Making The Switch To E-Bikes: The Backstory
The Katarga E-Bikes
We’d ridden more than 75,000 miles overseas as loaded cyclotourists on custom touring bikes with very fine components for 18 years. In July of 2018, when we returned to the Italian Alps and retrieved our bikes from storage, Barb discovered that the distress she’d been feeling from anti-hypertensive drugs while hiking had devastating her cycling capacity as well. She had headed up a steep, neighborhood street on her unloaded touring bike at 5,000’ elevation and gave up after advancing 20-30’. The drug’s suppressive effect on her cardiac output made cyclotouring a non-starter; they made cycling at all seem impossible.
We had 6 weeks of reservations booked for the upcoming, annual, bike trip in the Alps with a fixed itinerary that began in one week. Some of those reservations were prepaid. It didn’t take long to run through the short list of options for saving our tour and cutting our losses: buying an e-bike for Barb was the best alternative.
From his years of casual research, Bill knew that the best place in Europe to buy a touring e-bike was Munich, but we were in the mountains of Italy. Munich was the closest knowledge and inventory hub to us but a week wasn’t enough time to travel there, make a purchase, and be underway. We knew that the Germans were ardent cyclotourists and were very much into e-bikes, which made buy locally extremely frustrating.
Standing over the Katarga in the Bolzano Sportler in 2018.
The Austrian brand Katarga bikes saved our tour but were barely good enough. Because of the limitations of the batteries, we actually couldn’t ride more miles in a day or do more elevation gain than when on our standard bikes if Barb had been well. They were however a clear benefit to Barb because of her decreased cardiac output, to both of us when riding during a heatwave, and for Bill when he started having knee pain. We both appreciated the safety net they provided and knew that we’d never return to our standard bikes for loaded touring abroad.
Exactly a year later when doing a test ride on the Katargas, Bill mentioned that he had spotted a Bulls brand trekking e-bike online that hadn’t existed in 2018 but was the e-bike of his dreams. He’d planned to ‘get our money out of’ the barely suitable Katargas by riding them several more years, but was easily talked out of that plan. The 2019 Bulls was the bike we should have had in 2018 and it was only available to us in Germany.
There were huge logistical challenges to buying the new bikes, which we’d finally procure half way through our touring trip. If we delayed the purchase, we ran the risk that this perfect feature combination might not be available in 2020. As it was, July was the end of the model year and the only bikes a Munich Bulls dealer could locate in the correct sizes were in Iceland. It took almost 3 weeks for the bikes to be available to us but we were thrilled to finally secure them.
Bill’s antidote to the imperfect fit of the Katarga bike.
What Is An E-Bike?
We thought we knew what e-bikes were. To us: “E-bikes are electric bikes, but they are still bicycles, not scooters. If you don’t pedal, you don’t go. There are no foot rests, no ‘Scooter Mode’, they are electric battery assisted bikes.” But we were wrong. Our definition applies to 1 type of e-bike, the type that we bought.
What we have are “pedal assist” bikes, the “no pedal, no go” variety. We recently learned that some e-bikes have a throttle, which allows them to go with the push of a button rather than the push of the pedal. Some e-bikes are throttle only, or basically a scooter; others have both pedal assist and throttle; and still others have no throttle. Almost all mountain bike-styled e-bikes are only pedal assist, without throttles.
Power-assist e-bikes like ours are wildly popular in Europe, especially in the mountain villages, where they are a game changer for doing the marketing and going home from work for lunch. They nicely smooth the level of effort required so that a mountain pass that is impossible for some people becomes possible for many.
There must be hundreds (maybe thousands?) of e-bike models available. Based on what we see out and about and in shops, mountain bike variations are by far the most popular, both for trail riding and commuting. But there some road bikes, a few folding bikes, and other configurations available.
In Europe, an important e-bike specification is the maximum assisted speed, with 25 km/hr or 15 mph, being the line. If the bike is rated above 25 km, you need a license and insurance and cannot be on the bike paths. Ours are below that line, under 25 km maximum assisted speed. In the US, e-bikes aren’t allowed on some bike paths, regardless of their maximum speed. Be forewarned that the laws regarding e-bikes in the US are in a constant state of flux and differ between states and cities.
