My previous AWD builds all used effectively the same front wheel setup: A 35a controller mated to a Bafang geared fat motor packing an 80 Nm punch. It was so powerful, on my early commuter bikes I needed to turn down acceleration via a slow-start setting. When I graduated to a combination mid drive+hub, I found best results on rough trails came from the same slow start, but also using the front power sparingly: little if any throttle and gentle PAS.
There things stayed for a few years – roughly from the middle of 2017 to early 2021. During this period I concentrated on riding and refining the use and configuration of these AWD bikes. I built other bikes during this time- all more traditional single-motor mid drives. As part of that work I came up with tuning settings that worked very well with pedaling and a cycling mindset. These changes worked great with the 2Fat AWD bike as well.
With regard to tuning, I concentrated on backing off the BBSHD’s power when delivered in ‘pedelec’ mode: limited use of throttle and pedal assist only. The point of this was to have a bike that did not run away from me, still delivered measurable, useful levels of assist, lacked the common complaints against cadence-type assist and did not suffer from any of the weaknesses of torque-sensing.
When 2021 arrived and I wanted to build a bucket-list bike – the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt cargo bike – I decided to go all out and make it AWD. Further, I wanted to prove a concept I had been mulling over for the last few years. For lack of a better term, lets call it Drama-Free AWD: Not a hot rod, but what a normal person who just wanted a reliable automobile replacement would want to ride.
Its a pretty short list:
Low power High power in a front wheel can be fun, but its not necessary to gain the traction benefits that come with AWD. Use a smaller, lighter, relatively low-powered motor (45 Nm vs. the prior 80 Nm) as part of its design. Also use a smaller controller that peaks at 25 amps rather than the previous 35. Continue to use the slow-start setting to ensure … Drama Free AWD. 25 amps on a smaller diameter wheel will still be a strong assist, but those amps will be rolled on slowly so no surprises.
Fast Wind Front Motor The Bullitt has a 20″ front wheel. A ‘fast wind’ motor favors torque off the starting line at the expense of higher top speed. This is normal for a small wheel build and further solidifies the emphasis on slow, strong startup power that melts away on its own as speed increases.
Toned-Down Rear Motor My revised motor settings keep the BBSHD from engaging until speed reaches 6 mph (9.7 km/h) if I rely on pedal assist. I learned how important that is to drivetrain longevity when I built 2Fat. We’ll re-use those identical settings.
What I Expected
On a bike destined to carry heavy loads, the front motor is intended to get the bike off to a painless start. It does this job very nicely. Despite the relatively low power, it still gets the bike rolling from a stop, and effectively takes out the BBSHD’s shock to the drivetrain when that second motor kicks in at 6 mph (9.7 km/h).
That reduced sting will translate into reduced wear and tear, and reduced parts replacement over time. Its too early to pull hubs apart and look inside to verify this assumption, but since I have seen and verified the effect before on similar hardware, there’s no reason to assume different results.
UPDATE: June 2022. Over 1800 miles / 2900 km later, I am still using the original chain. At about 1300 miles / 2100 km, a check on the rear cluster and cassette (upgraded to the steel DT Swiss body) showed barely any discoloration on the cassette surface... never mind any wear.
It was a short list of things to expect and… it all panned out. But there were also some pleasant surprises. This turned out better than I thought it would.
What Surprised Me
I noted above the motor is ‘fast wind’; built for low-speed torque, not high speed rpms, and how this plays into the smaller front wheel size. Intellectually, thats easy to understand. Less obvious was the fact that, in practice, there will be a lot less motor usage than there was before.
With The Great Pumpkin, I usually run both motors at equal levels (usually full blast) all the time. The bike and flat, straight streets just lend themselves to a high speed cruise. Two identical motors and identical controllers gulping juice from one battery mean a big power drain. No surprise.
With 2Fat, while I reduce power to the front motor, I was often giving the bike hard use on trails. More often than not the bike is fighting its way up a hill, thru a bunch of sand etc.
