickly just how much they can ride between charges. Finally, the display on my bike obviously needs recalibrating, as the time and speedometer are incorrect, and I just can’t be bothered to figure out how to do that.
  • It would be great if the bike came with something to help you hold things on the rear rack. Oh, it can accommodate panniers, but sometimes you just want to go for a spin without all the luggage. A simple built-in bungee device, like I’ve seen on other rear racks would be very functional.

The Somewhere In Between

  • The step-through frame takes some getting used to: my conditioning as a male has me stupidly feeling emasculated, but I can’t shake it. Hopefully that will fade. Also, I just simply forget and swing my leg up and over for no good reason.

So, there it is, the initial assessment.

I’ll be generating more observations over the next 10 weeks I’ll be riding, and I’ll include in my last post in this series an updated Goods & Bads list, comparing the before and after.

Until next time…!

 

Viking E-Bikes, Vol. 2: Kicking It Off With A Bang!

viking-e-bike-displaySo, this cool thing happened!

I wrote last week that I’d signed up for the Viking E-Bikes program at the university where I work, I initially was supposed to get my 10-week loaner e-bike at the beginning of January, but one of the Fall Quarter riders turned their bike in early, so I got it yesterday!

And not only did I get the bike sooner than I expected, I got one helluva ride on it sooner than I expected.

I’ll explain.

I knew I would be picking the bike up on campus during the day, but I needed to get to campus for work in the morning, and so I drove my car with the bike rack attached, thinking I’ll just take it home and ride it in the morning.

Well, 5pm arrives, I ride the bike to my car, prep the bike rack, I go to lift the bike onto the rack, but I’m reminded instantly that the bike weighs 52 lbs, and with it’s odd geometry…

eprodigy-bike

…it wouldn’t fit on the bike rack even if I could hold it up long enough to secure it.

So, I pop the hatch of my Subaru Forester, lay the back seats down flat, and after risking a hernia and/or herniated disc, I gave up trying to fit the bike on or inside the car.

By now it’s 5:15, it’s dark out, I was supposed to meet someone somewhere about a mile away at 5:15, I call, they are ok pushing that to 5:30, but then I’m supposed to meet someone else, somewhere else, an additional 2 miles away at 6pm, and then finally I needed to go 5 more miles to my home.

I was not mentally prepared for this at all. Despite years as a hardcore bicycle commuter — rain, shine, light, dark, cold, hot — I suddenly needed to ride this e-bicycle, that was totally alien to me, in the dark, cold night, for a total of 7 miles.

Luckily, it wasn’t raining (unusual this time of year in Bellingham), and I did have with me sufficient cold-weather clothing, including gloves, and a headband to cover my ears under the helmet.

So, how did it go?

While I already don’t like a few things about the eProdigy Jasper, the overall experience was…

…exhilarating!

To be able to cover that much ground on a spur of the moment, including several sizeable hills, to make it on time to my appointments and then safely home without feeling like I’d run a marathon, to struggle for a little bit with feeling like I was cheating, using a motor like that, but to then let go of that struggle as I noticed that I was totally getting exercise, pedaling the whole time, using the minimal power assist levels as much as possible … all of that added up to a really fun time!

This morning, as I prepared to ride to work and then pedaled off, leaving the car behind, I felt that familiar, awesome feeling that had sustained me as a bicycle commuter for so many years, that I was doing my part, however small it seemed in the big picture, to reduce my carbon footprint and help usher in the era of transportation based on renewable energy.

As I mentioned last week, I’ll be blogging semi-regularly about my e-bike experience from now through March, so stay tuned for Volume 3 of my Viking E-Bikes series!

 

Viking E-Bikes: Putting The “Bicycle” Back In Fish & Bicycles!

Viking-E-Bike-logo-2gjswx5-200x200When I first started writing Fish & Bicycles, back in 2009, I’d already been employed by Western Washington University (WWU, Western) for nine years, and I was a devoted bicycle commuter.

Rain, shine, even snow…it was a point of great environmentalist pride, as well as the absolute best way to squeeze exercise into a ridiculously busy schedule.

But sadly, over the past two years of my now 17-year tenure at WWU, due to a combination of having moved much further away from campus, some injuries and health issues, and simply a loss of mojo for getting out on a bicycle in Bellingham’s famously wet weather, I gradually stopped my daily bike commute.

Enter, Western’s Viking E-Bike program!

I’ve been considering purchasing an electric pedal-assist bicycle for some time, thinking that the power assistance, only as needed, for the several hills along my 5-mile commute route, would be just the thing to get me back in the saddle, but with price tags ranging from $1,000-$4,000 or more, it was no easy decision.

So, when I learned about the Viking E-Bike program, when I learned that I could apply to have a loaner electric bicycle for an entire 10-week academic quarter, I jumped at the chance, applied, and was just accepted!

I had my orientation this week, in preparation for the start of my 10 weeks near the beginning of January, and I can already tell that this will be an incredible opportunity to evaluate an e-bike, learn how to use one, learn what features I like and don’t like on the eProdigy Jasper bicycle that I’ll be riding (which will guide my eventual purchase of some bike by some to-be-determined manufacturer), and whether or not the power assistance will be enough to get me back to a daily cycling commute.

Given that it’s wintertime, it will be one helluva test, and new rain gear is already on my holiday gift wish list.

I’ll be blogging about my experiences here, so keep an eye out for “Viking E-Bikes” in my post titles!

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