Choosing An E-Bike
Because of the dizzying array of e-bikes available, before you buy, carefully evaluate how you intend to use it.
..Will you be commuting, shopping, joy riding, touring, or riding off-road?
..Will you make short trips, all-day rides, or be stopping for long lunches where you can recharge your battery?
..Will you primarily be on paved roads or dirt tracks?
..Will you primarily be on flat terrain, rolling hills, or tackling mountain passes?
..How heavily do you intend to use the power assist?
..Do you have a safe place to store it? They are too heavy to routinely carry up and down stairs.
..If you envision transporting your e-bike on a plane, very carefully research whether the large lithium battery will be allowed on your likely flights (probably not).
On the road with the Katarga e-bikes.
Regardless of whether you are riding a standard bike or an e-bike for touring, it is best to have a bike designed for the sport. Many people venture out on the bike that they already own rather than investing in a touring-specific bike. It can be done, but it is risky for a long tour.
What makes a touring bike different? Here are some of the issues that arise because of the extra weight carried when touring, which can be 50 to 100 pounds, depending on the rider. Touring bikes usually have:
..Stronger frames to avoid literally snapping under the extra weight of the gear carried.
..A longer wheel base, or distance between the wheels, for greater stability and better handling.
..Better brakes, ideally disc brakes, to ensure being able to promptly stop, especially on wet roads or steep descents, or both.
..Higher quality components, which are usually moving parts at junctions on the frame, to prevent untimely failures.
..Extra brazens, attachment points, for racks and fenders.
..Bigger, tougher tires to reduce the risk of flat tires or crashing from a tire being caught in a crack.
..Perhaps front and rear shocks to diminish the jolting from hitting bumps or pot holes.
..Fenders to keep you drier in the rain.
..Lights for riding at night and in tunnels.
Our Katarga mountain bikes were retrofitted at our request with racks, mini-fenders, and lights to make them suitable for touring. In contrast, those accessories were built-in to the Bulls because they were marketed as trekking bikes.
The tires on the Bulls bikes were touring tires, not the much larger, off-road tires of the Katarga. The tires on the Bulls bikes had low rolling resistance and were very flat-resistant due to a built-in, puncture resistant belt. The lights on the Bulls were properly positioned for use with panniers and handlebar bags, unlike the Katargas lights, which were added in a “make-do with what they had” fashion by the bike shop staff. The Bulls racks were rated for 25 kg (55 pounds) and had 2 weight bearing attachment points unlike the Katargas which were rated for 20 kg (44 lbs) and had one weight bearing attachment point. The difference in the 2 motors was the critical issue, but these smaller feature differences mattered to us as well.
Katarga & Bulls comparison.
Early in Bill’s research of e-bikes, it was clear that selecting the best touring bike began with selecting the motor. Motors are key to e-bike performance and the motor manufacturers are constantly changing their product lines. They increase the competitiveness of their products by making the motor lighter to improve bike handling and more powerful to improve the riding experience. They also increase the battery capacity to extend the riding time on a charge. All of Bill’s years of research of e-bikes pointed to the Bosch motor being the superior product. The Katargas, our first e-bikes, had Bosch motors but we quickly learned of the motor’s many shortcomings for our application.
The single biggest problem with the Bosch motors was that if you wanted to conserve your battery charge and ride with the power assist off, it was extremely hard to pedal. This was because the Bosch motor remains connected to the drive train even when it is off, while the Brose motor (like on our Bulls bikes) disconnects from the drive train when the power iider doesn’t feel any drag on their pedaling effort. We suspected that the Katarga designers expected the rider to always use the power assist and so they probably opted save money by using lower quality components, which further increased the rolling resistance of the bike.
We could immediately feel the much greater effort to pedal the Katargas on flat pavement compared to our standard bikes. This realization was terrifying to Barb. She was using an e-bike because she was less powerful than before but if she ran out of battery charge, she likely wouldn’t be able to pedal the Katarga on the most gentle of grades: it basically was a heavy, clunky bike.
