A version of this article originally appeared in the August issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.
By Paul Tolme
(BRAIN) – When Specialized announced the relaunch of its Globe brand in May as an affordable e-bike provider focused on car-replacement transportation, the company released just one spy photo showing a bike electric obscured by cargo baskets and cacti.
While the e-bike frame was largely hidden, one of the bike’s features was clearly visible: a rear hub motor.
Call it a sign of the humble hub motor’s growing respectability, which until recent years has been largely shunned in the brick-and-mortar e-bike market. E-bikes with mid-drive motors such as those made by Bosch, Shimano, Brose and others have largely dominated showroom floors.
But that dynamic is changing, thanks to the lower cost of hub motors compared to average drives, and as legacy brands drive out cost-conscious consumers who have turned to Rad Power Bikes and other sellers in line selling e-bikes under $2,000.
For Specialized, the decision to spec a hub motor rather than a more expensive and efficient mid-drive system on an e-bike created for the masses was “a no-brainer,” says Globe lead designer Erik Nohlin. A good hub motor gives you “more for your money”.
The subject of which is better, hub drives or mid-drives, has strong opinions. But that’s an apples-to-oranges comparison, says Ed Benjamin, president of the Light Electric Vehicle Association.
“When someone asks what’s best, it’s all about what you do with it,” Benjamin said. “The mid-drives provide a more capable experience in every respect.”
That’s why mid-drives are ubiquitous on e-MTBs.
But many e-bike buyers have no interest in mountain biking. Cost is their primary consideration. “A lot more hub hard drives are being sold in all markets because they’re cheaper,” Benjamin said.
“Manufacturers don’t have to build the frame around the engine. It might not be important for the consumer, but it’s very important for the brand and the factory,” Benjamin said. “If it’s a hub motor, you can put it on just about any bike.”
Benjamin said hub motors have a role to play in the effort to get more people riding bikes rather than driving cars. Electric bikes designed for crossing town to the grocery store don’t need to have the same level of performance and efficiency as electric mountain or road bikes designed for long trips.
“Hub motors make sense in the commuter market and for people who just want to cruise at night,” Benjamin said.
Along with Globe, REI’s Co-op brand is among the e-bike makers turning to hub motors. REI recently launched the Co-op e1.1 with a Bafang hub motor. Price: $1,499.
Part of the Co-op brand’s new “Generation e” line, which includes the $1,799 e1.2 which will have a more powerful Bafang hub motor, these are e-bikes for non-cyclists. Achieving those sub-$2,000 prices would have been next to impossible if REI had specified a mid-drive motor.
REI offers a five-year warranty on Co-op e-bikes, which shows the company’s confidence in the quality and reliability of hub motors. “Bafang is becoming a trusted name in the game,” said Heather Henderson, senior product manager for REI Co-op.
Hub motors provide propulsion by accelerating the wheel, while mid-drive motors increase the power of the rider’s pedal stroke. For people looking for the best power-to-weight ratio from their e-bike system, mid-drives are the only way to go.
“Hub motors are about 30% efficient, whereas a mid-motor from Bosch is designed to run at about 70% to 80% efficiency,” said Zach Krapfl, drive systems engineer at electric bike, co-founder of VPL, which distributes Bosch motors. in North America to small and medium brands.
“In the world of IBDs, mid drives still dominate because you get better efficiency and better torque,” Krapfl said.
The biggest obstacle to the more widespread use of intermediate discs is their higher cost. But the cost of Bosch-equipped e-bikes is coming down due to the introduction of moderate-assist motors like Bosch’s Active line.
“We’re starting to see more Bosch e-bikes in the $2,000 to $3,000 range,” said Todd Sellden, director of business and product development for Gates Global Mobility, maker of the Gates Carbon Drive belt system.
Gazelle, for example, sells its Medeo T9 City HMB for $2,400 with a Bosch Active Line system. Batch, a consumer-oriented brand, offers a model with a Bosch mid-drive for $2,600.
“It’s possible to make and sell a Bosch e-bike for less than $2,000,” Krapfl said. “I know it’s doable and people are evaluating how to do it. Bosch is always on the lookout for market trends and how best to target that value proposition consumer.”
Krapfl says these sub-$2,000 e-bikes would almost certainly be sold direct-to-consumer. He said these e-bikes could hit the market within 18 months. With Bosch components, they would be usable by independent local bike shops. “There would be a revenue stream for IBDs in terms of service,” Krapfl said.
The dealer’s point of view
“Customers asking for intermediate rides are usually experienced riders who want an e-mountain bike or a performance commuter,” said Seattle E-Bike general manager Alex Dunn. “If they ask for good guarantees, light weight, easy maintenance, we convince them to go for an intermediate drive.”
“When people ask, ‘What’s the cheapest thing you’re giving away?’ We direct them to the hub motors,” Dunn said.
Two or more years ago, Dunn estimated that about two-thirds of the e-bikes sold at his store were mid-range. Now it’s about 50-50. “We’re starting to see these nice looking e-bikes under 40 pounds with lightweight hub motors,” Dunn said. He cites Cannondale’s $2,500 Treadwell Neo with a Mahle hub motor as an example.
“Mahle is sold through QBP, and they provide good service and support,” Dunn said. On the cheaper side, Seattle E-Bike sells the Magnum brand. “Magnum is our brand of affordable hub motors, and they’re based in Salt Lake City, so they’re easy to reach and they have great customer service.”
Another curious trend Dunn sees is mid-drive throttle-driven e-bikes. Seattle E-Bike sells a model from Serfas called the eDash Plus, which has a mid-drive and Bafang throttle.
Accelerators are another divisive topic. Avoided in Europe, they are extremely popular in North America. “Despite all efforts to say that mid-engines are better, the US market has shown a favoritism towards throttles,” said Don DiCostanzo, CEO of Pedego. “Customers have decided: they want hub motors with throttles.”
Pedego has helped increase the popularity of e-bikes in North America by manufacturing and selling affordable hub-motor e-bikes through its branded stores. The so-called “cyclists” are not their clientele. Recreational weekend rides and occasional e-bike commuters are the demographics of Pedego.
Maximum pedaling efficiency isn’t something people who use e-bikes to get to work or school for five miles worry about, DiCostanzo said. For those customers, a hub-motor e-bike is superior in price — and because it wears less on the drivetrain, he said.
Pedego sells a mid-drive – a mountain bike that uses a Shimano STEPS mid-drive. “On a full-suspension mountain bike, mid-drives make sense,” DiCostanza said. “But that’s all.”
VPL’s Krapfl is concerned about the glut of cheaply made hub-mounted e-bikes on the market, and that many of those batteries and frames could end up in landfills.
That’s why he only works with Bosch motors and why he’s skeptical of claims that cheap hub e-bikes are good for the environment or consumers.
“What interests me the most is the potential for replacing cars with e-bikes. To be a transport e-bike that replaces a car, it has to be reliable and in good working order,” Krapfl said. . “If they’re unreliable, they’re Pintos. They suck. They catch fire.”
Chris Nolte – founder of Propel and owns e-bike shops in New York and Long Beach, Calif. – said his customers are more interested in a quality powertrain and drivetrain. It sells many Bosch mid-drive e-bikes with Gates belt drives and internally geared hubs. “For us, this is one of the most popular setups.”
He rejects the argument that mid-drives are too expensive. “If you are a high-mileage commuter, replacing your car, a high-quality mid-drive makes a lot of sense. A mid-drive assists you in a more intuitive way and is more motivating to pedal, compared to a motor hub that gives you a pushing sensation.”