February 25, 2014
This blog post marks a departure from the norm. I mostly write about photography and media matters here, but while researching a feature on e-bikes recently I ended up with a lot of surplus material. It hasn’t found a home, so I’m publishing it here instead. It’s a lot longer than my normal blog posts, but if you’re into bikes and have more than a passing interest in the new generation of electric motor-assisted bikes, it’s well worth a read. You won’t find this interview anywhere else.
E-bikes are coming - and the massed hordes of internet nay-sayers aren’t happy. A cursory glance at bike forums reveals any number of vocal doubters and haters, eager to cast e-bikes as ‘cheating’, ‘not real mountain biking’ and so on. Plus ca change, as the French might shrug.
It’s a fair bet – and entirely unsurprising – that the vast majority of nay-sayers have never tried an e-bike. I have. In fact, I’ve tried several. And, though I began with the same kind of scepticism that’s rife on the forums, I’ve become a convert. E-bikes have the potential to change the way we think about trail riding, in all kinds of ways. Steeper, more technical climbs become rideable. Longer riders are opened up. And so on. It’s all good.
A couple of months back MBUK published a piece of mine on Melbourne-based e-bike manufacturer Stealth (www.stealthelectricbikes.com). This small Australian company doesn’t march to the mostly Bosch-powered tune of the rest of the bike industry. Instead, they’ve struck out on their own and produced a bike that’s as close to a motocrosser as it is to a mountain bike.
That fact alone puts some of the concerns of mountain bikers into sharp relief. Founder and owner John Karambalis has some interesting things to say about all this but, inevitably, space constraints meant that much of his comments didn’t make it into the original feature.
His insight seems too good to waste. So here’s my complete transcript of the interview. It makes interesting reading, if only because it points to a direction the bike industry is likely to take over the next few years.
Seb: How did Stealth Electric Bikes come about?
John: “I started at uni. I got into electric bikes long before anyone else seemed to care about them, in early 2000. I had a final year project coming up and I wanted to do an electric bike. They told me I couldn’t do it cos it was a waste of time and blah blah blah. So I cancelled that and finished uni, and then I started working desinging motorcycles for about 5 or 6 years - internal combustion engines, chassis and stuff, but I was still hooked on the electric idea. Everyone was still telling me it was a crazy idea, but that just made me want to do it more.”
S: What was the appeal of electric?
J: “The quietness. I’m heavily into dirt bikes, and riding areas are being shut down because of the noise and erosion and all the rest. So it’s becoming harder and harder to just jump on your dirt bike and go for a ride. Whereas this type of bike gives you a bit of flexibility. You can ride it around in suburbia and no-one cares; you can ride it a 3 in the morning and no-one gets upset about it. You just can’t do that on a dirt bike. It’s something different - when you’re riding on a trail it’s a similar buzz but a different experience. And being silent has its advantages - if you’re riding in a group it’s kind of like riding a mountain bike, where you can yell out to the person in front of you to go quicker, or whatever. Whereas you just can’t do that kind of thing on a dirt bike. The other advantage is that, in terms of maintenance, it’s minimal compared to a dirt bike. Over the long term it actually works out to be a cheaper form of fun.
“Initially the idea was just to build one bike for myself, and then everyone else wanted one. The first one was build in 2007. It sort of took a while to debug it, to get it right. As the years progressed I developed more ideas and they evolved into what it is now.
“There are people springing up now… any number of competitors trying to crack into the market, but they come and go. Being the first in the market did help. We’re in that crossover area where we’re not quite a mountain bike and not quite a dirt bike. A dirt bike’s quite heavy compared with one of [our bikes], so we’re trying to get it as close to a mountain bike as we can without sacrificing the advantages of having the power that we’ve already go.”
S: So how are you going to achieve that?
J: “Keeping the pedals, reducing the weight, reducing the physical size… and still maintaining the mountain bike feel with the geometry and componentry and ergonomics that we use. Once you start moving over to dirt bike handlebars and wheels it essentially becomes a dirt bike. There’s still a weight constraint there, but it’s not as critical as it is on a mountain bike, where you’re chasing hundreds of grammes rather than kilos.”
S: A lot of the bulk and the weight must centre around the battery…
J: “Yes. Battery, motor… and on the Bombers it’s the transmission as well”
S: So you’re reliant on other manufacturers to push the design forward
J: “That’s right. We’re working with the motor manufacturers and the battery people in order to achieve that. The battery technology is progressing quite quickly now, so we expect that we’ll be gaining 25% more capacity for the same battery weight within the next 12 months. That’s a pretty significant step up. It gives us flexibility, because it means we can either design something that’s more lightweight, or for the Bomber, we’ll take the capacity.”
S: You’re obviously conscious that some mountain bikers feel you’re encroaching on their territory…
J: “Yeah. We’ve had a few people push back when they see the bikes. Suddenly they have this misconception that we’re here to take over their sport, or we’re trying to push downhill or cross-country out of the game. But that’s the complete opposite of what we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to bring a new type of vehicle into the sport. It’s fine for people to push back when they’re young and fit, but as they get older and their fitness drops off, there is a need - or a possibility - that these bikes become more appropriate for those people. We’re not out to ruin anyone’s trails, we’re not here to get in anyone’s faces, we’re just here to have fun and ride bikes just like everyone else”.
S: What kind of response are you getting from the dirt bike guys?
J: “What we’re getting from the dirt bike community is ‘for that kind of money I could get a dirt bike’. But then, on the flip side, riding areas are being restricted. It used to be that you could drive half an hour from here and ride on a dirt bike, whereas now you’ve got to drive an hour. To try and fit that into a daily schedule where you’ve got to go to work and all the rest of it, makes it difficult. But we do have dirt bikers who appreciate that it’s a lot lighter than a dirt bike, and that the maintenance is much simpler. For the majority of dirt bikers having 40 horsepower is more than they need. A lot of guys are using [our bikes] as a cross trainer during the week, when they can’t get on their dirt bike. It helps to maintain their fitness and reflexes and skills. “
S: Where are most of your customers coming from?
J: “It’s a pretty even mix of both. We find it’s generally the older guys who aren’t all about doing all these gnarly downhills and backflips. They’re more into enjoying the ride - they’re not trying to compete with their mates. Our customers come from all different backgrounds. We’ve got F1 drivers who own the bikes, we’ve got people who are high up in big corporate companies here or in the UK or the US, then we’ve got guys who are just enthusiasts - it’s something different to put in the garage next to the mountain bike or the motorbike. We’ve got older guys who buy them to put on the back of their motorhome. We’ve got the military testing them at the moment… we’re talking to a few police departments… it’s so broad. They’re versatile. “
S: What about regulatory requirements?
J: “It’s an offroad only bike. When the bikes are delivered they’re power and speed-limited. You can actually ride them [legally] on the road, but that limitation turns them into a big, heavy bike that doesn’t have much power. Once they’re ungoverned, which the customer can do themselves, they’re unleashed.”
S: Your bikes are faster than any other e-bike out there. Is there a potential issue with the speed of your bikes relative to the speed of pedal-powered mountain bikes out on the trails?
J: “We are aware of all this, and it’s something that we’re beginning to talk to mountain bike clubs and associations about, because we don’t want to be a problem that no-one knows about and suddenly it’s there… we want to find a solution, because the long and the short of it is that people will always find their way into places that they shouldn’t be, so we want to do everything that we can to cover ourselves and make sure we’ve done the right thing.”
S: Are you going to develop something that’s a bit lighter and a bit closer to a mountain bike?
J: “Yep. We’re working on that now. There’s at least five designs on the table that’ll come to fruition in the next few years. “