The Blog

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Time for a makeover

After taking my bike out for a great wet ride yesterday, I decided it was time to tear it down and get it painted.  After taking lots of pictures to help me reassemble the bike, I carefully took it all apart cleaning the parts as I took them off.  I used my bio-based solvent that is soy based and works incredibly well.  I was able to get my hands right into the solvent and really work the dirt out without exposing myself to all the nasty odors and caustic contact with my skin.  It was much more fun cleaning parts, knowing that the product I'm now using doesn't hurt the environment or my health.   And I can't brag enough about how well it works!  With an old toothbrush and rag, I got the components spotless!

I had one mishap that dampened the success of the project.  In the process of removing a brazed on bracket that was no longer being used, I managed to tear a small hole in the frame.  On the advice of a friend, I plugged the hole with some epoxy putty and I will sand it down tomorrow before taking it in for sandblasting and painting.   
Guess what color I'm painting my ride?

Here is the seat and the handlebars with more wires and cables than you can imagine.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Green Rider Presentation to Woodside High School

 This morning I made a presentation to two classes at my daughter's high school.  The interest level was average and directed mostly at the bicycles and how they work.  I got some good questions.  The best was from a girl who asked why we are using electric motors.  She noted that they still take fossil fuels to charge so where's the advantage.  I told her I wouldn't do this trip without an electric motor.  I also talked about how the people who try electric bikes come back from their test drives with big smiles on their faces.  They also tend to understand advantages that they never thought of before.  Grocery shopping, driving kids to school, picking up supplies from the farmer's market or hardware store are all ideas that come up that can keep the car in the driveway, reduce their carbon footprint and improve the health of the rider.  I was on the phone earlier this morning talking to a contact in West Virginia and he told me about a post-stroke friend who he put on an electric trike and the friend was able to build up his strength enough to graduate to a regular bicycle.  So the electric bicycle is also a tool for rehabilitation!!

I asked the students how many of them didn't know how to ride a bike.  A couple of hands went up but I bet there were others who were too embarrassed to admit they didn't know how to ride.  Then I asked how many rode bikes regularly.  Only three hands went up.  I was shocked.  When I was in high school a huge percentage of us students rode every day.  It was normal.  The excuse was that it's not safe.  Obviously, I don't agree with that but somehow our culture has decided that parents shouldn't encourage their children to ride bicycles.  Not only does the safety paranoia keep kids off of bikes but it also feeds the frenzy for big, heavy, carbon intensive SUV's.
Or was it the other way around??

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Survey of Electric Bicycles based on Hearsay and Personal Experience

As a non-expert trying to understand the electric bicycle world from the point of view of coming up with durable electric bicycles, I have learned quite a bit from people involved in this fledgling industry.  My brother Michael has been spearheading The Green Riders’ efforts to get good bicycles together so some of my editorial comments and knowledge come from his experience over the last 3 years.

First two interesting numbers.  20 million electric bicycles are sold in China every year.   20 thousand are sold in the US every year.  That should give you a clue about where the bikes are being built.   The Chinese customer has a lot less money than the potential American customer so by necessity, the Chinese electric bikes are cheap.  Unfortunately, this translates into quality problems that have damaged the reputation of electric bicycles in the fledgling  American marketplace. 

In America, there are a few boutique electric bicycle companies that are building expensive and high quality products.  Unfortunately,  the market for these 5K + rigs is limited.  On the other hand, the under 1K electric bikes suffer from quality issues and don’t  offer the kind of riding experience that really shows off the advantages of electric bicycles.

Another way to go electric is to buy a conversion kit.  This generally consists of  a front or rear wheel with a hub motor built in, a motor controller and all the wires etc. to make the thing work.  Batteries can either come with the kits or can be ordered separately.  (Most battery packs have to be shipped as hazardous materials which makes the shipping expensive.  About $100 per battery pack!)  Again, the conversion kits are coming out of China and many of them are “junk”.  Unfortunately, we have run across people who ordered lots of these kits and are trying to unload them over the internet.  The good news is that quality is slowly improving and distributors on this end are demanding improved quality.

So, now I’m going to talk about the rigs that The Green Riders are putting together.  Somewhere along our planning road, we agreed that recumbents are the most comfortable and potentially the most efficient way to go.  We also decided to go with the “mid-drive” system which has the motor mounted on the frame.  In this system, the motor power runs with the chain and gearing system of the bicycle.  The theory is that by  keeping the motor in its ‘happy’ rpm range, the motor will run much more efficiently and consequently deliver better performance.  In practice, this seems to be partially true but we haven’t noticed a huge difference in miles per amps (essentially, how many miles travelled on a battery charge) between the mid drive system and the hub motors.

