The Chainstay…

Odd title, I know.  And I guess it’s not even one that might initially pique your interest, but the more general point I’m alluding to is eBike geometry….

The bicycle is well over 100 years old now and it’s fair to say it’s been through many, many iterations and experimentation, including some pretty extreme niche cases, but in general it has steadily evolved over the years.  In more recently years the biggest technological advancements have been in construction materials and techniques, making bikes lighter, stiffer etc.  In the various genres, a bicycle’s geometry has often been seen as a far lesser important component.  We’re so far down the line with bicycles, that I think a lot of people assume that we’ve been through the experimental phases and surely now we must be getting close to the perfect geometry.  I think to some degree this has some truth in road and commuter based bikes.  They’ve existed the longest and roads haven’t changed significantly.  There’s also been some amount of limitation to road bike’s  geometry imposed by the UCI (Union Cylist International – cycling’s overlord governing body).

An area where the final perfect geometry is far less known is mountain bikes.  It’s even true to say that historically, MTB geometry hasn’t been a big consideration of manufacturer’s or consumers.  The large brand’s marketing machines have preferred to push new suspension designs, frame materials and often simply the paint scheme or drive-chain specification.  That was until around 8-10 or so years ago when the development of MTB frames got to the more flatter curve of what’s possible with available technologies – nowadays you could even say it’s plateaued.  Bikes aren’t getting significantly lighter, stiffer, faster, and more efficient purely based on how they’re made.   I guess it’s like any bubble – it grows for a while, but inevitably bursts at some stage.  This caused a dramatic slow-down of new whole-bike sales.  A trend began to emerge where consumers would renew their worn transmission and tyres, but stay with their frame and fork much longer – because the “new” versions weren’t as radically better year on year, like they used to be.  The cycle industry’s initial reaction to this was good – it powered a rush of development into components instead of the frames.  Suspension, dropper posts, brakes and tyres all came on a lot in a seemingly more accelerated way.  But it left the big frame brands ultimately, frustrated.  “How can we force new whole-bike sales?”  they shouted in boardroom meetings!  Well, I believe that’s where 29ers came frame….. And what d’you do when that bubble bursts?  Well, change the axle and other standards to make older components obsolete – and recently I think this has caused contempt for manufacturers from consumers.  The veil of apparent honesty and care for the consumer had been exposed as bull**it, instead replaced by a much colder version of reality.  Well this is capitalism – get over it.  Brand’s, just like banks only care about growth and profit – without which, they plunder.

Aaaanyway, without wanting to digress too much, a much brighter reason to buy new MTB frames is starting to emerge: geometry.  The big brands have now (finally) started to experiment with properly different and better geometry.
I suspect a similar sequence of events probably also happened to road bikes in the past – but I was only born in 1980, and I don’t know a huge amount about the history of road bicycles.

So how does this affect eBikes?  Well, eBikes are still in their infancy as a genre at all, with the eMTB genre being younger still.  eMTB’s have only really existed for about 5 years.  Many of the early eMTB’s were either bodged normal bikes with heavy wheel motors or eMTB’s that went straight from drawing board to production and shop floor, without any testing at all, such was the rush to get them to market.  The outcome of this is that eMTB’s (even now), are still seen as an iteration of the normal bike version.  Many brands produce both an electric and non-electric version of the same bike, so much of the geometry is carried over from the standard versio.  It is this, which I think is currently the biggest short-coming of eMTB’s – their need to resemble the geometry of standard MTB’s.  The biggest example of this is in chain-stay length – see, I got to the title point eventually!

There is a trend at the moment for MTB’s to have very short chain-stays.  I’m not expressing my own opinion towards this, but it is generally accepted that short chain-stay on an MTB can create a more “playful” bike that is easier to turn, pop and generally mess around on – it makes a bike have desirable handling characteristics at slower speeds.  Short chain-stays certainly make it easier to wheelie a bike!

