Drive Through Gears on E-bikes

flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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This is the first in a series of technical articles covering some of e-bikes complexities in quite full detail so that all aspects of the subject can be appreciated.

We frequently see posts proclaiming the superiority of motor drive through gear systems on e-bikes, slighting wheel hub motors as inefficient, but in every case to date, the poster has fallen into the trap of using conventional motor vehicle gear theory. This does not apply to e-bikes.

They fall into that trap because they fail to realise that virtually all e-bikes drive through the gears to a considerable extent, because they are true hybrid vehicles with two power sources, one of which always drives through any available gears. Motor vehicles either drive through gears or they don't, that's an absolute, but e-bikes are infinitely variable in what they do.

Riding on the flat or on very slight downhills at above a hub motor cut off speed, a commonplace situation, all drive is through the gears since it's from the rider. In moderate conditions as when riding at the bike's normal cruising speed, the part of the power supplied by the rider is still through the gears, and the part supplied direct drive by a hub motor is at maximum efficiency anyway, so there can be no possible gain in it driving through the gears then. In fact there's a loss of efficiency due to the gears if they are used for the motor as well, and this loss can be substantial, making motor drive through the gears less efficient most of the time on an e-bike.

Only when conditions force the speed down and the hub motor drops well below it's peak torque point on the power curve does the inefficiency assume higher proportions that might give justification for using gear drive for the motor.

I believe that justification is wholly inadequate (that's my opinion) for the following reasons (these are facts):

1) Wheel hub Hall effect motors have advanced and can do the whole job well (though not all do) and quite efficiently. Due to their simplicity, they are also more reliable than complex drive through gear systems, often lasting for many years and frequently outliving the bikes they came in, this clear to see in second hand sales of these ex-bike motor units.

2) Where a small efficiency difference exists, it's offset by all the complexity costs, in design, manufacturing, reliability etc of drive through gear systems.

3) The European and UK legal restrictions mean the usage band is from 5 mph to the legal power phase down point of 13 mph, only 8 mph in bandwidth, so the Hall effect motor torque curve with a peak at 8 mph covers that speed band quite well.

3) Cycle gears are not strong enough to take both rider power and the higher motor powers customers now want, being designed only for rider power. The Panasonic system is extremely low powered by todays standards which enables gears to survive reasonably well, despite which there have been quite a few failures of the hub gears on these bikes. The latest Panasonic unit has had it's standard power slightly reduced, possibly for this reason.

4) Gears have inefficiency, a hub gear typically being about 84% efficient, so there's a 16% loss of the power passing through one.

5) Multiple gears are not needed to cover an e-bike's effective 8 mph speed range, and result in far too much idle time when drive is not applied. The road tested figures for the Lafree Twist bikes prove this. Under a given set of conditions with the standard 6.5 Ah battery, the Twist with the 3 speed Nexus hub gear had a range of 20 miles, with the 5 speed SRAM hub 17 miles, even though the SRAM is more efficient than the Nexus, and I've seen even lower figures for the 7 speed ST version. Clearly an excess of gears is harming the efficiency due to drive down time and loss of momentum.

6) It is irrational to pass the motor drive through the rider gears, since it means that at rider gear changes, motor drive and momentum is lost as well. Then that momentum must be made up again, that's very inefficient. A hub motor maintains the drive through the period of a gear change, so maintains the bikes momentum. This is especially important when hill climbing, this being when forward momentum lost during a gear change is at it's greatest. There's also the fact that cyclists in general are notoriously bad at selecting optimum gears for themselves, so the possibility that they might choose the optimum compromise gear for themselves and the motor is extremely unlikely.