So even though The Lizzard King is not dramatically different than 2Fat in terms of its configuration, the world it lives in is quite different: level and smooth city streets. Easy acceleration and long periods of the motors spinning fast while running at an efficient cruising speed.
More different still: Off the line, the front motor kicks in slowly and then power melts away as wheel revolutions increase. It pulls strong from zero to about 16 mph. But from 17+, it starts scaling back as the motor approaches its rpm limit. By the time 20 mph rolls around, on typical level 2 assist you are down to about 200 watts of output. By the time you hit 23-24 mph on flat ground, wattage to the front wheel has minimized to a steady… 38 watts. Just enough of a dribble to ease the wheel’s free spin.
If you hit an incline, you’ll slow down a tad and see wattage output creep up again. But rolling down the street on the flats, the front motor takes itself out of the picture. Its time for…
… The rear motor to kick in. As noted, pedal assist does not engage the rear motor until it reaches 6 mph. So when the front motor is eating the most juice, the rear motor hasn’t even started. As the mid kicks in and spools up, the hub begins making its graceful exit.
The two motors never really run hard together at the same time, unless climbing a hill (or I force the issue via using the two throttles). Then you can see watts climb on the front rather than fading away. Cruising at an energetic cadence around 24+ mph , you are on the single rear motor, being given a small boost from the front motor (remember those 38 watts?).
With the two motors staying out of each others’ way, this translates to an overall reduction in expected battery drain, consisting of both reduced peak and continuous draws. It gets better though.
The rear BBSHD is also using a lot less power than its siblings in The Pacific Fleet.
At 20 mph, on PAS 2 in the front and maybe PAS 4 or 5 in the back, looking at both displays, I can see 250-300w being output from the rear motor, and another 150-200w being output from the front. 500w or kess are being drawn between the two motors, on a great big cargo bike. All the way up and down the speed curve, watt and amp output for the BBSHD is much less than it is on any of my other bikes.
Not So Fast!
All of this wonderfulness is only true when running under pedal assist. If I mash the rear throttle the BBSHD will, as usual, peg the output gauge until I release. And that means it will burn thru my battery range lickety-split. Not a surprise. There is no free lunch in this world, but if we stay off the throttle we still get a hefty discount.
And I still configured my big single battery (custom-built for this bike) to the usual theoretical limits: A 25a peak front controller and a 30a peak rear controller mean I must have a battery management system with a bare minimum of a 55a continuous rating, and preferably 60 (mine is 70). I would rather not take any chances, but clearly I have a bigger safety margin than I figured on originally.
And despite the capability of the bike, reality is it rides more comfortably around 20 mph. So power consumption is lower still simply because of the type of bike it is. But the big takeaway is its lower power use is lower across the board. It was an unexpected gain in efficiency, but looking back on it, it should not have been. The benefit was hidden by my hard use of the other bikes.
Should a commercial bike be made with this Drama Free AWD kind of approach in mind, a thoughtfully designed system could manage power in such a way as to map out the curves on the individual motors. Develop something that never bumps into the limits of a much more conventional BMS. That makes for a battery system less expensive and easier to source in volume. And a street machine is going to have lower power needs than is generally understood to be the case with an AWD bike.
Lower power means safety for the casual rider, lower cost and smaller battery sizes.
Lower power on a street bike could look like – in the USA at least – dual motors fitted to bikes that still remain legal within both federal manufacturing standards and individual state vehicle codes. A 249w front motor and a 500w rear for example. Or even a 250/350.
Whats the Takeaway?
The fact that I can operate a great big bike like The Lizzard King at power levels well below allowed USA ebike power limits is testimony to the fact that viable, useful AWD can operate well within the legal framework of ebikes in this country.
Just because you have two motors does not mean they both have to be running simultaneously at full blast. Turns out… not doing that can be kind of a big deal.
So, my Gen 1, 1.5 and 3 bike layouts are all twin geared hub designs. What was Gen 2?
