Bike commuting is usually the best way to get around big cities, and where I live, in New York, it’s often the fastest. I used to ride the subway to work, and that took an hour, and by car it was about the same, given all the traffic. But when I started biking, my commute took just 40 minutes. Recently I got to ride a new bike, an electric one, and it cut my commute even further, to a mere 25 minutes.
It is the Elby e-bike, which officially rolls out this July. Elby was founded by Frank Stronach and Fred Gingl, whose backgrounds are in automotive design and manufacturing. Stronach founded Magna International, a leading auto-parts manufacturer that, according to Elby, is the only company of its kind to build complete cars for brands like Aston Martin, Porsche, BMW, and Mini.
A lot of their know-how comes through when you hop on the Elby and start moving. It’s well designed, good-looking, and really fun to ride. Everything about the bike feels very high quality. Having ridden it for a week, I found the Elby to be among the nicer e-bikes in what is now a booming market, particularly in Europe. I’ve ridden the high-performance $7,000 Stromer ST2 and sub-$1,000 models at trade shows like Eurobike, and at $4,000, the Elby, though not inexpensive, slots nicely into the middle of this range.
The Elby got me to work fast and sweat-free. It’s one of the best e-bikes on the market. Here’s what it was like to ride for 100 miles:
The company touts the Elby as “the world’s first one-size-fits-most pedal-assist hybrid bicycle.” The frame and fork are made of aluminum alloy, and the bike weighs in at just under 50 pounds (claimed). It comes in a variety of colors and sells for $4,000. The Elby will be available through independent bicycle retailers and elbybike.com.
I commuted on the Elby daily for a week and got to ride it around on the weekend, logging about 100 motor-assisted miles.
What impressed me on the very first ride was how smoothly the Elby accelerated and how predictably it handled, thanks largely to its low center of gravity and wide, high-quality tires. I really got a sense for its handling when I descended the Manhattan Bridge at over 20 mph. There’s a sweeping turn on the Brooklyn side, and I felt more comfortable taking this section at speed than on the half-dozen other bikes I’ve crossed this bridge on. The Elby felt like it was on rails.
Another thing I noticed was how high I sat on the bike, in an almost straight-up position, which felt very comfortable. After all, when you’re commuting it’s good to sit up high, to see and be seen. And with no top tube, the step-through frame lets you hop on and off the bike easily.
This bike attracted a lot of attention, too. People stopped to check it out when I was waiting at lights, and more than a few passersby stared at it when I was riding down the street.
The Elby has a sealed BionX D-series 500-watt motor that’s powered by a lithium-ion battery. There is a SRAM rear derailleur and an eight-speed cassette with a single chainring up front. (Update: Elby says it will be using a nine-speed drive going forward.)
The bike has to be moving to benefit from the pedal assist. This generally means you have to start pedaling the bike before you can hit the thumb-activated throttle and cruise along using only the motor. But I also found that by pushing off with my feet from a standing start I was able to get rolling and then hit the throttle without actually pedaling. The motor is essentially silent.
Once you get the bike moving, you can press and hold the throttle (pictured below) near the right grip to propel the bike up to 20 mph, at which point the bike will not go faster using the motor. You can, however, go faster than 20 by actually pedaling the bike beyond that speed, but that requires a lot of your own power. Getting a 50-pound bike that’s already going 20 mph to go faster will be no easy feat for many people.
And as with every e-bike I’ve ridden, this bike is not much fun when you’re out of battery. It’s doable, of course, and with eight gears it’s going to get you where you need to go. But, well, try not to run out of battery.
The covered single chainring.
The Tektro disc brakes provided excellent stopping power in every situation.
A view of the hub motor from the right side of the bike. (Note the heavy-duty kickstand.)
Here I removed the cover so that you can see what the battery looks like locked into the frame. To protect against theft, you need a key to remove the battery.
Now, to recharge the battery, you have two options. You can either plug the bike into an outlet using the provided power cord (not pictured) or remove the battery out of the frame and take it into your home or workplace and charge it there. When I got home every evening, I took the bike up to my apartment and charged it overnight.
And this is what it looks like when you remove the battery cover and battery from the frame.
Where I work, we have a bike room but it has no outlets, so I removed the battery and took it up to my office and plugged it in there. The battery has a handle for easy carrying.
Elby says it takes about 5 hours to fully recharge an empty battery, and that’s what I found too. Of course you could go for a partial charge when you really need some juice for a short ride, which I did on a few occasions.
The controls for the bike’s motor are next to the right grip. The plus and minus buttons increase or decrease torque levels (and activate a regenerative-braking feature). If you want more power, or boost, simply hit the plus button a few times and start pedaling, or hit the throttle.
The buttons in the middle are for toggling the computer screen (pictured below). The button underneath acts as a throttle for immediate boosts of power. When you hit the throttle, the Elby moves smoothly up to a max 20 mph, and does so pretty quickly. It is among the smoothest e-bike systems I have tried. As with any well-made e-bike, it’s fun to hit the throttle and cruise along nicely, quickly, and quietly.
The computer screen pictured above shows the torque levels set to full. In this mode, you get the max power available from the motor. You can either pedal to get the electric-assist benefit or not pedal at all and hit the throttle to cruise up to, and maintain, a max 20 mph. The computer also gives speed, average speed, trip distance, total distance, and battery level. When you turn on the lights, a light symbol appears in the upper right corner.
The Elby has a regenerative-braking feature that you activate using the handlebar controls. When you use regenerative braking, you recharge the battery as you ride; the energy generated by the momentum of the bike is transferred to the battery. It also helps control descents.
If you’ve never used a regenerative system, it feels like the bike is trying to slow itself down as you pedal, and you can feel gentle to strong resistance depending on the setting.
