The Good: An electric motor makes pedaling a breeze.
The Bad: All the extras make this e-bike heavy and cumbersome.
The Bottom Line: Low-sweat bike commuting makes it easier to give up the car.
I changed my tune about electric bikes after my first long commute. I had mounted Schwinn's top-of-the-line Tailwind e-bike in leafy Brooklyn, dubious of the proposition of a battery-powered bicycle. Cyclists, after all, ride to exercise. This seemed like cheating.
Seven miles later, by the time I got to Times Square, it dawned on me. The e-bike isn't about exercise, strictly. It's about commuting. The bike's electric motor helped me climb up to the Brooklyn Bridge, and then ascend a long incline from the Hudson River to the traffic-choked heart of Manhattan. The Tailwind transformed a normally sweaty bike commute into a pleasant, energizing spin. Indeed, I had given up on bike commuting to work because the ride left me drenched, and with no shower at work, it was a no go. The e-bike made bike commuting possible again.
The clincher may have been the bicycle messengers, a discerning tribe of bike geeks if ever there was. As I locked up the Tailwind, a gaggle of four gathered around. These lean-limbed riders got it immediately. Rather than poo-pooing such a high-tech heavy rig, they were bursting with curiosity over my e-ride: How far can it go? What difference does it make? How much does it cost?
The Tailwind is one of seven e-bikes Schwinn is offering in 2009. Certainly the energy crisis of the past few years has stirred new interest in getting out of cars and changing the way we commute. But though widely sold in China and Europe, the e-biking concept has not caught on in the U.S.—yet. Schwinn hopes more Americans will wake up to the appeal of assisted cycling.
A 25-Mile Boost
Whether the bikemaker can persuade U.S. consumers to part with $3,200 for this high-tech bicycle remains to be seen. But, while it may not be the cheapest way to pedal more easily, the battery-powered assist works as advertised. It boosts your pedaling for about 25 miles, depending on your weight and how hilly your route is.
On the road, the electric enhancement is both subtle and surprising. Keep in mind: You still must pedal. The motor doesn't provide full propulsion, like a motor scooter. Rather, imagine having someone give you a gentle push as you pedal. Starting on a flat, this means you push for a few strokes, and the quiet motor will begin to kick in, helping to pull you up to a low speed.
Just how much oomph the motor gives you depends on which setting you pick. The highest of the three levels, for example, can help zip you up to around 15 miles per hour on flat ground. Sensors in the wheels and brakes adjust the motor's effort invisibly, complementing your efforts, not replacing them. The second you touch the brakes, the motor cuts out.
In practice, this means getting going from a dead start and climbing hills are both significantly easier. The motor is nicely tuned to add its boost so gradually that while climbing a hill, you may not know the assist is working unless you turn it off and suddenly have to fight the forces of gravity unaided.
The effect is addictive, yet to win over U.S. cyclists' hearts and legs, Schwinn's Tailwind would benefit from one last return to the design shop. The 6-lb. battery pack is placed in the bike rack over the rear wheel. That makes it nicely accessible, but also makes an already very cumbersome (59 lb.) bicycle top-heavy and can make for a sluggish ride on the road. The high center of gravity means maneuvering the Tailwind by hand can be a struggle. And forget about schlepping this bike up and down stairs.
Leave the Car Behind?
At its heart, the Tailwind is a serious commuter bike. In the rear wheel, there's Shimano's high-end Nexus 8-speed hub. Wide, full fenders are nicely integrated and will keep grimy road splatter off your legs and back on wet rides. And the bike chain, which can catch pant cuffs, is entirely encased in a plastic guard.
Front and rear lights are powered by a clever little gizmo that's mounted on the rear frame. When clicked down, its small rubber wheel contacts the bike's tire and spins as you ride. That motion creates electricity, powering the lights. The feature is at once a nod to cycling's green roots, and a design hiccup. Wouldn't it be easier simply to run the lights from the main battery, and do away with some of the weight and wiring on a bike bristling with cables?
In a similar vein, I was asked by curious cyclists and bystanders alike if the Tailwind could recharge its own battery while braking. After all, this is how hybrid cars like the Toyota (TM) Prius work. But the Tailwind uses a new generation of fast-charging, high-capacity batteries, which I was able to charge fully in as little as 10 minutes.
For now, the Tailwind is a step in the right direction and might emerge as an alternative to conventional bicycles and motorscooters. Yet it needs to be lighter, with a less complex and more smartly integrated design.
Here, see a video of Adam Aston, BusinessWeek's energy and environment editor, as he shows off the technology and innovation that go into Schwinn's new Tailwind eBike.
Aston is Energy & Environment editor for BusinessWeek in New York.