The Pacific Fleet

or… I Have Too Many Damn Ebikes

Since I got back into bikes (thanks to ebikes being a viable platform to let this cardiac-issues ex-cyclist start riding again), I have gotten right back into building bikes up, oftentimes from scratch. At this point I really have to stop simply because I have no more room to park the things.

Up to this point I have only written about my Mongoose Envoy, a very recent arrival, and have just begun getting into my Surly Big Fat Dummy, which is more recent still.

What else is in the stable? I’ll do some very quick mentions here and then over time branch out and describe each more fully in separate posts.

The Great Pumpkin

So named because of its very nice bright candy orange color (done at a local powder coat shop for next to nothing) you can call this one my third generation of 2wd bikes. Twin 35a controllers. A single custom-built 30ah 52v (14S9P) battery with a BMS able to handle 90a continuous current. Twin 750w-rated geared hub motors that commonly peak (each) at over 1700w. This bike accelerates like a bullet if I let it do so. But to keep the frame in one piece and me from being launched into traffic I have toned down both motors. Now I am merely the first vehicle to the other side of the intersection after a stoplight turns green.

It has synchronized dual pedal assist as well as brake cutoffs that individually shut off both motors on application. It has thousands of miles on it; all street commuting. Gearing is set up for 34 mph at about 70 rpm cadence. That is just a bit faster than the motors can power the bike, so if I want to cruise down the street at 30+ mph I have to work at it a bit more than you would think for a fairly high powered ebike. I get a strong workout due to this gearing.

The frame is a chromoly Chumba Ursa Major, with a Surly Ice Cream Truck front fork where the brake adapter on that fork was specially modified to get around the ICT’s rear-wheel brake spacing.

2Fat

While the build of this bike pre-dates The Great Pumpkin, it was actually designed as a next-gen design to follow another 2wd bike (see the Purple Thing below) that pre-dated both bikes. So if the Pumpkin is 2wd 3.0, this one is 2wd 2.0. This one does not have the single unified battery, and its handlebar config is not as well done (two clocked-position throttles are on the left grip instead of one on each thumb… I hadn’t discovered shifters that would allow me to do the latter yet). However, it also sports a 30a, 1750w mid drive powering the back, and has the same fat hub motor as the Pumpkin powering the front. It too has dual pedal assist, but done in a completely different way given the dissimilar motors and controllers. 2Fat was created because of the learned weaknesses of even a powerful dual geared hub design in hill country. 2Fat was designed to climb walls effortlessly, and it will, without issues of overheating or strain.

100mm custom wheels with a DT 350 Big Ride ratchet rear hub and steel cassette body, Lynskey titanium frame is a prototype made along the lines of Chumba’s Ursa Major ti version of that frame. Possibly it was made as part of a pitch by Lynskey to make the frames for Chumba. Its hard to say for sure so essentially, the frame is unique, or close to it. I do know it is visually almost identical to the Chumba production models except the dimensions do not match any of their production frames.

The Smash

A big departure from my usual bikes. The Smash is a 29er … and a bike with no job. With a 3kw Cyc X1 Pro motor, a 50a ASI BAC800 controller and a 20ah 52v backpack battery, this bike is strictly a hot rod. And no, despite those big power numbers its not as powerful as you might think. Certainly it doesn’t tear up trails. This is one of the last alloy frames Guerrilla Gravity made before switching to carbon fiber later in the same month I placed my order. The MRP Ribbon fork on the front is a jewel. Also has a RockShox coil spring, a complete SRAM EX drivetrain and my usual Magura MT5e brakeset.

I’m glad I took these pics right after the build was completed because it will never be this clean again. Ever. Also the pump location and top tube bags only lasted as long as this photoshoot as they violated my ‘festooning’ rule.

The Fixed

An even bigger departure is my Luna Fixed, which despite having custom DT wheels, is largely a factory bike and was bought primarily as a test platform. I fell in love with the design concept (stealth ebike), but it also loved the fact it had an internally geared hub, a Gates belt drive and torque sensing. These were three technologies I had yet to experience and I decided this bike was going to be how I experienced all three on one bike. Its the only ebike I have ever ridden that feels like a road bike from the 1970’s. I re-did the handlebars to a more urban narrow config, added bar ends, changed the stem, saddle and pedals… not a lot else. Its for sale on eBay now as I’m largely done with it, its still effectively new and I never ride the thing.