The drag of the Katarga drive train in the Bosch motor brought up visions of being stuck on a mountain road in the middle of nowhere without the physical capacity to pedal or push the loaded bike to our destination before dark. Few areas where we tour in Italy have bus service and sometimes it is only twice a day. This was a haunting fear almost every day because the exact demands on the battery of each segment of the route were unknown. Disappointingly, Bill’s estimates for an itinerary planned for us based on our standard bikes under our own power were near the limit of what the Katargas could do with our considerable pedaling effort. There went his consolation-prize visions for grander itineraries on e-bikes.
Bill’s e-bike research didn’t stop with the purchase of the Katargas. Subsequent ready highlighted that this drive train drag that could sink us on a tour wasn’t a problem for most other uses and that the Brose motor didn’t have this issue. In addition, Brose came out with a new 750watt/hr (w) battery in 2019, a significant upgrade over both our Bosch and other Brose motors that were 500w.
When we pursued buying the Bulls bikes a year later, people then told Bill that the Bulls Brose motors had been the superior motor but that the Brose’s quality control had tanked and that they were now hit-and-miss—some motors worked well and others were never quite right. The Munich dealer from which we purchased our Bulls bikes had been a huge fan of Brose motors but stopped carrying them entirely in 2019 because of their unreliability. Fortunately, we appeared to have gotten, in his words, a pair of “the good ones” on our Bulls bikes, and immediately loved the improved performance of our Brose motors compared with the Bosch.
Another side-by-side look at the Bulls & Katarga e-bikes.
Lucky for us, the new 750w battery combined with our Brose motor was effectively more than 50% more powerful than our 500w battery with the Bosch motor. We surmised that we got more than a 50% increase in performance on the Bulls e-bikes than on the Katargas because the Bulls bikes had:
..higher quality components, so lighter with less rolling resistance
..narrower tires with smooth treads and probably of higher quality, decreasing rolling resistance
..higher pressure tires, decreasing rolling resistance
..overall lighter weight: Katargas were 55 lbs + fenders & racks; Bulls: 50 lbs maximum including fenders & racks (our standard touring bikes were over 30 pounds)
..slightly lower gearing than the Katargas, which helps on a loaded bike, making our own peddling efforts more effective
..a design that disconnects the drive train from the motor when the pedal assist is shut off so none of the rider’s leg power is lost by drag in the motor
..belt drive motors whereas the Katarga had a gear drive motor
..a better riding position, especially the handle bar width, which makes the rider more powerful
Handling & Carving the Curves
Barb absolutely loved the higher degree of safety that the Bulls trekking e-bikes delivered by way of their precision handling compared to the Katargas. We prefer cyclotouring in the mountains rather than in the valleys and switchbacks can be fun, but they can also be terrifying. On our custom bikes, we had to learn how to widen our arc on inside curves to diminish the grade enough that we could make it through and up the curve. Some curves must be 30% grades or more on the inside edge and if we allowed a motorist to crowd us into those grades, Barb was at risk falling over because she wouldn’t have enough leg power to maintain her speed (usually a minimum of 3 mph to stay upright).
Those treacherously steep, inside curves on Passo Stelvio’s switchbacks.
BUT on the Bulls bike with both plenty of smoothly delivered power AND excellent handling, Barb could enter into the ‘no-go’ zone on tight curves where she dared not be in the past. She didn’t have to take so much of the road and could move more quickly through a given curve. It was much safer for her and decreased her dependence on the kindness and alertness of the motorists for her to stay alive.
We stared and stared at the Katarga and Bulls bikes when side-by-side but our eyes couldn’t have predicted how differently they handled. The bulky vs sleek styling differences were remarkable but the heights, lengths, and angles of the frames seemed so similar.
The best we could discern about the difference in trim, the handling, was that
Bulls handled much better because:
..they had an air front fork instead of spring fork which is smoother
..their heavy battery was lower and more forward than on our Katarga bikes, making them ‘stick’ to the road better (the sense of ‘sticking to the road’ is hard to describe but easy to feel)
Carrying The Bikes
Even with the 7 pound batteries removed, it was all that the 2 of us could do to carry the Katarga bikes up stairs. Bill generally would lift or roll the front end of any bike up a staircase and Barb would lift and guide the rear end, especially around corners. It was always a frustrating process and even though we’d been an effective team in managing bikes in stairwells for almost 2 decades, it was always hard.