There is a probability that two gears for the motor only and separate from the rider's gears, with maximum power/torque at a choice of either 6 mph or 10 mph would provide better for steep hill climbing, but that is qualified by the following:

a) Less power is needed to climb hills at 6 mph than at 8 to 9 mph on the maximum torque/power point.

b) A powerful hub motor/average rider combination rarely drops to 6 mph when hill climbing anyway, so the theoretical inefficiency off the peak of the torque/power curve hardly ever exists in practice. It's largely illusory and this shows how relying only on theory instead of tempering that with practical knowledge of what actually happens is always mistaken.

c) These are hybrid vehicles, human and electric. The rider's power through their own gears does not have a power curve for our purpose. The rider's 150 watts or whatever is constant and just as available at 6 mph as at 8 to 10 mph. That alleviates the supposed loss of power of the system as the motor moves from it's maximum on the power curve, since the riders contribution is rising in real terms as speed reduces, due to lower hill climb speeds requiring less power. Therefore the rider power proportionally increases as the motor power reduces, and the loss is not just self cancelling, it actually becomes a gain.

For example, to illustrate this with power/climb equations, take a typical 25 kilo legal e-bike with a moderately powerful Hall effect hub motor of 500 watts peak, together with a 75 kilo rider, and so as not to unduly benefit my case, assume the rider is not very fit and can only output 100 watts. That combined 600 watts is available at the peak torque point of 8 mph on a legal bike, and that can climb a 17% hill at that speed. At the reduced speed of 6 mph, only 390 watts is available from that typical Hall motor, plus the riders 100 watts, so 490 watts, down 110 watts. But at 6 mph that reduced power climbs a steeper 18.5% hill. At a still further reduced speed of 5 mph, the motor gives just 335 watts, plus the rider's 100, so 435 in all. But at 5 mph that even further reduced power climbs a 20% hill.

So you can see that on e-bikes, the Hall effect hub motor bike's supposed performance loss when off the torque curve peak is a myth, these e-bikes actually climb better when off the curve peak at lower speeds, simply because less power is needed for climbing at lower speeds, while the rider's power contribution doesn't reduce at lower speeds. In fact for average riders who are capable of 150 watts or more, the gains with reducing speed are even greater. That's just one of the many reasons why standard gear theory for motor vehicles does not apply to e-bikes.

The power consumption efficiency loss that does still remain after all those considerations is substantially offset by the increased performance of the powerful hub motor in most riding conditions, higher average speeds and much higher hill climb speeds. I've proved this with my Q bike, but since you may think I'm biased, let's look at how someone arguing that drive through gears are more efficient unwittingly proved completely the opposite in two of his posts entered at the same time.

In one post he argued that hub gears like those on the Twist had to be more efficient due to the fact that a hub motor covering the range had to be off it's maximum efficiency point part of the time. In his other post he stated that his Torq was giving an average of 37 miles range with efficient use of the throttle. On his 360 watt/hour battery that means a consumption of 9.7 watt/hours per mile. The typical 5 speed Twist drive through gear bike gives a 17 mile range on it's 156 watt/hour battery, that's a consumption of 9.2 watt/hours per mile.

So the Twist uses 5.2% less power than his Torq. But the the Twist averages 12.5 mph at best across the ground, viz tests by A to B, myself and others, while a restricted Torq like his typically averages at least 15 mph across the ground, which is 20% faster. Many riders do much better. Since the performance is better by at least 20% for a cost of only 5.2% of extra power, his Torq hybrid combination is the more efficient, and thus he defeated his own argument.

Of course the Torq or any other hub motor bike isn't more efficient for most riders who get shorter ranges, but the example given plus the evidence of my own Q bike shows how close hub motors can now be to the efficiency of drive through gear bikes, making the design of new complex drive through gear systems not worthwhile. The fact that hub motors are cheaper to make is a red herring, there will always be manufacturers willing to exploit a market niche if one exists, but the failure of the Panasonic system to gain anything like the acceptance enjoyed by hub motors after nearly seven years of trying proves to other manufacturers that it's not worthwhile following that example or that of the many other drive through gear bikes that failed before it.

Continued in next section.
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flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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Drive through gears continued.

I believe most riders share my point of view, that what matters is a bike that does the job well, regardless of any tiny increase in current used, and on that basis, hub motor bikes comprehensively outclass any drive through gear bikes yet seen. That's why my Twist sits in the garage as a reserve bike only, although it's a better cycling only bike, while it's my hub motor Q bike which works daily for me and does a far better and faster overall job than the Twist.

