In which I get to put this long awaited drop-in e-bike conversion wheel through its paces, and find it to be electrifying.
In the current market, those who are considering going electric on their bicycles have a lot of choices, ranging from incredibly cheap crowdfunded bikes to top-of-the-line electric cargo bikes to drop-in e-bike conversions, and while that variety can make it challenging to sort through to find the right e-bike, it also ensures that there are appropriate e-bikes available for almost every situation. Although a purpose-built electric bike with all of the bells and whistles may be the best choice for some riders, others may want a large cargo capacity, while still others may be looking for a way to keep the bike they love while adding an electric drive system to it. That's the scenario that Superpedestrian is addressing, as the company's Copenhagen Wheel is designed to be a bolt-on all-in-one electric bicycle conversion.
Since the initial announcement of the development of the Copenhagen Wheel several years ago, there's been a ton of speculation about whether or not the wheel would ever get to market, as well as criticisms about its design (and appearance), its price, and its weight-to-benefits ratio (is it worth the 17 extra pounds?), not to mention the question of its performance in real-world riding situations. In an increasingly crowded e-bike market, those are all valid questions for potential buyers to ask, but while some aspects of the product are fixed (the price and the specs), others are relative and will vary wildly by the individual rider. For example, the perceived value of the wheel when taking into consideration the range and power of the Copenhagen Wheel will be different for someone with a 20-mile hilly commute than for someone who lives within 5 miles of most of their regular destinations, with little to no hills on their routes.
I recently got to spend some time with the Copenhagen Wheel installed on one of my bikes (an '81 Trek 410, converted to a singlespeed), and considering the number of times we've covered or mentioned the Copenhagen Wheel over the last few years, this review has been a long time coming. The short version is that the 350W Wheel is remarkably smooth and silent in its operation, is a heckuva lot of fun, and can radically flatten hills and shorten commuting times, while also being entirely unforgettable while riding (other than the kick-in-the-pants boost to your pedaling efforts). There are a few things that weren't entirely to my liking, but overall I was pleasantly surprised with the quality of the product, and how easy it is to install and to use.
The Copenhagen Wheel comes in several different wheel sizes and configurations, with either a singlespeed cog or a Shimano/SRAM-compatible geared hub installed on it, and mounting it on a bike is super simple to do. For my singlespeed, all that was required was removing the original wheel, mounting the axle in the dropouts, tensioning the chain in the dropouts, and attaching a small torque arm to the chain stay (similar to a coaster brake). I did have to remove two links to shorten my chain to fit right, but that's solely a singlespeed/fixie problem that geared bikes with derailleurs don't have.
With the Wheel mounted, I installed the accompanying app, which connects to the device via Bluetooth, and once I had registered my account and the wheel (less than 5 minutes), I just selected one of the four riding modes, climbed on the saddle and took off. My very first impression was that the rear of my bike felt a bit more sluggish when pedaling manually (maybe because of the additional 17 pounds of motor, battery, and electronics?), but that lasted all of about 5 seconds, because when the electric assist smoothly kicked in, that perceived drag that I felt disappeared, replaced by an incredible lightness as I quickly got up to near 20 miles per hour with little effort.
The Copenhagen Wheel has no throttle mode, which I rather liked, as there's no way to just 'cheat' by accelerating without having to pedal, but instead has a suite of sensors that almost instantly respond to an increase in pedaling cadence and/or effort and seamlessly and smoothly add power to the rear wheel. While some earlier e-bikes, and even current low-end models, are rather jarring when the motor kicks in, which feels really unnatural and awkward, the Copenhagen Wheel felt a little like magic to me.
If I picked up my pedaling cadence, the Wheel responded quickly, and if I mashed down on the pedals to climb a hill, the electric boost kicked in accordingly and in direct proportion to the effort I put in. Flat routes aren't a challenge for someone riding even the clunkiest bike, but hills are a whole 'nother ball game, and I've got big hills to cover in both directions from my house to town, so when I topped out on one hill with the Copenhagen Wheel the first time, without even breathing hard, I realized what a gamechanger it was.
