Made-in Mass. high-tech bike gear puts power behind the pedals
Last week I climbed onto a bicycle and began pedaling up Monument Avenue in Charlestown, in an arduous climb toward the Bunker Hill Monument. Did I say arduous? In fact, I soared up the hill as easily as Lance Armstrong fresh from the pharmacy. Like Lance, I was juiced up.
Actually, the bike was juiced up. A rear wheel crammed with batteries, sensors, and a powerful electric motor boosted me on my way. It’s called the Copenhagen Wheel. Based on a research project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and sponsored by the City of Copenhagen, the wheel turns almost any standard bike into a two-wheeled Tesla.
If it weren’t for its massive $1,500 price tag, its manufacturer, Superpedestrian Inc. of Cambridge, would probably sell a million of them.
The Copenhagen Wheel was the second of two Cambridge-based electric bike systems I’ve recently tested. The other comes from a company called GeoOrbital, whose chief technology officer, Dakota Decker, spent six years making rocket ships at Tesla founder Elon Musk’s other company, SpaceX. And with its stark design, the $1,000 GeoOrbital wheel looks like something Darth Vader might ride if his landspeeder was in the shop.
Mounted on the front, the GeoOrbital wheel doesn’t have regular spokes or spin on an axle. Rather, an electric motor with a heavy battery is affixed to the frame and turns a pulley wheel that drives the wheel rim.
Despite its futuristic look, the GeoOrbital is no space probe. More like a delivery van — husky, a little clumsy, but effective. Attached to a Schwinn straight from a nearby Target store, the wheel had me easing on down the pavement at about 10 miles per hour without a single push of the pedals.
The company’s chief executive, Michael Burtov, told me that he launched the project out of sheer laziness. He liked the idea of commuting to work by bike but wanted help with all that pedaling.
Mission accomplished. It easily propelled me the 5 miles between the Globe and my pad in Dorchester, with me pedaling only now and then. GeoOrbital promises up to 50 miles per battery charge when you also use the pedals, or 20 miles if the wheel does all the work.
Speed on the GeoOrbital wheel is controlled by a thumb switch on the handlebars. That’s a major weakness of the design, as it’s sometimes hard to manage the button while gripping the handlebar. GeoOrbital needs one of those rotating throttles built into the handlebar, like on motorcycles.
By contrast, the Copenhagen Wheel is beyond intuitive. There’s no manual control. Instead, it uses digital sensors to detect how hard you’re pedaling and how fast the bike is going. Then the wheel itself decides how much of a boost you need from moment to moment. The rider’s only control is a smartphone app that adjusts settings for different kinds of riding.
If the rider selects exercise mode, the wheel actually resists the rider’s efforts to pedal, capturing some of his energy and using it to partly recharge the battery.
In standard mode, the Copenhagen Wheel feels almost like riding a standard bike, but a little extra boost kicks in when you step down a little harder on the pedal, or encounter a hill. This mode can deliver a range of up to 31 miles per battery charge.
There’s also an economy mode that provides a little less help, but conserves the battery.
For a real jolt, switch to turbo mode: The initial effect is almost scary, like that time I drove a Tesla. I wasn’t pedaling hard, and my mind knew I should be just cruising along. Yet after a few strokes I was blasting down the pavement like it was the Tour de France. I don’t think I hit the wheel’s maximum speed of 20 miles per hour, but it felt that way.
Then I faced off in an uphill race against a serious cyclist: my young, fit Globe colleague Steve Annear. Poor kid. He never stood a chance.
Later, Annear took a turn on the Copenhagen Wheel and came away drooling. “After I rode it,” he said, “I thought about it all weekend — how great it was.”
But also how expensive it is, alas. Superpedestrian originally planned to sell its wheels for a steep but manageable $699; its current $1,500 price is out of reach for most cyclists.
We’re left to hope that a surge of orders from wealthy early-adopters will boost production of the Copenhagen Wheel and drive down its price. It will be an uphill struggle for Superpedestrian, but come to think of it, they’re pretty good at that.