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The “Natural” Ride of a BionX-Powered Bike

by Ted Johnson

I’m a fan of the BionX Electric Assist System for bikes — whether it’s on a retrofitted bike, or integrated on a bike right from the factory. Make that, especially if it comes on a bike right from the factory.

(I’ve never done a BionX retrofit, but I think I could. Seems easy. I’ll explain that in a future post.)

Ohm Sport XS750 E-Bike

The BionX-powered Ohm Sport XS750 — Soo… natural

I’ve ridden several electric-assist bikes, and my favorites have all been the ones that come with BionX systems installed. If you like riding a bike; if cycling is second-nature to you, then you want your e-bike experience to feel natural.

“Natural,” that’s the word often used in descriptions of the BionX experience — including the product descriptions I’ve written for Bike Tech Shop. (Consider that a disclosure.)

In marketing rhetoric, however, natural usually means, natural compared to competing products, and not, feels just like the real thing.

Google Autofill "Natural Feel"

Other sought-after products with a natural feel. (Google Autofill)

BionX is best used as a “pedelec” system, meaning it only supplies power when you are pedaling. The system excels in the way it invites you to suspend disbelief. It’s like a good actor in a good film; of course you never forget you’re watching fiction, but you allow yourself to become immersed in the experience. A crappy actor in a crappy film is always reminding you that he is pretending to be someone he’s not.

You definitely feel the added power of a BionX bike — especially if you use it as I tend to do, with the maximum assist level.  When you start off, you begin pedaling and you feel a gentle surge, like an actor momentarily overacting, and you know you didn’t do that by yourself. But once you are underway, you can forget that the power isn’t all you, and then the bike truly feels natural.

BionX PL 350HT Electric Bike Conversion Kit

The BionX PL 350HT Electric Bike Conversion Kit with a Downtube-Mounted Battery

The two BionX-powered bikes I tested were the Ohm Sport XS750 (which has a non-standard battery casing and other non-standard BionX components), and the Urbana Current** (which is more like a BionX retrofit, except for the heavy-duty Urbana rear rack).

And while it is possible to use a twist throttle with a BionX-powered bike, that would be like wanting to see a badly-acted movie — and paying too much. The low-end BionX PL 250 kit — just the kit — costs about $1,195.00. You can get a complete mid-grade, throttle-only e-bike without all those pedelec bike brains for about that same price. You can get a throttle-only retrofit kit for much, much less.

The pedelec illusion is most convincing when going up a hill at a moderate speed. A steep hill feels like a gentle hill. A gentle hill feels flat.

BionX-Powered Styriette Bike

BionX-Powered Styriette Bike with Rack-Mounted Battery

The illusion is broken when you hit 20 miles per hour, and the system stops assisting you — which it must do by law. If you exceed 20 mph on a BionX-equipped bike, that really is all you. (Or perhaps you’ve hacked the controller.)

The lowest assist level adds 35 percent to whatever power you put into the pedals. The highest level adds 300 percent.*

The system includes a “thumb throttle” which allows you to switch between the four assist levels and the four regeneration levels, and there is a red button that applies full power, all at once. I found the red button useful when pulling a loaded bike cargo trailer up a hill, or when I wanted a fast start at an intersection to get away from an impatient motorist behind me.

The regeneration mode has two benefits. First is the feel-good marketing benefit that makes you think you are recharging the battery with your own power and/or gravity. Unfortunately, this is almost pure feel-good. The amount of energy returned to the battery in this mode is negligible.

The other — and greater — benefit is the engine-braking effect. When going down a gravelly or icy hill, you can control your speed with the regenerative mode without riding the brakes, which means you are less likely to slide out.

A third benefit, I suppose, is that you can get a better workout in the regeneration mode — but it would be a lot less expensive to drag around a bag of rocks behind your existing bike.

Bionx Dashboard

The bars on the left indicate the regenerative level. The little arrow means you are putting energy into the battery.

I do appreciate having four different assist levels — especially when I’m experiencing “range anxiety” — that feeling that I might not have the battery power to make it all the way to my destination and back to the charger. The system adds up to 19 pounds to a bike, and I’d rather not climb any hills when that becomes dead weight.

BionX G2 console and Thumb Throttle

The console and the red bail-out button for full power

Recently, I started out on an errand with a round trip distance of about 12 miles. The battery was partially depleted before I even started. I was extremely miserly using the power. I even used the regenerative wishful-thinking mode going down hills, just in case it might really return just a little juice to the battery.

Urbana Current e-Bike

BionX-powered Urbana Current and Creepy Shack

I took every shortcut I knew, including a single-track trail that goes right past this Kaczynski-esque shack in the woods. The battery power held out, and I was not murdered, skinned, tanned, and turned into upholstery by a backwoods Arizona cannibal.

Better yet: I didn’t have to schlep that extra 19 pounds all the way back to the office.

These are the anxious thoughts planted in one’s mind by range anxiety.

The range is supposedly 56 miles*, but I never tried to prove BionX wrong. According to BionX, the stated range is an…

…average based on one battery charge, using assistance mode level 1, according to use in ideal conditions. Distances will vary depending on road conditions, riding surface, cyclist weight and assistance required

Translation: Don’t push your luck on the 56-mile thing.

On other e-bikes I’ve tested, such as the Hebb Electrocruiser, and the A2B Metro (and even my beloved Ridekick Electric Powered Trailer) I ran out of juice at some point — and was caught by surprise when it happened. This has not happened to me on either of the BionX-powered bikes I’ve tested.

