- 850 watt mid drive motor built into bottom bracket, a motorized bottom bracket which Opti has coined “Mbb”
- Rohloff 14 speed hub connected to mid drive (optional). Motor and rider have 14 speeds.
- 36-volt 22-Ah LiPo battery pack (honest 20 -30 mile range) depending on riding style (on flat terrain)
- Built in battery management system (BMS)
- 25-MPH top speed while pedaling (tested)
- High end components, the highlight being fox talas 36 suspension fork, and a fox float shock in rear…6 inches of travel.
- Retail Price as tested $13,000
Optibike was designed in the garage of Jim Turner, a former motorcycle motocross rider turned mechanical engineer. Jim’s intention was to spare no expense and build the best possible bike with the available technologies. The bike has gone small changes to motor and battery but for the most part has stayed the same since its inception in 1998. Optibike now has its headquarters and factory in Boulder Colorado, a rare breed of American manufacturer engaged in an uphill battle, competing in an industry that is dominated by cheap Chinese electric bikes that keep getting better and cheaper. Optibike is trying a different tactic, sell a “no expense spared” bike at a premium price. Jim recently did a very well done video explaining clearly the benefits of the Optibike:
I first set eyes on an Opti in 2009 at a SF Academy of Sciences . When I saw the exhibit, I had been a fan of electric bikes for several years but was not a fan of heavy lead acid batteries and ugly hub motors…I knew someday I would own a nice electric bike, but like others, I was waiting for the technology to come around. When I saw the Optibike I thought the electric bike revolution had finally arrived. On the exhibit display it said the Optibike started at $5,000. I thought at that price, even though steep, many people including myself would trade in their car for one. I went straight home and Googled it and found that the bike on display was in reality a $16,000 OB1, a rich mans toy…far out of my reach and most everyone else.
As it turns out the Optbike had been around since 1998…its just that the price point has always been to high to make a huge splash and thus I had never seen one or heard of one before. However I did learn there were some affordable options for high performance electric bikes brewing in the DIY community and I built a few of my own after I saw this bike on display. Then a strange turn of events. One spring Day last year I found myself the owner of a year old 850r Optibike with Rohloff drive. I test rode the bike in Santa Clara California, and within a few minutes decided I wanted it and dropped $7000 for it. My thinking was that the bike was still under warranty and I could ride it, really try it, and if I decided I did not like it…I felt I could always get my 7k back at the end of the summer. Having ridden hub motor bikes for a few years, I found the noise and acceleration of the mid drive in its low gears to be exhilarating. (read our article on mid drive bikes)
Riding the Optibike is a different riding experience than any other electric bike I have ever ridden. If you’re used to a 1500 watt silent hub motor the Opti motor feels really small…and to get to speed you have to shift through the gears. You start out in a lower gear and make your way up as if you are riding a small motorycle. I liked this feeling at first but soon got tired of it and in time it would become a major annnoyance. All other mid-drives I have ridden are powerful enough to start up in any gear. The Optibike needs to be shifted to get to top speed even on flat ground. Here is a video illustrating the shifting of an Optibike through a Rohloff…note it takes a minute for this bike to get to top speed even on level ground. Also note the motor noise…this is pretty good depiction of what it is like:
I kept going back and forth from being excited with my purchase to complete buyer’s remorse. I already owned 2 electric hub powered bikes (powered by geared BMC V2 motor) that I was pretty happy with, so I really didn’t need an Optibike.
In the next few days I got a call from the former owner o f the bike and said that I need to notify Optibike of the owner change so that I can transfer the warranty. There was a $50 charge for transferring the warranty. I called Optibike and spoke with a person in their service department, and they took down all my information. I learned that each Optibike is registered to individual owners. You have to be a registered owner to be able to get technical support from the company or even to buy a part. My first question is how much is a replacement motor if you smoke one…surprisingly I could not get an answer to that question. And you can’t just buy an Optibike motor to use as a pet project. They keep a tight control on replacement parts and all the main electrical components are very much proprietary.
The following is a list of advantages and disadvantages of the Optibike over my high end BMC hub drive bikes (the hub bike cost me around 3.5K to build):
Advantages of Optibike
- Sleek Looking Bike…looks expensive
- Mid-drive, best solution for a mountain climber (read our story on mid drives)
- Purpose built frame holds the battery in the custom downtube. This is a a very special feature that very few ebikes offer. (see list of bikes here)
- Hold your head high…your bike was built in America and provided American jobs.
- No heavy weight in wheels, and all other advantages a mid-drive has over a hub motor (read here)
- Tight compact design..not Jankey…will go off jumps etc with nothing rattling or coming loose.
