Those who’ve followed the electric bike story in these pages, will probably have noticed the genre evolving into two distinct families – the cheap and cheerful, usually Chinese, hub motor machines, and the more sophisticated crank motors, primarily Yamaha or Panasonic based.The latter tend to be lighter, quieter and more like conventional machines to ride.They used to cost more too, but with the crank-drive Giant Lafree E- Trans now reduced to £650, and a few Chinese jobs bolstered with knobs and whistles, and put back in the window for £900+, the price distinction is becoming increasingly blurred.
The Oxygen Atala is a new (to us, at least) crank-drive machine aimed at the middle ground. Prices for these conventional-looking bicycles range from £699 for the steel-framed Avenue to £790 for the aluminium Distance.
How, what and why?
Atala, we’re told, has been making bicycles in Italy since 1926, long before Generalissimo Mussolini began wrestling with the railways. By the 1990s, the company had introduced an electric model, which appears to have sold mainly on the Italian market. Around 18 months ago, Atala was sold to Oxygen, a US company, and the brand began to go global.
The Distance is a conventional bicycle – nothing flash, but a nice ordinary layout: derailleur gears, rear rack, and so on. Park your bum on the slightly frumpy saddle, and you’ll feel at home, as will most day-to-day cyclists. Unusually for a crank-drive electric bike, the bottom bracket is conventional – the motor being a simple bolt-on unit driving via a neat one-way clutch and a separate chain to a small inner chainring. Everything else is completely normal, apart from a third apparently unused chainring on the left side.This houses the crank movement sensor that tells the motor when to start and stop.
With the ignition switched on, any movement of the pedals brings the motor to life, providing some extra oomph. But if you’ve ridden anything equipped with a motor as sophisticated as the Panasonic crank-drive you’ll be disappointed by this system, because it contains a number of fundamental flaws. Firstly and most worryingly, the motor will fire up whichever way the pedals are turned.Thus you can entertain your friends by whizzing along whilst pedalling backwards, but you must also remember not to idly swing the pedals whilst waiting at the lights, or the machine will leap forwards. Not very pleasant.
Another flaw is that the power arrives in timed chunks for a set period every crank revolution.The length of this ‘on’ phase can be set to three different levels, but in practice the low levels serve little practical purpose. On ‘high’, the chunk lasts for around a second, so if you pedal at a cadence of 60rpm, power assistance is more or less continuous. On the flat, it works quite well, but on a hill, your cadence drops and so does the power assistance. Change down a gear and power returns, but by this time you’ve lost forward momentum – the result is a downward spiral, slower and slower, with less and less assistance until you find yourself dragging a load of useless batteries up the hill on your own.
When the British importers saw the machine in action, they quite rightly insisted on a secondary hand-throttle – outlawed in most of Europe, but legal here through some Machiavellian chicanery.The hand-throttle offers two settings: ‘economy’ (full power but with a gentle ‘soft’ start), and ‘boost’, giving instant power.The cadence measuring thingy can’t be turned off, but put it on ‘low’, and you can safely ignore it.
Batteries are perhaps the most disappointing part of the set up. Our Oxygen is powered by four 108watt/hour lead-acid gel batteries, giving a capacity of 432 Wh. Production bikes will be fitted with a 216 Wh battery (half the weight and half the range), or a 456 Wh battery with slightly greater range than the model we’ve tested. This sort of thing is hardly state of the art and the location of the 12.8kg (28.2lb) battery pack over the rear wheel leaves much to be desired.
…electronics are mounted above the motor, right in line with spray from the front wheel…
For example, if you stand in front of the bike and wiggle the bars, the rear end wags like a dog, with clear signs of bending in the frame. And who can blame it? In normal road use, the bike feels fine and can be ridden hands off without problems. But make a sudden deviation, and the batteries will try to pass you on the inside… Gross weight is 35kg (77lb), but the bike feels heavier, because the unladen weight distribution is an astonishing 22% front, 78% rear. In other words, if you can’t lift 27.5kg in one hand, you won’t be able to swing the back of the bike around. Whip the battery pack off (the batteries are in two panniers strapped together across the rack), and you’re left with a better balanced machine weighing 22.2kg (48.8lb) in total.
