Electric bicycles are seeing a steady increase in popularity as manufacturers spring up to create a product, while existing companies add these powered two-wheelers to their traditional lineup. There are many approaches to creating e-bikes, but they can be broken down into two groups -- bespoke vehicles that were built from scratch, and machines designed to add power to an otherwise ordinary bike. The folks at Evelo have created a unique approach to the latter by offering the Omni Wheel, which can attach to and electrify virtually any bike. The company also offers a full line of electric bikes if you do want one built from the ground up.
I met up with Jonah Bliss from Evelo in NYC for a demonstration of the company's Omni Wheel. It was attached to a simple rig, giving me an opportunity to explore the electric wheel's feeling and dynamics.
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The Omni Wheel houses a pedal assist motor, meaning you are helped along under your own power. You have five levels assist to choose from, or you can switch it off completely. The latest version of Omni Wheel also comes with a thumb throttle that can install to your existing grip. With this attachment, you have three options for travel: you can pedal by yourself, you can pedal with assistance from the motor, or you can take a break and let the motor do all the work.
I set out to test all three options, beginning with good old fashioned pedal power. The Omni Wheel did not disrupt the handling or feeling of the bike. I felt like I was riding along on a regular bike and could even forget I had the option to switch to power. I was using the 700C version, which starts at $1,000 and according to Evelo, returns 15-25 miles of range, depending on how you use it. 26-inch wheels are also available.
When I switched to pedal assist mode, I did notice a difference from other e-bikes I had ridden. Most electric bikes have motors that send power to the rear wheel, but in this case my bike was front wheel drive. I got the sense that I was being pulled along rather than pushed, but it was by no means a negative sensation. The front wheel was able to handle steering and power together without a problem, and if anything, it's a unique approach to the market.
The 350 watt motor is limited to 20 mph, the legal limit for these types of machines in most U.S. territories. Beyond that, the bike would have to be registered with the DMV, and different laws would apply. I cycled through the levels via the buttons on the control panel, which includes a wireless LCD display. The power felt good for the urban setting I was riding in, with smooth delivery and no sudden kicks or stops.
At the first level of assist, I felt like I was still getting a good workout, but even at the highest level, I still had to work to keep the power on. The pedal assist is ideal for hill climbing or getting some extra miles on the go.
After some time, I switched to throttle mode. The thumb switch works like the throttle on most powered vehicles, as you have to keep it depressed to move along. This gives you control over how much speed you want out of the motor. If you choose to, you can even pedal and use the throttle at the same time.
"It's as easy to swap out as any regular wheel," Jonah said. He had ridden from Brooklyn to meet me, and there was still at least 75 percent battery life remaining. A complete charge from zero takes 2-3 hours.
The Omni Wheel is in its second generation, with the first introduced in 2015, when Evelo launched. The first generation wheels are still in production and can be purchased for as little as $800.
The biggest benefit of the Omni Wheel is that you can attach it to an existing bike, which is ideal for pedal pushers who are attached to their rides. If you love your bike but want to add some more oomph to it, this is one way to do it. And don't worry if you have fancy disc brakes up front -- the Omni Wheel can be adapted to incorporate them as well.