- Relatively light weight given its performance and range…60lbs
- Super reliable even in stringent uphill conditions
- Real support from a factory with really knowledgeable people picking up the phone speaking perfect English
- Great Efficiency. An efficient system means more miles from the same size of battery.
- Long range for a stock bike with no obvious battery in sight. This bike has a decent 20 -30 mile range.
- Oneness with motor…you pedal with the motor…and the motor needs your help when getting to speed etc…so I feel I tend to exercise more on this bike than on a BMC.
- Safe battery management and containment system means this bike probably wont burn down your garage in a LiPo fire like a lot of home build bikes run the risk of doing.
- Optibike Google Group of owners who offer support and camaraderie.
- Easy to resell this bike with good resale value especially if you bought used (lucky for me)
Disadvantages of Optibike
- Expensive (the biggest disadvantage)
- Expensive proprietary replacement parts
- Must be repaired by Optibike in Boulder Colorado
- Annoyingly Loud (impossible to be stealth)
- Underpowered (any large hub motor outperforms it on everything but really steep climbs)
- Cheap quality dashboard for the price of the bike
- Too much shifting (you really have to involve yourself in the shifting process while riding to get to speed)
- Impossible to forget you are on electric bike unless coasting downhill with the motor off
- Upgrades and replacements (ie batteries) are proprietary and expensive
- Definitely looks and sounds like an E-bike…no pretending your superman on this bike
Unlike hub motor bikes, Optibike uses a mid-drive motor system built into the bottom bracket. The key to this sytem is it allows the motor to run through the same chain as the pedal gears, meaning you are able to get just the right gear for climbing from your drive train. The Optibike I owned had the Rohloff internal gear hub shifter in the back, giving me 14 diferent gears to run the motor through. One thing I have learned from the opti is how nice the rohloff works on a mid-drive set up. (Read our article on Rohloff on an ebike)
Given the reputation of the Rohloff Speedhub, I am prettty sure it will outlast almost any bike including the Optibike, but will the Optibike hold up to the rigours of offroad riding?
The Optibike has heat sensors through out the bike designed to cut off if any of its electrical components get close to overheating. I have read on the Optibike forums there have been Opti owners who had parts fail on their optibike and had to put up with super expensive hazmat shipping the bike to Boulder and Colorado and back to fix. This is a huge drawback to the Opti that an ordinary bike shop cannot fix it and it does contain expensive “secret” propietary components that you cant switch out yourself. Even under warranty, the proposition of shipping an Optibike is an especially expensive proposition when you consider that the Opti with its LiPo battery needs to use hazmat shipping standards. I want to ride a bike like this without fear of burning it out…and for the few months I had it I was in constant fear.
What if your Optibike Breaks?
The Optibike is built to last. It has proven that it is a highly durable bike by dominating the 20 mile 8,000 foot climb Pikes Peak race in Colorado 2 years in a row. Optibike support product support is wonderful. If you have a problem you can get an Optibike technician on the phone who will try to solve your problem from a distance. However inevitably you will have internal parts, either the battery, motor or controller that will fail and need to be replaced. Not only are these parts proprietary and expensive (there is no public price-list of these parts so you are at Optibike’s mercy on what they will cost) but they are also hard to get to and replace.
The Optibike has all its components contained in a metal carcass which doubles as the frame. This is a slick solution, but has a tremendous drawback. It is no easy task to access these 3 components, and if one of them fails the bike will have to come apart, and this task will more than likely need to be carried out in Boulder Colorado by an Optibike technician. I know of very few owners who have tried to take apart their Optibikes. But one who has, Jim Kirk, generously photo documented the process on his website.
Shipping your bike to Boulder Colorado will be an expensive proposition. Not only is this a 60 pound electric bike that is too big and heavy for UPS or Fed Ex, but also this bike contains a LiPo battery that is not easy to separate from the bike, which means you will have to ship the bike whole and use hazmat shipping which is not cheap or easy.
The good news is Optibike is located in beautiful Boulder Colorado, and a road trip there with your Optibike in tow to meet the creators of your bike is not such an awful proposition.
