Hybrid velomobile - a formula for success?

What happens when one combines a fast and sporty velomobile like a Waw with the advanced electrical assist/generator like a BionX? Do they reinforce eachothers advantages or their disadvantages? Find out my and others experiences here. If you do not know what a velomobile or an electric assist is, check out the links first. (An electrical assist that helps up to only 25km/h and with power limited to 250W, remains a bicycle by EU law)

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

First practical experience -- 300 km report

As it turns out, riding into town and back, a 50km roundtrip, is no problem at all. The first roundtrip, the battery indicator showed that about a third capacity was left, so that should result in approximate range of 70-80 km. Second ride was similar. The third charge I managed to empty completely in exactly 80km. And this with the assist level on level 3 (100% assist) and a few times on 4 on the steepest bits. That day I went on an interview so I took it easy not to sweat too much using the assist quite a lot; also I and Peter did the hill up to his place several times. Once empty, the Waw still remains a very capable velomobile, the main difference being that it is about 8kg heavier. I hardly notice the BionX is there on an even course. And so it should be as I want it to behave as before when riding above 25km/h!! Very different to the handicap or almost complete immobilisation with respectively the Aerorider and the Twike when the batteries run out. No, the BionX does not make you ride an electrical vehicle; it is still very much a HPV.

Charge 4 was more energetic riding form my part into town, going to HPV Sweden’s national member meeting. It resulted in 25% charge left after 80km, so a range of 100km is possible (I did ride a bit in regenerator mode during our parade through town, but that was very little and probably offset by red-light sprints on assist - more on such later).

In all above instances, the brake regeneration was used as much as possible. Works very well and makes me ride at more appropriate speeds in some traffic conditions because i feel that I am not completely LOSING my hard-worked-for speed when I slow down precautionary.

Interpolating from our test with the MTB on almost flat surroundings which gave a range of about 35km on level 3, these ranges are very promising. Or should I say, Impressive! At second thought, there are several obvious reasons why the velomobile has a much better range. First, regular riding speed is higher, so much less likely to end up under the 25km/h barrier using the engine every time one slows down a bit (if one rides above 25km/h at all with a bicycle!!). Second, the kinetic energy of a velomobile is usually much higher, so the regenerative braking should be much more effective. In the same conditions as the first test in Belgium, the BionX would probably have a range of, perhaps(?), 300km if I am riding... which brings us to...

To measure is to Know (M5's dada, translated)

All this are the results of practical use. The question is of course, what does it mean? It is not so easy to quantify the conditions of riding here just north of Stockholm. For instance, what are the elevation differences and slopes in the different routes? Not a clue, really. On a ride two new friends, Mikael had a GPS with him which also recorded the total climbing done. Unfortunately, this measurement was related to air pressure and the very unstable weather resulted in a total climbing of 2,7km on our 25km trip. NOT! Should be a few hundred meters I suspect. Subjectively, it is definitely not as flat as Flevoland, nor as flat as the Flemish lowlands. It is more like the surroundings of Brussels. One is never sure if the road is really flat. I have this piece on my route that feels uphill in both directions. Haven't figured out why.... :-D
So the surroundings are hilly, the kind you really notice when cycling, but don't pay special attention to when driving a car...

My speed on the steeper climbs on my route before BionX were about 10-15km/h depending on my mood. With BionX at 100% assist (level3), they are 18-23 km/h. With the option of doing the latter more relaxed by putting it into 200% assist (level 4). So, definitely faster, but we are not talking about 120km/h uphill on a steep highway. We are still talking cycling speeds, not motorised speeds. I weigh about 80kg and pedal somewhere between 100 and 250W on my commutes, I guess. Peter is a whole lot less younger than me (he could almost be my granddad), and probably has less than half the power at his own disposal. He probably needs some wider gearing just to be able to pedal hard enough so that the BionX "unleashes" its full 250W* on 200% assist level... (again, you have to pedal real power to get any help, the engine measures your effort and then "seconds" that). Peter will write on this blog about his experiences later on.

