Powabyke has been around for several years now, and the Bath based company dominates the electric bicycle scene in the UK. Fundamentally, the machines are little changed – including the legendary battery that really does weigh more than some complete bicycles – but equipment levels have improved out of all recognition.
Back in November 1999, our first Powabyke had one gear, a dodgy rear brake, and a host of other historic bits from the Chinese bicycle manufacturer’s parts bin.Three years on, the UK company has completed a rapid learning curve about bicycles and bicyclists, specifying some much better bits, and the Chinese have learned a lot about putting things together.The result – admittedly some way short of Japanese or European best practice – is a perfectly respectable machine.And it has to be, because where the first Powabykes were hitting the streets for less than 500 notes (the base model is still £539), the new Commuter costs no less than £845.That’s right up with such ‘quality’ machines as the Giant Lafree Lite – can Powabyke really compete in this rarefied field?
Powabyke has tried very hard to escape the Essex Man Leisure Toy label, and one avenue the company has explored is selling bikes to the Post Office and various police forces. In practice, you’re still unlikely to see the Old Bill or your local Postie squirting around on the machines, but the feedback has been valuable.
…to lose the Far Eastern moped tag, Powabyke has gone for classic bicycle equipment…
Desperate to lose the Far Eastern moped tag, Powabyke has gone for classic bicycle equipment – lots of gears, chunky 26 x 1.95 tyres, proper pedals, and centre stand, plus obvious visual cues like a sturdy rack and fitted panniers, and some key labels – Shimano (OK, only Acera) gears and brakes, and Sun Rims.These are labelled Big Mammoth Fat (why not Big Fat Mammoths?), which suggests they would be more at home on a teenager’s MTB – in any event, they’re black and they look sturdy. Several other features are now shared across the range, including V-brakes and stronger front forks.What you don’t get – and we think they’re major omissions on a commuter bike – is a lighting set or chainguard.
As with most top-of-the-range variants, you have to pay for the bits and bobs. In this case, the tyres, gears and panniers add £100 to the otherwise very similar 21-speed Euro model, which is itself £150 pricier than the basic 5-speed job. Incidentally, we’ll be keeping you up to date with our Long Term 5-speed in October.
On the Road
The Powabyke features a two- position key – the first notch offering ‘power-only’ mode and the second ‘power-assist’. Both options are claimed to click in at a strangely precise 2.3mph – above that speed, you have the option of pedalling or not, as the whim takes you. After a few minutes in power-only mode the bike forgot to cut out below Lots 2.3mph, so any accidental movement of to play the twistgrip could get the front wheel with – two gear shifters, one spinning. And on the stand, the bike pulsed gently brake lever and a twistgrip throttle back and forth – weird.We didn’t use power-only again.
In power-assist, it’s all very civilised. Pedal as normal, and power is available if required – gently at first, then in a (relatively) spine-tingling rush in the 9-10mph zone, before fading away at 15mph.The Powabyke is one of the few machines that really does provide assistance up to that legal limit, and as we found last time, the motor helps you maintain an impressive average speed. Despite a maximum of 15mph, average speed in hilly country usually exceeds 14mph, and we saw 14.6 a couple of times. How? Like the Euro, the Commuter has enough power to grumble uphill at a reasonable speed, plenty of gears to keep momentum up on the flat, and enough weight to roar down the other side. Put these factors together and average speed is bound to be high.
Not that we’re delighted with the gears. As we’ve said before, electric bikes don’t need many gears, provided they have a reasonable range, because the motor helps to fill the gaps. In this case, the total range is 25″ to 90″.The top half dozen are more or less ideal, but forget the rest: we rarely went in search of more elusive ratios. Are 24 gears ever necessary? Like plenty of cyclists, we find three chainrings and eight sprockets pretty confusing. Approaching a steep hill can cause all sorts of painful noises as the rider wrestles with four levers in an attempt to predict, then engage the best cogs for the climb. Pulling away – particularly on a gradient – can be similarly fraught. Nine times out of ten, you get it wrong, and with a motor that doesn’t engage for the first second or two, you can get into difficulties.
The situation is not improved by a system that can find only 21 gears at any one time. Try as we might, we could not get the changer to index correctly with the rear mechanism, implying a fundamental problem. The Powabyke’s secret is an unusually flat power curve, giving Not a disaster, but reasonable hill-climbing with good cruising enough to produce some rough changes and unexpected missed gears.The front changer works well enough, and with power-assistance you can get away with leaving the rear mech in position eight and living with three gears. But surely, a nice hub system would be better?