Aside from the increased comfort of the recumbents, their design allows for lots of low center of gravity battery storage.  This makes them handle really nicely!

The other two bikes we are bringing for our “guest riders” (and for test riders), have hub motors.  One of these bikes is being put together from a kit and the frame we are using is a cargo bike frame that demonstrates the added value of being able to haul lots of cargo without turning into a sweating, slow, grimacing unhappy rider.  Motors on cargo bike dramatically improve the functionality of the bicycle and we are really excited about sharing this configuration with people.  We can put Mom’s with kids on the back and be almost guaranteed that they’ll come back from a test ride with huge grins on their faces.  (Brother Michael is working with a restaurant that wants to go to the Farmer’s Markets to pick up their produce on an electric bicycle.  It’s great advertising for both the sustainability message of the restaurant and for electric cargo bikes!)

The 4th bike is a ready to go rig that anyone with about $2,500 to spend can buy.  Not only does this bike work really well, but it is a total head turner!  We are completely thrilled that the bike is being loaned to us by the manufacturer!!  If you are in a situation where a bicycle could replace your need for a car, the Pi Cycle would be something to look at.

No registration, no insurance, no gas and very little  electricity.

Bottom line.

As the quality improves and as fossil fuel transportation becomes increasingly expensive, electric bicycles will, in my opinion, become commonplace within a few short years.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Preparations for our visit to Durango, CO

Calling on regions along our route has been an exciting and educational part of The Green Riders’ journey.  In Durango, I chose to contact the City Manager since their website promotes the Green efforts that Durango is making.  During my second conversation with Greg Caton we started digging down into the options that Durango offers for our visit.

Durango actually has a “Multi-Modal Transportation” department!  The goal of this department is to encourage both public transportation and alternative forms of getting around.  I had heard that Durango is a great biking town and that is one of the reasons we chose to go through there.  As I dug in deeper, I learned that Durango attracts some of the top bicycle athletes due to its year round access to great riding.  Durango also attracts lots of visitors with may town sponsored rides, excellent and extensive bike trails for both off road and street bikes and a  friendly village like downtown.

So back to my conversation with assistant city manger Greg.  Because of Durango’s interest in alternative forms of transportation, Greg is interested if featuring The Green Riders as part of  an event where public transportation and non fossil fuel based modes of transport will be on display.  There are bicycle shops and an electric vehicle shop that may participate.  There’s a biodiesel plant nearby that may also participate.
Durango itself has a free trolley that runs through downtown as well as a very extensive and well subscribed public transportation system.  Adding electric bikes to the mix is something that will work well for Durango.

Another option we talked about was to have a forum discussion with local residents about how to integrate electric bicycles into the town’s network of bicycle trails.  This is a discussion that is going on all across the country since electric bicycles create a new challenge for bike trails.  I look forward to discussing the pros and cons of electric bicycles on the trails.  The Green Riders obviously are in favor of allowing electric bicycles onto trails but Greg mentioned that a few years back in Durango someone rode a gas powered motorcycle on a bike trail and almost caused a fatality!!  This kind of experience makes local bike riders suspicious about letting anything with a motor on the trails.  The Green Riders and others note that legal electric bicycles can only go 20 mph under motor power.  This is slower than many pure pedal power riders can ride.  They are also quiet and don’t pollute.  Maybe making a warning bell standard equipment would be a way to gain support?

Finally, I mentioned to Greg that we want to try to charge our batteries at locations that generate electricity with renewables.  In most  areas, that will be a building with solar panels and Greg mentioned we might be able to work something out with local restaurants that have solar panels on their roofs.  What fun!!

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Our Electric Bicycle Challenges

Building the electric bicycles for our cross country trip has turned out to be more of a challenge than we had anticipated. No surprise there, since most projects tend to be much easier to build in our imaginations than in the physical world. After deciding to go with the recumbent bike and choosing the mid-drive system over the hub motor, we figured it was just a matter of getting the right components and mounting them on the bike. With the considerable skills of Charlie Cunningham, mounting the components was accomplished.

