As the managing editor of Ars Technica, one of my duties is to monitor the daily torrent of news tips and PR emails. The overwhelming majority of them is deleted after a glance, and the news tips and story ideas are passed along to the appropriate writer. Sometimes a product announcement will catch my eye, and I will follow up. Once in a blue moon, I’ll say, “please send me one so that I may review it.” And that’s how I ended up riding an electric bike around the Chicago suburbs for two weeks.
I’m one of the hardcore cyclists at Ars, along with Jay Timmer and his new-as-of-last-fall road bike as well as copyeditor Kerry Staurseth. I love cycling, and it was a major factor in my dropping 120lb over a 12-month period starting in the summer of 2009. My daily rider/errand-runner is a 1998 Gary Fisher Marlin mountain bike. For longer rides, I use my 2009 Trek XO2 cyclecross bike. I’ve made a few modifications to it, including removing the bumpy cyclecross tires and swapping out the front 46-tooth chainring for a 50-tooth one. I went with a cross bike over a road bike because I’m still a Clydesdale, and I like the slightly longer wheelbase of a cross bike. I’ve also briefly owned a 2011 Trek Madone 5.9, which I sold not long after I bought it due to severely screwing up my right knee.
But electric bicycles—e-bikes—are new territory for me. Broadly speaking, there are two basic options in e-bike land: power-on-demand and pedal-assist. With the former, the rider can control the speed with a throttle instead of just pedaling. Think moped but with an electric motor instead of internal combustion. Pedal-assist, by contrast, requires the rider to do some of the work. The electric motor won’t engage unless the rider is pedaling.
The Bulls Cross E8 Step-Thru is an urban bike—a bicycle often used as a primary mode of transportation for those who choose not to own a car. Priced at $ 3,099, it’s solid and durable. The aluminum frame comes in three sizes (45cm, 50cm, and 53cm; I tested the latter). It’s got an eight-speed Shimano shifter and a Shimano Deore CS-HG50 cassette. Shimano is a small change for me, as my XO2 uses the SRAM Rival Double Tap shifter, and I really like the action on that. It’s got a front suspension with 63mm of travel for a smoother ride, along with Shimano hydraulic disc brakes. Cable runs are all internal, making for a cleaner-looking profile. Rack, fenders, and a headlight all come standard.
Most of you are likely here for the electric bits, though. Those consist of a 500Wh user-swappable Bosch Powerpack battery and a 250W Bosch Active Line Plus motor that delivers 37lb-ft (50Nm) of torque and speeds of up to 20mph (32km/h). The battery takes up to 4.5 hours to reach a 100-percent charge and offers a range of up to 134 miles. With the battery and motor, it’s markedly heavier than a comparable urban bike, weighing in at 46lb (20.8kg).
You still have to pedal
Laws on electric bikes vary from state to state, but in Illinois, where I live, they are capped at 20mph. And like every other pedal-assist bike, you have to pedal—there’s no free ride.
The electric motor settings are controlled via a small computer on the left handlebar. You can use it to turn on the headlights, switch from imperial to metric, and cycle through the four modes. Choose from Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo, all of which provide various amounts of boost. I spent most of my time cruising around in Turbo mode.
When you have the electric motor turned on, it engages with your first push of the pedals. The difference in acceleration is startling compared to any other bike I’ve ridden. In Eco mode, I could sprint from 0 to 20mph in about 200 feet/65m. Switch to Turbo, and it’s about 150/30m feet. As I mentioned above, you still have to pedal. The difference with an electric bike is the feeling of getting more bang for the buck. And if you want to be lazy, you can. Stay in third or fourth gear and you’ll be able to stay around 18-19mph with minimal effort. But if you want to go much faster than 20mph, you’ll need to work.
At the top end, the 20mph speed limit isn’t an absolute, like the speed of light. It’s just the most you’ll get from the motor. I was able to get it up to 28mph on a flat road (there are no other roads where I live) in Turbo mode and 8th gear, but it took hard work to get there and maintain the speed. The easiest comparison is my mountain bike, where I’ve hit 23mph on that same stretch of road—and that took a heck of a lot of effort. Exactly how much effort does it take to ride? I have a 15-mile route that I ride on both my mountain bike and cyclecross bike. According to my Apple Watch, I generally burn around 1,400 or so calories on a brisk ride. I’ll probably average around 13mph or so on my Marlin and between 16 and 17.5mph on my XO2. I averaged 14.9mph and burned a hair over 1,000 calories with the Bulls Cross E8.
The other bicycle bits are really good. I’m a fan of the Shimano shifter and cassette, as they provide a smooth and easy shifting experience. I don’t have much experience with disc brakes, but I was impressed with those on the E8.
What I found most interesting is how my cycling habits changed over my two weeks with the eBike, mostly for the better. In most states, cyclists need to come to a complete stop at stop signs… and as anyone who has ever ridden a bike or shared a road with a cyclist knows, most cyclists generally do an Idaho Stop if they believe it’s safe. I do it, too. Knowing that I could quickly get back up to speed with the aid of the electric motor, I found myself more willing to sacrifice my forward momentum and come to a complete stop when there was a car approaching an intersection.
I also found riding on busier roads slightly more comfortable, because I was able to go faster, easier. Most of the roads I ride on regularly have speed limits between 20 and 35mph, so I felt better being able to cruise at something approaching the speed of the cars.
I didn’t ride long enough to drain the battery, but after one 30-mile ride, mostly in Turbo mode, the battery indicator showed I still had about a 60-percent charge.
The $ 3,099 MSRP is a bit daunting if you’ve not shopped for high-end bikes before, but it compares favorably with, say, Trek’s electric bike lineup. That said, you can get a solid urban/commuter bike without a motor for well under $ 1,000. You can even score an e-bike for under a grand, but you’ll likely be looking at a battery range of less than 40 miles, along with lower-quality components.
I thought seriously about buying a Cross E8 after finishing my review. But three grand is a steep price for a guy who works at home and already has two perfectly good bikes. And my daughter is going to be a college freshman next month…
But if you’re someone who loves riding, commutes to work on a bike, or has a gig that requires you to spend a lot of time in the saddle, you might want to look at electric bikes. You’ll be able to go farther, faster, and expend less energy riding one. And if electric bikes are for you, look hard at the Cross E8 Step-Thru. It’s an incredibly well-made, well-thought-out electric bike. Strip away the battery, motor, and computer, and you’d still be left with a really good cycle.