I doubt if I’ve ever gone more than 30 miles between charges, and I never saw the power level get below two bars. And that was fine for my needs — and for my peace of mind. The console provides enough information to prevent any unhappy surprises.

The cure for range anxiety is familiarity. If I owned a BionX-powered bike and used it long term, I would eventually push my luck too far. I would eventually know exactly how far I can go on a charge — the same way a motorist learns the hard way how far past “E” the gas gauge needle can go before it really means empty.

New cyclists, returning cyclists, crypto-scooterphiles, etc. probably won’t appreciate the pedelec properties as much as an experienced cyclist will. Using a throttle is as natural to them as pedaling is to us.

The BionX system is for a cyclist who considers a twist throttle on a bike a crime against nature, but who still wants an electric boost to reduce sweating, haul bigger loads, fight the infirmities of age, or just motivate themselves to use the car less.


*Throughout this review I’m referring to my experiences on bikes with BionX PL 350 HT systems with 350 watts, unless I specify otherwise.

**A full review of the Urbana Current is in the works.

 
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5 Responses to “The “Natural” Ride of a BionX-Powered Bike”

  1. BluesCat says:

    I’ve never pushed the A2B beyond the solid red light stage (which means I’ve never gone below a 20% charge).

    I like the throttle (because I’m an old motorcycle dude). Most of the time I don’t crack it open, I just twist it slightly by sort of leaning on it with the web between my thumb and forefinger. The slight boost the electric motor gives the heavy bike simply serves to take the sting out of the pedaling.

  2. Joel says:

    Electric assist bicycles are still in limbo in New Jersey. As of right now, they are not strictly human-powered so they do not meet the bicycle definition that allows bicycles to use public streets. A law was proposed about a year ago to address the issue but it never made it to a vote. They cannot meet or fall under any other type of definition that fits into the NJ Motor Vehicle Codes and Laws.

    I am not anti-electric bicycle assist. I believe they have a place in the transportation system.

    Not having a throttle would be an argument supporting their inclusion under bicycle laws that the user MUST pedal in order to use electric power propulsion. Electronically, someone could argue that hitting a red button “full power assist” is the same as twisting a throttle but the red button assist is still dependent on pedal movement and it only provides a percentage of the assist, not complete locomotive power.

    Resistance from voters might also be overcome by limiting the electric assist to smaller wattage amounts and user speeds to 15 mph with full assist and 20 mph with reduced assist.

    These ideas might sound like acquiescence to the motorists lobby but as of now, we have nothing to lose. Maybe by getting some reasonable e-bikes on the roads, people will realize that they are as safe as bicycles and their safety will depend on the rider. Licensing and insurance will not be required if it is done properly; otherwise, they will go the way of MOPEDS and become completely regulated, taxed, licensed, and insured which defeats the economy of the intended use.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      About that red button…

      That actually makes the bike go, full power, even if you’re not pedaling. It’s like an on/off throttle. It’s kind of a weird concession to a throttle.

      If the chain were to break, or if (as happened to me last year) you have an injury that prevents you from pedaling, you could still get around with just the red button. This sounds like it might be dangerous unless you understand that e-bikes are not motorcycles. They aren’t even scooters. The surge of power you get when you press that button is not so much that the bike will fly out from under you — not by a long shot.

      Using the bike without pedaling would be a pretty slow experience — especially up hills. And you could moderate your speed with a simple system of press… coast… press… coast… You’d only be able to achieve the full speed of 20 mph on flat or downhill.

  3. sean says:

    I’ve been eyeing a electric conversion kit for my Big Dummy cargo bike. I really like the Stokemonkey design from Clevercycles, but that is currently not in production due to supply chain issues.

    The Bionx system looks pretty good, and I do like that it’s basically a turnkey option. but I’m leaning towards a kit from ebikes.ca configured for my application.

    Check out http://www.endless-sphere.com forums if you are interested in tinkering with building your own setup. I’ve been checking in there over the past year, lurking and learning.

  4. Brad Hawkins says:

    I have a BionX on a Big Dummy and it’s been nice. I can haul two kids and their bikes around town and the power is great. I get between 20-35 miles on a charge depending on how much I flog it and the power curve for commuting speeds from 9-18mph is great. The the motor lacks torque below 6mph so hill climbing is helped but still a chore and on long climbs the battery gets tired and provides less power over a series of minutes. Once the battery gets taxed on a long climb, charging is compromised because the battery is overheated. So charging the battery works best if you can somehow start on the top of a climb and not after just having climbed one and coasting down the next side. But it still works and I can negotiate urban traffic much more confidently than before. Average speeds have gone from 7 to 11.5.

    Now for the mixed news. The rear hub blew up after 100 miles and one week on the job and took 4 weeks to be replaced, Then, at mile 195, the throttle stopped working. I’m currently at mile 362 and things have worked great since. I went with this system because there is a dealer close by and they performed all the warranty work on the bike, a clear benefit over mail order solution.

    I would buy this system again mostly because the Ecospeed and Stokemonkey are the only systems that solve the issue of low end torque but they are ~$5000 and I can suffer a little on the steepest climbs. I assume that all lithium batteries perform the same on long climbs though. The downside of the Eco and Stoke however is that their power is put through your drivetrain and I’m not crazy about putting 500 watts regularly on the crankset end of the chain because of replacement costs. So I’m sticking with this one and enjoying it for what it is. Cruising on the flats at 20 with two kids ain’t all that bad, a little risky, but super fun and a real car replacement.

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