The Optibike Battery; A weakness in the Optibike Equation
The most likely expensive component to fail on the Optibike is the battery. This is unfortunate since replacement cost on the Optibike battery is $2000-$2500. More likely than it failing, it could deteriorate slowly, giving you a far less range than when brand new. Optibike does not have any sophisticated battery monitoring system on their bike like the Cycle Analyst, so its hard to tell how your battery is truly performing. On the Optibike I owned it was only 2 years old and the battery was not giving near the range that I expected. I had no real way to tell for sure. Recently, an Optibike owner took apart his Optibike battery to repair a pack that was getting far less range than when new. 2 of his 100 cells had failed. Here is a story with the photos from his battery surgery, and details of what the Optibike battery is made up of. The bad news is, Optibike is using generic Chinese made 18650 cells to build their battery packs that are prone to failure or deterioration. The good news it the Optibike battery is covered by a 3 year warranty. The more bad news it is very hard to prove to Optibike that your battery has fallen below warranty standards, and as stated earlier, very expensive to ship your bike to Colorado to find out if its even going to be warrantied.
Optibike and me; A Day on the Trail
The Optibike and me Single Tracking
The next day the weather was terrific and I decided to load up the Optibike along with my friend and a BMC powered mountain bike, and head over the bridge deep into Marin County (birth place of the mountain bike) for some single track riding.
I did a 15 mile ride on the Optibike using most of the battery pack on very rugged hill conditions.
Here are some observations:
Noise. The noise of the Optibike cannot be under stated. Although not very loud it has an annoying pitch…sounds like a weed-whacker…Weather being good there were many riders out on the trails, and those that figured out we were on E-bikes were a little weird about it and we got several snide remarks shouted out to us as we rode away. Imagine the quiet forest and being in nature, and you got this whining motor that sounds a little like an electric chain saw. But keep in mind this is on very crowded riding trails in a very “grouchy” and rich Marin Vounty. More on noise and being noticed later because it deserves coming back to.
Safety…the optibike climbs like a goat. I found myself in the problem riding single track that I would be going too fast up the uphills, and we really had to be careful around blind corners because other bikers were not expecting a bike to be going so fast on the uphill, and they would by flying down fast on the downhills….once I had a near collision with a “bombing” downhill bike. The Optibike is built well and feels safe despite the above issue. But on a bmc that required high speed on slight uphills to keep its momentum…safety is a real issue…i think it is dangerous to ride these bikes at any type of high speed uphill in these kind of “coexist with other biker” singletrack conditions. Remember singletrack by definition is very narrow so hard for bikes going opposite direction to pass.
Climbing…the Optibike is such an impressive climber. It does make much more noise climbing in the low gear than it does at high speed on flats in the high gears. But it gets the job done. There were many steep trails that I climbed just for the fun of it that the bmc had no chance at, and either did any of the hard core mountain bikers. Too be able to climb without any fear of burning anything out is a very liberating feeling. I have never rode anything this solid for climbing…
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Trail riding in general….this bike is at home in a trail riding environment. It is so nicely balanced and a mere 55 pounds. It behaves more or less like a mountain bike…while on the downhills you quickly forget that you are on an electric bike. You could just use the electric motor as an elecrtric chairlift, and just bomb the downhills. The full suspension is very nice in these conditions. You can easily ride 20 miles of dirt up and down clmbs and drops on one battery pack. The bike grips and just feel very good. Nothing is shaking around or making jankey noises. It completely outperforms the bmc in these conditions…and this is the first time I have seen the bmc bike blown away by the opti. But the bmc we were using is a front wheel drive, and to be fair front wheel drive is not good in these conditions. But also we were having problems with the bmc like the battery pack vibrating loose and falling off the back of the bike….stuff like that typical of a home build. Nothing is falling off the opti except for the rider if you’re not careful.
Regarding comparison to bmc..the big problem with climbing with the bmc is it need too much speed before it can climb efficiently. So you need to be going 10mph which is not practical, safe or possible on steep off road conditions. I have been there done that on a bmc…and definately with a rear wheel drive bmc, these were smoke-your-motor-if-not-careful conditioins. CLimbing with the optibike is care free. I want to stress is that rugged trail riding is the only conditions so far where I would prefer riding a opti over bmc. If I trail rode these kind of trails regularly I think the otpi is a really good choice. I dont think the opti is a good choice for commuters or primarily road/fire trail riders.
Being Shunned on an Electric Bike
Although while single tracking I finally felt at one with the Optibike, I kind of felt like a turd in a punch bowl around other mtb riders. Understand guys on the trails see no need for an electric bike for recreational use. If you are commuting it is one thing since you are better than a car, but there is no excuse for these guys for an electric bike to be on a trail riding recreationally. I would have been able to sneak right by them except for the giveway noise of the Optibike which I was always self conscious of. It felt pure wrong to be riding in peaceful nature making all this noisy racket. I felt like a lazy hedonist. I think out of 40 cycylists we passed going the opposite direction on the ride…only about 5 realized I was on an electric bikes and is only because I was motoring uphill as they waited for me to pass. All 5 of these guys snickered or said something snide. I was really conscious of being on an electric bike because of the noise, and had to cut the motor in appropriate times or I would have been discovered by all 40 cyclists who we passed.