Like any number on the geometry chart, there are always downsides to chasing a lower or higher one.  In basic terms (and this is a huge generalisation) when you extend or decrease a geo-number the bike will go better/worse when riding uphill and create an opposite effect when going down hill.  The truth is more complicated than that, but you can at least get the idea that to affect one area positively, there is usually a compromise somewhere else.
In the case of short chain-stays, as mentioned they can create some positives, but some of the downsides can be to make the bike less stable at speed going downhill and also that with a riders weight closer to the rear wheel pivot point – ie the axle – it can lead to the bike tipping over backwards when climbing steep/technical trails uphill, also known as “looping out”.

This is exactly where the difference of eMTBs to standard MTBs is prevalent – but so often overlooked.  So much of an eMTB’s pleasure and advantage is in their ability to power up the hills – if you put short chain-stay on them, all of this is lost.  It’s a common oversight, because mountain bikers would normally assume that short chain-stays should be so desirable.  A recent example of this is Rocky Mountain’s new Altitude Powerplay eMTB.  RM were so keen to develop an eMTB with short chainstays that they had to make their own motor – because most other eBike motors won’t allow short chain-stays due to clearance issues.  It was their biggest hurdle to conquer – and they’ve managed it.  The Powerplay has 425mm chain-stays.  That is MEGA short for a 27.5″ wheeled bike, even a non-electric bike would struggle to achieve CT’s that short.
Sadly as you can read in this review of the bike on Pinkbike, these short CT’s are unfortunately the bike’s biggest weakness – because it makes the bike rubbish at climbing.  Extract:

“The downsides of the Powerplay’s trail bike geometry are its very short, 426mm chainstays and the slack, by modern standards, seat angle. Both make for a wheelie machine when ascending, which leads to extra fatigue on climbs as the rider must constantly battle to keep the front end down. Luckily I have good hip flexibility, but many riders suffer here and will struggle to keep the front wheel on track and the bike on-line. It is easy to float the front wheel over obstacles, but much more easy to start to loop out or simply stray off the track. The light front wheel can be remedied slightly by using the Ride-9 adjustment chip on the shock linkage, but there are some disadvantages, namely, lifting the rear of the bike and steepening the steering geometry. The difficulty found in climbing this bike is trail based, if you want to shuttle yourself up a road to pin the downhills, then what I’m describing here is almost a moot point, but climbing and descending challenging trails is where the eMTB fun begins.”Pinkbike.

Rocky Mountain Altitude Powerplay – RM went to the trouble of developing their own motor system just to get super short chainstays

And this is a conclusion also well exemplified in the other direct by the KTM Kapoho LT (that I have on test at the moment and will publish my thoughts of soon).  The KTM has enormous chainstays, just shy of 500mm.  If you’re a mountain biker who is aware of modern geometry trends, this number would utterly terrify you.  For many, seeing that number alone would mean a definite “no thanks” before they ever lifted a leg over the bike to try it, because that would just be terrible to ride, right?  Well they’d be wrong.  The KTM’s big CT’s are character defining and possibly it’s biggest strength.  They make a bike capable of climbing literally ANY technical ascent (coupled with the large tyre’s unflichable traction).

For me, I do think the KTM is a little too far along the scale of chainstay length and it does slightly detract from the bike’s downhill handling, but my point over all, of this blog entry, is – that eBikes should not be thought of simply as a normal bike that gets to the top of the hill for you.  To think that is missing the point; you’ll miss all the fun you can have effortlessly sailing uphills; you may also end up being disappointed by eMTBs if all you’re hoping for is a self-propelled bike.  eBikes should be thought of in their own right – they are not simply bicycles that pedal themselves.

eBikes: The Haters!

A pragmatic approach blog entry, to answering some of the eBike haters comments and concerns.  eBikes and especially eMTB’s are still causing quite a lot of negative reaction, but is it fair or justified?
….so, I’m going to start by splitting the hater comments into 2 distinct categories:
Firstly, there’s the reactionary to anything new being “gahh, just take it away, make it stop” etc.  These tend to be not-entirely-logical, Daily Mail, pitchfork waving people.  I’m going to call this category “New is bad“.
And secondly there are many people who have real concerns.  These I’m going to call “Genuinely concerned“.