Therefore from everything said here, the only commercially valid reasons to design a cycle motor drive through gear system now are for either heavy towing or load weight carrying, or just possibly for very high speed use off road. There is a theoretically valid reason for providing a two speed Hall motor drive as I've previously explained, but as shown above, the practical advantage is so small it's scarcely worth bothering.

Choice, Hub Motor or Drive Through Gears.

First it must be stressed that these are pedal assist bikes as will have been clear in the first section of this posting, the rider's input an important part of the concept. If someone is unable to contribute at least 100 watts minimum of cycling power, an e-bike is not the right vehicle for them, though they might cope with some models in a very flat area. Many bikes demand that the rider pedals anyway before they will work, and this could become the law before long.

So will a gearless hub motor e-bike do your job? In nearly all cases yes, but for the very steepest hills of around 1 in 5 (20%) or steeper, and/or with heavy riders, the choice may be limited or not exist at present.

For a lowish powered rider capable of 100 watts of cycling power and up to 70 kilos weight, eZee's most powerful models, the Forte and Forza will climb 1 in 5 hills at a low speed, but on steeper extreme hills or where the rider is heavier, the rider will need to be a bit fitter and stronger.

Alternatively they could choose one of the very few drive through gear bikes on the market which will climb almost anything, but only with good rider input and rather slowly. Currently the Gazelle Easy Rider is such a bike, rather slow and low powered, but with very low gearing to handle climbing. A couple of others use the same motor unit and are similar, but more expensive, but there's now the addition of the Kalkhoff Agattu which has the same unit but with a high power mode. Since this is also a bit lighter than the competition and is also lower priced, it's now the quality drive through gear bike of choice.

For all other circumstances with less extreme hills, the choice widens considerably, and even quite low powered hub motor bikes like the Powacycle Windsor/Salisbury models will climb the usual hills met without any problem given a moderate rider input.

The now discontinued eZee Torq 1 was the one exception to these general indications of hill climb ability. Designed for the rider with more sporting inclinations and with less emphasis on comfort, it only works at it's best with a fairly strong rider who is prepared to work with the bike to achieve it's maximum performance. For that sort of rider it's a very fast and rewarding ride.
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JohnInStockie

Esteemed Pedelecer
Nov 10, 2006
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Excellent info Flecc, well explained and documented (even I understood :)).

Can I just question, if you wanted to have a bike for riding regularly with and without power (50/50), or if you wanted an ebike to get you back to fitness, and then a normal bike, which would be the better, a hub or the drive through gears?


John
 

Aero

Finding my (electric) wheels
Good points

I tested a number of drive through gear kits and found much the same result, some of the bolt under crank kits used twice as much power as a brushless planetary geared hub, (5 to 1 I think). I found this to be the best combination and better than a direct drive hub or any chain drive due to less current required at startup, less wire loss and better controller efficiency.
 

flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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Excellent info Flecc, well explained and documented (even I understood :)).

Can I just question, if you wanted to have a bike for riding regularly with and without power (50/50), or if you wanted an ebike to get you back to fitness, and then a normal bike, which would be the better, a hub or the drive through gears?


John
I don't think this question is so much a matter of drive through gears or hub motor, John, I think it's how the power is delivered that is more likely to matter.

If I were choosing on the basis of getting some cycling fitness, and then trying to return to cycling without assistance, I'd use a bike like yours with the Panasonic unit since it enforces at least a 50% contribution. Eventually as the fitness returned, I'd switch to permanent Eco mode since that enforces a much higher hill climb contribution, thus building fitness further. Then finally to power off all the time and no battery fitted. After a month or two of pedalling that 21 kilos net of battery unassisted, a return to a normal 12 kilo bike would be very easy.

Second choice would be a low powered pedelec, the direct drive Sparta Ion being good for it since the assistance is limited and it has to be pedalled off the mark to get it going.