Typically, you use regenerative-braking when you’re going downhill, but you have to actually turn the feature on. I found it somewhat awkward to use, as you have to hit the control button no fewer than eight times if you’re at full power and want to go all the way to full regenerative-braking mode.
Regenerative braking is a nice feature to have, but it takes practice before you learn to use it effectively. I didn’t use it much during the week I rode the Elby because where I live it’s mostly flat. But I could see using it often if I lived in a city with lots of hilly streets like San Francisco.
- Courtesy of Elby
You can replace the computer on the handlebar with your mobile phone using an adapter. Elby also offers a mobile app that can be used with the bike (I didn’t use it as it was unavailable while I had this bike, but it is available now).
I liked the ergonomic grips, which have a comfortable feel and help make controlling the bike easier. The brake levers are well designed, too, and sit within perfect reach for quick stopping.
The wide, heavy-duty Continental Cruise Contact tires provided a fairly smooth ride on New York City’s bumpiest and roughest streets. They helped make me feel confident riding up and over just about anything – uneven pavement, potholes, and even high curbs. I rode this bike pretty hard, and these tires performed beautifully in every situation.
A closer look at the tire tread. I rode this bike mostly on the road, but I did get to take it over some gravel paths. The tires provided excellent handling in all conditions.
The comfy saddle has a built-in handle underneath that comes in handy when lifting this nearly 50-pound bike.
The integrated headlight and taillight, made by Supernova, are high-intensity lights. They provided good visibility and really lit up bike paths and roads at night. They are turned on together with a single tap on a button on the handlebar, and they are powered by the main battery.
I liked the Elby’s curved tubes, and the bike’s looks grew on me. I didn’t get to try out the fenders properly as it didn’t rain, but they do look good on this bike.
Is the Elby street legal? Yes, according to the company’s website:
“Since Elby’s hybrid assist tops out at 20 mph, you don’t need a driving license, state vehicle registration, or insurance coverage to enjoy Elby. The road is open – just make sure you ride respectfully and obey the current bicycle laws in your community.”
My main objective in testing the Elby was to see how it performed with zero assist, a medium amount of assist, and full assist.
On the hottest days, I was heavy on the throttle and did as little pedaling as possible (almost none); these were the days I wanted to use the assist the most, so that I could get to work sweat-free. Other days I rode it more like an actual bicycle but with a decent amount of assist. Only in a few instances did I pedal with zero assist.
In my view, e-bikes – including the Elby – are at their best when you keep pedaling and use a medium amount of electric assist. In this way you’re still actually spinning your legs and getting the blood flowing, but because of the assist, you’re also moving faster, climbing easier, and sweating less. This is how e-bikes were designed to be ridden, and that’s really when e-bikes come into their own as excellent commuters.
Now, Elby claims you can go 80-90 miles on a single charge. But as the company also noted, that really depends on how you ride the bike. That is true for all e-bikes. And as with any e-bike, the more heavily you rely on the assist, the faster you drain the battery.
Whenever I rode the bike with full assist and did little or no pedaling, I didn’t get anywhere close to 80 miles on a full charge – but again, that was expected as I was riding with max battery power and doing effectively zero pedaling. I hit the throttle from standing stops, whenever the road went up, and often simply while cruising along. Plus, I’m 6-3 and 220 pounds, so I made the motor work as hard as it could, and that really used up the battery. My commute each way is 6.5 miles, or 13 round trip. In full-assist mode, I drained the battery quite fast; I used about a third of the battery charge each way. When I rode the bike using full assist like this, I had to make sure I recharged the battery every night.
It can be tempting to ride with max power and just cruise along without pedaling, especially when it’s hot and humid. But I found that even with the assist set to low, it made riding a lot easier and made me sweat a lot less all the same.
My only real issue with this bike – and e-bikes generally – is carrying the thing. I live in a second-floor walk-up apartment, and I had to lug this 50-pound bike up my stoop and then up a narrow flight of 12 stairs at least once a day. Even going downstairs with the bike is challenging. You really have to pay attention to what you’re doing and step carefully and control your momentum lest you and the bike go crashing down. It’s an awkward and heavy thing to carry, no way around it.
Now, if you have access to a garage, you’re good to go. But if you have to move this or any other e-bike up or down stairs, realize it is something to seriously consider, especially if you plan to ride it a lot. To be clear, this is not a bike that I would ever lock up outside overnight.
As a quick comparison, two other popular e-bikes – the Stromer ST2 and Specialized Turbo S – weigh in the 55-to-60-pound range, though those bikes are more performance-oriented. There are lighter e-bikes, but I haven’t ridden them and can’t attest to their quality.
Like a lot of daily bike commuters, I often have to deal with unflattering perspiration after a ride. It’s a hassle, especially in the summer, and for the majority of us who don’t have access to showers at work, there are some ways to deal with arriving at work all sweaty. These include cleaning up with various kinds of wipes and having a fresh change of clothes on hand, but those are still far from ideal solutions. (I got a gym membership around the block from work so that I could shower on the warmest of days.)
This brings us to one of the best things about owning and commuting on a well-designed e-bike. Besides being easy to ride uphill and all that, you don’t sweat, or at least very little. I rode the Elby five days in a row, and a few of those days were pretty hot, in the 80s and humid. With a full battery charge, I cruised all the way to work with effectively zero sweating. On another warm day, I did a little more pedaling and a little less e-boosting, and still I got to work with the most minor traces of perspiration – basically none.
You can save big money by opting for a low-maintenance bicycle instead of a car, and even if you take the less expensive mass transit, in the Big Apple you’re still paying $116.50 for an unlimited monthly metro card – or $1,398 a year. Most times after a ride you feel good, too, and that’s just not something you hear people say after driving in heavy traffic or taking the subway.
More info at elbybike.com.