So I’ll start with the “New is bad” type comments and I promise I will at least try to be sensible…

Its cheating.
Let’s start with the google dictionary definition of cheating.
to act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage“.  Well, in this respect I can, kind of, a little bit, understand.  I mean, eBike motors are close to silent these days and more and more are trying to hide the battery inside the frame, making an eBike look very much like a normal bicycle (with varying degrees of success).  But I’m not exactly sure that’s being dishonest?  Electric motors are quiet, just because they are, not really by specific design.  Plus, you’d put batteries inside a frame for the same reason we put cables inside the frame – it just looks way neater.
And the other definitions don’t really apply.  You can’t “cheat” on your wife with an eBike.  Well, not in the traditional sense anyway.
If it isn’t a race, then how are you cheating?
I think what is really meant by “cheat” is the more obvious lack of effort required to ride an eBike, therefore you’re cheating yourself of the health benefits of riding a bike.  But what if health benefits aren’t your main intention?  What if the main reason you ride is to have fun, take in the views, get some country air or more practical reasons like to get to the shops or commute to work?  Or even rehabilition reasons, like a hip replacement etc.
I understand that people can feel a bit annoyed that their ride was aforded to them by a ton of hard work.  Not just on that ride, but on all the other rides that built up enough fitness to go on that ride.  The time, the effort, the sweat, the panting, the suffering, even the equipment, the clothing, the hyration pack, the really expensive breathable waterproof – you don’t need any of that to ride an eBike.  I can see how people find that annoying…… mmmmmm, but it’s still nonsense.  I mean, I bet there were plenty of horse guys that were pretty annoyed when Henry Ford started producing his horseless-cart.  Do we remember them with empathy and understanding?  No, we don’t remember them at all.

It’s a motorised bicycle, therefore a Motor-bike.  Why should they be allowed the same rules and reg’s as bicycles?
It seems to have taken about 40 years too long, but we finally seem to have realised, as a global society, that bicycles = good.  They help to solve 2 huge problems we have on planet Earth, (plus others) those being a huge population of obese people; and terrible air quality due to a tranport system that is reliant on burning fossil fuels.  So any way of reducing combustion engine journeys has to be a good one, right?  This is why eBikes are regulated under the same laws and rules as bicycles.  Because we absolutely must get away from car journeys.
Putting eBikes under the same banner as bicycles helps them become the accepted norm, whether they be ridden on or off road.

And let’s not forget that all of the obove “new is bad” comments can all be answered with – “It’s no one’s business what I choose to buy or ride, as long as it’s legal and not anti-social”.

The geunine concerns:

Cycle access worries
At present, there is no UK trail centre, national park, council, postcode or private cycle network which deferentiates between eBike and Bike usage.  Ie anywhere you can ride a normal bike, you can ride an eBike – as far as I’m aware.  In fact, many trail centres encourage eBikes and the new trail users that bring them.  Just like normal-bike riders, they bring their wallet, buy cake and coffee in the cafes, put money in the parking meters and don’t reach higher max speeds than normal-bike riders.  It is a worry that more cyclists of any kind bring additional burden on resources, additional wear on the trails and increase risk of incidents simply by increasing the volume.  But guess what, we all have the same rights to access.  Just because more people are able to utilise that access doesn’t mean it’s unfair.

