Touring Europe on E Bikes

Why We Decided to Change to E-Bikes

If you have read any other pages in our website, you have seen that we have often chosen to pursue challenging “holidays”. The website stories start in 1984, our very first adventure, when we bicycled from Costa Rica to Peru and tried to bike through the infamous Darien Gap of Panama.  

Thirty-one years and multiple adventure holidays later, we are now both in our 70’s.  Mike read about a study done on marathon runners that showed their race time declined by 20% every decade after the age of 40. We may still have the mental desire to meet the challenges and go the distances of our former years, we just don’t seem to get there! Age has made a difference.

The Darien Gap through Panama

Gradients in Greece were 15 to 20%
Albania’s hills are extremely challenging

Last summer, we bicycled 4000 kilometers around Europe with full luggage and no electric assist. Stories are posted in our BLOG and under BIKING ADVENTURES on this site. There were days, even weeks, we wondered what we were doing there. In the United States, gradients on paved major and even minor roads rarely get steeper than 8%. In Europe, we constantly struggled up 10% to 15% gradients with many very short but very tiring gradients that registered up to 26% on our GPS. Eventually, we changed our itinerary and followed the Euro Velo 6 route along major rivers. There were still plenty of big hills, but it was a much easier route than where we had started in Greece and Croatia. Even though we wanted to continue our original route, the challenge was too much for us to enjoy.

I was born with a genetic form of emphysema.  At my current age of 71 years,  of the oxygen I take in, only 37% gets into my blood stream. Normal, healthy lungs in my age group pass between 70% to 80% oxygen from the lungs to the blood. Without adequate oxygen to my blood, my heart wants to pump harder to compensate. Breathing gets short and stressed. My only choice is to go slow, especially uphill. My average speed going up a 6 mile hill with 10% gradient was about 2 miles per hour and less. At times, my breathing would become very labored and I would have to stop and recover. I was not having fun.

Because of my compromised lungs, Mike carried more of the luggage. He had a fully loaded bike and pulled a Bob’s trailer. Often, on long up hills, if he stopped to rest, he could not get started again and ended up pushing to a flatter spot or to the top. He got tired of pulling such a burden on a daily basis and lost his desire to cycle in the mountains. He was not having fun.

We prefer to cycle in the mountains. We did not want to give that up, but neither were we up to the extreme challenge anymore. Something had to change, or we might had given up hope of ever enjoying independent, long distance touring again.  
E-bikes are a relatively new concept in America, but they are extremely popular in Europe. Last summer when we were riding, we saw many people riding with electric assist. One must pedal in order to engage the assisting power. It has been described as bicycling with a tailwind. We decided if they could do it, we could do it and began a laborious search into the fast growing field of E-bikes.

Purpose Built E-bikes

This market is expanding so fast that whatever I write here will probably be out of date by the time you read it. We have found a lot of purpose built e-bikes to choose from. Purpose built bikes come in three flavors: Front Drive, Mid-Drive and Hub. This site compares the systems: http://electricbikereport.com/electric-bike-motor-comparison/ Purpose built e-bikes are necessarily more expensive than adding a kit to your existing bike. Think of it this way. With a purpose built bike, you are buying a bicycle and a motorized system. How much did you spend on your existing bike? Are you into quality components or satisfied with the average? What kind of frame do you have? Why? Does your current bike fit you well? Do you like it? When you buy a purpose built bike, first you must pay to get the same quality bike you already have or want. Then, you pay for the motor. A high end motor that has a chance of giving you the distance you want is expensive by itself. A purpose built bike may split the costs between bike components and motor quality in order to keep the price competitive. One more thing to keep in mind about a purpose built is that the distance you can go is relative to battery size as well as motor. To design a big battery into a frame means the longer distance you want to go, the bigger the frame configuration. Take a look at this website and you will understand what I am saying: https://www.electricbike.com/purpose-built-frames/


Research Resources

https://www.electricbike.com/

http://electricbikereport.com/

http://www.nycewheels.com/bikes.html

http://ridebionx.com/products/oem/oem-customers/ is a list of manufacturers who build E-bikes with BionX system.


