Monthly Archives: June 2010

Shimano “STEP”s into the Electric-Bike Scene

I suppose it was only a matter of time- bicycle component juggernaut Shimano got into electric bikes. They’ve recently announced they’re producing a complete electric bike component group available to manufacturers for original-equipment use.

That means the STEPS system is not going to be available as a retrofit kit, which is too bad, but the upside is that the system is brimming with nice features and new technology that should perform well.

The general concept is to emphasize the ‘bike’ in’e-bike’ by providing a seamless look and operation. The system has a 250 watt motor with pedal assist only, and a maximum assisted speed of 15.5 mph. The controls are unobtrusive buttons located on the brake levers, and the kit comes with an LCD readout that displays vital info like speed and battery power.

One of the more interesting features of the system is the shifting system. The group comes with an optional eight-speed internally-geared hub that features electronic shifting, meaning there is no cable-controlled shifter but a sort of ‘ride by wire’ setup similar to Shimano’s top-of-the-line Dura-Ace Di2.

The battery has some pretty impressive numbers behind it- charge time is supposed to take an hour, and Shimano claims the battery is good for 3000 charges, which should provide years of service. The battery also has an integrated rear light and will be mounted on a rear rack.

There are no bikes with STEPS on the market yet, but Shimano is offering the group to manufacturers, so expect to see STEPS coming out in a year or two. We’re eager to get our hands on one and test it out.

Staying Safe on the Road

Riding a bicycle on the road can be a tricky proposition- you’ve got to not only be aware of other road users, but also communicate through various means including your position in the road, signaling your intentions to other users, and the very simple, important notion of simply being seen.

Road position is one of the persistent hurdles that many cyclists have trouble with. It can seem counter-intuitive at first, and some car drivers will communicate their displeasure, but it’s important that the city cyclist takes up more space on the street, away from the right edge where many linger.

One reason that cyclists should get away from the road’s edge is to get away from the way of parked cars. People often open their car door after parking without looking, instantly creating a large, unyielding barrier to the cyclist. If there is a car traveling next to the cyclist while this is happening, the rider has nowhere to go and may only be able to choose between hitting a parked car and a moving one.

If you cling to the very edge of the road, drivers will often pass without leaving their lane, often passing far too close to the cyclist to be safe. You are also vulnerable to impatient drivers attempting to make a right turn. These drivers will often pass the cyclist, then immediately make a right turn, crossing directly in the cyclist’s path.

The best way to avoid these scenarios is to take up more space on the road. I’m not suggesting you arrogantly hog the road, but you should ride between the right half and right third of the lane. This still allows drivers to pass if there is a second lane and prevents too-close passes and right turn cutoffs from occurring. By taking more space on the road, left turns for the cyclist are easier because they do not have to merge into the lane before taking their turn, since they are already in the lane of travel.

Another way that cyclists can use the road more effectively is to signal their intentions to other road users.

Many collisions between bikes and cars happen because bikers turn or stop without warning and drivers aren’t expecting it.  By simply pointing in the direction you intend to turn or merge, then looking briefly over your shoulder to check that the lane is clear, you make that turn much safer. It also helps to make eye contact with drivers  near you so know you are about to make a move.

Concerning the diagram of hand signals above, I would avoid the ‘left arm straight up’ right-turn signal because I think many drivers don’t have any idea what that means. It seems much more effective to simply make an emphatic, unambiguous gesture pointing clearly in the direction you wish to turn.

Perhaps the most important way a cyclist can stay safe on the road is to be visible to others.  Small blinking LED lights (front-clear, rear-red) are inexpensive and are really effective in making the cyclist visible at night and in bad weather.

Another important way to be visible is through clothing choice. Neon-bright cycling clothing is widely available, and a surefire way to call more attention to yourself day and night. If neon doesn’t appeal to you, just wearing bright colors of any type can make a big difference in being noticed by others.

A personal testimony to the importance of clothing choice- One day I was descending Midvale Avenue in East Falls, which is a long, steep hill with lots of traffic. I was traveling about 25-30mph, taking around half of the lane, and looking out for vehicles turning or pulling out of parking spaces. Despite my awareness,  a car crossed my lane to pull into a gas station, nearly hitting me. I shakily continued on, stopping at a red light. The driver caught up to me at the light and told me how he couldn’t see me at all. I looked down- navy blue sweatshirt, brown pants, gray bike.

I hope that these tips help make your ride a little safer- remember that despite the recklessness of others, you are still obligated to use the road responsibly, and ultimately that is the most effective way to avoid getting into a collision.

My tips are necessarily incomplete- a complete guide to bike safety would take up a whole book. Fortunately there are plenty of websites and books available.

Here are some good links:

Ten ways not to get hit bike safety tips

Good luck- it’s really not that hard to be safe. Just be visible, communicate, and be assertive!

Pro Cycling’s Electric-Assist Controversy

There’s an interesting rumor going around that Fabian Cancellara, one of the top pro cyclists, used a hidden electric assist motor to help him in the Tour of Flanders and Paris-Roubaix. Here’s a pretty poorly-done video that shows how the motor in question works and clips from the races when Cancellera allegedly uses electric assist.

The footage in the video is inconclusive at best, and it seems like the whirring of the motor would give it away, but he really does take off!

Now that electric assist systems have gotten so small, the UCI (the governing body of professional cycling) has announced that it will start taking special care in looking for electric motors.

The electric system in question is called the Gruber Assist, and it’s actually a pretty neat piece of work. the motor is a gear driven unit that fits in the bike’s seat tube, turning the crank bottom bracket with a gear drive.

Bicycle Cabs coming to Philly

the city just approved bicycle cabs to operate in Philadelphia. Right now there are just two services, Chariots of Philly and Velo Park, and they are currently operating only in parts of  Center City and the Northern Liberties, but if they get a good reception they will hopefully be allowed to expand their service areas eventually.

The two services have different strategies for bike-powered people-moving. Velo Park has a pretty interesting vehicle that is more of a human/electric power hybrid trike that looks like a retro-futuristic dune buggy.

From Velo-Park’s site:


Cabin made from recycled materials, Shimano 21-Speed transmission, Tecumseh differential, 250W /24V Heinzmann acceleration aid, Panasonic Lead-Gel batteries, Heila lights, signals, and brake lights, Magura parking brake, Brembo disk brakes. 10 feet long and 3.5 feet wide, 6 feet tall and 317 pounds.

This design sounds really interesting because it’s more of an all-purpose human powered vehicle than a bike.  It seems this vehicle platform could easily be adapted for other uses like local deliveries or personal transport.

As for their services, they are planning on offering velo-guided tours as well as a $1-per block rate for cab rides.

Hopefully these things catch on- they could really work for Philly. If you see one, flag it down and go for a ride. Maybe these will eventually reduce the number of traditional cabs in the city- I’m sure many cyclists would appreciate that!