A crank forward frame means that the bottom bracket has been positioned a little more forward than it would be on most common cruiser frames. This creates a comfortable riding position that is more upright, and it also places the seat a little farther back and a little lower. Riders who love this type of frame for daily riding not only like the upright riding posture, they really like being able to put both of their feet flat on the ground at a stop. For both of these reasons, crank-forward bikes make a great commuter E-bike.
From a distance, most crank forward bikes look like a simple beach cruiser, so…if you move the seat back and down a little, and then move the pedals a little forward, it may not seem like a big deal, but…once you become serious about riding an E-bike to work almost every day, all the little things can really add up.
Crank Forward History
Between the time that the Starley “safety” bicycle was patented in 1885, and the Ford Model T made a car affordable to the masses around the 1910’s…those 25 years of the new-fangled “bicycles” were making big business around the world. This was the golden age of bicycles, and just about anyone who wanted a bike could afford it. As a result, there were tens of millions of bicycles sold, plus an incredible amount of clever innovation during this time.
In the pic below, the 1896 Challand bicycle from France shows how early that a comfortable seating position was seriously considered. By todays’ standards, the bottom bracket (BB, the pedal axle) is far enough forward that the rider cannot “stand” on the pedals, but the riders torso is upright. This configuration classifies it as a “semi-recumbent”.
The Jarvis from 1901 is an example of a classic full recumbent, that most bicyclists think is a modern idea, but all of these concepts were invented a very long time ago. If a semi-recumbent posture like the Challand appeals to you, the Day 6 bicycles may be what you are looking for.
So where are the dividing lines between a common beach cruiser, a crank forward frame, and a slightly upright semi-recumbent? A crank-forward frame places the pedals as far forward as possible, but…it still allows the rider to stand on the pedals if they need to on occasion.
Credit must be given to the Electra company for the recent popularity of the crank forward class of frames. The Electra company was formed in 1993 to fill a need for quality cruiser frames, and in 2003 they introduced their immediately popular Townie crank-forward frame, which created a fresh new excitement in the bicycle field that is sometimes referred to as “comfort cruisers”. Their advertising campaign for the Townie “flat foot” family of frames enlightened the general public to the benefits of this style.
Benefits of a Crank Forward frame for E-commuters
The benefits of the crank forward frames to the general public are listed above, but there are benefits of particular of interest to someone who wants to assemble an electric daily commuter. The first feature is this: Most of these frames have a very generous amount of space in the central frame triangle. This area is the best possible place to mount the weight and bulk of a significant battery pack. The pic below is Nick’s eTownie.
Many high-performance off-road E-bikers really need a rear suspension frame, and that often means the most appropriate frames have a shock absorber mounted somewhere inside the frame triangle. Plus, most off-road frames have a smaller triangle in the first place. Whether you are using a triangle-shaped battery pack, or…the recently popular “dolphin” hard case (which are mounted to the common “water bottle” threaded bosses in the downtube), the frames listed below allow a wide variety of battery-mount options.
The second major benefit is that these frames allow you to use extra fat tires. Though not as fat as the new “fatbike” 4-inch diameter tires, all of these frames will accept the 2.4-inch CST Cyclops, and the 2.5-inch Maxxis Hookworm tires. Some will even fit the 3.0-inch Kenda Flames.
Since these frames are all “hard-tails”, they would benefit greatly from a suspension seat-post, like the Thudbuster ST and the Suntour NCX. However, do not discount how much of a benefit that having fatter tires can be in order to make the daily commute more comfortable. Most of these frames will easily accept a suspension fork on the front, but…since a crank forward frame shifts the riders body weight towards the rear, having two fatter tires and a suspension seat post is often all that is needed (for relatively smooth streets), if…you are limiting yourself to a common top-speed of 28-MPH (45-kph).
Which electric kits?
For the purposes of general commuter E-bike discussion, my point of reference will be two types of kits, which have proven to be popular with experienced E-bikers. The most popular level of performance is 48V X 25A = 1,200 watts (see our article here). Now, its true that more power = more fun, but…more power also costs more, so…1,200W is the sweet spot for riders who want to really use their E-bike to cut down on their car usage.
