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Friday, September 25, 2009

Electric Mountain Bike Gets the Equivalent of 2,287 MPG

The Optibike OB1 electric bike gets an equivalent of 2,287 MPG.* Could bikes like these be the future of transportation?

Ever wonder what happens when you cross the finest mountain bike components money can buy, an 850w brushless DC motor and a 20ah lithium-ion battery with motocross styling and sensibilities? You get the Optibike OB1, an electric bike that can get up to 45 miles on a nine-cent charge, and what is arguably the finest electric bicycle in the world.

In fact, the Optibike OB1 even found a spot in the California Academy of Sciences museum, touted as “the future of transportation.” There are only 24 OB1’s made per year. When one of them is bought, the owner becomes part of an elite club of enthusiastic riders. And for four fun-filled days in August, I was lucky enough to be a member of that club — or at least able to pretend like I was after being provided one for a short term test drive.

The Story

Boulder, Colorado-based Optibike has been producing high performance electric bikes since 2005 and is fast carving out a name for itself in an increasingly crowded electric bikes market sector. But the Optibike, and the OB1 in particular, is not any old electric bike. Founder and principle designer Jim Turner first hatched the idea for an electric bike in 1997. Turner, who was a champion motocross rider, set out with more than a profit motive: Turner was motivated to address three converging problems: a growing obesity epidemic in the U.S., environmental pollution/CO2 emissions, and an energy crisis that caused gas prices to soar to record highs in 2008.

“What ties these three problems together — the health crisis, the environmental crisis and the fossil fuel crisis — is transportation,” says Turner. But Turner recognized straight away that he would not be able to compete with Chinese electric bike makers for a lower price point and that he would just have to build a better bike.

“You can’t compete with foreign imports on the lower price scale; you have to create a market niche,” Turner told the Denver Post last year. And create a market niche he did.

The Bike

Optibike currently makes six models including a womens’ bike, but they don’t come cheap. Ranging from $5,995 for the Commuter USV, to $13,995 for the OB1, Optibikes are designed to be the antithesis of the throw-away culture, minus the batteries, which are warranted for an industry-leading 3 years/30,000 miles, whichever comes first.

Powering the OB1 are a 20ah lithium-ion battery and an 850w continuous brushless DC motor that Optibike says will give you about 45 miles of electric-only operation on a single 4.5-hour charge and 57 miles with a light to moderate amount of pedaling. The bike has two speeds, Fast and Eco. In Fast, a full charge will provide up to 50 minutes of riding; in Eco, a full charge will give 2.25 hours of unassisted propulsion. Going on a longer trek? Add the optional secondary battery to double the Optibike’s range.

Depending on how it’s calculated, the Optibike can get an equivalent of anywhere between 1,355** and 2,287* miles per gallon. Yes, that’s a wide range, but either way, it’s tough to beat.

The secret behind the Optibike — and in my view, what makes it so special — is the Motorized Bottom Bracket® (MBB), which allows the user to pedal at the speed the bike is going and shift gears seamlessly. The MBB system gives the rider the freedom to pedal as much or as little as desired, allowing the rider to maximize the acceleration, top-speed, and range of the Optibike.

At your fingertips are the Optibike’s 9-speed grip shifter, thumb throttle and front and rear hydraulic disk brakes. Sure, you can sit back and the electric motor do all the work, but the Optibike is just begging to be pedaled. And pedal it I did.

On electric alone the OB1 will reach a top speed of 20 MPH on flat pavement. But why stop at 20 MPH when the bike is screaming for more? Once up to speed, I found the OB1 would maintain about 30 MPH with light pedaling and 33 or so with moderate pedaling.

At 58 lbs., the OB1 isn’t light. To make up for the weight of the battery and motor, the OB1 is built on an aluminum monocoque frame and is fully loaded with ultralight carbon fiber handlebars, wheels and derailleur. The OB1 is about 20 lbs. lighter than comparable bikes

The custom monocoque frame houses all of the electronics including the battery away from the elements and protected from impact. The battery snugs into the frame in the area that would be the down tube in traditional tubular-style bikes. The low, vertical placement gives the bike a low center of gravity, increasing maneuverability.

From the Fox front and rear suspension, Chris King headset, kevlar-reinforced Schwalbe tires, SRAM drivetrain and Avid Code oversized Hydraulic Disk Brakes, components on the OB1 will be recognized by mountain bikers as the highest-quality on what is essentially a downhill mountain bike.

Other extras on the OB1 include GPS navigation, a fully integrated PDA that displays all of the performance details of the patented Motorized Bottom Bracket, ultrabright dual halogen lighting, the lithium-ion battery charger, toolkit, lock and tire pump.

The Review

The OB1 is a serious workhorse. Because it’s so heavy it can even be a little unwieldy for the unskilled user while walking the bike and maneuvering it around tight spaces. But let me tell you, once on the bike, it does not feel or ride like a 58-lb. bike. With its aluminum monocoque frame, cushy front and rear suspension and the low-center of gravity, this bike was stiff and responsive and an absolute joy to experience.

I found that the burly disk brakes performed beyond my expectations in wet and/or muddy conditions and didn’t fade when they got warm. That can be especially useful while regularly traveling at 35 miles per hour. The hydraulic disk brakes made slowing from 35 down to a dead stop a matter of a simple one or two-fingered operation.

The bike looks and rides like a mountain bike, that is, until you depress that little thumb-throttle. Whether feathering the throttle for an occasional boost or pinning it to maintain a high top-speed, the Motorized Bottom Bracket seemed to operate in tandem with normal bike operation. I found the Optibike’s 850w motor to be particularly helpful climbing some hills in my neighborhood that only the fittest of bikers can get up. In fact, this may be one of Optibikes strongest selling points. For commuters who would like to bike to work but have always been intimidated by long ride or a particularly daunting hill, the Optibike can get you where you need to go relatively quickly, and in some cases, faster.

The pricetag may be a steep, but when you consider that all Optibikes are custom-made in the USA — and that custom made full-suspension downhill mountain bikes with these kinds of components are expensive period — the price point of the OB1 becomes more understandable.

Imagine the money savings in gasoline if you were actually able to replace some or all of your automobile use with this thing. Bikes go places cars can’t. Bikes can go places scooters and motorcycles can’t.

The folks at Optibike expect the price of their bikes will likely come down somewhat as the company grows and scales up production. But these are not meant to be mass-produced bikes anyway.

The only downside of getting to ride the Optibike on trails and around town was that after the four days of riding it, I had to give it back.

*Whether calculating for a car, bike or there are (at least) two ways to calculate the MPG equivalent of an electric vehicle. The Energy Equivalent formula: 36.6 kwh/gallon of gas = 2287.5 (36.6/.72) x 45 = 2287.5

**The average American pays $0.119 per kWh of electricity (EIA July ‘09), meaning the 0.72 kWh needed to give the Optibike a full charge with a 45-mile range would cost roughly $0.09 (.119 x .72 = 0.086). If ≈ $0.09 can power the Optibike for 45 miles, then the $2.59 the average American pays for a gallon of gas (EIA Sept ‘09) could instead power the bike for 1355 miles ($2.59 ÷ $0.086 x 45 = 1,355)

***All images except one stock photo show bike w/out front and rear fenders, standard on all Optibikes.

Photos Timothy Hurst. Follow Tim on twitter.