It’s no secret that we are passionate about cycling, and particularly commuting via bicycle. A bicycle is the perfect car replacement. You’re not only exercising for free, you’re actually saving a significant amount of money compared to commuting via car. So, let’s make a quick checklist of all the things biking to work does for you that a car does not:
- Fun ✔
- Exercise ✔
- Save money ✔
- Spend time outdoors ✔
- See more of your city ✔
- Better for the environment ✔
- Less stress ✔
- Save time ✔ (1 hour commute covers exercise and travel vs 40 minute car commute and hour at the gym to get the equivalent amount of exercise.)
Why Biking is Alabama Sucks
The only problem with this is that we live in a notoriously unbikeable state, and a potentially even more un-bike-friendly city. Everybody seems to love bullet lists, so I’m going to utilize another one to help paint you a picture using numbers:
- Huntsville has a terrible problem with sprawl, encompassing 214 square miles with 180k people, and the city is still annexing in more area. Comparatively, Atlanta manages to fit 490k people in 134 square miles. Because of the sprawl, all commutes are inherently longer to get to work, bicycles included.
- To top off the sprawl problem, Huntsville has less than 30 miles of “Signed Bike Routes”, we aren’t talking bike lanes…we are talking a tiny ass sign with a silhouette of a bike on it. (Pictured here)
- According to the National Highway Administration, Alabama is ranked #49 out of 50 for most fatalities of bike commuters.
- 0.1% of people in Alabama are commuting via bicycle, which puts Alabama at #48 out of 50.
With these numbers, its no wonder that Alabama is the 3rd fattest state in the country, has the highest percentage of diabetes, the highest number of infant mortality rates, and ranks 49th in life expectancy. The sad truth is you’re more likely to live longer if you live in Bosnia, Uruguay, Mexico, Vietnam, Iran, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, or Libya than you are if you live in Alabama. There is a culture of fear and disdain of anything healthy.
Who Gives a Shit
None of the scary items from above stop us from biking, though. Rejecting the norm is not only fun for me, but almost necessary. Also, improving the biking culture and participation in the area is hard to do while sitting on the sidelines. The real catalyst for building the perfect commuting bicycle came from our well storied move into our house-hack.
My commute to work more than doubled (which went from 5 to right at 11 miles one way, still impressive by most American’s standards), but the real kicker is that it went down some much busier roads. My previous commute was only 5 miles down a single three lane road, that had a turning lane the entire length of it so people could easily go around me, it also went through three school zones, so people were forced to slow down periodically. The new commute is almost exclusively 4 lane roads that have higher speed limits, more cars, less traffic lights, and no school zones to remind the assholes that they’re not in a NASCAR race.
Enter the E-Bike
If you’re unsure of what that is, it stands for “electric bike”. If you still can’t manage to reason your way through that one, how have you made it this far in life? Imagine a bicycle, and now imagine a motor on that bicycle powered by batteries. That’s pretty much the gist of an e-bike. The motor is what makes it a true car replacement in most scenarios.
Types of E-Bikes
There are generally only a couple types of E-bikes I was considering since this was going to be a DIY project and not buying a purpose built e-bike off the shelf. DIY E-bikes are cheaper, faster, potentially more durable, and endlessly customizable. My options were: hub drive motors, and mid drive motors.
The hub drive puts the motor inside the wheel hub of your bicycle. I’m no mathmatician, but there are two wheels on bikes. This means they have two options for hub motors, either the front or rear wheel. They are easier to install however, the drawbacks of the hub motor are that they affect the weight distribution of the bike, it can be harder to perform routine things like a tire change, and because they aren’t geared, they tend to go slower than mid-drive motors.
Mid-drive motors are installed where the pedals are. Because it’s a pedal assist, you can maintain the rear gears on your bike giving you more versatility on speed and range. Mid-drive motors are typically better balanced, easier to perform maintenance, and faster. However, they are harder to install, by a few hours. They are larger, which cuts into ground clearance. Also, the additional power and speed means they typically go through drive-train parts faster (chain, sprockets, etc).
