Boar in the City: Is this the place for a fat-tired e-bike?
When you look on the website for the Boar electric fat bike you see all the images of young people going up and down hills in Whistler, BC. When the people at Surface 604 offered to send me one for a test drive, I was a bit dubious at first, being a boomer in the city instead of a kid on a mountain. However, Sam Atakhanov, their VP of product development, told me that it wasn't just for trails, and could replace cars for a lot of people living in cities; they say so right there in their story.
Our vision was to create the “Sport Utility” of bikes. One bike that could take you anywhere, in any season. A bike that let you bring what you want. A bike that was so fun to ride and so versatile that the second car would just sit in the driveway collecting dust. Or, even better, a bike that would replace the car altogether.
After a few days riding this everywhere, I have concluded that Sam just might be right about there being a place for this Pig in the City.
Me on the Boar/CC BY 2.0
The first thing one has to get over is the whole idea of the fat bike, with these massive four inch wide Kenda Juggernaut 26" tires. My first thought is that they might be great on the beach (and probably fabulous in snow when winter comes) but that they will be terrible in the city. I thought the rolling resistance from them would make it impossible to move this bike under pedal power. In fact, this turned out not to be true; the bike comes with ten speed gearing and the bike actually was easier to move than I thought it would be.
Yes, this really is a Toronto bike lane, and the Boar just ate it up/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
And in fact, they just eat up streetcar tracks and potholes and the terrible road conditions that you often find in Toronto bike lanes. Manhole covers, sewer grates, even this stretch of bike lane, all the usual obstructions that I go around, I just rode right over. It may not be a dirt trail in Whistler, but city riding has its own share of obstacles that just disappear under the tires of a fat bike.
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
Then there is the electric drive. There is a 350 watt rear drive motor that is controlled by a "Torque Sensing Pedal Assist (TMM4 Strain Sensor)" that gives you power when you pedal. It's what is officially called a "Pedalec", a bike with an electric assist motor. I had never tried this before and it is a totally different experience that has changed my views on electric bikes. Because you ride it just like a regular bike; stop pedalling and it slows down. Start pedalling and it instantly picks up and does much of the work, but not all. Controlling the motor this way feels far more intuitive, just like riding a bike with a boost. I suspect that it is safer too. They describe it in more detail at Surface 604:
Power delivery to the motor is regulated by a torque sensor in the dropout hanger that senses how much torque you apply to the pedals; the harder you pedal, the more power the electric motor provides. The result is smooth power delivery and a natural ride much like a regular bike. The torque sensor has the added benefit of acting like a Battery Management System (BMS). The power going to the motor is instantly reduced when you reduce the torque and turns off completely when you stop pedalling. The effect is greatly reduced power consumption, longer range and longer battery life.
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
You can control how much of a boost by cranking up the assist mode with the + and - buttons on the control pad; I was most comfortable at 2 and 3, which got me up to about 22 kmph. My daughter, who used the bike for her very long ride to work, maxed it out at 32 kmph, which is faster than I ever went on it. She writes that it "felt like it was too fast to feel comfortable in the bike lane, but not fast enough to feel comfortable in a regular lane," a problem I didn't share.
There are some, like Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize, who note that electric bikes do not fit well in cities with bike lanes. He is an e-bike skeptic and writes:
The average speed of Citizen Cycling in Copenhagen and Amsterdam is about 16/kmh. Putting vehicles zipping along at 25 km/h into that equation would not seem to be wise....
But just because you can go that fast doesn't mean that you have to or you should, any more than the guy owning the BMW has to drive twice as fast as the speed limit. In some ways I think that this kind of e-bike could actually be safer in the city, given the way that those tires grip the road. I also found that I was stopping at a lot more stop signs than I usually do; the power boost makes it a lot easier to get back up to speed. (Because remember, it's physics.) On the other hand, my daughter noted that "the power came in handy when I wanted to catch a light before it changed - the burst of speed was very helpful." Perhaps these should be restricted to aging boomers.
Lloyd Alter/ It's worse than it looks, really/CC BY 2.0
Toronto is mostly pretty flat, with the downtown on a slight tilt down toward Lake Ontario. But there are a few hills in Midtown, through ravines and up the old shoreline of post ice age Lake Iroquois. I took the Boar up Mount Pleasant Road, which goes up and down through a ravine and is probably the hardest hill in Toronto. I have avoided it for years. I still had to pedal a bit and there was some heavy breathing along the way, but the bike really just ate it up.
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
There are lots of clever design touches to this bike. The big battery snuggles into the down tube which keeps the centre of gravity low. It's really easy to get it in and out. They kindly put a USB port on the base of the battery so you can charge your phone. The brakes are hydraulic disk sized to handle heavy loads. The controls are intuitive and minimalist; Court Rye of Electric Bike Review misses the throttle, listing this as a con:
Pedal assist only configuration, there is a ~4 mph walk mode that be used as a slow throttle but in general you have to pedal (chosen to declutter the cockpit, improve climbing performance and extend range)
As an e-bike n00b, I do not miss it; I think it would have confused things, another control to mess up with. I found the pedal assist to be totally natural.
Lloyd Alter/ the boar goes to the dentist/CC BY 2.0
I found the biggest con to the bike to be its size and weight; you are not going to be dragging this up stairs, and I had trouble finding room for it on a few bike racks. It also is a big attention getter; my daughter notes that she had to talk about it to a crowd of ten guys at the local bar when she rode up on it. Also, get the sizing right; I tested the large bike and both my daughter and I, who are small, found the seating position uncomfortable as we were leaning forward to reach the handlebars.
But especially if one gets the optional carriers, this could be a great grocery hauler as well. Before this test drive I would have flat out dismissed a fat-tired e-bike for city use. But as we age and those hills seem to get longer and higher, and as our cities get more congested with cars while every parking lot sprouts a condo, I can see this being a viable option for a lot of people, young and old. And even Mikael at Copenhagenize sees a role for e-bikes among older users, noting that in the Netherlands, the average age of an e-bike rider is over sixty.
I'm on a Boar/CC BY 2.0
In summary, the Boar takes the sting out of hills and laughs at potholes and sewer grates. Its big tires are glued to the road. It's totally intuitive and easy to use. I can see this being really useful for boomers who want to keep riding, and yes, it might even replace a car for some. There is a real role to play for a boar in the city.