We wondered if our biking days would soon be over & we’d instead be touring on Vespas.
By comparison, the Bulls bikes were a snap to haul. We retook our customary front-back positions and had no difficulty carrying a bike up staircases. Barb was delighted when looking for a comfortable and secure handhold at the rear of the bike to discover that the back rack with integrated tail light seemed designed for her hand. It was smooth, rounded, and easy for her to grip without pain or bruising. Because of the integrated taillight, it had a bit larger diameter than if it was a rack alone, which made it easier to stabilize the tilt of the bike when we were carrying it. Once again, it was hard to say why the Bulls were so much easier to manage than the Katargas, even on staircases, but it was a marked difference.
Neither our custom touring bikes or the Katarga mountain bikes had kickstands but, given that the Bulls were a German product and had a city bike lineage, they did. We quickly validated why we hadn’t bothered with them on our custom bikes, which is that the stand can only support the weight of a loaded touring bike under ideal conditions.
Barb successfully used the stand when the Bulls bike was fully loaded a few times, then she abandoned it. But the stands were great when the bike was lightly loaded and were particularly handy when doing maneuvers, like stashing them in a host’s basement: it’s nice not to always be leaning them on someone’s freshly painted wall or furniture.
Victorious Bill at Stelvio Pass.
Since we only had both the Katarga and Bulls bikes for a day, it was impossible for us to do side-to-side comparisons of their performance where it mattered the most, which was on big climbs. But we were able to add a few numbers to support our impressions by reviewing our notes:
..On August 5, 2018, we rode our Katarga bikes, unloaded, up to an Austrian pass, Hochtor. It was 27 miles with 5600’ gain and completely depleted Bill’s battery.
..On August 26, 2019, we rode our Bulls bikes, unloaded, on the 4-pass Sella Ronda route in the Italian Dolomites. That route was 40 miles with 6370’ gain and Bill barely used up 3 of the 5 bars indicating battery reserve (like on a cell phone). We estimated that the Bulls loaded, maximum climbing potential to be 6000’ with a small safety margin.
Barb’s “unloaded ride” load on the Sella Ronda was with about 20 pounds, including dispensable extras like: a computer, an e-bike battery charger, a second pannier, and food. There was no doubt that the Bulls bikes doubled the elevation gain we could do on the Katargas. Weighing 20-25 pounds more than Barb, Bill was our ‘canary in the mine’ for us. Both of these rides were loops or out-and-back, so 50% of the riding was up.
We were eager to know if we could pedal the entire way to the top of the pass in Stelvio, Italy, the second highest paved pass in Europe, short of the highest pass by less than 50’, on the Bulls bikes. We knew that the Katargas couldn’t do it because we’d tried to do it. We’d had to stop part way up to the pass to recharge the batteries and that attempt hadn’t been starting at the valley floor, at Prato dello Stelvio. The full distance from Prato was 15 miles (24.3km) with 48 hairpins. That iconic bike ride began at 3,117’ (950m) and topped out at the pass at 9048’ (2758m). That’s an elevation gain of 5,931’ (1808m) with an average grade of 7.4% and a maximum grade of 16%. Based on our experience with the Bulls bike on the Sella Ronda, we were optimistic that we could crest Stelvio on a single charge with a light, day-ride load, in our panniers. We’d be finding out in 2020.
Careful route selection when touring prevents portaging.
Katarga Evo LT3 (Austrian)
..Class: mountain bike retrofitted for touring
..Frame: 41 cm Trapezoid
..Motor: Bosch CX Performance
..Weight 55+ pounds
..9 speed derailleur (11-36)
..Tire Size 65-584 (27.5x2.6)
..Assistance speed 25 km/h
Bulls Lacuba EVO Lite 11 2019 (German)
..Class: commuter bike upgraded by manufacturer to touring bike
..Frame 45 cm Trapezoid
..Motor: Brose Mag S
..Weight: 50 pounds
..11 speed derailleur (11-42)
..Tires 50-622 (28 x 2.0)
..Assistance speed 25 km/h