Ebikes are getting better all the time. Here’s why waiting to buy might be the right decision for you.
Ebikes are getting better and better. Increased range, greater selection, and improved designs can be seen across the market. But a key drivetrain innovation waits in the wings. This new approach could be a ‘killer app’, delivering better reliability, less maintenance, and improved performance over the traditional chain and derailleur system common to most bikes. It also may be a good reason to wait a year or two before you buy a new ebike.
From Hub to Mid-drive
Hub drive systems dominated the first modern ebike drivetrains in OEM bikes and conversion kits. Simply replace a front or rear wheel with a motor-equipped version, add a controller and battery, and away you went. A problem with this set-up hampered the development of electric-assist MTBs however. Adding weight to the front or rear of the bike impacted handling and suspension performance. To address the issue, manufacturers began to offer mid-drive systems. With mid-drives the motor is near the pedals/bottom bracket and adds power at the crankset, rather than powering a wheel directly. Weight from the motor and battery is squarely in the middle of the bike, minimizing the impact on handling.
A new problem arose. Traditional bicycle drivetrains are designed with human power in mind. The additional power of mid-drive electric assist can wear out or break components such as chains faster than leg-power alone. New, more durable parts were developed to address this issue and the mid-drive is quickly becoming a standard set-up for mid-priced to high-end ebikes.
Despite these developments, a familiar drivetrain component still remained on ebikes. The light, effective, and ingenious rear derailleur. But for how long can it retain its hold on the industry? A new innovation in bicycle drivetrains may make the traditional chain and derailleur set-up a rare sight — on ebikes at least. Enter the integrated mid-drive and gearbox.
Going with the Gearbox
Combining an electric mid-drive with a gearbox solves two issues with traditional drivetrains. It replaces the derailleur, prone to damage and misalignment, with a gearbox needing little maintenance as a rule. It also allows for shifting without pedaling. The mid-drive/gearbox combo also makes it possible to replace the bicycle’s chain with a belt drive. Belt drives have long been hailed for their quiet operation and durability. But they don’t work with derailleurs, forcing belt drive fans to choose either an internally geared rear hub or single speed drivetrain, until now. This video (below) from Cycling About offers an excellent overview of some of the gearbox/mid-drive combos featuring belt drives we can expect to see as soon as next year.
Why has it taken so long for this innovation to catch on? Manufacturers’ retooling costs, market reluctance to abandon proven designs, and the historic domination of the cycling market by enthusiasts willing to do many of their own repairs and adjustments all played a role. Importantly, the addition of electric assist to bicycles eliminated the issue of lost pedaling efficiency with gearboxes (compared to a derailleur). With ebikes this small loss in performance is more than made up with the addition of electric assist.
So, will gearbox/motor combos be worth the wait for ebike buyers. My gut feeling is ‘Yes’. The performance and maintenance advantages for mid-drive/gearbox bikes, especially mountain bikes, will be significant. For commuters, the benefits of low maintenance, shifting while stationary, and no grease to sully pant cuffs are also factors worth considering.
Bottom line in my opinion? If you are on a budget and have to have an ebike now for whatever reason, consider a low-cost model or a conversion kit for your existing bike. But if you are in the market for a mid to high-end ebike and have the patience… my advice is to save your money for another year or two until the kinks are worked out and the e-drive/gearbox combinations are available on production bikes. Valeo has announced 14 ebike manufacturers are using their technology and it expects 100,000 ebikes to be manufactured with their gearbox/e-drive in 2024. Is the promise of the gearbox-equipped ebike enough to make you wait? Let me know what you think in the comments below.