Early Powabykes made some painful noises.The new motor is noticeably quieter, but the note hardens considerably under load – it’s much louder than the Heinzmann and other quality hub drives. Power output is quite modest at low speed, but climbs rapidly to peak at nearly 700 watts at around 7mph, before falling to just a glimmer at 15 or 16mph, according to battery charge.The motor has more than enough power to see you through most terrain at 12-15mph in the top three or four gears, but if steeper gradients drag the speed below 8mph, power falls off rapidly and those lower gears begin to look quite useful.The twistgrip throttle provides plenty of control at low speed, but above 10mph or so there’s a sudden transition to full power – something you only really notice in traffic, or while trying to keep speed down to pace other riders.
On the gentle gradient of our roll-down hill, speed reaches 14.4mph, which is slow for a big-wheeler – no doubt due to the chunky tyres. But with the sort of impetus that only 41kg (90.2lb) of ballast can provide, steep hills can be exhilarating. Fortunately, the Acera V-brakes drag speed off without too much drama and the bike generally handles well at speed. Our only reservation is that the tyres (smooth and gently rounded in the middle, but knobbly at the edges) become unstable when leaning hard into fast corners.
The saddle is a massive frumpy affair, sitting on a suspended stem, and looking rather like a conventional saddle that’s been sat on by a chunky couch potato. Actually, it all works quite well (but note our criticism of suspension seat posts on page 23) – the suspension is smooth and unobtrusive and the saddle much more comfortable than it looks. On initial acquaintance, some riders assume the Commuter is fully suspended, presumably because there’s plenty of squidge in those fat and relatively low pressure (40 – 65psi) tyres.
Other features brought a less ecstatic response.The micro-adjust bars harbour elusive play that can’t be adjusted out, and the panniers are a bit small… still there’s no pleasing some people: they’d be fine for commuting.
As a general rule, men like it – there’s a certain macho appeal here, plus the inevitable draw of speed and big numbers (gears, watts, purchase price, etc).The symbolism is a strange mixture – maximum speed might only be half that of a humble moped, and it looks like a side-valve job from the 1930s, but the Powabyke gives a surprisingly thrilling ride. If you like your engineering chunky, solid and practical, the Commuter is spot on.
Women tend to be less enthusiastic. Sitting astride a 13.4kg battery pack is much less entertaining for smaller people and we’ve heard suggestions that the 14cm width of the battery not only looks ungainly, but could force your knees apart sufficiently to cause joint problems when pedalling. If a test ride gives that impression, don’t even consider it. Then there’s the weight of the bike… if you think you’ll have problems flicking it back onto the stand or picking it up when it falls over, you’re not a natural Powabyke customer.
Back in June 2000, the similar Euro achieved 33.9 miles before the battery raised the white flag.That’s pretty good, particularly as this mileage was recorded on our hilly test route, with a total climb of nearly 500 metres. Despite a bigger 504Wh battery, the Commuter did almost exactly the same – 32.8 miles at an average of 14.3mph. On easier territory, these machines can go enormous distances – we managed 51 miles before lunch one day. In power-only mode, you should see at least 20 miles, assuming you avoid gradients steeper than 12% or thereabouts, which will stall the motor.
These hefty bikes not only go a long way, but they’re predictable too, averaging between 14 and 15mph, largely independent of gradient or wind direction – a level of consistency that could be useful for daily commuters. Unfortunately, these feats have to be set against a charging time of almost ten hours.
Thanks in part to Powabyke’s unique subsidised battery replacement scheme (£80.75 in the UK), running costs are below average, at 4.2p per mile. Cheaper Powabyke models cost even less, thanks to lower annual depreciation charges.
Is the Commuter worth the money? For those cycling long distances every day, or companies looking for a tough, no nonsense pool bike, the Powabyke Commuter has much to commend it. Mainstream Cyclist Touring Club members will hate it (we’ve heard from some who do), but if you can handle the conceptual problem – this is definitely not a bicycle – it’s almost certain to put a smile on your face.
As we found with the Euro two years ago, a willing motor and all the gears you could need (if you can find them), produce a very long-legged bicycle.With range of over 30 miles, and an ability to maintain a high average speed, the Powabyke Commuter will tackle most commuter journeys with disdain. Around town, it’s a bit of a gear-crashing whale, but on the open road, it performs surprisingly well. Just one thing – unless you really intend to ride off ride (not natural territory for this sort of bike) buy some proper road tyres.
Powabyke Commuter £845
Weight (bike) 27.6kg (60.7lb) (battery) 13.4kg (29.5lb) (total) 41kg (90.2lb)
Gears 24spd Shimano Acera derailleur
Ratios 25″ – 90″
Battery sealed lead-acid
Voltage 36v . Capacity 504wh
Full charge 9 hours 40 min
Maximum range 33 miles
Two hour range 16 miles Power-only range 20 miles
Distributor Powabyke tel 01225 443737 mail firstname.lastname@example.org web www.powabyke.com