One recommendation is the Bafang BBS02 mid drive. When the amps (and the resulting amp-heat) are kept at the stock 750W level, they have proven to perform well, and also to last, but…when unrestricted, the amps can be raised to 1,000W, and this drive can only survive that for short bursts. If you keep the amps up high for any length of time (this design has the controller and motor inside the same housing to reduce wiring clutter), the heat-shedding can’t take the 1,000W worth of amps for very long.
The BBS02 has a max power of 1000W, so if you need a just a little bit more than this. I have the Bafang BBSHD, which can provide 1500W. This is the kit that I personally ride the most often right now.
If your commute has extremely steep hills (I’m looking at you, San Francisco)…the best available 2600W mid drive kit is the Lightning Rods “small block” mid drive.
When you add an electric motor to a pedal-bike, you really don’t need as many gears as you found useful before. This has been proven out with many E-bikers, so I am limiting this list of candidates to bicycle models with a single chainring, and a seven speed derailleur on the rear wheel, since most hubmotors come with an external sprocket-cluster. Of course mid-drives like the BBS02 can use an Internally Geared Hub (IGH), but…the much more powerful Lightning Rods mid drives are strong enough that they would break most IGH’s, so….again, an external derailleur would be recommended in that case.
1. Electra Townie
This is the bike that ignited the recent interest in bikes with a crank forward posture, back in 2003. They are also still the sales leader, due to the quality of this bikes features. It has an aluminum frame and a steel fork, with common V-brakes front and rear.
On an added note, some riders prefer a low pedal-cadence, but…they also want to add pedaling at their top-speeds to help the battery last for more miles (along with getting some exercise!), and the Townie frame will accept the large chainrings from 52T to 60T, which some E-bikers have upgraded to (in order to be able to add pedaling to the motor at a high top speed). The BB-shell on the Townie is 68mm wide.
2. KHS Manhattan Smoothie
The Manhattan Smoothie has the distinction of having the lowest top-bar (without specifying a “step-through” model), and also the lowest possible seat position out of all of these candidates…for those riders who want that (make note of how high the top of the seat-tube clamp is, in relation to the top of the rear tire). Also…their step-through model has the lowest step-through height out of all of these candidates, if physical issues limit how high you can bend your legs.
Here is a Smoothie build with a BBS02 mid drive and a dolphin hard case battery pack from ES member tomjasz.
3. Trek Pure
In 2014, the global Trek company (based in Wisconsin USA, manufactured in Taiwan) purchased control of Electra. It is a tribute to the following of the Townie product that…Trek continues to produce it, even though they had already been selling a competing crank-forward cruiser called the Trek Pure.
The Trek Pure is reported to have a 73mm wide BB-shell, which can affect the choices of potential mid drive candidates.
4. Mango Longboard
I found the Mango Longboard on bikesdirect.com. It is an aluminum framed classic-style cruiser, but it has been stretched slightly and had the seat-tube angled more. It looks like it uses a 104-BCD chainring, so I suspect it has a 68mm BB (not verified yet).
5. Phat Cycles, Del Rey
This is a recent addition in the spring of 2016, $440 for the 7-speed
6. Fuji Barnebey 7
The Fuji company has been making bicycles since 1899, but they had only just begun competing in North America since 1971. Their unorthodox crank forward frame is the “Barnebey”, and I like them. The unconventional reverse curve of the top tube provides a generous amount of “stand over” height, for those riders who like that….while still providing a lot of triangle space for the batteries.
The Barnebey is not well-known, but I have seen one in person (not ridden), and I was impressed.
This frame is able to adjust to a very low seat height, and only the Manhattan Smoothie can be adjusted lower. Well…the actual “lowest seat” award goes to the Micargi Mustang GTS (a few posts below), but the Mustang is not something that most commuters would actually consider.
7. Specialized Expedition
This particular model barely qualifies as a crank forward (since the seat-tube is inclined to a slightly more vertical orientation), but it has enough of the features mentioned above that it deserves a mention. One thing in its favor is that…even though it’s price is similar to the 5 bikes above it, this one also has a suspension fork from the factory. As pictured, it has V-brakes front and rear, but…it also has disc brake mounting lugs, so it would be very easy to upgrade to a front disc (the Avid BB7 brakes are a great model to start with, and there are better hydraulic disc brakes, if your budget allows).