Add on E-bike kits

The add on market offers the same three types of systems as do the purpose built bikes: Front Drive, Mid-Drive and Hub: http://electricbikereport.com/electric-bike-motor-comparison/ The number of choices available as add on kits is staggering. We spent weeks researching. Some of the bigger , and some really different options are listed here.

Research Resources

http://electricbikereview.com/tag/kits/

http://electricbikereport.com/electric-bike-kit/

http://www.bikeradar.com/gear/article/buyers-guide-to-electric-bike-kits-30175/

http://www.nycewheels.com/electric-bicycle-conversion.html

https://www.electricbike.com/bafang-bbso2-750w-mid-drive/

https://www.electricbike.com/mid-drive-kits/

http://ridekick.com/electric-bike-conversion/

http://www.eco-wheelz.com/articles/quality-vs-cheap-electric-bike-kits.php

Our bikes

Mike rides a Novara Safari from REI. This is the same bike that he rode last year in Europe. It is 2014 model that has a 26 inch wheel and rim brakes. REI has a new model out in 2015 that has a 29 inch wheel with disc brakes and cost $200 more. Mike was very satisfied with the performance of his bike last summer. He had no issues using the rim brakes even though he was pulling a heavy Bob’s Trailer and had panniers on his bike. We ascended and descended long and extremely steep hills. As far as he was concerned, there were no issues with the bike.


I rode two different trikes over the course of the summer. I started with an Edge E2 folding trike similar to the one I rode last summer. This trike was built up from a prototype frame with  added improved production parts that resulted from feedback on the original prototype. All wheels were 16 inch. In the meantime,  E2 as a company had dissolved over the end of 2014. They have since restructured and resurrected as http://www.evolvetrikes.com/index.html. But the engineer for E2, Bill Gillette, separated from the company and has continued developing a trike in his own manner and is helping us with this new one.


In July, I switched to Azub TRIcon trike with 26 inch rear wheel manufactured in the Czech Republic. Specifically designed as a touring trike with all the amenities, it was a workhorse. More about why I switched later. Since we had our own bikes with the components and fit we liked, we chose to put money into the motorized kit as an add-on instead of buying a purpose built e-bike.

Mike's Safari

Mike’s Safari by REI

Anne's E2 folding trike

Anne’s E2 before 20 inch rear wheel added

Anne's new Azub Trike

Anne’s new Azub TRIcon Trike

Our Final Choice

BionX

Who is BionX?

The best description of BionX is on their own company website: http://ridebionx.com/company/about-bionx/ Their home base in Aurora, Ontario Canada houses their sales, service, research and production facilities. Over ten years in the business of building electric drive systems, they have earned a reputation for quality (http://ridebionx.com/company/awards/) that translated into confidence from our viewpoint. In further researching BionX, we found retailers all around the world and a major service center in Germany. Since we were planning to bicycle in Europe, their worldwide presence was a big plus.
BionX is a pedelec system. That means that assist is available only when pedaling. BionX electric drive systems consist of three components: motor, battery, and console (http://ridebionx.com/technology/our-technology/).

Motor

BionX motors are built into the rear wheel so the rear wheels on our bikes are removed and replaced with their motorized wheel. There is a wide variety of motor size, meaning watts, and wheel sizes offered, although there is no system available for 16 inch wheels. All the motors are capable of regenerative braking which definitely helps to go longer distances. There are four levels of assistance from which to choose. Changing back and forth is immediately effective.  

Battery

The battery packs are Li-ion and also come in a variety of sizes (voltage and Amps) and shapes such as rear rack configurations or down tube mounting. They can be charged on or off the bike.

Console

The console is the computer brains of the system. It is programmable to meet rider specific needs and choices. It has all the information the rider wants to know about battery consumption, assist levels, distance traveled, speed. In addition, it is a diagnostic tool for the company to troubleshoot any problems. The consoles mount directly on the handlebar which makes changing levels of assistance very simple. External wiring connects all the components.