Worst of all would be a moderately geared bike with a powerful hub motor and throttle control, since it's likely the temptation to use the throttle to do the work would be just too much to resist, the best example of this being the Quando, throttle, very high power, able to climb most hills without any assistance, and the one gear too low to help by cycling most of the time.
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flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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I tested a number of drive through gear kits and found much the same result, some of the bolt under crank kits used twice as much power as a brushless planetary geared hub, (5 to 1 I think). I found this to be the best combination and better than a direct drive hub or any chain drive due to less current required at startup, less wire loss and better controller efficiency.
I very much agree Aero, especially on Direct Drive hubs in their present form since I cannot see any way in which they do the job well on an e-bike.
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Phil the drill

Esteemed Pedelecer
Jun 14, 2008
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Hi Flecc
Sorry to post this 'out of the blue' on an old thread, but I don't appear to be able to start new ones, and I am interested to hear your views on the following:-

The arrangement of hub motors and the drive through the gear arrangements such as Panasonic's system puzzles me. Why has no one modified the frame of the bike to accept a simple, compact, modern (and comparatively efficient) hub motor into the crank housing. This would have numerous
advantages:
1) No longer dependent solely on Panasonic's expensive system for through the gear drive.
2) Comparatively cheap to manufacture, following the initial design.
3) Ideal weight balance.
4) Easy to fix punctures (no wiring in the wheels).
5) Efficient drive.
6) Standard rear mechs. could be used, since the complex chain path of the Panasonic drive unit would no longer be needed (no chain tensioner etc.). The user could therefore, easily tailor the bike to suit their particular terrain.
7) Apart from some relatively simple tweaks to the motor and controller, the only modification necessary would be a frame redesign (and many manufacturers do this for their new models anyhow), possibly incorporating the motor housing as a stressed member to reduce weight and bulk. A single freewheel attachment for the crank should not be difficult or expensive to design.
8) Production costs for such a bike should be cheaper than those of the current through the gear drive units, once properly tooled up.

So what am I missing? Why hasn't anyone tried? Any ideas?
Cheers, phil
 

flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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They have tried Phil, there's been more than one example in the bottom bracket, though they've often been super expensive jobs. There's a US one and I think a Swiss one currently but I can't recollect the names. There's also at least three motor makes that sit just in front of the bottom bracket and drive a short chain or gears onto the chainwheel or BB spindle.

There are problems though. As you may know, the direct drive drive rear hub motors do suffer some disadvantages due to the inherent low speed of the wheel/motor, hence nearly all hub motors being internally geared to allow the motor to run much faster than the hub/wheel.

The position in the bottom bracket is far worse, since the rotation speed there is very much slower yet than the rear wheel, so a direct drive has big problems there. It would really need to have an internal epicyclic gearing like most hub motors and the size starts growing then, and in fact a couple I've seen have been monster bottom brackets. There's also a German system which is a motor in the seat tube driving a helical gear onto the bottom bracket spindle, all hidden inside the bike frame. Then there's the problem of allowing the cyclist to freewheel and not have the pedals driven by the motor, not so easily solved.

In practice a simple system on these lines could be horrible to ride due to the mismatch of the motor's continuous drive and force and the constant variation of the human effort through the pedal arc. It's the very complications of the Panasonic system which have made it so highly respected, viewed by many, including me, as the finest electric system ever put onto a bike since it matches the human so well.

One of the nearest to a simple equivalent is the throttle controlled Cyclone motor, which drives the chain just to the rear of the chainwheel, but it's not even in the same league, just turning a bike into a low powered motorbike and losing the cycling qualities while the motor runs. This is a key problem with all simple crank drive systems, they need added complexity to suit them to their task.
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Phil the drill

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Jun 14, 2008
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Hi Flecc
Thanks for the reply. That's interesting, I can see your point. I think I did rather oversimplifiy the engineering problems in my own head!. I haven't tried (or to be honest even seen other than in pictures) the Panasonic system. I have concerns however about the system, if it is so good, from a commercial standpoint. I must say I would be worried about buying an expensive system (or a bike dependent on it) from a sole manufacturing source, where no alternative exists, and where the commercial success of the unit is largely irrelevant to the manufacturer. Panasonic probably have very little interest in such a small market as ours, and that must make such units very very vulnerable
 

flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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Panasonic probably have very little interest in such a small market as ours, and that must make such units very very vulnerable
There's some truth in that in a sense, but there are good reasons for it. Over the years, most of the internal spares for the unit have not been available, and indeed some parts like the electronics are encapsulated and cannot be repaired or changed. The design philosophy is to make an extremely reliable and long lasting unit which, if it it fails, is replaced with a whole new unit.

