A couple people have asked me over the years how i managed to get into this hobby. Figured i’d jot it all down before i forget.
I have been a pretty regular commuter bicyclist for over a decade. I started seriously bicycling at age 18. I lived in a small town in California that was 18 miles from the city center of the next real city. I grew up pretty poor, and could not find a job in my little town that seemed like it was mostly a retirement community, and did not have a car. The bus schedule was very inconvenient, it ran only twice a day. And took over an hour to get to where i needed to go. I could not hold a job if i took the bus, so i was out of luck.
I bought a used Trek mountain bike, took the bus out there, and pushed myself one day to ride back from the next town. It was grueling. I was 250lbs and out of shape at that age.. I barely made it home. . it was sort of like a struggle for my life!
But i kept at it, and was eventually able to do the 18 mile trip in an hour. So, i decided to go get a job in the next town, and that was that… i was a bicycle commuter. I did that commute for 5 years until i had the cash to comfortably move to the next city over.
Fast forward to age 26. I had a car then, and decided to leave California. I had heard of electric bikes and though that they were awesome. Rode a few, saw some overpriced $1,500 250w bionx kits that you could add onto the bike and felt that it was not worth the money at all. I liked the idea, but was not interested in spending that kind of money for a bike that would have such a short range. I really wanted to go exploring long distances beyond what my body was capable of, and the expensive bionx kit was just not able to do that.
At age 28, i saw a video of the killacycle on youtube. I was literally shocked at what batteries and electric motors were capable of, and immediately descended into electric vehicle lunacy. I googled ‘a123 electric bicycle’ to see if someone had built a more powerful bicycle, and came across the endless sphere forum ( http://endless-sphere.com ).
I fell in love with the forum immediately. Asked a bunch of stupid newbie questions, browsed a bunch of people’s ebike builds, and set forth to do what these people were doing. I did not have much of a budget at that point, but wanted to build an electric bicycle in order to crest the big hill between Beaverton, Ore. and Portland, Ore. in order to evade extremely high parking fees and high prices of taking the electric light rail into town.
I was no stranger to dealing with electronics. My mother did stained glass as a hobby, and my father was into DIYing all kinds of various non-electrical things, so there were many of the right tools to get started on this hobby hanging around the house.. I had learned to use my mother’s soldering iron well before i hit 8 years old. As a child, i used to buy / be given broken electronics in order to figure out what was in them, and maybe learn something about how they worked. Eventually i would learn how to modify cheap keyboards from the 1980’s and 1990’s by adding switches that would rewire parts of the synthesizer’s ICs to other nearby ICs, producing a variety of twisted and glitchy sounds in the process! This lead to a dual interest in electronics and producing electronic music, using my computer, my variety of $10 keyboards, plus my dad’s guitar effects pedals. Some of these sounds can be heard in my music today. One example is below:
So, let’s just say that i was confident in my abilities to build an electric bicycle with an even longer range from a Chinese kit for $700, instead of the $1,500 kit that bionx was trying to sell at the time. This was going to be far easier than my projects from the past; i would just have to learn some bicycle mechanic skills along the way.
I ordered up a 250w geared kit from cell_man ( now running a webstore at http://em3ev.com ) for a meager $150 + shipping. Then, i ordered up an iCharger 1010b+ and 4 5S 20C Turnigy lipo batteries from hobbyking ( http://hobbyking.com ) after reading up about how to use RC lipos as an ebike battery.
After some of wrench turning, a bit of soldering, and learning my way around the iCharger 1010b+.. My first bike was built! I was so excited to get it going, and so excited to see if i could make it up the hill to Portland, Ore!
I did make it up the giant hill to Portland, with the motor straining to make it up. Normally i would be walking up the hill, so that was impressive at the time. But the bicycle only did 18 miles per hour – about as fast as i could pedal, so it really did not help me on flat ground. I also did not have suspension and the bike’s brakes were incredibly inadequate. I realized that i did not have a capable enough bicycle or motor immediately, but was still happy with the result. At least i COULD get to Portland now! The bike put a smile on my face up hills, but a frown on the flats.
I was HOOKED. I had contacted cell_man and asked him for a stronger controller to push the motor to 350w, but he talked me into getting a MAC motor. I was happy to justify the cost, and my batteries would push the motor fine. So i ordered up a MAC kit and hooked it up to a new bike, getting a nearby friend to cut me some custom torque plates. for the new bike.
Cell_man had either accidentally or intentionally programmed the controller to do 46A, so this new kit was doing >1700W out of the box! It was extremely fast to me, doing a top speed of 28mph while pedaling! The bike was not only powerful, but light enough to easily take up the stairs. Loved it!
I tried adding a small frame bag to extend my range by adding more lipo packs.. i wanted to go to Portland fast, and not worry about range anxiety, and i did it!