Our needs were quite specific. We wanted the most powerful motor, the longest lasting battery available on the market. The BionX new D series 500 watt motor and 555 watt battery had the strongest specs at the time: http://ridebionx.com/. That’s what we decided to buy.

Taking an e- bike to Europe

It was our intention to buy our BionX systems in the USA, have everything installed, and take our bikes with us on the airlines as we have always done. But, it’s a complicated issue to take an e-bike to Europe. The problem lies in getting the battery, which is a lithium ion product and henceforth considered dangerous goods, to Europe. There is only one way that these batteries can be transported. That is by ship. UPS, FedEx, special cargo planes, etc. will not fly a lithium ion battery that is as large as one used on an electric bike. If one prepares in advance, it is possible to ship the batteries, of course, by sea in plenty of time to get them by the time you arrive by air. We did not have the luxury of that time. We started developing the idea to convert to e-bikes too late in the season to consider shipping by sea.
The result of a great deal of research was that we decided to take the bikes on the airplane with us as we normally do and buy the electric motor kits in Europe. That involved extra expense, as a VAT tax of 20% is normal for buying goods in Europe. Plus, the prices of goods in Europe, with the Euro still stronger than the dollar, would be higher than if we bought the motors in the United States. But that was our decision, because we did not have time to ship the bikes by sea. In retrospect, if you live in the States and are traveling to Europe to cycle, we would recommend buying your BionX system in America and shipping the batteries ahead of time. Why?
The BionX products we wanted to buy are not available in Europe.

Because of different laws (of which we were unaware) governing watts and speed between America and Europe, the products that were available were different.

The kits that are offered in Europe are legally allowed a top speed of 15 mph (25 km/hr), and 250 watt battery where as in the States the limit is 20 mph (32 km/h), and 750 watt battery.

Installation of BionX E-Bike System

We found plenty of websites suggesting that you could install the BionX kit yourself and save $. But, we are here to say, it is much more complicated than these sites leave you to believe. The wheel needs to be set onto your existing axle in a specific manner or the motor will not receive correct information from the pedals. The monitors have numerous settings that control battery usage vs. power received relative to miles per hour. These settings are adjusted via special computer software provided to BionX dealers, not to the general public. The wiring is pretty straight forward but you need the correct lengths. We are as far from being techies as two old people can be. The cost to install was about $100 and well worth the price.

We were landing in Ljubljana, Slovenia.  Specifically because we wanted to cycle much of Slovenia, but especially because there was a BionX dealer in Ljubljana where we could purchase and have the products installed.

We communicated with Gregor Pecnik, BionX dealer and owner of Absolut by e-mail ( website is www.ekoeko.si, )

He was extremely helpful and devoted to helping us chose the best products we could get in Europe and install them.

 

Touring Europe on E-Bikes

Gregor Pecnik-BionX dealer in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Mike’s E-Bike

Mike’s bike was quite easy to retrofit with the BionX kit. His 26 inch wheel would be replaced by a 26 inch wheel with the hub motor built in. The battery was designed to fit on his down tube. Mike got the BionX D-250 DV kit (Not the D-500 available in the USA) Motor: 250 Watts • Range: 135 KM • Battery: Li-Ion / 48V / 11.6 Ah / 555 Wh • Torque (Nom./Max.): 25.0/50.0 Nm • Weight (System): 7.8 kg • Assist Levels: 35, 75, 150, 300% • Cassette body: Compatible with 9/10 speed cassettes from Shimano and SRAM • Wheel sizes: 29er/28“ (for disc brake, rim brake) 27,5“ and 26“ (for disc brake) $2270 US dollars  