Picking a Bike
Based on my research, and weighing the benefits and drawbacks to both, I decided on a mid-drive kit. A mountain bike is the ideal choice for a mid-drive kit because of the weight, durability, and speeds you reach on an e-bike. A full suspension can be comfortable, but inefficient when it comes to pedaling. This is because a large amount of energy is wasted bouncing the bike up and down. Also, they typically have less space in the frame for a battery pack, or water bottles. A front suspension (aka hardtail) will absorb the impact from potholes, rough terrain, or even hopping curbs which assists in preventing flat tires, but also have an empty space in the frame to fit pretty much any size battery pack. A rigid frame bike has less maintenance than suspension bikes, but the ride is rougher, and flats are more common, especially at the high speeds of an e-bike. So, the best of both worlds in my opinion is the hardtail.
After a while of periodically searching Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist, I came across the perfect bike for my project, a Diamondback Sorrento. Front suspension, in good shape, and I bargained the guy down to $100. I went ahead and bought some street tires (Schwalbe Marathon Plus have great tread, and an extra layer of protection for preventing punctures), a thorn resistant tire liner (again to prevent flats), new chain, and upgraded brakes (with the added speed, you definitely want to stop quicker) all for around $75.
The Car Replacement Kit
Now it was time to fit the kit. I went with a kit from Luna Cycle that they had on a special anniversary sale back in November, so if you are interested in saving a decent chunk of change, you can just hold out a couple months. They have a few options for the motor, but I went with the BBS02 because it was cheaper, and lighter. The BBSHD is a little more powerful, but also a little heavier, and about $225 more expensive. The kit came with everything I needed (motor, battery pack, display, speed sensor, basic charger) and the best part is it was all plug and play. Once I got started on it, it only took me a couple of hours to install. I also went ahead and upgraded to the fancy charger so I could try to protect my investment and make my batteries last as long as possible. The typical price of the kit I bought is $990, but because of the anniversary sale, I snagged it for $750.
Now, I know what you’re thinking, $750!?! I asked myself the same thing. Was it worth it? Will I use it more than my regular bike that already sees a bunch of use? Is it really that much better? Yes, yes, and yes.
The Fun Stuff
The controller and speeds can be customized, but I currently have it on a 5 level pedal assist system along with a throttle in case I need an extra oomph. I typically ride to work at level 2 or 3 and I consistently maintain a speed of around 25-30 mph with a moderate amount of effort. This is about 10 mph faster than my typical speed. With a slight descent, and a little more effort, I can hit speeds of 40 mph+ and that’s still only at level 3 of 5. So it’s a hell of a lot of fun.
With these speeds, I can keep up with traffic much better, which gives me peace of mind. Also, the range of assistance means I’ll go further on my e-bike than I would typically consider on my regular bike, so I’ll utilize it more often and forego taking one of our cars.
Kickin’ Ass and Taking Names
Comparatively speaking, the Sondors Thin (potentially the most popular e-bike in a similar style hardtail) off the shelf costs $1,135, has a top speed of 20 mph (lol), and shorter range. It’s important to mention that while you may expect the bike to take significantly longer, my car commute takes me 20 minutes, while the commute on my handy dandy e-bike only takes me 10 minutes longer.
According to AAA the average cost per mile for a vehicle is up to 60.8¢ per mile, compared to the 1.5¢ per mile that my bike is costing me, leaving me with a net savings of 59.3¢ per mile. With a 22 mile total commute, I’ll have to ride my bike to work 71 times (which I will gladly do) for my e-bike to pay for itself purely on the cost per mile, and not considering the increase in happiness, decrease in stress, decrease in healthcare costs, etc. If I commute to work 3x a week for a year, I’m saving $2k and that’s if I only rode to work, and didn’t ride any other trips. For a little over $900, and an afternoon of getting my hands dirty with the kit install, I have a viable alternative to the car that will quickly pay for itself and put a much bigger smile on my face than riding in my car could ever do. In my book, that is money well spent.