In Europe we have huge access to the countryside.  In the UK a lot of our access rights  to the countryside can be traced back to the 1932 “Kinder Scout 80: Mass Tresspass”  Have a look here or on Wikipedia if you’re interested, but basically it opened up the British countryside to hikers on footpaths and byways etc.   The 1980’s brought us mountain bikes, which as “non-motorised vehicles” are allowed on byways, bridleways, cycle paths, disused railways and oddly enough, footpaths (although the common misconception is that mtbs are banned from footpaths – technically, they’re not entirely, but it gets complicated).
Conversly to all this lovely countryside access we have here, over in the “land of the free” in America, their access rights are drastically limited.  There is no “right to roam” or equivalent.  In terms of countryside access, they are anything but “free”.  Access for MTB’s there is terrible and seems to be getting more restricted, not less, because the American version of “free” usually means “free to those that can afford it“.
So when you see comments online about eBikes worsening the problem for access, a huge amount of these originate from the US.  And I think from their point of view, it’s a lot more understandable.  It’s already a very sensitive subject, so I can see why adding eBikes to the problem fills them with dread.  I do understand that.  I think a lot of the access fears originate in this way from the US.

Trail errosion
Mountain bike trail erosion has been discussed for as long as MTB’s have existed.  After a quick scan through Google there seems to be plenty of evidence either way as to whether MTB’s cause more trail erosion than horses or walkers.  Within that topic, there now comes the question of whether eMTB’s cause more or less trail erosion than standard MTB’s.  For this more specific topic, there is much less evidence either way.  What I’d say from my own experience, is that riding an eMTB involves much less pulsed pedal inputs and the power is delivered in a much smoother way, so the theory is that this would reduce trail erosion

If eBikes become the norm, future generations will grow up having never ridden a normal bike.  This is counter productive to the obesity argument.
This is probably one of the few (maybe only?) argument I struggle to disagree with.  I’ve even noticed my own belly start to increase in size during times of higher frequency useage of eBike use and as a fairly commited, lifetime cyclist I do think that at times, it has made me lazy.  I’d also say the the majority of eBike users I’ve seen on the roads and trails aren’t the normal slim cyclist physique.
But, well it’s just unavoidable.  Not having to invest such a huge chunk of time into the fitness is a double edged-sword.  Most of me just ends up thinking – I don’t care, this is so much fun.  But maybe I’ll regret that when I’m 70?

Looking at things with a little perspective, I really think that the amount of online negitivity towards eBikes has drastically subsided in the past 12 months and I expect this trend to continue – but there is a long way to go before eBikes have true acceptance.  Plus I guess there will always be those hardcore internet trolls that just love to shout down their keyboard if they think it will cause a reaction.
I certainly think that the legality of de-restricted eBikes will play a large part in the public’s attitude towards eBikes as a whole.  Even though they should be categorised differently – in general, they won’t be.  Just like the recent case of a pedestrian death caused by an illegal bicycle, no-one remembers the technicality of the bike lacking any brakes – people will simply remember that a cyclist killed a pedestrian and was then a dick about it – I think this story could so easily have been an illegal eBike, instead of an illegal bicycle and it would do terrible damage to the overall image of eBikes.  I’d even go so far as to say something like this, whether more or less serious, is almost an eventuality not a possibility.

2017 KTM Macina Eight P5

The KTM Macina Eight P5 is the 3rd long-term eBike I’ve ridden and replaces last year’s KTM Venture Vienna Di2.  Those 2 bikes are pretty similar, so a comparison is unavoidable.  The only significant difference being the motor: the Vianna being a Shimano STePS motor; and the Eight is a Bosch Perforance motor with 500 Wh battery (hence the “P5” in the bike’s title).  So the on-paper performance between the 2, you might expect would be fairly different in terms of the torque each motor delivers – Shimano STePS produces 50Nm and the Bosch Performance is normally 63Nm right?  Well not so on hub gear equipped bikes.  Shimano won’t allow eBikes equipped with their Nexus hub gears to be spec’ed with motors that exceed 55Nm (on any brand of bike), so the Bosch Performance motor is down-tuned a little to meet this requirement, although it’s max power remains at 600Watts – the same as a normal Performance Bosch motor.  That somewhat evens up the torque gap between Shimano STePS and Bosch Performance motors, enough so that torque difference in reality is barely noticable.