Anne’s E2-E-Bike

My trike was another matter. BionX did not make a motorized wheel for 16 inches. Their smallest wheel was 20 inches. This is where Bill Gillette stepped in. In his bike shop, he had manufactured dropouts that would support a 20 inch wheel. He made other adjustments to the trike so that it could be motorized and still fold properly. I chose the S series 350 watt motor for the E2, but that was not available in the European market. Anne got BionX P-250-DV for 20 inch wheel (Not the S-350 available in America) Motor: 250 Watts • Range: 135 km • Battery: Li-Ion / 48V / 11.6 Ah / 555 Wh • Torque (Nom./Max.): 9.0/40.0 Nm • Weight (System): 8.5 kg • Assist Levels: 35, 75, 150, 300% • Cassette body: Compatible with 9/10 speed cassettes from Shimano and SRAM • Wheel sizes: 20“, 24“, 26“, 28“ (for disc brake, rim brake) $1980 US dollars

Mike's bike with BionX
Anne's E2 trike with Bionx 20 inch wheel
A normal installation would take a day. We cannot possibly mention here all the events that occurred to delay us for about two weeks.  Everything Gregor and BionX  promised and delivered was prepared and ready to go. For starters, Mike’s bike arrived significantly crushed and Gregor took charge of obtaining and installing replacement parts. The 20 inch dropouts for my trike had still not been sent. That held us up at least a week. We could not mount the battery on the main tube of the trike because my legs were too short and there was not enough space. Gregor had to design a battery holder that would go below the seat and still allow the trike to fold. The folding rear wheel on the trike was damaged; we welded it permanently. The list went on. If, and we hope when, you travel to Slovenia, you will encounter one strong characteristic everywhere. The local people are always looking to help; they always offer a solution.

Gregor had no idea we could create so many problems, nor did we really, but he provided a helping hand at every twist and turn.

We consider ourselves exceptionally lucky to have landed in Gregor’s care.

How far Can You Really Go on a Single Battery Charge

We have read numerous accounts by e-bike enthusiasts as well as by those who find it bothersome to rely on charging a battery to go long distances. At this stage of development, the principle E-bike target market is the commuter who has a defined distance in mind and easy access to power for recharging. Another fast developing target market is the mountain bike population. In all the advertizing, not one manufacturer mentioned E-bikes or E-bike kits specifically designed for long distance touring. We did, however, come across this site with numerous fascinating stories told by e-bike long distance touring cyclists: http://electricbikereport.com/passing-the-10000-km-mark-on-irelands-wild-atlantic-way/#more-18688 Long distance is the issue here if you want E-bike assistance for touring. How far you want to go, or need to go in a day is, of course, personal. We meet two types of touring cyclists when we tour: Those who carry their luggage, and those who join a tour and the support vehicle carries the luggage. Both groups, it is probably fair to say, plan to go between 40 and 60 miles per day. Many do go much farther than that.

Determining how far you can really go on any E-bike is a complicated issue.

When a company lists the distance you can pedal on a single charge, like car manufacturers, they post their highest distance based on perfect conditions. For an e-bicycle, that means using 1st power on a flat road of smooth quality and no wind. After their figure on distance is calculated based on the above conditions, , add the weight of the bike, the rider, and of course any luggage. Since such perfect conditions really do not exist, it is very difficult to determine how far you can really go on one charge in a day, no matter whose product you purchased. Other important parameters that affect total distance in a day is the type, wattage, and voltage of the battery. Here is a link to a site that explains what is important when choosing a battery: http://electricbikereport.com/electric-bike-battery-basics-what-are-these-volts-amp-hours/ Most pedelec e-bikes systems have assist levels. Obviously, the more assist you require, the faster the battery discharges. Levels 3 & 4 in the BionX system consume about twice the energy of levels 1 & 2. Some systems offer a recharging mechanism by “braking with the motor” on long or steep down hills. Although regeneration recharges slower than using assist at any level, it does add distance to your day. Motors can be set to assist at different percentages within certain miles per hour. That alters how far you can go. How you pedal, the cadence and amount of force applied to the pedals affects battery life. Starting from a stop in a higher power consumes energy while using your own leg power to get started saves battery power. Think about that every time you stop, or even slow down. Hard to measure this on a daily basis.

How Far Did We go on a Single Charge?