After a few more rides, I intend to write on how the BionX influences my riding style and the "cycling feeling". 100% subjective impressions.... More ideas after that too, so there is more to come! Circumstances permitting...

*My kitchenmixer has similar power...

Sunday, May 22, 2005

Second opinion: Per-Eric wrote a short impression of testriding a (hybrid) velomobile for the first time

Per-Eric catches some attention on his test ride

Just that you know, I've never really ridden a velomobile before.
However, I ride other 'bents, so I'm propably am a bit easier to teach velomobiling than the average bike och car user.

First impressive thing was the sturdiness of WAW. I've been warned that entering some velomobiles can be a bit acrobatic, because of the limited amount of places that you can step on. Not here. Then, riding was quite a blast. It's steering is stable (and I've only very limited USS
experience) and has an OK turning circle (about as large as my tandem). I took the cornering a bit on the safe side, but after some hours you can probably do sharper and faster. Well, just push a little on the pedals and away we go ... Rolling thunder is noticeable, but not that loud. The little display on the left shows "40" now. hmm. can it be my speed?
Nice. Later, with the BionX on, it is even a little faster starting, but probably needs hills for really feeling the difference.

I think this is a very good vehicle concept, and could certainly recommend it to friends, especially that they can take hills and luggage with ease and still combine cycling + weatherproof. Only adoption would be a longer chain tube, to protect forgotten trouser legs ... (and probably brake/turning light, I preferred it to hand signals). If it just could be made in larger series to lessen cost, it would be the vehicle of the future.

/Per Eric

Friday, May 13, 2005

Installment in the Waw + Test II


Installing the BionX in the Waw took a lot longer than 30 minutes. More like the better part of a whole day. Partly because Peter and I took some time to fix some other things. First issue to work out was if the BionX would fit with the standard-length electric wiring. Preferably I would have had the battery somewhere between the front wheels to have a lower centre of gravity and so improved stability, but that was not possible with the standard-length wires. The battery ended up under the seat, where it sits quite nicely between the rear wheel well and the seat. Because the battery holder usually sits on the bottle cage holder on a regular bicycle, the same mounting conditions were simulated using threaded rivets on the floor sandwich. Peter had to run of to the shop to get suitable longer bolts. Knowing the balance of the Waw when on two wheels, I noticed that the sideways stability was similar as before.

The console got a nice place on the top of the left wheel well, where it is very visible for the rider, yet out of direct sight for bystanders. Wire length was a perfect fit. Drilling the hole in the rear wall of the body to draw the power cable to the engine was the only scarring the Waw-body had to endure.

What had to be changed also was the gearing. The Waw001 originally had a 52/11-34 9-speed gearing. Now it is a 52/14-28 7-speed. That was a bit of a bummer to loose that much gearing range and to have to change the shifter from a high quality Rocket to a cheapo something gripshift. However, apparently a 7-speed 11-34 screw-on cassette exists too, so it is on order.

Test ride

The very first thing I noticed was that I could hear the hub engine, contrary to an instalment on the first test bicycle. And the sound seems to come from the front… so the light vibration makes the nosecone a loudspeaker – it actually sounds as the noise of a knobbly mountainbike tire at speed on a smooth asphalt road. There is also the slightest hint of a whining sound that is so typical for electrical motors – but that is very very weak. A little more riding showed that this vibration noise is only apparent on full 200% assist level. That is a relief. Pfew. It is nice to not notice the hub engine. Other than that, it works more or less like on the first bicycle test. I look forward to more extensive testing, very curious if it will get me into and back from Stockholm (a 50 km trip on rather hilly terrain) and how it influences my riding style.

For Peter however today is the first try-out and he is exited to see if it works for him. He takes the first steep ascent we know and… yep… he can manage it! And that with an awful gearing of 52/28 on a 26inch wheel. He has serious problems to manage the same on his 25kg lighter touring racer bicycle. Yep, the Waw is up to at least 40kg. What happens to be the weight of my old painted Alleweder and some other velomobiles without an assist engine….