Aside from motor differences to the Vienna, the Eight has a more modern looking frame with a semi-integrated battery.  It’s motor attachment bracket is drop-cast in sand and the frame as a whole has a slightly more angular, purposeful look.  It also rides slightly stiffer – in a nice way, although there is still a touch of rubbery-ness that comes from a mono-tube step-through frame.  Its the same slight flexiness that you feel in an open top car in comparison to an equivalent hard top.  Its really not an issue on a bike with the Eight’s remit – that being comfy city hybrid, with the occasional longer trekking ride.

There are a couple more subtle differences to the Eight too.  The battery is 20% larger capacity than the Vienna, which I guess is nice, but I never found the battery lacking on the Vienna, but then I rarely do single rides over 30 miles, which either would manage easily.  What is an improvement is the way the battery is charged: on the Eight the battery can be charged either on or off the bike.  I find charging the battery on the bike to be a little more convenient.
The bike lights are operated on the Eight with their own button, which I also prefer – the Vienna’s were operated by holding down one of the gear shifters for 3 seconds.  Again it’s only a subtle difference, but I definitely prefer the Bosch method.
The final noticeable difference between the 2 eBikes is that the Vianna had an electric Di2 Nexus gear hub operated by 2 buttons and the Eight has a mechanical Nexus gear hub operated by a twist grip.  Both are 8 speed and share identical gear ratios.  To be honest I expected to really miss the Di2 shifting of the Vienna more than I do.  The Di2 shifter I’d say is slightly nicer to use, but not hugely.  It doesn’t actually function any better than the mechanical shifter and I never really liked the auto-shift function of Di2 anyway so disengaged it.

So in it’s own right, the KTM Macina Eight is perfectly spec’ed, with a substantial kickstand and robust mudguards.  The lights are nicely integrated into the frame and fork and are powered by the main battery; they’re surprisingly powerful too – I never felt under-lit.  The pannier rack is also nicely integrated and I used it nearly every time I rode the bike – for carrying one of my kids and for 100’s of other duties too.
Some people may turn their nose up at Magura rim brakes, but in function they are actually superb.  They never overheated and don’t cause much wear to the rims.  Being hydraulic, they require no maintenance, just some adjustment to allow pad wear.  Replacement brake pads are also cheap and easily available.

The usual KTM attention to detail is there too, with reflective strip tyres, height/reach adjustable stem, basic-but-functional suspension fork & seat post and ergo-fit handle bar grips.  I even like the bell, which manages to be loud without sounding aggressive – ping!

The Eight is only available in step-through frame type, but KTM have scores of similar alternatives if you’d prefer a more traditional double-diamond frame.  Step-through eBikes are not likely to improve your street cred’ (hah!), but from a purely practical point of view, I see little reason not to use this frame style for sit-up hybrids.  One of the step-through frame’s best attributes is it’s size versatility.  This KTM Macina Eight has a 46cm frame, which is as small as they come, but can be ridden by my 5’6″ wife or myself at 6’3″ all day long without discomfort.

The retail price of the KTM Macina Eight I think is extremely competitive.  You can pay quite a lot more, like a Trek Super Commuter or Haibike SDuro Cross and get no improvement in spec.

Those looking for a >10 mile commuter/get-about eBike should look no further.  It’s versatile, extremely robust, will destroy hills that would normally see riders sweating profusely and has all the kit, from new, that you’ll ever need.

Improvements?  Well, this bike is a 46cm which, as I mention is as small as the Eights come.  That’s fine if you’re 5’5″ or taller, but smaller riders would probably struggle, especially as the suspension seatpost can only be lowered so far.  So a smaller frame size would be a good addition.  And finally, maybe some slightly wider tyres might add a bit of extra comfort? Maybe….

It’s worth pointing out that details of the updated 2018 KTM Macina Eight are already out.  The new model is basically identical, but with additional options including a fully integrated frame battery option and a disc brake option.
The 2018 Macina Eight is due to be built in the KTM factory in February – orders are being taken now.