The Stormtrooper

So named because of its black/white color scheme. The Stormtrooper is just a really nice, simple fat tired ebike – with deep dish 90mm carbon fiber rims. Noteworthy on this bike is that it has plenty of motor and battery cabling running all over the place, but I sheathed the wires (even the brake and shifter lines) in white heat shrink. The matching color effectively hides all the wiring in plain sight for a very clean look. the bike is light and fun, with good range from its mid-sized 12ah potted ‘indestructo’ battery.

This frame was a rescued Motobecane Lurch that was stripped, sand blasted and powder coated.

The Mongoose

One of the few bikes I have written up here, The Mongoose Envoy has its own extensive writeup already. The Pacific Fleet’s first aircraft carrier thanks to the 44″ skateboard deck.

The Big Fat Dummy

The most recent addition to the Pacific Fleet, The Surly Big Fat Dummy is its second aircraft carrier, with a 40″ skateboard deck (and below-deck hangar) putting the length of this behemoth at just over 8 feet. This bike is in the beginnings of its build writeup here on the site.


Sunk

In no particular order, the ships that are no longer in the fleet

Frankenbike

Now in the hands of a friend who needed a ride. Frankenbike was cobbled together from leftover parts from an upgraded electric bike, plus other goodies. It was my first 2-rack cargo-oriented bike. I painted the frame myself using Main Force Pursuit (MFP) Yellow. Google that if you don’t get it. The frame is identical to the Purple Thing, below.

The Stump

Murdered by a careless auto driver who t-boned it and me while I was thoughtlessly riding slow in the bike lane with headlights and after making eye contact. The Stump was a little hotrod that never made it past the initial shakedown cruises before its demise. Paid for by the other driver’s insurance company but left in my possession, I donated the damaged but still fully functional motor to another cyclist who could make good use of it

The Purple … Thing

Essentially this was 2wd 1.5. I transferred my parts from the 2wd 1.0 bike when I cracked the frame, and made a few improvements. Since it was an emergency build to get my daily commuter back on the road, I didn’t do a lot of measuring and took what I could get framewise. It didn’t quite fit me and a year later one of these motors and some of these parts moved to The Great Pumpkin. The frame is still sitting dust-covered in a corner of my garage.

The Colonel

The bike that got me started back on two wheels again and changed my life for the better. A Sondors Original fat ebike whose cost was so low at around $700, I was willing to toss the money out the window and take a chance this whole ebike thing was going to allow me to get back onto a bicycle. By the time my first year was up I had put more than 4000 miles on it. I had also changed out almost every component but the frame, and converted it to 2wd – something you will still see supposedly experienced builders tell you is impossible to properly function for a whole host of reasons that sound smart but are all dumb and wrong, and easily demonstrable as such if you build one with your hands rather than type about one with your fingertips on a keyboard.

The Colonel died with his boots on. After almost 6000 miles on the road, supporting a whole lot more power and speed than it was ever designed to bear by its original Chinese overlords, the rear seatstay cracked at the lower rack boss. My philosophy on frame cracks is not to repair them as where there’s one crack there will likely be more showing up soon. Components were transferred to The Purple Thing along with several upgrades.

I Hate Ebike Torque-Sensing (maybe you should too)

Well, I don’t actually hate it, but I have no love for a technology rooted in cycling’s past, and whose existence, in my opinion, is primarily owed not to the fact that torque-sensing is a better system, but instead as a tool to help persuade an existing customer base (recreational cyclists) not to hate the product (ebikes) quite as much as they already do.

Say what?

What is Torque-Sensing Pedal Assist?

On an ebike, when a torque sensor is used, it applies a strain gauge to the drivetrain (located either inside the bottom bracket, or in the back of the bike near the gear cluster).  This measures the amount of force you apply to your pedaling stroke.  If you pedal (work) harder, the assist you receive is dialed up.  If you pedal more softly – regardless of your cadence – the assist level is reduced or eliminated.