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

First test - May 6 & 9, 2005

Extensive lobbying of my friend Peter H. succeeded in making me enthusiastic in testing an electrical assist. After searching the internet and visiting a few cycle shops, it became clear that the system having the best chance to make a convincing case for the concept was the BionX. (I have testridden quite some bikeelecs before too). Even I - previously totally uninterested in the subject - found the specifications of the bionX system appealing - especially the regeneration possibilities.

Now, Peter his motivation is shortly as follows: his health is not completely 100% (alas a heavy smoker) and hills are a obstacle for basic mobility - getting from A to B. For him it truly could make the difference between being mobile and have no choice but to wait for the bus. Peter does not want a car. If there would be no bus, he would have been forced to use a car, a situation many people around the world are in. A phenomena called car dependence - severely resticted choice of alternatives in the era of so-called freedom of choice...


I have become designated sceptical tester - in service of both Peter H. and Fietser.be - the latter a possible future distributor of BionX if the test goes well.

Testing, testing

First quick test is on a regular bicycle, in case my mom's pseudo (leisure use only) MTB during my visit in Belgium. Installing the BionX is very easy, it is no more complicated than the equivalent of changing a rear wheel, changing the bottle holder and installing a speedometer. With the right tools at hand, it takes barely a half hour. Could have been much worse. Things to keep in mind is that one needs the holes from the bottle cage and that the BionX has a threaded axle - only screw-on casettes fit onto it. It is unclear to me if those exist in more than 7 speed versions. So you might have to change the shifter too - not in this case - but a limitation anyway. Reportedly the producers should at some time make it 9-speed compatible - the standard for quality bicycles today.
Another slight dissapointment is that the axle is not quick release. Good for preventing theft, bad for weight and changing a flat. But reasonably, one does not really expect differently, all hub engines are probably all are like this. And I can manage to fix a flat with the wheel in anyway.

BionX installed on Moms bike - worst case test mule

The console is very nice. It includes a speedometer, trip and odemeter. It is easy to understand and has a pin code protection+ alarm and back-light for nightriding. One can choose 4 levels of assist mode or generator mode (for e.g. training purposes). Battery charge level and amount of assistance/generation are shown in real time. (more info: see the specifications of BionX)

Time is restricted, so I go for the most battery exhaustive test: assist level on 200% (nr.4) and go riding, without too much effort trying to stay above 25km/h. Not a hilly test course (It's more or less flat with some bridges - I am cycling into the city of Ghent and back), but the hub motor gets to work most of the time since I barely bother to go above 25km/h. The bicycle itself is about as slow as it gets, not too high quality, thick low pressure tires, very upright riding position. In effect, worst case. With the motor assisting all the time, riding becomes a breeze. Obviously. The engine is completely silent -I can't hear it. During braking, the hub engine switches to generator mode full power and this does make some sound. It is not really a (electric) noise, more like a vibration one would get from a slightly maladjusted brakes. My dad for instance did not notice the generation mode when I didn't tell him about it. This regeneration mode is actually quite a suitable brake by itself, it slows you down noticably. If one squeezes the rear brake lever gently (with the magnetic sensor stuck on it), one only activates the regeneration mode and not the actual rear brake. Works nicely once used to it and one can see on the real time indicator one generates quite some juice using this method of slowing down. Reminds me of the Toyota Prius hybrid car which also informs one of the state of affairs (under the hood).

With assist level on 200% (level 4) all the time, on the two test rides I twice get a range of 25km. Exactly as predicted in the manual (and just getting me home from the trips into the city of Ghent), which predicts that 100% assist should then get you approx. 35km far, 50% 45 km and 25% 75km. Seems very reasonable to me considering that you have less than 4kg of battery with you. When one runs out of battery, one can just continues riding, the only difference being that one now has a bicycle that is approx. 8kg heavier then if one would have been without... well, at least it doesn't immobilise you, it remains in first place a bicycle.

At the end of the test, I do some "high speed" and low speed testing. It reveals that the vibration of the generation mode dissappears above approx. 30km/h. The other way around, if one gives the engine a lot of resistance at low speed and full assist (very steep hill), it makes the same vibration noise under 10-15km/h.
Also, at the end of the test, all spokes were very loose. Basically the wheel was badly spoked and I needed to lubricate the threads and retention all the spokes in the wheel. Not very good of course, but also very easily fixed - producer take note!

