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Rise of the machines: e-bikes are coming

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. “

Five ways to improve your bike photography in 2014

February 14, 2014

1. Buy the March issue of Outdoor Photography magazine, where you'll find a double page spread of technique tips written by me...

2. Buy the April issue of nPhoto magazine, which will feature 12 pages documenting the one-on-one masterclass I did recently with reader Andy McAllister and pro freerider Chris Smith.

3. Sign up to online coaching. I'll give you detailed, one-to-one feedback on your pictures by email. Just £120 for 8 sessions... contact me for more details.

4. Book a one day, one-to-one coaching session. The day will be tailored to your needs and you'll have my undivided attention for the whole time. Work on your panning skills, composition, remote flash... it's up to you. £280 per day.

5. Grab one of the remaining places (just two at time of writing) on my May 2014 photo course. £395 for 2 1/2 days of riding, taking pictures, talking pictures, good company and great food in the beautiful Quantock hills. Details here.

High resolution worms. Sort of.

December 17, 2013

If you're old enough to remember the first point-of-view (POV) TV images from inside a Formula One race car, the current overload of worm's eye view videos is little short of a revolution. As recently as a decade ago, the technology for capturing POV shots was so expensive as to be out of reach of all but well-heeled TV production companies. Strange thought, huh? GoPro has almost single-handedly handed us all the ability to bore everyone senseless with over-the-handlebar footage...

Capturing stills fom a similar angle is much harder, simply because the kit involved is as heavy and bulky as it's ever been. And no, I don't see this changing anytime soon. Lots of pixels still need decent sized sensors, and they live in relatively bulky boxes, which in turn need fairly big lenses. And so on.

Overcoming these obstacles to capture close-up images of bikes in action has become a bit of a speciality of mine. I have clients who keep coming back to me because they want a dramatic, unusual and hard-to-get shot of a component being used in anger. You can see a sample of these shots in my portfolio. The last couple of issues of What Mountain Bike magazine are a case in point, too, featuring riding images of flat pedals and disc brakes. These aren't video grabs, they're proper high resolution stills.

Getting these shots isn't easy, but over the years I've worked out what works and what doesn't. Need a high resolution POV still? Drop me a line...

Photo Course 2014

November 26, 2013

After last year's successful course - which moved venue from one end of the Quantocks to the other - I've cleared a weekend in May 2014 for a re-run. Put simply, it's a weekend of bikes, riding, photos, blather, beer and cake. Not necessarily in that order.

For 2014 I'm teaming up with my friends at pedalprogression.com, who'll be providing on-demand elbow deployment and unlimited (within reason) re-runs for you to get that perfect shot. They're veterans of countless mag shoots, so they know what they're doing...

Here are the details:

When? 1200 Friday 16th May 2014 - 1600 Sunday 18th May 2014. We start around lunchtime on Friday. An afternoon session gives everyone a chance to stretch their legs after their journey and get the first few shots in the can. On Saturday we've got the whole day to ride and shoot, while on Sunday we try to wrap up by around 4 to give everyone a chance to get home at a reasonable time.

Where? Nether Stowey, Quantock Hills, Somerset. The Quantock Hills make a stunning and varied location for the course. With some of the best natural singletrack anywhere in the UK and a landscape that takes in everything from exposed moorland to wooded combes, it's a great place to ride and shoot. For 2013 we have a new base in the village of Nether Stowey, just a few miles from the M5.

How much? Unfortunately, since my last course I've had to register for VAT. This has put the price up, to £395pp (which is, in fact, a lot less than I should be raising the price - I'm absorbing most of the VAT element in an effort to keep things reasonable).

However, if you book and pay in full before the end of January 2014, the price is just £350pp. That's a saving of more than 10%!

How many places are available? Usually a maximum of 6, which makes the course sociable but ensures everyone gets a decent amount of one-on-one time with me. In exceptional circumstances I may take one or two more, but I'm usually reluctant to do that.

What's included? Bed and breakfast, packed lunches and all tuition. We'll be eating in a local pub in the evenings - and that's not included in the price.

What do I need to bring? Bike, riding kit for all weathers (bring waterproof socks if you have them - spare pairs and plastic bags if you don't), camera, lenses, flash, remotes, stands... whatever you're willing to carry. Laptop, card reader, batteries... all that stuff. If you're not sure, drop me a line and ask!

What will I learn? It's up to you. I do my best to tailor the course to individual needs, as far as possible. But I tend to start with the basics of exposure, focus, shutter speed selection and panning... because if they're not right, it's hard to take things any further. We can cover remote flash and more advanced techniques later in the weekend. If there's something specific you want me to cover, let me know and I'll do my best to include it.

Is there any small print? A £75 deposit secures your place. Should you change your mind, I'll refund whatever you've paid me so far provided I'm able to re-sell your place. The fee covers b&b, photo instruction and a willing model to ride everything 'just one more time'. Most rooms are shared. There's a limited number of double / single rooms available - please state your preference when booking and I'll do my best to accommodate your wishes. While all reasonable care will be taken to choose suitable routes and locations, you are responsible for your own safety during the course - the fee covers accommodation and photo instruction only. Please ride within your limits and take extra care during photo stops.

How do I book? Drop me a line! I prefer a bank transfer but will accept paypal if that's easier for you. I'll send you the details via email.

I have a question... Ask me!

 

2014 Ridgeback catalogue

November 04, 2013

The new Ridgeback catalogue is out now, featuring another batch of my photos. Shot over two days in Worthing and London, this year's shoot wasn't - to the relief of everyone involved - a repeat of last year's near-fiasco, when it seemed as though events were conspiring to prevent us ever getting the shots we needed (long story short: after spending most of the first day sitting in various over-priced cafes waiting for the rain to stop, we finally grabbed a few shots in late afternoon sun only for my car to be broken into overnight, resulting in the theft of a £2000 lens and the postponement of day two while I drove through London in search of a windscreen repair shop that could secure my car. Not, it has to be said, one of my better days).

Nope, this year's shoot went altogether better. Thanks, as always, to Toby at Ridgeback for the location scouting and image concepts, and to 28design.com for making it all look fabulous (dahlings). The Ridgeback catalogue shoot has become one of the highlights of my year, a break from my bread-and-butter editorial work... and a genuine team effort. Oh, and this understated but popular British brand is 30 in 2014. Who'd have thought, eh?

(Star of the show, gear-wise, is my D300. Small, light and discrete (except on the odd occasion when I bolt the 200mm f/2 to the front of it), I use it in preference to the D3 because it doesn't draw attention to itself, me, or what we're up to around town. Rent-a-cop security just loves an excuse to tell the public to do one, I've found, so there are two options: pretend you're supposed to be there (big camera, fluoro vest, lots of kit, look as though you own the place) or blend in. Not having the neck to chance the former, I generally opt for the latter approach...)

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