I’m a fan of the BionX Electric Assist System for bikes — whether it’s on a retrofitted bike, or integrated on a bike right from the factory. Make that, especially if it comes on a bike right from the factory.
(I’ve never done a BionX retrofit, but I think I could. Seems easy. I’ll explain that in a future post.)
I’ve ridden several electric-assist bikes, and my favorites have all been the ones that come with BionX systems installed. If you like riding a bike; if cycling is second-nature to you, then you want your e-bike experience to feel natural.
“Natural,” that’s the word often used in descriptions of the BionX experience — including the product descriptions I’ve written for Bike Tech Shop. (Consider that a disclosure.)
In marketing rhetoric, however, natural usually means, natural compared to competing products, and not, feels just like the real thing.
BionX is best used as a “pedelec” system, meaning it only supplies power when you are pedaling. The system excels in the way it invites you to suspend disbelief. It’s like a good actor in a good film; of course you never forget you’re watching fiction, but you allow yourself to become immersed in the experience. A crappy actor in a crappy film is always reminding you that he is pretending to be someone he’s not.
You definitely feel the added power of a BionX bike — especially if you use it as I tend to do, with the maximum assist level. When you start off, you begin pedaling and you feel a gentle surge, like an actor momentarily overacting, and you know you didn’t do that by yourself. But once you are underway, you can forget that the power isn’t all you, and then the bike truly feels natural.
The two BionX-powered bikes I tested were the Ohm Sport XS750 (which has a non-standard battery casing and other non-standard BionX components), and the Urbana Current** (which is more like a BionX retrofit, except for the heavy-duty Urbana rear rack).
And while it is possible to use a twist throttle with a BionX-powered bike, that would be like wanting to see a badly-acted movie — and paying too much. The low-end BionX PL 250 kit — just the kit — costs about $1,195.00. You can get a complete mid-grade, throttle-only e-bike without all those pedelec bike brains for about that same price. You can get a throttle-only retrofit kit for much, much less.
The pedelec illusion is most convincing when going up a hill at a moderate speed. A steep hill feels like a gentle hill. A gentle hill feels flat.
The illusion is broken when you hit 20 miles per hour, and the system stops assisting you — which it must do by law. If you exceed 20 mph on a BionX-equipped bike, that really is all you. (Or perhaps you’ve hacked the controller.)
The lowest assist level adds 35 percent to whatever power you put into the pedals. The highest level adds 300 percent.*
The system includes a “thumb throttle” which allows you to switch between the four assist levels and the four regeneration levels, and there is a red button that applies full power, all at once. I found the red button useful when pulling a loaded bike cargo trailer up a hill, or when I wanted a fast start at an intersection to get away from an impatient motorist behind me.
The regeneration mode has two benefits. First is the feel-good marketing benefit that makes you think you are recharging the battery with your own power and/or gravity. Unfortunately, this is almost pure feel-good. The amount of energy returned to the battery in this mode is negligible.
The other — and greater — benefit is the engine-braking effect. When going down a gravelly or icy hill, you can control your speed with the regenerative mode without riding the brakes, which means you are less likely to slide out.
A third benefit, I suppose, is that you can get a better workout in the regeneration mode — but it would be a lot less expensive to drag around a bag of rocks behind your existing bike.
I do appreciate having four different assist levels — especially when I’m experiencing “range anxiety” — that feeling that I might not have the battery power to make it all the way to my destination and back to the charger. The system adds up to 19 pounds to a bike, and I’d rather not climb any hills when that becomes dead weight.
Recently, I started out on an errand with a round trip distance of about 12 miles. The battery was partially depleted before I even started. I was extremely miserly using the power. I even used the regenerative wishful-thinking mode going down hills, just in case it might really return just a little juice to the battery.
I took every shortcut I knew, including a single-track trail that goes right past this Kaczynski-esque shack in the woods. The battery power held out, and I was not murdered, skinned, tanned, and turned into upholstery by a backwoods Arizona cannibal.
Better yet: I didn’t have to schlep that extra 19 pounds all the way back to the office.
These are the anxious thoughts planted in one’s mind by range anxiety.
The range is supposedly 56 miles*, but I never tried to prove BionX wrong. According to BionX, the stated range is an…
…average based on one battery charge, using assistance mode level 1, according to use in ideal conditions. Distances will vary depending on road conditions, riding surface, cyclist weight and assistance required
Translation: Don’t push your luck on the 56-mile thing.
On other e-bikes I’ve tested, such as the Hebb Electrocruiser, and the A2B Metro (and even my beloved Ridekick Electric Powered Trailer) I ran out of juice at some point — and was caught by surprise when it happened. This has not happened to me on either of the BionX-powered bikes I’ve tested.
I doubt if I’ve ever gone more than 30 miles between charges, and I never saw the power level get below two bars. And that was fine for my needs — and for my peace of mind. The console provides enough information to prevent any unhappy surprises.
The cure for range anxiety is familiarity. If I owned a BionX-powered bike and used it long term, I would eventually push my luck too far. I would eventually know exactly how far I can go on a charge — the same way a motorist learns the hard way how far past “E” the gas gauge needle can go before it really means empty.
New cyclists, returning cyclists, crypto-scooterphiles, etc. probably won’t appreciate the pedelec properties as much as an experienced cyclist will. Using a throttle is as natural to them as pedaling is to us.
The BionX system is for a cyclist who considers a twist throttle on a bike a crime against nature, but who still wants an electric boost to reduce sweating, haul bigger loads, fight the infirmities of age, or just motivate themselves to use the car less.
*Throughout this review I’m referring to my experiences on bikes with BionX PL 350 HT systems with 350 watts, unless I specify otherwise.
**A full review of the Urbana Current is in the works.