I was always aware of the noise of the bike while climbing which kind of took away from the feeling of riding through the forest being in nature etc…and made me self conscious of being “discovered” by other cyclyists. For example I always cut the motor as other cyclists were passing and pedaled my heart out.
What was really nice was coasting down hill where I was able to ride silently and take in nature sounds etc…so it was only on uphills that noise is the problem. Too me stealthiness is one of the greatest attributes of an electric bike, and the Opti is not a stealthy bike unfortunately. And I am not one of those who likes to be “loud and proud” about riding an electric bike. When riding amongst serious riders it makes me feel like a handicapped on a powered wheel chair. Unfortunately electric bikes are not an accepted mode of transportation out on single tracks with other MTB riders.
The Optibike Dashboard
The Optibike headlights, on and off switches, and led battery indicators are all built into a front dashboard which I always found embarrassingly ugly. Unfortunately it is not possible to take this off of your Optibike so you are stuck with it. Although Optibike owners have clamored for it, Optibike does not offer an optional Cycle Analyst or even a Cycle Analyst hook up. If you want a Cycle Analyst you will have to go through the expensive, time consuming, and warranty disqualifying procedure of taking out the innards of your Optibike. Instead of a LCD read out with a number telling you how much battery you have left, the Optibike instead has a very cheesey and simple 3 light set up that you would think to find on a cheap Chinese bike and not an American masterpiece. The 3 lights which have 3 modes (on, blinking and off) give you a general idea of how much battery you have used but not a very accurate one. The optibike dashboard leaves a lot to be desired in a bike that for the most part is first class. I would really like to see Optibike change this dash in later models.
Stealth Figher Dashboard Vs Optibike
The Stealth Bomber and Fighter have a lot of distinct advantages and disadvantages over the Optibike. To start off with advantages check out the cycle analyst built into the Stealth Fighter body:
Regarding comparing optibike to the Stealth Bomber electric bike (read Stealth Bomber review here)…: to me the true beauty of electric bicycling is to be able to take advantage of the legality of going where no motorized vehicle can go. Because the Stealth Bomber is so big and heavy looking, I think the riders on the trail I was on that day would call 911 or call the ranger the first time they saw me on the trail with something that large. I feel they were close to complaining when I rode the Optibike, but i was right at the threshold. When you think stealth on an electric bike think noise level and looks. I was walking a thin line that in Marin county I would not want to fall over even on an Optibke (lots of lawyers and bike snobs in Marin County). The Stealth Fighter however is much lighter and smaller than the Bomber and in my eyes might compare more favorably to the Optibike.
The Ultimate Electric Chairlift
The Optibike seems most in its element when bombing downhill with the motor cut off. It is very well balanced with the weight serving as a keel and the no weight in the wheels feels awesome when compared to a hub motor drive. Noise is no longer a problem because you are flying downhill. I like to think of the Optibike as an electric chairlift, a bike that will chug you to the top of the mountain so that you can bomb down it.
Accepted Among other E-bikers?
The next week I issued a challenge on the Endless Sphere electric bike builders forum for some riders to go climb slackers with me, and 5 people showed up that sunday to do a ride.
The 5 of us met at a parking lot at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge and cut across on the bike lane to do the challenge of climbing Slackers together.
On our way to slackers we rode on the road, and the other riders kept having to stop and wait for me. The Optibike is essentially a 22mph bike and all the bikes I was riding with were homebuilt “illegal” 30-MPH bikes. This was embarrassing to say the least. The most expensive bike in the group, and its always lagging behind.
When we got to the base of slackers peek, we decided to have a race with a money wager (undisclosed amount) to the top of this peek with 3 bikes…a rugged BMX 9C build 72 volts on a BMX bike running 55amps for a total of 4000 watts (it s also important to note, this large diameter direct drive hub was in a 20-inch wheel)…no pedaling on this bike because it is is missing its chain, a 48V BMC 600 watt torque rear wheel drive running at 30 amps…pulling according to its Cycle Analyst (CA), around 1300 watt mountain bike…and the Optibike 850r 36 volts, 850 watts.