750w, 35a geared Bafang G060 front hub motor
30a BBSHD mid drive
52v, 12.5ah rear motor battery in triangle
52v, 12.5ah front motor battery on rack top
Batteries connected in parallel to form a single ‘virtual’ 25ah power source to both motors
KT and Bafang displays
160Nm rear… 80 Nm front (do the math on that one!)
I live part-time in two towns: The first, an extended work visa, is in Fresno California, smack in the middle of California’s San Joaquin Valley and flat as a table. I built The Colonel, The Purple Thing and The Great Pumpkin for commuting in Fresno.
After a fashion, I finally was able to get a big enough bike rack on the back of my SUV to bring the Colonel to my actual home in Pacific Grove, California. My house is at the top of the hill there. Unlike in Fresno, nothing in or around the area is flat. You are either going up a steep hill, or down one, or both.
My intention was to be able to use the Colonel like I did in Fresno, as local errand transport and a light duty cargo-shopper. Unfortunately, I found out the first day about the limitations of hub drives: They suck in hills.
Hubs are Single Speed
Hub drives power an ebike via the axle. They don’t – and they can’t – use the gears of the bike. Forcing a single speed hub motor up a hill makes it just as miserable as a human stuck with no gears. So even though I have very powerful hubs, and they were geared hubs that put down the most torque of any on the market… they still struggled. Even with two of them. I could hear the gears groaning inside the motor casings and I could tell that, while I could get up the hills, my motors were not happy about it. I did not want to lug them into an early grave. I had already gone to a lot of trouble to make the bike bulletproof and had no desire to ignore the problem and inevitably kill it.
I Need To Build a New Bike
Everybody knows mid drives are the solution to the hill problem for an ebike. A hub motor is single speed and at least relatively weak on torque, but a mid drive uses the gears in the drivetrain, plus it has double or more the torque output of a hub, and thats before you factor in the multiplier of the gears. Wonderful right? Except mid drive motors – especially DIY builds – are notorious for putting drivetrains into an early grave. Why? Well because they pour a LOT more power through the chainring, chain, rear cluster and cassette body (i.e. “the drivetrain”) than a bicycle was ever meant to withstand.
A normal cyclist can pump out maybe 300 watts for a minute or so, but typically normal sustained – strong – output is about 100 watts.
EU-market electric motors must peak at 250w of output to stay legal (pssst… they don’t).
A 25-amp BBS02 on a 48v system puts out in excess of 1250 watts peak
Your garden variety 30-amp BBSHD running under a 52v battery is peaking – and can sustain – about 1750 watts of output.
That gives some perspective on how much abuse is heaped upon a drivetrain with a mid drive. Coming off the successful builds of The Colonel (v1.0) and the Purple Thing (v1.5), I knew AWD reduced load on the individual motors dramatically when they work together as a team.
Given that, I thought about how I could use a front hub to reduce or eliminate the shock that a mid-drive puts onto the ebike’s drivetrain. Not only would I gain the traction benefits of AWD, and the benefit of reduced load from the team effort – things I already knew were a big positive – the front hub would also, if used in a slightly different way, provide an important added benefit: eliminating all the extra wear and tear that goes with having a mid drive.
If it worked, it would give me a bike with all the original AWD performance benefits, plus the ability to effortlessly climb walls, without tearing the bike up.
SPOILER ALERT: It worked unbelievably well.
In fact this bike is a showcase on how AWD can almost eliminate mid-drive wear and tear. Making a bike that climbs hills and bombs trails really well is almost an afterthought.
So that is what I am going to focus on here in this article. What was built and how was it used?
Briefly, this bike is the Great Pumpkin on the front wheel, and a typical mid-drive installation on the back. In between is the usual extra wiring scattered all over the place to deal with powering two motors, set up dual PAS etc..
The Front Motor
2Fat has another Bafang G060 80Nm front fat motor installed – this time its inside of a custom-built 100mm double-wall Weinmann (branded as an Origin8) rim. Go fat or go home. Attached are the same two torque arms as seen on the Pumpkin’s installation, and once again the controller is sitting in a grommeted handlebar bag that doubles as a wallet/keys/phone holder. It also serves to disguise the uncut steering tube I used to give me a more upright – but not too upright – riding position.