Now, you can begin to see how complicated it is to say how far can you go on a single charge. What we can offer you is based on our experience. We kept a log of battery usage…not everyday…but often enough and in different circumstances to see an average daily distance. But, you must remember all those imperfect conditions that jostled the figures every day. Good paving, bad paving, head wind, tail wind, side wind, gradient, weight of riders and luggage, weight of bicycles, monitor settings, and yes, cadence. Mike: 190 pounds; bike with motorized system: 47 pounds; luggage carried: 50 pounds plus groceries as needed. Anne: 140 pounds; bike with motorized system 57 pounds; luggage carried: 45 pounds We both had our motors set to assist at a higher percentage from 0 to 10 mph. We wanted more assist for the steeper gradients which obviously we ascended at lower speeds.  

Our single biggest day, we went 48 miles and climbed 2400 feet.

We stayed in 2 power for most of the climbing. My uphill speed at 10% to 14% gradient averaged 4 miles per hour, double what I was able to do without a motor assist. Most importantly, my blood oxygen did not drop and my breathing remained steady. We used regenerative power on down hills and arrived at camp with no battery charge left.  

An average day seems to compute to 36 to 40 miles with no major passes but plenty of hills.

We used 2 and 3 power and had a smile on all day long.

Fun was our goal, not conservation.

If we wanted to charge up a hill, we put the motor in 3 and pedaled as hard as we could. Sometimes we arrived at camp with one or two battery bars remaining. Other days, we charged for one hour while eating lunch just to insure arriving at our chosen destination without needing to be conservative.  

Our Assessment of BionX E-bike System after 4000 kilometers Mostly in Mountains

Mike’s D Series 250 DV system

In summary, Mike’s experience with the D Series motor, even though he got the 250 watt system instead of the 500 watt because we purchased the kit in Europe, was largely a great success.

With his weight and the luggage he carried, the D Series power and torque responded immediately to his strong pedaling ability and high cadence.

He does not like to linger on hills; he wants to get to the top. Before he had a motorized system, he would always charge the hill ascending as far as he could before he tired. He used accumulated momentum from the descent to propel him upwards. With the BionX motor, he still charged up the hill. He flew! At first, he used a lot of three power, then, as he became stronger, he was able to get the same result using 2 power. Because of the regenerative system, he descended at lower speeds in order to recharge the battery, thus saving his own energy.

The big difference was that he did not tire so quickly…and he had fun!

Another big plus was that he was able to get started again if he stopped on a steep hill.

The motor gave him a “turbo boost” from a dead stop on a steep gradient.

Sure, it used more battery power, but last year, if he stopped like that, he had to push to the top because he could not get started again on such a steep gradient with so much luggage.

He experience two equipment problems during the 4000 kilometers:

After riding in a heavy rain, the monitor collected moisture. It never really cleared up and after a second heavy rain, the monitor completely died. That rendered the system unusable. We needed a new monitor. Replacing a part is done through the dealer. Gregor contacted BionX in Germany and made the claim.

The problem was, how do we get the monitor? Gregor was in Slovenia; we were in Prague.

The monitor needed to be programmed and only a dealer had the software to do it. We had only a few days left to stay in the EU Shengen countries and had to get to Croatia, a non-Shengen country. We would take the train to Innsbruck, Austria and cycle to Croatia from there. Gregor found a dealer in Innsbruck who could program the monitor for us. Would BionX Germany send the monitor to Innsbruck? What happened next was rather unbelievable. They could not expedite the package to Innsbruck in time for our arrival. We had a train change in Munich, Germany…very close to their BionX service center. A representative from BionX, thank you Francesco, came to the Munich train station, found us and handed us the new monitor! That’s service! Mike’s second problem began shortly after the monitor issue. Mike noticed a lack of power assist…until he hit bumps in the road. Suddenly, the bike would surge ahead. Gregor identified the problem immediately. Mike’s wheel nuts had loosened over time. The BionX wheel had rotated into an incorrect position and communication between the pedals and the motor was “garbled”. A “bump” message got through, but pedaling did not. Gregor gave us instructions how to reset the wheel in the proper position. Technically speaking, we didn’t “get it” until he drew lines on a picture we sent him of the wheel position. Once understood, it was simple to correct ourselves. But Gregor warned us to tighten the nuts very tight. We thought we did, but our small tool set did not offer enough torque to hold the wheel firmly in position. After three recurring episodes, a Swiss traveler came to the rescue with a big torque wrench. That fixed it.