In the past this caused a problem with the unit costing £450 plus fitting several years ago. This situation may be better for the new unit now for several reasons:

1) The known bugs have been ironed out.

2) The expensive internal drive part has been simplified reducing the unit cost.

3) The units are now being produced on a far bigger scale than formerly, again reducing the unit cost.

Therefore the new unit may well be more reliable and last longer, and cost of a replacement unit proportional to inflation may well be cheaper anyway once a replacement is eventually needed.

If you think about it, there's no alternative to this "throwaway" method. For such a small overall market, the costs of setting up and maintaining fully skilled repair and overhaul facilities in each country would be extremely high and probably result in repairs dearer than new units.
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Hmm, reading this thread gives me a real dilemma!

I want an electric bike to avoid using the car on our 5-mile trip from our house to our wood. The road has a few steep hills (I usually ride up them at 4-5mph), but is a 60mph road, so cars are zipping past you. The reason for wanting an electric bike (well, 2 actually) is that when we're going to the wood to work we're also carrying a weight of tools, water, etc. and would need to pull a trailer too...

This is why I thought a drive-through-the-gears motor would be ideal, for hill climbing while pulling a trailer, and yesterday I test rode a Kalkhoff Agattu, and enjoyed it. I've tested a Powacycle in the past, but was unimpressed with the weight and use of lead-acid batteries.

But from the stuff flecc's said, which all makes sense to me (I have an engineering background), I'm wondering if a high-powered hub motor system will be better for me. Given that the Kalkhoff bikes are £1300-1500, and I'd be prepared to get one, what else is there in that price range that might do the job well? Is there anywhere in East Sussex or Kent where I could test ride a different brand?

Any advice much appreciated...
 
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flecc

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Oct 25, 2006
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The Kalkhoff is still ideal Mike, for the obvious drive through gears reasons, and it's high power mode makes it better than the Lafree I used for years for towing in a hilly are.

Later I used an eZee Quando hub motor bike to which I'd added gears which was a bit faster at the job, though I probably wouldn't have changed if I'd had the Kalkhoff with the high power mode, the Lafree not having that.

The only two bikes I'd consider for this sort of towing are the Panasonic unit bikes or the more powerful eZee models like the Forte and Forza. The production Quando isn't suitable as it has no gears for the rider, and adding them is just short of impossible.

The web page below shows my sort of towing with Lafree and modified Quando:

Trailers
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Phil the drill

Esteemed Pedelecer
Jun 14, 2008
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The road has a few steep hills (I usually ride up them at 4-5mph),
Hi Mike
Do you mean that you get up these hills, loaded up like you say on an ordinary bike at 4-5mph? If so I reckon you'll probably be O.K on most any e-bike! - you sound reasonably fit!
I bow to Flecc's experience, and I'm sure that he is right about the Agattu (I've never tried one) - it seems everyone who has them loves them - so there's got to be some substance there!
I would say however, that the much maligned Powabyke commuter (the 24spd is definitely the best), despite its appearance and weight does big loads and steep hills well, allbeit not at great speed. I have used one for several years up very steep hills, carrying a fair load in the panniers, and my 15st frame. The new ones weigh several Kg less than the old one (now an alloy frame) and are available with a lighter weight Lithium battery. The Electric Transport Shop say this is the model they recommend to those with large loads and steep hills to negotiate (but note that they don't sell any bikes with the Panasonic drive unit). They ain't sexy or quick, but they'll do the things you describe. If you want it to do that job fast you'll be frustrated though.
My understanding is that the Agattu has terrific hill climbing ability, but that this is also done at the expense of speed, when under load (which given the constraints of allowed motor power is exactly what you'd expect). Unless you are VERY fit (and light), or the hills are not too steep nothing legal will get the loads you describe up steep hills at speeds very much higher than 6-8 mph).
Give 'em all a try.
 