Different from the Pumpkin is the battery setup. This bike was built before the v3.0 Pumpkin came onto this Earth (The Purple Thing had just been born). So, lacking the wherewithal to commission a big custom battery for the triangle, I used two packs, one for each motor. The front motor’s 12ah 52v battery was located in the rack trunk at the back of the bike. I had already learned I did not want to put a battery on the front rack as it made the steering too heavy. The rear motor’s 17.5ah pack was in the triangle.
Additionally, due to the very low standover of 2Fat’s Large sized frame thanks to its top tube (it is a titanium, USA-made Chumba Ursa Major) there is not enough room to plug in a properly big battery in the triangle to handle both motors. So I had to do two batteries and live with the awful choice of putting one on the back rack.
After running the two dissimilar, separate batteries from its initial build in 2017 to March 2021, I switched to two identical, now-parallel’d-together packs in the same locations. Each is 12.5ah (14S6P) with Samsung 25R cells. Each has a 50a continuous BMS. As such, the system has a single 25ah power supply with a BMS capable of handling 100 continuous amps. Considering I can never peak past 65, I’m in great shape. I purchased the packs from Bicycle Motorworks, who builds their packs in the USA and constructs them at time of order.
Running battery packs in parallel should only be done by those who have done the research and know exactly what they are getting into. In this case, both packs are identical, being manufactured to-order together, and have the same charge cycle count. Their voltages were matched before they were joined and there is some additional babysitting that will be necessary for charging and balancing. If you can avoid running packs in parallel and use just one battery: Do that instead.
Using two entirely separate batteries is a kludge and your last resort. Not only will you have to charge them separately, you will also draw down the two batteries separately at different rates which will result in uneven remaining power, lesser range and more frequent recharges.
The Rear Motor
This is pretty much your garden-variety 52v BBSHD installation. It has a couple of nice spiffs in the form of a 42T Lekkie Bling Ring, and Lekkie Buzz Bars, but neither of those things are a requirement of the AWD approach we’re discussing here.
The rear wheel is another matching Weinmann 100mm rim, again with DT Champion 2.0 spokes and 16mm brass nipples. The rear hub is a DT 350 Big Ride, which has sealed cartridge bearings and has been upgraded to a steel cassette body. Additionally a 9-speed Shimano HG400 cluster gives me steel cogs literally welded together into a single cluster, that spreads the enormous torque of the BBSHD across the entire steel cassette body. The DT350’s ratchet engagement mechanism is one of the few known bombproof rear hub mechanisms when faced with the power of the Dark Side 30a BBSHD motor.
A solid rear wheel build with extra strength parts throughout is crucial to a successful mid drive ebike.
The Special Bits
There is a bit more that went into making these motors work together. The complete integration possible on the Pumpkin thanks to the use of identical motors and controllers wouldn’t work here.
Trying to share cutoff signals between the motors again – using adapters for the red-to-yellow connections found on the BBSHD – resulted in bricking both motors. I tried everything to share the signals. It can’t be done unless you are willing to install a second, independent set of hydraulic magnet style cutoffs, zip tied to the integrated MT5e cutoffs and connected via a ‘y’ further down the line. That would work but it would look like crap, for very little benefit over what I ended up doing: I set up the front brake to engage the front motor cutoff, and the rear – with a red-to-yellow HIGO adapter – to cut off the rear motor. Since I always use both levers to do my braking I get an effective result.
PAS for the BBSHD is built into its motor casing, so it just works. PAS for the front motor was another matter entirely. Ordinarily the assist disc and sensor runs on the right-hand, drive side of the bike and hides behind the front chainring. This is not possible with the BBSHD’s secondary gear housing being there instead. So PAS had to be made to work on the left hand side. The KT controller has left-hand PAS sensor installation settings.