The drive system we are using comes with a plate that holds the motor and a sprocket that connects the motor with the bicycle pedals via 3 chains. It’s a little complex and requires very accurate alignment in order to function optimally. This is where Charlie’s skills will hopefully result in optimal drive train efficiency. While Charlie had his brazing torch out, we added supports under the seat to support the battery packs. Of course, the drive chain also passes under the seat, so extreme care had to be taken to make sure that everything fit. With all of the pieces in place, we figured we were set to go. But then, two other challenges needed to be confronted. Recumbent bicycles are designed as road bikes so they come with narrow, rather light wheels and tires. This is not a problem until the added weight and higher speeds of the electric drive system are added. It became very clear that we would have to “beef up” the rear wheel. Thankfully, the downhill mountain bike industry has led to the development of very strong wheels, so we now have dramatically stronger wheels than we had before. Since the frames we are using do not have shocks, we also added big “balloon” tires to protect both the rims from impact and to protect our spines from road shock. The big tires add some rolling resistance but the comfort and durability we gain are worth it.

While we were getting ready to build up the wheels, the issue of brakes came up. It was obvious from the experience we had gained that the braking power that came with the bicycles was not enough once we added the electric motor and batteries. So we once again took advantage of Charlie’s skills and mounted brackets for big disc brakes on the frames. Finally, we have some of the strongest hydraulic disc brakes available on the bicycles and our stopping power gives us the confidence we need to protect our safety.

But the story is only half told. So far, I have described the mechanical challenges which were relatively easy to solve once we figured out what needed doing.

The electronic challenges have proven to be more elusive. The three main components on an electric bicycle are the motor, the controller and the batteries. The motor has proven to be reliable although I think we will bring an extra one with us! The controllers have been extremely challenging. We keep burning them up. I’m not sure how many we have “fried” but we are hopefully getting close to finding a controller that will work for us. (My understanding is that the controller manages the power delivered from the batteries to the motor and helps manages the power delivered to the batteries during charging. Neither of these tasks are electronically difficult but for the young electric bicycle market, it has been challenging getting a good controller for a price that keeps the final product within reach of the consumer.) We plan to bring a few extra controllers and we are setting up the bikes so that all components can be switched out easily.

Now to the batteries.

Again, the challenge is a lightweight battery that delivers power, range, and durability in a pack that is affordable. For our ride, the affordability issue is almost irrelevant. Most electric bicycles have a range of 20 to 30 miles where we want 80 to 100 mile range. We need a lot of battery power so we are investing a small fortune just in the battery packs.

On the whole, I am quite hopeful that within the next year or two, motors, controllers, and battery packs will all improve dramatically. I don’t think that prices will drop as dramatically, but for the type of use that most people will want electric bicycles for, there should be very good quality complete electric bicycles available for around $2,500.

That may still seem like a lot but if it is able to replace someone’s need for a car, it is a great deal. Side benefits include, no registration, no gas, almost no electricity, exercise, fun and maybe most importantly, switching from a car to an electric bicycle is the kind of meaningful contribution to a sustainable future that we Americans need to be making.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

PiCycle comes on board

 Much to my delight, after a short meeting in Sausalito with my friend Mark and the founder of Pi Mobility, we came away with an offer to provide one of their electric bicycles for our trip!
Not only do they see the marketing opportunities for their bikes but they really liked being associated with our sustainability message.  As you can imagine, many folks have wanted these rigs but Pi Mobility chose us because our message resonates with them.
Needless to say, we are thrilled!

And, the one they give us will be green! Mark wore the right color for a test drive.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Biking in Sweden

For those of you who have been following this blog, you know that sister Catherine is tying up loose ends in Sweden before moving back to California.  She has been in Sweden for over 20 years so she's got plenty of loose ends to tie up.  Catherine is also very excited about our upcoming journey and is focused on bicycles like never before.  Here's a couple of photos of a Swedish radiologist who doesn't let a little snow stop him from biking.  When biking becomes a transportation, a little snow doesn't discourage the Swedes. When you add the short days and long nights it sure makes me feel like less than a committed cyclist!!

Monday, February 1, 2010

Fun day on Electric Bikes with the kids

Yesterday our dear friends the Roberts (Ryan, Hope, Drie and Liam), my mother and two kids Liza and Lucy made our way up to my brother's house in Marin.  We enjoyed a cool winter day without rain, the kids almost swam in the creek and we all got a chance to ride some of Michael's electric bicycle fleet that he has been putting together over the last two years.  I also got a chance to take a short ride on the recumbent that we are still putting together for the trip.  It's a real sweet ride with a big soft tire on the back combined with lots of low weight provided by the drive system and the batteries. This video sums up the fun we had with the electric bikes.  It is truly amazing how people are drawn like magnets to electric bicycles and then once they try them out, it's ear to ear smiles.
BTW the music I use on these videos is created and performed by Ryan and his band Absynth.  It's great riding music.