Most of the electronics are housed in the front of the left pannier, with two of the four batteries.This is a vulnerable position at the best of times, particularly as you have to reach in and unplug the motor cable from the circuit board to plug the charger in.The delicate bits and pieces are only protected from prying fingers and the ravages of fresh, muddy or salt water spray by the canvas pannier.
Other electronics are mounted above the motor, right in line with spray from the front wheel, and shielded only by a plastic cover.This works fine until one of those autumn days when global warming deposits several inches of rain on Somerset. Out and about on the Oxygen, we hit 30cm of unexpected standing water. Splosh is followed by splutter, then a pathetic and repetitive beeping sound. Power disappears, and the warning lights go into a frenzy. Clearly the bike is trying to tell us something. Fortunately, all is well the next morning, but this is obviously not a machine for all-weather rural commuting.
On the Road
The Oxygen is a machine of marked extremes. Although the battery packs and electronics are rather crude, the motor is extremely quiet… probably the quietest electric drive we’ve seen. So unless you’re in the habit of riding right into the library, no- one will hear you coming.There’s a temptation to deliberately stop pedalling, just to experience that rarest of experiences – mobility in near silence. No creaking as your short fat hairy legs rub together, and no infernal combustion, just a gentle sigh from the motor and a soft swish from the tyres. Delightful.
There’s always a downside. In this case, the motor is both under-powered and horribly inefficient at low speeds, so it’s vital to change down a gear or two if the motor speed falls. Maximum continuous power is claimed to be 160 watts.We’d say that was about right, with a peak of some 250 watts. But the power being drawn from the batteries exceeds 700 watts at low motor speed, so it’s a seriously inefficient device.These dramatic peaks should never happen in practice, because the motor runs via the crank, so when you change down a gear, the motor finds life easier too. But on steep hills, you soon run out of gears, despite the Shimano Megarange system, which provides a 36-inch bottom gear – hardly a crawler gear, but low enough to winch you up modest slopes.
Despite the inefficiency, first gear will tackle quite impressive gradients – about 17% (1 in 6) with modest pedal effort, or 11% (1 in 9) with the motor alone, albeit at a nominal 3mph. A glance at the power chart reveals that the bike couldn’t keep this up for very long without something expiring, but it’s nice to know the capability is there.
The Oxygen needs to be driven with care because the motor is so quiet there’s no indication of stress. A crank cadence meter or an ammeter would give a useful guide to the strain on the batteries and motor.
When the batteries do eventually give up the ghost, the bike is as easy to pedal as any other conventional machine with fairly weighty panniers on the back.Well almost – the Oxygen has an unusually upright seat pillar, putting your bottom rather close to the crank. As a consequence, you find yourself choosing between a high saddle or pedalling gently to avoid knee damage.
Stopping is taken care of by Promax V-brakes, and they’re atrocious.They work reasonably well in the dry, but a few drops of rain turn the friction material to a sticky goo with the stopping characteristics of liquid Teflon.The rear brake will just lock the wheel, but the front incorporates a pressure limiter – a safety feature in the dry, but cutting braking effect to almost nothing in the wet. A simple change of brake blocks might cure the problem, but it needs looking at.
The Oxygen is unsuspended at the rear, which is unfortunate, because most of the weight is over the rear.The front suspension forks have a rather sticky, faltering action, offering minimal travel.
We normally deal only with motor assistance, on the basis that pedalling is good for you, so everyone should jolly well do some. But we know from readers’ letters that some people buy these bikes because they’re unable to pedal, or have very limited endurance.The Oxygen is quite a good choice if you’re looking for a motor-only machine – the wide range of gears allows for fairly sprightly progress on the flat and slow but steady hill climbing. Either way, progress in absolute silence will no doubt give you lots of pleasure, although range is bound to be limited.We managed 12 miles on our ‘easy’ course – mainly flat, but with a few short sharp gradients of up to 9%. Speed on the last few hills fell to a snail-like 3 or 4mph, with an overall average of 11.7mph. Not very exciting, particularly from a machine with a Powabyke-size battery (expect at least 20 miles from the Powabyke without turning a pedal).