What was needed then was a left-hand install. This was quite a bit trickier, since the 120mm motor running in front of 5″ tire-compatible chainstays had zero extra spindle length to mount the disk. Lacking a bottom bracket cup to mount the PAS sensor ring, I set it behind a second inner lockring – I used two inner lock rings stacked like jam nuts rather than the usual inner+outer ring. These doubled inner rings had the secondary benefit of being a more aggressive, solid mounting for the motor.
With the sensor mounted, next I had the sensor ring to deal with. As noted above… there was no length available period for the sensor disk as the crankarms mounted pretty much flush to the bottom bracket.
The eventual solution involved hogging out the center of the PAS sensor disc so it could sit on the inner flange of the Lekkie crankarm instead of the spindle. I prepped the crankarm with… thin strips of thick duct tape so the disk would sit tightly on the flange. It was a bodge but it worked, and with just one improvement since installation in 2017 it has held perfectly. That improvement is a zip tie to help hold the disk steady in position (of course I used a zip tie. We have duct tape in the mix; all thats missing is a zip tie).
Worth noting: I used this identical PAS ring mounting when I built the Lizzard King AWD cargo bike in 2021. Not only did I have enough extra spindle so I did not have to do this surgery on the ring, I also realized I could unscrew and reverse the sensor in its mounting ring. This eliminated the need to use the reverse settings in the display/controller. Since the inset ring was reversed, it was outset now… and that held the sensor closer to the magnets (they work fine inset as seen here, but closer is better).
Here’s where the eagle-eyed may spot a preview of how I ride this bike to soften up the mid drive.
On the right, we have the grip, then the brake lever, followed by the 9-speed shifter. Here again we see a v2.0 feature that v3.0 fixed: A SRAM drivetrain gives us a SRAM, not Shimano shifter. The Shimano shifter needs so much real estate on the grip it is impossible to put a throttle on that side of the handlebars. Look at the cockpit of The Great Pumpkin and the Lizzard King to see how a SRAM shifter solves this and lets me do one throttle per thumb.
Being unable to do that at the time – and believe me I tried EVERY possible combination of throttles. I still have most of them in a box in my garage. I settled on two styles of thumb throttle, side by side on the left, with the innermost throttle being for the hub/front and the outermost for the BBSHD/rear. As for the eagle-eyed part: The front throttle is cocked higher so between that and its longer throw, it is engaged first and when at 100% it follows the natural curve of my thumb. Both throttles can then be at 100% and my hand stays comfortable at WFO.
How To Ride It
At last we get to the point!
I already let the cat out of the bag earlier: The biggest deal associated with this bike is not that it can climb really well (REALLY well). Nor is its ability to handle trails and rotten conditions its star quality.
No, the real point of having a mid drive teamed with a front hub motor is to use that hub motor to take the shock off the drivetrain that mid drives deliver. Do that and you also take away the excess wear and tear on the parts (if we are being fair, a lot of this comes from doofus riders who don’t know what they are doing).
When starting, start with the hub
This is most of the deal right here. Don’t make the mid drive haul the bike up from a dead stop. Its got the torque to do it. But everything takes a beating in the process. The nylon gears inside of the mid drive. The chainring. The poor chain. The suffering cogs. The cassette body being dug into by the cogs. The pawls inside of the cassette body that are straining against the hub. Your ebike hates you for doing this to it.
By using a mid-drive-strong chain, a steel cluster and a steel cassette body with a ratchet engagement mechanism, we harden the drivetrain to be very tolerant of this abuse. Between that and learning how to use a mid drive, wear and tear really isn’t bad at all. Maybe no worse than a quality analog bike used hard. But still… even with the hardened drivetrain it sure would be nice to take things easier.
By using a hub motor to get the bike rolling – even by just a few mph – we accomplish this mission. Using my pedaling-friendly BBSHD programming or something like it, the BBSHD will not kick in on pedaling until the bike crosses about 5 mph. So from a stop, you hit the front throttle for about one full second. That throttle is cocked up a bit higher on 2Fat to make that a natural move. The bike starts up from its dead stop without any strain on the drivetrain since the BBSHD is not even running. Simultaneously, you also start pedaling. This engages the cassette mechanism.
