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Pedal power plus: Startups aim to give a boost to bicycling

Eric Barber worked on the Copenhagen wheel at Superpedestrian in Cambridge. The sleek wheel is the key to its battery-enhanced bicycle.

Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe

Eric Barber worked on the Copenhagen wheel at Superpedestrian in Cambridge. The sleek wheel is the key to its battery-enhanced bicycle.

On a brisk fall morning last week, I was pedaling the streets of Cambridge in my own personal Tour de France. Ordinarily, I am a pokey cyclist, but now I was tearing down Brookline Street at 18 miles an hour, without huffing or feeling the burn. On the bike’s rear wheel, hidden inside a plastic case, were $800 worth of sensors, batteries, and a motor that augmented my leg muscles.

The technology, from a Cambridge startup called Superpedestrian, will be available early next year. And Superpedestrian is just one of several young companies hoping to expand the role that bikes play in our lives and our cities.

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As Assaf Biderman, Superpedestrian’s founder, puts it, “The modern city was built to the scale of the automobile. Lots of us live far from where we work or spend our free time.” But with new technologies, Biderman says, “the city shrinks underneath your feet,” and more city residents can be content with owning a bike instead of a car.

In the same way that electric cars were never sexy or desirable before Tesla Motors unveiled its Roadster in 2006, battery-augmented bicycles are stuck in an awkward phase. Most look like Franken-rides: They’ve got strange boxes, canisters, or bulging tubes that contain batteries, and extra throttles or buttons on the handlebars to control the motors. Many cost $2,000 or more.

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At least three local startups are developing less expensive wheels that contain motors, and can be installed on a bike that you already own.

Superpedestrian is the biggest and best-funded of the bunch, with 20 employees and more than $6 million in funding. Its Copenhagen wheel is based on research at MIT, and sponsored by the Danish city. Biderman says the wheel contains about a dozen sensors to tell whether you’re pedaling forward or backward, going uphill or down.

The wheel communicates wirelessly with a smartphone mounted on the handlebars, which allows the rider to change from one mode to another. Turbo, for instance, gives you maximum assistance, and Flatten City mode provides help on hills.

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During my short test ride, it was fun to see my speed displayed on the screen of an iPhone. But after about 10 minutes, the phone’s battery died. The wheel stayed in the last mode I’d requested, but I could no longer control it.

Afterward, Biderman told me that once I stopped riding, the wheel would shut off after about five minutes. That’s intended as a theft deterrent: if the wheel can’t “see” your particular smartphone, or get turned on with a special key, it won’t operate. The wheel’s top speed is 20 miles per hour; any faster and the Consumer Products Safety Commission would treat it as a motor vehicle instead of a bike.

GeoOrbital began building prototypes of another wheel earlier this year, in founder Michael Burtov’s kitchen in Chelsea. Burtov says his wheel will add stability to the bike. A larger battery will allow riders to cover greater distances than Superpedestrian’s, which has a range of roughly 30 miles.

He’s targeting a price of under $500, and says it won’t require a smartphone to control it. Instead, it will use a throttle on the handlebars.

Only about 200,000 electric bikes were imported to the United States last year, according to the consulting firm eCycleElectric, but Slava Menn, the founder of the Boston startup Fortified Bicycle, points to China. When Menn was there last year, he saw more e-bikes on the road than regular ones. “If you can afford one, you buy one,” he said.

The questions in this country are whether new designs, technologies, and accessories can get millions more people out of cars and onto bikes. To radically oversimplify, bikers can be sorted into two baskets. In one, you have enthusiasts and die-hard commuters who ride regardless of wind, sleet, or snow; in the other, weekend cruisers and people who might commute on a perfect 68-degree day. That first group looks for opportunities to get on a bike, and the second sees a lot of reasons not to.

Fortified Bicycle recently conducted a survey on barriers to more widespread biking and found that weather and safety topped the list. The company, which has raised $800,000 from investors, will unveil a bike this week that doesn’t have an electric motor, but is nonetheless an “invincible urban bike” designed to make it “safer and easier for people to bike in the city,” Menn says.

Menn and others say the more bikers we can get on the road, the more aware drivers will be of bikers. And it increases the number of people who would support the creation of safer bike lanes protected from traffic by physical barriers.

If you look to history for a clue about how things could unfold, biking in the 1880s was only for enthusiasts who could figure out how to mount a high-wheeler — and stay astride it on pot-holed dirt roads. Then Boston entrepreneur Albert Pope set up a factory in Hartford and started designing bikes that would appeal to the masses: Easier to mount and with chain guards to protect women’s skirts from grease. Pope also advocated for governments to spend money on smoother roads, and sponsored the country’s first bike race, in Allston.

Oh, and after that? Pope and an MIT trained engineer, Hiram Percy Maxim, designed an electric car.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner and on betaboston.com.
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