I have heard it said that torque-sensing “rewards pedal effort” and this statement is both correct and indicative of the root problem with its advocacy.  Old school cyclists hate Hate HATE the fact ebikes can allow someone to make forward progress without using their muscles in the first place.  By restricting/keying the assist to physical exertion levels, the fact that a motor exists at all is less difficult to accept – and more easily sold to the existing cyclist population.

It is unfair to say torque-sensing is ONLY about this.  Its not.  You will also hear people say torque-sensing results in the most ‘natural’ bicycle riding experience for them, since you still have to work hard on the pedals.  And the assist increases in proportion to your effort, just like a real bicycle.  An ebike goes faster of course, but a physical work ethic is still demanded.  So to be fair, torque-sensing does indeed give cyclists a familiar experience, and one that they may specifically want.  There is nothing wrong with that.

What is Cadence-Based Pedal Assist?

In its simplest form, its nothing more than this:  Your assist level goes up or down based on how fast the crankarms are turning.  The amount of effort you expend could even be irrelevant if your gearing is low enough.  The only thing that matters is the rotational speed of the pedals/crankarms (strictly speaking it is the spindle’s rotational speed that is measured, but thinking ‘pedal rotation’ is easier to visualize).

So if you want more assist, you just turn your legs faster – not harder.  Again in simple circumstances this means you can get into a low gear and easily ‘ghost pedal’ your ebike, without expending any effort.  So you are breezing right along right up to either the speed limit of the ebike or the road/path you are riding on. 

Such a thing is utterly anathema; deeply, personally hated in the cycling community.  There, your progress and ability is hard earned through what can only be described as prolonged, personal, stoic suffering whose level outsiders neither understand nor hope to match.  Despite the spandex, funny hats and silly shoes, cyclists know they are truly badasses.

Except, fate has dictated these solitary warriors suddenly have to share the road with the Griswolds, blowing past them in their two-wheel Trucksters.  Ebikes democratize cycling so that now… anyone can do it?  WTF!?!

… not a shock the response of cyclists to ebikes has been negative.

Its not so simple

I said above the description of cadence-based pedal assist was in “its simplest form”.  There are some cadence-sensing ebike motors that have settings both complex and rather profound in how they impact the riding experience.  Notice I did not say ‘cycling experience’ because a central tenet of my rejection of torque-sensing is that ebikes are not bicycles.  It is a mistake to treat them as if they should behave the same (unless that is something you expressly want).

img_20191102_131419
Some cadence assist options are at left, and this isn’t even the Pedal Assist screen for this particular motor.  The settings determine assist strength and at what point, based on both speed and rpms, that the assist gets cut back.  Other screens have settings to determine how much the cut-back is, how fast it kicks in and more.  Not at all the simple concept most internet experts describe as their idea of cadence assist.

Torque-Sensing Can Be A Disaster

If you have a physical limitation, torque-sensing doesn’t necessarily help you get past it.  It does help you go faster while working hard.  Studies have shown that ebikers in fact can work nearly as hard as, or even harder than bicycle riders… they just don’t realize it.  Possibly this is due in part to the exhilaration of being able to go faster, and stay in the saddle for longer periods.

Myself, I am a lifelong cyclist.  Or rather, I was.  I commuted daily for decades.  For many years I eschewed the use of an auto.  I commuted and even shopped for groceries by bike (being poor and single had nothing to do with this 🙂 ).  But after a couple of heart attacks, my cycling life was over.  To stay alive, I gave up the intensely personal activity I most valued.  Bummer.

A few years ago, I discovered ebikes, and the one I bought had cadence-based torque sensing.  I had no idea there was another kind of system at the time.  I did something many old-schoolers do not:  I treated the ebike – which looks like a bicycle but is not one –  as a new animal.  I threw out much of of the knowledge on cycling I had acquired, and started over on riding technique.

At the start, pedal effort very quickly led to chest pain and an immediate need to stop doing that.  But I could go on if I dialed up the assist and incrementally lowered my pedal effort, while maintaining forward progress.  This doesn’t work with torque sensing.