Anne’s P 250 DV BionX system

The P series motor Anne used on her 20 inch wheel was more problematic. The P motor has 9 Nm torque. Mike’s D series motor has 25 Nm which is 2.5 times higher torque. Ascending steep gradients with luggage apparently overheated Anne’s P 250 motor.  Over the course of about 500 kilometers, Anne burned out two P 250 DV motors. They died an instant death after spinning on loose gravel.

Although Gregor and BionX responded immediately to the situation, it took days to get the new wheels. The first time, we rented a car and drove back to Ljubljana. The second time, Gregor drove to us in Croatia. When the second replacement motor began to show signs of overheating, we decided the P Series with 20 inch wheel was not suitable for our kind of travel through mountains with heavy luggage.

That’s when we began the search for a new trike with 26 inch wheel.

BionX would upgrade us to a D-Series motor.

With Gregor’s knowledge, and a lot of dedicated people at Azub Trike company in the Czech Republic, we secured a new trike with 26 inch wheel and a new BionX D Series motor.

That ended all Anne’s problems. No more overheating. Just a lot of power to get up those 14% gradients. And her new Azub TriCon trike was like pedaling a Cadillac.

A short time later, we received an e-mail from BionX quality control manager in Canada. He asked if we would  report the exact circumstances of each motor failure. The wheels were being shipped back to Canada for analysis.

Mike and I remember years ago when we were distributors for a white water kayak company. We reported water filling the support tubes in the kayaks and in the paddle. As distributors, we expected our reports to be extremely helpful in correcting a serious issue. All we got back from the company was denial that water was getting  in the tubes. Three years later, they announced their new kayak line no longer had tubes filling with water.

The steps that BionX took in contacting us to take control of the quality of their products was a complete surprise and most refreshing approach. It showed us that they cared.

BionX System Pros

  • Warranty on all three parts is three years
  • No run around with claims; company stands behind their warranty
  • extensive network of dealers worldwide
  • Rear hub gearless direct drive hub motors have few moving parts which makes them more reliable than mid-drive motors
  • Batteries can be charged on or off the bikes
  • Versatile drive system offers throttle mode, pedal assist or regen mode in addition to regenerative braking
  • changing assist levels and modes is easy and instantly effective
  • Amazing power and hill climbing assistance with the D series, even with touring luggage

BionX system Cons

  • Trouble shooting problems necessitates dealer assistance because of complex computer technology at the heart of the system
  • Direct-Drive hub motors have drag when unpowered, making the bike feel sluggish to pedal
  • System adds 17 pounds of weight to your bike
  • Silent performance at lower assist levels but wheel “sings” at higher levels when pedaling hard

Final Thoughts on Touring with E-Bikes

  • Generally speaking, we were not interested in pedaling upwards of 50 miles a day
  • We never had a problem recharging the batteries: in restaurants for lunch if needed, at campgrounds, even a couple of times in private homes.
  • Distances between interesting destinations were well within our desired distance of travel per day
  • We still pedaled; we still very much enjoyed the feeling of bicycling and daily accomplishment
  • We were able to cycle the mountain areas we loved; without the motor assistance, we would have given that up; perhaps even bicycling altogether
  • My stressed breathing all but disappeared
  • We had fun!

What follows this rather long introduction to touring Europe on E-bikes?

We cycled about 4000 kilometers in 6 different countries: Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Germany, Czech Republic, and Italy. We found a lot of scenically rich, challenging, mountain routes that we could not have enjoyed without our BionX motorized systems. We will be sharing routes, maps, gps data, photos, and stories with you on the following pages. We hope that they inspire you, no matter age or physical condition, to continue riding. We are lucky to live in an age where amazing technology can offer us aid as needed and a lot of fun.

Map-Touring Europe on E Bikes-2015

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