I experimented with an ammo box to hold my batteries, even making a custom platform to do it. A local friend welded up the platform. This did not work so well; it had a lot of side to side movement and was very heavy.. and we didn’t know where to go from there as our fabrication skills were both lacking.
My girlfriend ( now wife ) told me about this FalconEV frame bag that some odd company was selling, so i ordered one up because i was very tired of my battery bouncing around. Once fitted, i noticed that the battery was no longer acting as a counterweight and no longer bounced around. And it could fit a ton of capacity! I was in love, and jammed as many RC Lipo packs into the bag as i could so that i could get to Portland and back quickly, and in comfort! I became a lifelong fan and advocate of these frame bags, when many people were still using rear racks to carry their batteries. Eventually, my enthusiasm caught on with others.
This bicycle received gradual upgrades as years went by. I upgraded the frame to a larger one, found the best puncture proof tires in the world ( Schwalbe Marathon Plus ) and fitted them to both wheels. Upgraded the suspension. Fine tuned the motor power and gear ratios to be just perfect. This bike was capable of doing 38mph for long periods of time once i was done. It was light, dependable, and about as comfortable as a 26″ hardtail can be. I was pretty happy with it.
Eventually, i wanted to play with some real power. I built a 20″ wheeled magic pie bike with a 120v battery to climb pike’s peak, because we lived in Colorado Springs, CO. at the time, and there was a bicycle race up the hill. The bicycle was mind blowingly fast, and a then-270lb. me could barely hang on to the thing. It could hit 42mph and maintain that speed, or climb 10% grades at 30-35mph. Hitting the throttle was like being shot out of a cannon.
Since then, We had moved to Utah. I had experimented with various motors to see if there was anything better out there. The bicycle above could push 7000W of power and 52mph, and did not do power wheelies like the other.. but it was too heavy, had a huge turning radius, and ultimately i ended up injuring myself on it due to the front wheel slipping into a railroad track that was nearly parallel to the road at 20mph, which i could not avoid. I flew off the bike and took a tumble on pavement, being peeled off the road by a passerby. My body has never been the same since, i injured my knee, a shoulder, both wrists all in one go. I still have difficulty extending one knee since that. I concluded that the long wheelbase of this bike might have been fun at high speed because it was so motorcycle-stable, but was dangerous, because when i tried to turn my bike at such an angle that i could avoid my wheel being sucked into the 4in. wide track, i could not sharp turn fast enough.
I licked my wounds. Decided that my 270lbs weight was too much. Started a low carb diet, to try to reduce the weight on my knee in order to help it heal. Lost a lot of weight in just one year. Started physical therapy after a year of suffering, and set to get back on the steed yet again.
This time, i wanted comfort and something that felt like a bicycle. Mid drives were becoming popular, so i went with a Bafang BBS02 on a $250 turner dual suspension bike frame. The ride and handling of this dual suspension bike was excellent, especially offroad and it also did not hurt my wrists to ride it. But the motor was not powerful enough for me to travel along the 40mph streets i lived near safely, and the wide pedaling stance hurt my already damaged knees. So i had not reached ebike nirvana just yet.
I had heard about a new 1500W 90% efficient hub motor by a company called ‘leaf motor’. Nobody on the endless sphere forum had played with it. A lot of people thought it was a usual 80% efficient low quality Chinese hub motor, including myself. I drilled the company with questions to see if the 90% efficiency was true. By the spec sheet, the motor would actually be capable of 2000W continuous power, yet it was as heavy as other motors that could only sustain 1250W continuous. I ordered one up to satisfy my curiosity.
The motor turned out to be the real deal. It had no problem doing up to 45mph using the ‘120%’ timing advance setting on my controller, and i could tell that it was capable of more, AND it also sipped watts, where the crystalyte on the red bike guzzled them!
It turned out that it could maintain 40mph on flat ground and climb very steep, very long hills at 30mph or above. I found that it could confidently cruise at 40mph for long periods of time, even burst to 45mph continuous for a few miles in between if i needed to keep up with high speed traffic where no bicycle lane is available, or if a bicycle lane is around, i can pedal along at 20mph and extend my range significantly.
I gradually tuned the power and speed limiting switches to correspond to various high efficiency points which were found by looking at a dyno graph of the motor and correlating those wattage figures with speeds in mph. Now, i have speed, hill climbing, long range, comfort, braking, and good handling all in one bike. What more could you ask for? In short… after 4 years of experimentation, i have arrived at electric bicycle nirvana.
Other than fine-tuning this bike by throwing some nicer parts at it, like a fox racing fork, a better front brake, upgrading to a newer type of battery, etc. I believe that i am done. It is time to take electric vehicles to a higher level and begin working on a motorcycle or car. Yup, this story has a happy ending 🙂
Thanks for reading! – David