Living in San Francisco, I have heard rumors of a new futuristic-looking electric bike being built just across the Golden Gate Bridge in the quiet town of Sausalito. I was skeptical. I have heard of many electric bikes supposedly made in the USA but when you visit the “factory” it’s really just a shipping and receiving point with a few boxes, and if they hit it big, maybe a few containers from China laying around.
One day while riding my electric bike I had someone ride up along side of me on the strangest looking ebike I have ever seen:
Turns out the guy was a “PiCycle ambassador”, a person who was test riding one of the first prototype PiCycles for testing and marketing, and just judging people’s reactions. I for one was really impressed with the looks and the performance of the ebike. He handed me a Picycle postcard with the above picture on it. He told me that the bikes were going to be sold at Best Buy within a few months.
Best Buy until recently has been one of the largest retailers of electric bikes in the country. While riding by the San Francisco Best Buy, I decided to stop by and talk to a manager I know there about this new electric bike. The picture I got from the manager at Best Buy was a bleak one. They have been trying their best to sell electric bikes but have been hit with a 50 percent return rate. The electric bikes they were selling (including many bikes in the Currie and A2B line), were breaking within their first few weeks out, and being returned to the stores.
Once a bike has been ridden for a few weeks, it cannot be resold. Consumers were generally not happy with what they were buying. Upper management at Best Buy had decided to stop selling all the existing lines of electric bikes they were carrying and focus primarily on selling the Picycle at $3,000 for the basic model. Picycle was promising a bike that would hold up in the hostile riding environment that is San Francisco (VERY hilly). I thought $3,000 was an extremely fair price for a purpose-built ebike with such a unique design, decent performance and range, especially if it was as ruggedly dependable as they were claiming. The Picycle seemed like the one commercially available ebike I could refer a friend to, who did not have the skills or inclination to build his own ebike. Keep in mind that currently there are only a few companies selling purpose-built turnkey ebikes with the battery built into the frame: A2B, Optibike (very expensive), Stromer (pretty sweet but a regular looking bike). To me, it seemed that the new Picycle would fill a niche.
6 months passed…then a year. Best Buy sold off their stock of ebikes and stopped selling all electric bicycles. No PiCycles, and no other electric bikes appeared.
I checked the PiCycle website and found that the $3,000 bicycle was gone. Now the lowest price ebike on the PiCycle website was $6,000 and came with a factory Gates belt-drive and a Shimano IGH shifter on the back. I decided to ride over the bridge on my electric bike and check out the PiCycle factory, and hopefully talk with company owner Marcus Hays.
Marcus has a strong background in the business ends of ebikes, and helped Lee Iaccoca (founder of Chrysler) develop the first serious commercial line of electric bikes in the 1990’s (simply called the “E-Bike”). The “E-Bike” is now electric bike history, but was a noble effort for its time, doomed from the start with heavy and undependable lead acid batteries.
So when I rolled up to the PiCyles factory I didn’t know what to expect. Hidden within what looked like an old shipyard I came upon the Picycle building.
None of those shipping containers are filled with ebikes (I checked). Unfortunately, the less-expensive $3,000 Picycle to be mass-produced mostly in China, did not become a reality. The Picycle is now a $6K bike but the good news is that it is mostly handmade here in the US with much better components, and twice the battery pack that the $3K model would have come with. The bad news: Best Buy has decided to step completely out of the ebike business, with no reliable and affordable bikes to sell. The Picycle is stylish, reliable, very well built, long-ranged and powerful–but all those features necessarily come at a high price. No ebike manufacturer has beat that equation yet.
Upon entering the factory I first came upon a large electric freeway electric scooter. Ugly as sin, but at least an EV.
But right behind it was a beautiful creation, the Picycle-framed motorcycle that set an electric motorcycle speed record on the Bonneville Salt Flats in 2008. This is an Etek powered monster (see our tribue to eteks here) and is capable of speeds of over 80-MPH. We think that Marcus should slap some pedals and a smaller lithium battery on this beast and enter it in some electric bicycle races, or pedal it around town with his head high, and ditch that production electric scooter.
Beside this electric motorcyle was a 2-seater pedal electric car with a unique configuration. The front seat driver pedals into a generator which feeds power into the battery, while the rear passenger pedals straight to the driveline. Also, there is an electric motor which is dialed down to keep it at 20-MPH. This machine is capable of holding enough lithium battery to travel over 100 miles on a single charge. It is built around a half-arch design, true to the Picyle theme.
To test the concept of a rider pedaling to an electric generator instead of to the pedals, Picycle set up a test contraption. The rider pedals straight into an electric generator which in turn powers an electric motor. Using this contraption the engineers at Picycle were able to determine that a rider is only 50 percent efficient when using this method as opposed to just pedaling straight through to the rear wheel as in a traditional bike.
The overall look of the factory was pretty impressive.