With a riding range per charge of about 30 miles, and a complete recharge time of 4 hours (2 hours of charging nets an 80% charge), the Copenhagen Wheel could conceivably handle a long (~30 mile) commute every day and be charged during the day for the return trip. The longer range is possible by using Eco mode, which is the lowest level of assist, but with my shorter rides, I loved the boost of the Turbo mode so much I just left it there most of the time, which is still capable of delivering a range per charge of at least 20 miles. According to the company, the Wheel's "Human-Enhancing Technology" can amplify a rider's pedaling efforts by a factor of 10, and although I couldn't exactly measure that claim, it certainly made me feel as if I had wings on my feet.
One neat feature of the Copenhagen Wheel is the regenerative braking function, which is activated by pedaling backward, and which is said to be capable of recapturing some of the 48 V 279 Wh Li-ion battery's capacity while slowing the bike. I wasn't able to tell exactly how much additional battery capacity was returned to the Wheel, but I found that by pedaling backwards instead of braking sometimes, I could easily bring the bike's speed down with the additional drag on the motor, even to the point of stopping (though it's probably not a good idea to rely on that feature for coming to a complete stop, or for stopping quickly). And one feature that I really didn't care for -- I didn't dislike it, I just didn't see a use for it for my purposes -- is the Exercise mode, which makes the wheel function as a generator, not a motor, and which adds resistance to the Wheel when riding for a workout, essentially charging the Wheel's battery at the same time.
The bike is definitely heavier with the Copenhagen Wheel installed, but I only really noticed it if I was pedaling with the motor off or when I picked it up to put it on the bike carrier on the back of my car, and even so, the bike was far lighter than most purpose-built e-bikes. Unless I had to manually carry the bike up and down several flights of stairs each day, I don't think the weight of the Wheel is an issue (and if that was the case, a heavier electric bike would entail even more effort to carry). The one weak point, if you can call it that, is that there is no removable battery that can be brought inside to charge, and the Wheels aren't equipped with a quick release to remove it for charging, so the whole bike has to be brought within reach of an outlet to charge it.
More than a few commenters on previous articles about the Copenhagen Wheel took issue with the device's appearance, as the Wheel resembles two big plastic frisbees mounted on the rear wheel, and it only comes in red at the moment, which may not appeal to some riders. I happen to like the color red for bikes, and because the wheel is behind me while riding it, I could care less what it looks like, as long as it works well (which it most certainly does). One thing that may be an issue down the road a ways is replacing the batteries at their end-of-life (said to be at least 1000 charge cycles), as they are inside the unit itself and are intended to only be replaced by an official partner or the company itself. Another issue might be the proprietary spokes, which can't simply be replaced by an off-the-shelf spoke if bent or broken, but will instead need to be purchased direct from the company.
At no time was I caught unaware by a burst of speed from the wheel (which was a rather unpleasant experience I had on an early e-bike a few years ago), and I always felt in control, with the motor cutting off instantly when I stopped pedaling. The app didn't feel like something I needed to fiddle with, other than selecting the pedal assist mode, so it wasn't a distraction. The app's functions, among which are the riding mode selection and a proximity unlock feature that uses a smartphone connection to automatically unlock the Wheel, include gathering and displaying data on not only the battery and motor, but also tracking rides, distance, speed, and time, as well as the estimated calories burned during a ride. The phone can be kept in the rider's pocket while riding, but some users may opt to mount theirs on the handlebars for easier access to riding modes and ride data.
The make-or-break aspect of the Copenhagen Wheel for many potential riders is most likely the price, which might seem steep when compared to the rash of $500 electric bikes that have recently hit crowdfunding sites. However, after seeing what this e-bike wheel is capable of, and knowing that I can mount it onto a bike I already have (and which I love because it fits me well), the $1499 price of the Wheel isn't out of the question. The option of making monthly installment payments of about $95 toward the Wheel can also help ease the financial side of things.
The advanced technology and design of the Wheel aren't immediately or obviously apparent, as opposed to the eyecatching outward appearance and the inclusion of all the bells and whistles that some electric bikes have, but when the rubber meets the road, this product delivers. It's easy to install, it's powerful enough to flatten hills and shorten commute times considerably, it's light enough to not be a huge burden when carried, and the way that it 'reads' the rider's movements and seamlessly adds power when desired is almost magical. More info on the Wheel and the Wheel + Bike is available at the Superpedestrian website.
[Disclosure: Superpedestrian sent me a review unit of the Copenhagen Wheel, but all opinions, errors, or omissions in this article are mine alone.]