…the wrong motor, drawing too much power from the wrong sort of batteries, mounted in the wrong place…
In practice, range is more dependent on an internal cut-out which reduces power on hills by about 75% once the motor has been working moderately hard for 25 minutes or so.This tends to do its stuff at the most inconvenient times, such as pulling out into rush- hour traffic, or climbing a 15% gradient. Once the cut-out has begun to operate, progress on hills more or less evaporates.
The real test is our pedal-assisted ‘mountain course’ run, but on this occasion, the cut-out caused us to abandon the ride after only six miles: At four miles, a 9% gradient caused a momentary cut-out, but two miles further on, as we made a start on the long 12% climb into the real hills, power-assistance disappeared and we reluctantly turned back. To be fair, after a five minute rest break, the motor is back on song, but a stiff 17% gradient cuts the power again.
To find the range, we head back into easier country.There are three ‘fuel’ warning lights, typically out of sight on the side of the left-hand pannier, beneath the ignition key. After nine miles the first is extinguished, and at 15 the second has begun to flash, while assisted speed is clearly dropping. Speed continues to slide until at 19 miles, with the fuel gauge still apparently on half full, it’s all over.That’s a reasonable range, but the average speed of 10.9mph makes the Oxygen one of the slowest bikes we’ve seen. Fuel consumption is 20Wh per mile – an extremely high figure for such a feeble machine.
With a reasonable range of gears, pedalling home won’t leave you gasping. Unless, of course, you bought the bike because you’re unable to pedal home, in which case you’ll be disappointed…Typically for large lead-acid batteries, charging is painfully slow. From flat, the tiny charger takes no less than 11hrs 30 minutes to squeeze 377Wh into the batteries.That’s rather less than the nominal capacity of 432Wh, implying that the battery is not being run right down (no bad thing), or it’s failing to charge up properly (not so good).We didn’t try the two-hour range, but you’d be lucky to get more than three or four miles out of the bike after a leisurely lunch. An annoying feature of the charging system is an alarm that chirrups into life when charging is complete.This would drive you mad if it started beeping at 3am, which it would for a regular commuter giving the bike an overnight charge. Speed aside, the charger is a 14cm x 6.5cm x 7cm pocket-size plug-in device, weighing only 290g. Lead length is a useful 190cm (75″).
At 4.5p per mile, running costs are typical by electric bike standards, thanks largely to the ease with which replacement lead-acid batteries can be obtained and fitted.You should be able to find similar batteries for about £80 a set by shopping around.
The Oxygen has the wrong motor, drawing too much power from the wrong sort of batteries, mounted in the wrong place.You wonder how Italian engineers manage to get things so wrong (see also the Aprilia Enjoy, A to B 28).We can live with high power consumption if the trade-off is oodles of macho wheel-spin, but the Oxygen is also one of the weakest performers we’ve seen… a rare achievement.
On the positive side, the bike will climb serious gradients, even without pedalling, provided you’re in no hurry, and that the stressful bit doesn’t exceed that 25 minute window. It’s also remarkably quiet and looks broadly like a conventional bike – features that may well be at the top of your priority list.
Oxygen Atala Distance £790
Weight Bicycle 22.2kg (48.8lb) Battery 12.8kg (28.1lb) Total 35kg (77lb)
Gears Shimano SIS Megarange
Ratios 36″ 50″ 61″ 68″ 76″ 86″
Batteries Lead-acid Gel
Maximum range Motor only 12 miles Pedal-assisted <19 miles
Full charge 11hrs 30 mins
Spare battery £82
Fuel consumption 20Wh/mile
Running costs 4.5p per mile
UK distributor Pedal & Power tel 01244 671999 mail email@example.com