When speed crosses 5 mph, the BBSHD’s pedal assist now kicks in on a drivetrain that is already engaged. There is no longer a risk of having the motor jerk the chain and smash the cluster into engagement. And with this gentle engagement, the motor starts working on a bike that is already moving. So you get the doubled benefit of a lighter effort against all components to get your fat bike off its fat ass. Instead, you get smooth – and strong – acceleration. The lack of lugging the motor has the further benefit of not generating anywhere near as much heat since the motor is no longer running at low rpms for anywhere near as long. And those nylon gears inside the motor are writing you a nice thank-you card.
Rather than using the throttle, you could also just start pedaling. I have set the KT controller to engage PAS as quickly as possible. Combine that with the BBSHD’s controller being told to hang back for the initial startup, and you have a completely thumbs-off solution that implements at a nice gentle pace.
So… It just works.
Or you can force it! Remember with this setup you have two throttles. There’s no law that says if you need it, you can’t jump the gun and either hit the rear throttle early, or hit it so the motor engages harder than it would have in your designated PAS mode. So if you need a little extra push thanks to an XL load of groceries, or a steep hill, you have options at your disposal.
One of the mantras associated with smart mid drive riding is that you always Always ALWAYS freaking downshift the bike when you come to a stop. The LAST thing you want is to lug the motor up from a dead stop because of all the brutality it visits on your chain, your cogs blah blah blah. So that means you remember to downshift one or two… maybe even three times before you come to a stop. When the light turns green you upshift in sequence one gear at a time as you get back up to speed again. Thus as we all understand: you row thru the gears.
Another rule mid drive mavens repeat ad nauseum is – if you have an 11T small rear cog… stay the hell off of it. Its too small to use on a mid drive. It bogs the bejesus out of the motor from a stop, its too small to be able to get up to speed before the sun sets and if thats not bad enough, the teeny cog on even the steel Shimano clusters is alloy and it is not attached like all the others are. Its an individual. So not only do they dig into the cassette body harder, they die fast. Like Really Fast. As in a few hundred miles tops.
Well, on AWD mid drives like 2Fat, you can forget about all that. Because of the powered front hub doing its part (either thru a quick dab of throttle or just letting PAS start the bike), there is no longer a need to shift at a light. You can forget about the whole process. Just leave it and it’ll be fine as if it was a hub motor! In fact the front motor allows the bike to increase its speed so it gets up and goes fast just like a hub motor does.
I found this out within a day of building the bike, and since then learned from experience the 11T cog will last about 1500 miles before it typically cracks (two so far). Thats not so bad for a readily available US$7 part. And if I wanted it to live longer, well it wouldn’t kill me to go up a gear at a light once in a while.
Wrapping It All Up
2Fat itself is not the ideal example of how to execute this concept. It is a product of when it was built and my knowledge level at that time. In the present day, I for sure would not want to build a bike with two batteries, and if I did I would NEVER put one on the back rack. But thats partly the limits of the frame I used. I came within a hair of using a Salsa Blackborow frame kit for this bike until, at the last minute, this titanium beauty fell into my lap for a song… but thats another story.
Next, I wouldn’t use Shimano components thanks to the real estate problems introduced by the shifter. Instead I’d use SRAM components so I could do one throttle per thumb.
Really the Great Pumpkin with its XL size and XL triangle, plus its SRAM shifters – would be ideal here. But them’s the breaks. This is what I’ve got. Boo hoo.
With that said… I did learn as I went along, and in 2021 I returned to dual motor bikes with the Lizzard King, a bike meant to prove a different kind of AWD could be awesome: You don’t need the 80Nm, 35a punch of the Pumpkin’s or 2Fat’s front hub to gain the benefits of AWD. A low power implementation, done a little differently, should be very effective and appeal to a much broader range of everyday, low-speed, low-drama ebike use. And…