I learned to treat the ebike like an exercise machine.  An exercise machine that went places… and was practical transportation.  This approach to riding an ebike and incrementally notching the assist level up and down as needs of the moment dictated solved everything.  The procedure in a nutshell is as follows:

  1. Set a preferred cadence
  2. As heart pain occurs (heart pain /= being tired) click up the assist level so I get closer to or completely ghost pedal the bike – and keep moving
  3. On recovery – I’m good after maybe a half block – ramp down the assist level a click at a time and start working harder again
  4. All the while – maintain the same cadence
  5. Rinse and repeat as the miles click off.

Again, to belabor the point:  This is transportation.  My bike has somewhere to go, so the point of cycling is to reach a destination.  If I was a recreational cyclist then maybe its fine to stop and sit on a bench for awhile.  But the point of riding for me is to get somewhere.  So I must maintain forward progress while managing my exertion level.

Only cadence sensing is going to let you do that (and I know this from experience.  See Afterword below).  Its a totally different riding experience.  In the end, described most simply, you have an exercise machine that is moving.  Again… not a bicycle.

Over time and thru repetition, I scaled back the point where pain occurs to where I was able to change my bike’s gearing.  Now I’m running at top assist speed while maintaining pedal pressure and exertion at all times during the ride.  On my Class 3 daily driver I cruise right at 28-30 mph (legal in my jurisdiction) and I get to those higher speeds above the assist limit by myself.  All along doing so by maintaining a set, preferred cadence.

And if I overdo it, since I am now running this auto substitute at full power, I can just upshift (maintaining cadence on the easier gear) to take a break while only losing a mph or three.  This is a different way to use cadence-assist.  I am not dialing back power: I’m always running at full blast.  Instead I am just varying my pedal effort up and down via gear changes.

What happens to a rider with physical restrictions who tries to depend on a torque-sensing ebike for transport?   You ride, you need a break and an assist and… the bike tells you to fuck off.  Its not going to help unless you work hard enough to deserve a reward.  So much for dependable transportation.

Broadening The Use-Case

Cadence sensing isn’t just for recovering invalids.  For the healthy rider, successful use of cadence-based assist as a hard-exercise tool is easily possible, and rooted in that rider not coming into the experience with pre-conceived ideas.  Don’t treat it like a bicycle (yes I am repeating this over and over on purpose).

Using the ebike as an exercise machine as you roll down the road, you’ll be getting fit during time otherwise spent sitting in your car and exercising nothing.  A torque-sensing ebike can do this too… but if the ebike is meant to also be practical transportation, your physical condition of the moment will have a direct impact on whether you make it to your destination.  Not so with cadence assist.

The Future

It took 34 years for the Tour de France to allow bicycles with derailleurs — because not grinding up a slope in the Alps on a single-speed was cheating.

… Isn’t it better to triumph by the strength of your muscles than by the artifice of a derailleur? We are getting soft.

-Henri DesGrange, world-renowned cyclist and original TDF organizer

If someone tried to make that same case today, their opinion would be discarded as fringe idiocy.

So lets take that same interval: 34 years from now, when ebikes have long-since become the accepted norm (just look at the sales figures) as derailleurs did a century ago… will we be espousing technology or methods rooted to the norms of the past?  Will a couple of generations of riders who have known nothing else continue to think of torque-sensing assist as giving a bike a ‘normal’ feel?

My money is on ‘no’.  Or more accurately… sorta-kinda-no.  I think for higher end bikes a dual system could become commonplace, letting riders choose one or the other as they see fit in the moment.  One mode for recreation.  One for transportation.

But if it has to be a this-or-that binary choice, then torque-sensing won’t survive the test of time.  Why?  Sheer weight of numbers, and the growth of the automobile replacement market.  Look at global ebike sales.  Only a small fraction of ebikes are sold in the European and North American markets, where recreational cycling is a thing.  Instead look at the Far East, where bicycles are simply utilitarian transportation and there is no stigma attached to effortless travel.  Whats the norm there?

Cadence-based assist.

 

Afterword

Lest I give the wrong impression… I have an ebike that uses torque sensing, and frankly I love it.  But its a recreational bike, not suited for a bike that has a job.  Going for a fun ride, where I don’t have a problem stopping and sitting down on a bench or a rock for awhile and enjoying my surroundings… Its almost perfect for that.  I wish I had time to ride it more.

But by its nature it can’t be a serious transportation tool.