The Picycle Ebike
Marcus Hays learned a lot from working on the Iacocca ebike project and in 2000 formed his own company called PiMobility, to try to develop a more perfect electric bike. One of his main ideas is to take the plastic out of the design. Marcus blames the plastic for the vibration and jankiness that many ebikes have. The Picycle contains no major plastic pieces; even the fenders are made from aluminum. Also, Marcus wanted to build a bike that was beyond anything else dependable. The PiCycle is made with proven components, which he feels will sustain a long life-cycle. The batteries are lightweight lithium polymer and are therefore only good for 500 charges, but the battery pack is easily replaceable and by the time most users go through 500 cycles there will likely be better and cheaper battery technologies available as replacements.
The second priority of the Picycle is to look stylish and cool. When first starting the company, Marcus tried 10 different designs, but it was the Picycle design which he found really struck a chord with consumers. He describes the defining moment when he decided to stick with this outlandish futuristic design when travelling from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a trade show with a protoytpe Picycle strapped to the roof of the car. They were swamped with inquiries at every rest stop and at one point a bus full of Japanese tourists swarmed the Pi to photograph it. To Marcus, that was the proof of concept to go with the Picycle as a half-arc designed frame.
Marcus knew from his days with E-bike that the reliability of the bike was going to be critical if it was going to be sold to a mass market. As part of his learning process, Marcus worked as a volunteer in bicycle shop in the repair department for a year and a half to get an understanding of broken bikes, and what components usually failed. He wanted to make the PiCycle so simple, that any bicycle shop in the country could maintain and repair it. For example, PiCycle chose a Shimano IGH shifter coupled with a Gates belt-drive propulsion system for minimal maintenance–there’s no chain to oil on this bike.
The motor and controller were chosen after rigorously testing many different models, and have been designed to be ridden every day for years without failure. Picycle uses a direct-drive hub-motor with hall-sensors made by Crystalyte, which is known for being solid (same brand of motor used on the Stealth Bomber). There is only one moving part in this model of Crystalyte Motor. The downside is that it is heavy, and at 18 pounds it is a lot of weight to have in your front wheel. That said, Picycle claims their bikes handle fine on paved roads.
It seems that the engineers at Picycle set out to create a reliable, stylish-looking ebike with a safe and solid ride. After riding a test bike for 20 miles or so up Sausalito hills, I can vouch that Picycle appears to have succeeded. More on the ride later….
The Building of the PiCycle
PiCycle offers both a 15-Ah and a 20-Ah pack at 48V. Life expectancy is 500 charges. On my test ride I was able to get close to 20 miles on a single charge, using the 15-Ah pack.
The high-quality cells are made by Sanyo, and the BMS and cells are assembled in the USA. According to PiCycle, the BMS makes the lithium pack fire-safe. And the fact that the entire pack is held in the metal vessel which is the Picycle frame, makes them even safer.
The bike is controlled by a Cycle Analyst and is limited by the factory. Without limits, the bike is capable of hitting speeds of close to 40-MPH. With the limit on, the bike can barely go 25-MPH. So you may want to figure out how to take the limits off “illegally” if you buy one.
I test rode the bike both with the limits on and off. Lots of fun with the limits wide open, but it is not as efficient nor as reliable at these high speeds.
There are two basic PiCycle models available now, the “Limited Edition,” which ironically is factory limited to only go 23-MPH without pedaling. The Kenny Roberts Signature Edition comes unlimited with some fancy bells and whistles like an Alfine-11 for the pedal transmission and built-in lights. Kenny Roberts is a former World Champion super bike rider and the bike is painted in his team colors, and is signed by Kenny himself.
The Picycle is designed for on-road use, and for that purpose it is well suited. Riding around the streets of Sausalito at top speed I forgot I was on a weird-shaped bike because it felt like just any bike. The lack of vibration and smoothness as a result of the integrated design and built-in battery pack was very apparent. The bike feels solid and not jankey. Nothing rattles on this bike even when hitting good-sized pot holes.
The Crystalyte motor provides smooth and silent acceleration, and even after riding up some big hills the motor did not get warm to the touch. In order to use the IGH in the back and the Gates Carbon Drive, Picycles has put the motor up front. The motor up front has some advantages and some very big disadvantages. Read the story on front or rear hub here.
If you decided you wanted a rear hub motor, PiCycles could configure it that way, but you would lose a lot of the slickness of the Picycle by having to go with a regular chain drive and derailleur shifters. I would not recommend that you spend this kind of money on a bike like this, and not get the belt drive or the IGH; in other words, going with the front wheel drive system on the Picycle is a bit of a forced decision. Front wheel drives take some time to get used to, but after a few rides you should have it down.
With this motor and controller combination, expect to get 1-2 miles per amp hour in semi-hilly riding conditions, depending on how fast you ride and how hard you pedal. That means with the 20-Ah pack expect between a 20-30 mile range. BTW the 48V / 20-Ah is physically a very large battery pack.
I really like how this bike rides at speeds of over 35-MPH with the limits turned off. It is also powerful enough with some pedal assistance to climb all but the steepest of hills. If you buy one of these, be sure to post on www.endlessphere.com or pay a local ebike expert $100 to take off the factory limits so you can ride this bike at “illegal” speeds.
For a commuter bike, this is a very stylish, nice (but expensive) option.
Price as tested: $6,000.