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Thanks flecc, I assumes I can always play with the sprocket size on the Kalkhoff to get a better top speed, at the expense of range? The other one I'm comparing it too is the Cytronex, which appeals to me in terms of design, but I'm not 100% sure on the hill climbing and towing - it's also a long way for me to go and try one :(

It's a struggle choosing, because drive-through-the-gears makes sense to me, but a high top speed and light bike would be nice to have too - and the Cytronex is £500 cheaper, and looks better too!

Hi Phil, yes, I'm reasonably fit, but am not currently towing a trailer up these hills, hence the desire for an e-bike of some sort to help out. The other problem is that after a a day's physical work in the wood I'm unlikely to have much enthusiasm for pedalling hard! ;)
 
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flecc

Member
Oct 25, 2006
48,819
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Thanks flecc, I assumes I can always play with the sprocket size on the Kalkhoff to get a better top speed, at the expense of range? The other one I'm comparing it too is the Cytronex, which appeals to me in terms of design, but I'm not 100% sure on the hill climbing and towing - it's also a long way for me to go and try one :(

It's a struggle choosing, because drive-through-the-gears makes sense to me, but a high top speed and light bike would be nice to have too - and the Cytronex is £500 cheaper, and looks better too!
The Nano motor in the Cytronex has a good hill climbing reputation. Seeing that you ride the hills without power now, it should be ok on the towing as long as the loads aren't too extreme. The water in the load is a question mark, it's very heavy stuff if the quantity is high. With goods you can keep the trailer tyres very hard to minimise the rolling resistance which can be surprisingly high for two wheeled trailers.

I don't know if hill starts are involved, but it's worth remembering the Cytronex has to be pedalled off the mark, power cutting in from 5 mph, not a problem on the flat but a tall order if taking off uphill with a heavily loaded trailer.
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kraeuterbutter

Esteemed Pedelecer
Feb 21, 2007
296
0
They have tried Phil, there's been more than one example in the bottom bracket, though they've often been super expensive jobs. There's a US one and I think a Swiss one currently but I can't recollect the names.
Flyer F-Series:



pro: most quiet (no gears in the motor, no additional chain,... quieter than the panasonic-drive)
con: heavy, not as efficience as the newer panasonic-drive

more pics:
Google-Ergebnis für http://www.velo-zuerich.ch/velo-zuerich/velo/elektrovelos/elektrobike-flyer-f4/flyer-f4-3.jpg


and then Flecc means maybe the optibike ?
 

flecc

Member
Oct 25, 2006
48,819
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Thanks kraeuterbutter, the Optibike and Flyer F were two of those I was thinking of. Both extremely expensive of course, and these always seem to me to be clumsy by cycling standards.
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Thanks for the advice flecc, our pair of Kalkhoff Pro-connects arrived on Friday, and have done well in their first few rides. The hills I was previously going up at 4mph flat-out I'm now going up at 8-9mph, and although I'm putting some effort in, I'm not dripping with sweat at the top. More to the point, we were both able to ride to the wood and back without feeling tired at all really, which bodes well for when we start the coppicing in a week or two and have to do a full day's physical work between the two rides!

Mike
 

flecc

Member
Oct 25, 2006
48,819
26,486
That's good Mike, I'm glad it worked out well. It's always difficult to advise at a distance, especially when towing comes into it.

Fingers crossed for an Indian summer so you can get the coppicing done in better weather. :)
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I've gone for panniers and a steel box at the woods (for the chainsaws) rather than towing a trailer, after reading about the extra weight and drag of a trailer. We can fit our safety clothing and supplies for the day in panniers, as longs as the heavy tools are at the wood already.

"Drive through the gears" was definitely the right choice, given the range of hills round here (once you get inland from Rye). I'll be changing to a smaller sprocket I think though, as I'm not using the low gears, but will wait a few weeks to give it a proper go o nthe standard one.

Fingers crossed for an Indian summer so you can get the coppicing done in better weather. :)
Yes, although the ideal would be sunshine but cold, as you get very hot in chainsaw trousers and boots! Days like this are ideal: Peplers In Rye: Sunny Saturday!
 

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