8. Sun Drifter
I haven’t been able to find any useful info on the Sun Drifter, but if I find any…I will post a link here.
9. K2 Big Easy Deuce
A few years ago, K2 was struggling, and at that time they were bought out by a large conglomerate. Since then they have greatly diversified the models that they carry, but there is little information on them. This is the best picture I could find of their crank forward Big Easy Deuce.
10. Rans Alterra 29
The Rans Bicycle Company is what results when people who build aircraft decide to make bicycles on the side. They have a wide variety of frame styles, with all of them being some type of recumbent. The Alterra qualifies for this list, but just barely as it is the one Rans frame that has the most vertical seat-tube in their catalog (the rest have even more slope to them).
The price is a shocking $4700, and…although the components are the finest available, the frame is only 7005 aluminum alloy with a cromoly steel fork (there is an optional Rock Shox suspension fork for an additional $640), so…don’t expect titanium or carbon-fiber. The tires are 29 X 2.1 (not especially fat). This is obviously not really a common-sense commuter, but…if this article is about crank forward bikes, we simply have to include Rans (from south-west Kansas, USA).
Most modern bicycles have the crank-arms as separate pieces from the spindle (3-piece crank), but the bikes below have the old-style one-piece cranks. There is an adapter available from sickbikeparts.com that allows you to mount a modern BB cartridge into the larger BB shell of a one-piece “Ashtabula” style crank. Pic courtesy of the BMX museum.
11. Firmstrong CA-520
This bike appears to be very similar to the Electra Townie.
12. Firmstrong Chief
This frame probably has the most space available inside the triangle, compared to the others listed here (due to the high curve of the top-bar), and that can be useful for mounting a very large battery pack.
13. Micargi Rover
In the pic below, the seat has been adjusted as far forward as possible (and can be moved back some), but even so…if the bottom bracket was located a few inches farther back (centered on the bottom of the seat-tube), it would be the same posture as a very common beach cruiser, so…it does qualify as a crank forward, but…just barely.
14. Fito Modena GT
This bike also barely qualifies as a crank forward (as opposed to a simple beach cruiser), but it also does have a lot going for it. It comes stock with dual disc brakes (entry level cable-operated calipers), and…even though the tires’ outside diameters are 26-inches, they achieved that by using 24-inch rims and mounting 3.0-inch semi-fat tires (Kenda Flame 24 X 3.0). Fatter tires at a lower air-pressure will soak up a lot of the roads’ irregularities, to smooth-out the ride.
Here is a build of one of these bikes with more pics.
16. Firmstrong Urban Man Deluxe
Micargi Mustang GTS
Both of these models are very similar, so I’ll just use the pic for the Micargi Mustang GTS. I’m not going to claim that this is a realistic candidate for a daily commuter, but you can stand on the pedals, your feet definitely are flat on the ground at a stop, it does have a lot of frame area to mount a central battery pack, and it definitely has a crank forward posture, so…
17. Micargi Royal
If you like the “Rat Rod” street bicycle style of the Mustang GTS above, but…you want something with a little shorter wheelbase, they also carry the Royal. I believe this style was originally designed by a Dutch company called Project 346, and the frame model is the “Basman”.
Edit for 2016
Crank-forward bicycles are growing in popularity. I personally use an Electra Lux Fat 7D cruiser as my daily commuter. There are now many imitations of popular frames coming from Chinese bicycle importers. I found a website recently that has a fairly large selection of crank-forward frames in a variety of styles, called “Bike Attack“.
Crank Forward from 1922
I am looking for more information about this bike. All I have found is that it is from Stuttgart Germany, that is reported to be made in 1922, and it is unlikely that many of them were made. However…it is clearly a well-made product and would have been considered an expensive bicycle that someone felt was worth investing in for their manufacture. The chainring looks altered in this pic, but it is actually an early example of an oval chainring, the design of which hopes to make pedaling slightly more efficient.
Written by Ron/spinningmagnets, June 2015