The BMC was the fatality getting smoked half way up smoking its motor…and he had to walk up the rest of the way. At the point he smoked he was behind and losing ground to the Opti. The $1200 9C hub motor build was the clear winner of this race…not even close. Clearly the 9C is much more bullet proof than the BMC, and a better hill climber at this grade than the Opti. Keep in mind also the 9C is not geared and he wasnt even pedaling. The 9C is also burning 4000 watts where the opti is running only 850…but the suprising thing is the 9C wasnt even close to overheating. The Opti made it to the top of the grade no problem…but just slowly. It kind of just chugs up the hill.
Here is a video of the race at the early stages when the 9C and the Opti were still close together:
I lost some money on this hill climb….the 9C is an amazing motor…hats off to the direct drive hub motor…king of the slacker peak ridge…for now…
Here is a pic on top of slacker hill with the winner of the race bmxed, here on the forums.
The BMX bike was one one of 2 bikes out of 4 to make the climb without walking….and beat the Opti bike in the background to the top.
The BMC hub was crushed. I dont know if a BMC is dependable or solid enough to make this climb without smoking…have to try it again with someone else’s BMC.
About a month later the drama and prestige of owning an Optibike was over for me. I sold it on the electric bike forums for the same price I paid for it…7k.
I sold my optibike to a proud new owner who I know will use it more than I.
I am happy I sold it…but sometimes sad to see my bike go. I have nothing that will get me to the top of Slackers Peak without the risk of smoking…so one of my favorite view points is out of my reach without serious hikeage.
Add to my list of pluses for the optibike: Great resale value. Its much easier to sell an opti for big bucks than any other bike.
Optibike and the law
If you look at the performance numbers of the Optibike 850 it is just barely fast enough to be considered federally illegal. Federal limits says that any bike over 750 watts and capable of unassisted speed of 20-MPH is not an electric bike. The Optibike breaks both those limits by a little bit. Its perplexing to me on why if they are going to break the law anyway why not go all the way and offer a 1000 watt plug bike that goes 30-MPH. I complained openly on the Optibike forums, and a year later Optibike released the 1100r which from what I have read from reliable sources is a true 3o-MPH bike. I am happy that Optibike decided to release the 1100r, a bike you must sign a waver that you realize it is an “off road” only bike. With all the exciting new (and fast) electric bikes coming to market this year, the 850 would have a hard time competing with its sluggish performance numbers and premium price. As an American, I am rooting for the American made Optibike to continue thriving in the electric bike market full of imports. On the low end you got the chinese, and the high end you have a host of European (mostly German) electric bikes. Hooray for Optibike making a stand as a US manufacturer.
The Optibike is a great efficient hill-climber and is one of the tightest electric bike packages available at a premium price. Given its quality the price of this bike is justified. However the 850r lacks attitude and balls, which a bike at this price should swing proudly. Also because of the noise factor and the price of the bike, for the 850r to be practical for me, I would need to be doing a lot of off road trail riding. As a city commuter, because of its drawbacks (mostly low top speed), it falls flat. I am glad to hear that Optibike decided to releases the 1100r (read our story here) a much faster and more powerful version of the 850r. The only difference between the 850r and the 1100r is the 1100 has been cranked up to 48-volts so it uses a different controller and battery pack. Unfortunately there is no way to upgrade to a 1100 if you own an 850 now. If you’re thinking about buying an optibike, I would recommend you shell out for the extra 2k for the the 1100r. Trust me, at some point you’re going to want the extra speed and power, even if you dont see the need for speed now. Also since the announcement of the 1100r many owners have been selling their 850′s to upgrade so the resale value of the 850 has dropped. In my mind with the release of the 1100r the 850 is almost obsolete. If you spend 13k on a 850r you’re going to be upset the first time a $1500 home build passes you on your local bike lane. In fact the $500 currie trail-z would give your Optibike a good run for its money….when you get passed by some whipper snapper on Chinese garbage you are going to wish you had some extra juice.
Tips for those considering buying an Optibike
- Research…know what you are getting into..this is a serious purchase
- join the Optibike google groups to help with your decision
- Go with the Rohloff, it’s what makes this bike an extra sweet ride. With derailleurs I simply do not recommend this bike.
- Go with the 1100r..the 850r as reviewed here is under powered.
- Join the Optibike mailing list so that you are aware of specials that Optibike regularly runs
- Google map the driving distance to Boulder Colorado so you know the worst case repair scenario
- Consider attending the Pikes Peak race every year and get your Optibike serviced then and shake hands with all the Opti guys. You are joining a family when you buy an Optibike and the Pikes Peak race every summer is your reunion.
- If you buy an Optibike Congratulations on buying one of the finest commercially available bikes in the world.