Keeping in mind that the bicycle was particularly unexiting, the test went very well and the bionX lives up to the advertised expectations. Now I'm off to Sweden, where it shall be tested in the Waw001...

Thursday, May 05, 2005

Introducing velomobiles + bionX

Welcome to this little blog.

It is meant to report about my experiences with the electrical assist system BionX in combination with my velomobile, the Waw001. I'll start with posting a short introduction to the subject.

A velomobile is an advanced HPV - a "human powered vehicle". If a bicycle is a human powered motorcycle, then a velomobile is roughly a human powered automobile. Different from automobiles is that most velomobiles have three wheels and are meant to transport one person - they are narrow track vehicles and thus also fit on the cycling track. For me, what for me makes a velomobile preferrable for daily transportation relative to a bicycle for daily riding is their speed: the very good aerodynamics of a closed body can make velomobiles very efficient and fast. The ease of riding and increased weather/road protection come as a bonus. E.g. on a flat road I can hold 40 km/h with little problem, on a regular commuting bicycle that figure would be closer to 25 km/h. Mind you, this is commuting speed, racing speeds are in both cases a lot higher. There is one catch: a velomobile is heavier than a bicycle; my velomobile, prototype Waw weighs 32kg at its best (but usually more with some dirt and luggage on the out and inside). This makes daily riding in hilly terrain even more tedious than with a bicycle, and any speed advantage usually dissapears uphill (if one cannot use the superior downhill speed to get up the next hill that is).

Waw 001, Peter riding

Electrical bicycles already exist quite extensively on the world bicycle market. Not an overwhelming succes perhaps, but they have a following and certainly provide an option for increased mobility especially in hilly terrain. Usually, electrical assisted bicycles (they are regarded non motorised by EU law if the engine only works when one pedals at the same time and this up to a max. of 25km/h - engine power max. 250W) come as complete bicycles. Once chooses a system together with the bicycle. Now there is this system called BionX (Photo2). It comes as a kit which one can convert any HPV with a standard rear axle and derailleur gears into an "electrically assisted" HPV. Another point of intrest is that it is one of the most advanced systems on the market, with full electronic control of the engine. What makes it particularly interesting to ME is the possibility to recuperate kinetic energy back into battery power. Meaning that there is a sensor on the brake handle that senses when one wants to slow down - transforming the hub engine instantly into a generator charging the NiMh battery. A recipy for efficiency.... HPV folk usually find efficiency very appealing - hence velomobiles.

The BionX out of the Box (7-speed sprocket & gripshift not included in kit)

Velomobile + bionX = ??
Adding an electrical assist, "an ENGINE!" to a bicycle is .... difficult, for cycling purists. Doing so to a velomobile is even worse, it complicates the simple world where bicycles are bicycles and cars are cars.

Assisted velomobiles exist already. Several have modified their velomobiles themselves. Basically, they did not appeal to me. For the purpoe of acceleration, I never missed an assist, acceleration capabilities are ample with good gearing in a velomobile. However, now that I moved from flat Belgian lowlands to the hilly surroundings of rocky Stockholm, I became obvious that hills do annoy me. Subjectively, riding up a fill feels like coming to a complete standstill - even when I do some extra effort and usually still overtake the majority of other cyclists. The other thing that bugs me is that extra effort - it makes it impossible to take it easy, one has to sweat to get up the hills. When I commute, I don't necessarily ask for a full sports training. Especially when one is tired after a long days work and with a velomobile full of shopping, that last hill before home really is a bummer.

Also especially the generator functions seems very promising, finally a system that can recuperate some of the high speed kinetic energy one can generate with the help of great aerodynamics...

At least I have the possibility to give some extra effort to get uphill. I realise that for many potential users of a velomobile - or simply a bicycle for that matter - uphill riding is a major deterrent... still, this blog would not exist if it were up to me, more on that in the next post...