By Maurie Hill

While riding as a passenger with my husband, I suddenly perk up and start looking around as we reach the edge of town. The tall grass, leaning barns, and colorful flowering landscape marking different properties remind me of my limited range. Since losing my driver’s license to low vision, the breadth of my playground is usually limited to the power of my legs. But a girl still needs to get around, to get to work, to buy groceries, and to socialize.

Earlier this summer, I wrote about Hauling with Elegance – My New Cargo Bike. Now that I can carry more groceries and goods than my legs can power up these Vermont hills, I looked for an electric motor solution. Because of the expense and this perhaps being my last bicycle purchase, I put a lot of thought into what I wanted an electric bike to do for me. Visiting friends in neighboring towns, extending access to cool stuff at higher elevations, and stretching out the bike season were on the list. And the bike should still ride like a bike when the motor is not running because it’s only a matter of time that I’ll be stuck out on a dead-end dirt road with an equally dead battery.

I received my new ebike conversion kit and after unboxing it, with no documentation included, I knew this project was meant for the cool skateboard type with 20/20 vision. There are plenty of already integrated ebikes to choose from, some much cheaper. But I like to do things the hard way, and wanted to make sure the parts were good and replaceable. I found the proper documentation online. How hard could this be for an ex-IBM Selectric typewriter technician?

Since this front hub motor comes integrated into a whole new front wheel, I replaced the front wheel after I figured out how the brakes release. In retrospect, make sure you pay attention instead of fiddling with it until it comes apart, so you can put it back together. Spread out on my lawn, I connected everything together – controller, brake lever sensors, pedal assist sensor, throttle, 3 position switch, and lastly, the human interface programming display device. Yes, this is an ebiker’s dream, cream of the crop system.

Next, I temporarily fastened everything to the bike using flexible wire ties, usually used to fasten a tomato plant to a post. That was my idea. Permanent wire ties are for later.

The 48V battery and charger arrived with no documentation as well. Message to manufacturer’s everywhere – can’t you just charge a few extra bucks for printed materials? Do skateboarders simply know what the 3-position toggle does? The flat, slim battery did not quite fit in the only location I wanted to place it – under the back rack. Evidently, a smidgen can make all the difference. After a lot of thought and experimentation, I was able to mount it under that rack by ditching the mounting bracket and locking system. Backpacking straps from EMS, foam padding and a little Yankee ingenuity prevailed. The sleek battery is neatly tucked under the back rack, leaving the entire top surface for hauling a large pizza. My handy neighbor put connectors onto the two wires coming from the battery to connect to the controller.

Making sure everything was tidily connected, I replaced the garden-variety wire ties with permanent ones. Crossing my fingers, I anxiously turned on the battery for the first time. It was good to see the display’s live data, if only I could read it. The text is low-contrast and blocky, not the best for damaged, low acuity photoreceptors. But I can manage to read it using my 10X Schweizer handheld magnifying glass. For browsing the 60 page manual, I used my new portable CCTV (VFO-Freedom Scientific’s Topaz PHD) out on my covered back deck, where my bike sits. It would have been very handy if I could have figured out what parts of this all-inclusive manual were pertinent to my exact ebike conversion kit. The project would probably have been more intuitive had I known to purchase the cable connecting the display to a Mac or PC, instead of changing settings directly on the display device. Then I could have used the manufacturer’s software and used ZoomText to comfortably magnify the myriad of customizable settings. But I did not have the patience to wait for another shipment from the west coast. Did I mention I like to do things the hard way?

A test drive proved to be fast and thrilling, until I climbed the hill to my house. I know that I had paid for a lot better climbing power than that. Speed on the flats didn’t fit any objectives either. I was disappointed and due to the unbearable hot and humid weather, I hit a wall and needed to move on from this project. Visiting relatives said that this is not a job for a “little girl”. This was a man’s job. Biting my lip I accepted the defeat. With better vision, a realistic manual, and most of all, with no interruptions from the peanut gallery, I could have figured this thing out. It was time to ride to the bike shop. The local bike shop had never installed an electric bike conversion kit before but were willing to take a crack at it.

They called a few days later requesting the battery charger. Ahhh, maybe the low battery was the cause of the lame hill-climbing. A graphic on the display indicates the battery charge but I did not have the experience yet to know what it looks like when charged and not charged. Now I know. They performed the throttle setup and then got busy with other things. Eventually, they called after hitting their own wall, and said the manual was in Greek and come and get your bike. At this point the motor would not run at all. In retrospect, I now know that I misinformed them by requesting they set up the temperature sensor.

Not wanting to go to sleep wondering if the motor was burned out, I put on my tenacious troubleshooting thinking cap. Suddenly, the manual turned from Greek to English. A graphic that moves as you depress the throttle indicates that part must be working. So something has to be preventing the motor from running. The diagnostic screen pointed to a temperature issue. Yes, it was another hot summer day, but I’ve never seen it reach 399 degrees in Vermont. I wondered where this temperature sensor was located and emailed the company. Meanwhile, I disabled the temperature sensor in the setup menu, tried the throttle and the motor ran! The email response was quick, letting me know there is no temperature sensor with this particular motor, and my VBike Solutions friend, Dave Cohen, emailed to say that with this same motor, he has cycled over 17,000 miles, carried 2 kids on the back, in hilly Brattleboro, and it is still working. With new hope and a fresh battery charge, I rode up my hill with all the power I’ll ever need. Despite the suffocating heat and humidity, I was sweatless and smiling at the top. Several objectives were checked off my list.

With the basic thumb throttle working, I turned my attention to the automatic pedal assist feature. The motor was supposed to start when I reached a pedaling cadence of 12 RPM, then cut off after going over, but then dropping below 17 RPM. But instead, the motor would abruptly ramp up, then cut out within a few seconds. The company really came through in helping me solve this problem through a few emails and video links. All it took was one more wire tie to secure the pickup sensor to the bike in its proper position so it did not budge while I pedaled.

Now, when I have the pedal-assist turned on, the motor gently starts as I start pedaling. Unlike most ebikers, I limited the speed to 8 mph, allowing time to view what’s ahead. Generally, I’ll be pedaling with good old human power on the flats but when that motor kicks in as the bike starts to climb, I’m grateful for the extra power. This thing handles the long steep climbs better than my 50cc moped did. The quiet electric motor lets me still hear cars, and it looks and acts like a bike.

All objectives met, I’ve been increasing my radius daily. Every road leading out of town is up, so this is a bid deal, and I’ll always be able to coast home. Battery range depends on how much I pedal and the topography, but so far, I’ve been able to go 25 miles on one full charge. The charger plugs into a regular 110V wall outlet, so I can carry it on some long trips that I dream for my future. Freedom of movement comes in all varieties. Airline mileage points, trains, buses, and Uber allowed my daughter and me to explore the California coast earlier this summer. My utilitarian cargo ebike adds local spunk and range every day.