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PiCycle brings high style to the eco-commute

October 16, 2009 | 11:33 am

Electric bicycles occupy a strange vehicular netherland. Outfitted with pedals and other low-speed components, they’re more bicycle than motorcycle. But their motors prompt scorn among cycling purists, and their relatively high cost makes them a hard sell for the masses. Powered but not especially powerful, these bicycles-that-aren’t-really-bicycles occupy a niche within a niche, appealing to an already small minority within the country’s huge bicycling population – those who use their two wheels to commute rather than recreate.

The very word "commuting" is as unsexy as sanitation work, which makes something like the new PiCycle that much more intriguing. It’s a commuter-oriented electric bicycle that values style as much as substance. An exceptional art piece that is both practical and affordable, it almost requires its own category.

The PiCycle is the second iteration of an electric bicycle called the Pi, which was introduced two years ago with a price tag as highfalutin as its name. The Pi costs $7,500, which helps explain why just 40 of these arched, Ayn Randian anomalies have been sold. The new PiCycle costs one-third as much.

That’s right. It’s now $2,500.

Such a huge price reduction wasn’t achieved with the usual China-fication. The PiCycle is still manufactured in Northern California with many U.S.-made and -designed parts. Its manufacture and use are engineered for the lowest environmental impact. There’s built-in recyclability, in the unlikely event this art piece of a machine would ever make its way to a scrap metaler. And, for those who demand more performance from the bare-bones model, there are numerous upgrade possibilities, i.e. an extra battery pack to extend range and a highly advisable integrated suspension option to soften the blows on this otherwise rigid machine.

What’s lowered the price so dramatically is the drive train, which was completely reinvented. Instead of a mid-drive motor working its way through gears, as was the case with the Pi, the PiCycle uses a hub motor embedded in the front wheel, with an internally variable transmission inside the rear hub. The new drive train meant the wheelbase could be shorter, requiring fewer raw materials for its eye-catching and already economical extruded aluminum frame.

The shorter wheelbase has another benefit. It makes the PiCycle more maneuverable, as does the steeper head tube angle. Based on its profile, the Picycle looks like its handling would be equal to a riding mower. Its 10.4-amp-hours of lithium-ion batteries are stuffed into the arched backbone, meaning they’re centered but carried high and could offset the bike’s balance. Clearly, the PiCycle’s designers did some major bonding with their CAD system because this bike doesn’t handle the way its looks would indicate. It’s agile. It corners well. In fact, doughnuts are quite the blast.

PiCycle inventor Marcus Hayes is so confident in the bike’s style and performance that he plans to offer a battery-free version of the bike. With batteries, the bike weighs 58 pounds; without, it isn’t exactly Lance Armstrong light, but it will be about 27 pounds.

San Francisco-based Pi Mobility, which makes the PiCycle, claims its bike is capable of tackling 25% grades, and I was game to put it to the test on the hill I drive up daily to take my son to school. I’ve long fantasized about taking my car up the hill with a bike attached to the back, so I can commute between the school and The Times on two wheels, but the mile-long hill has stopped me. My thighs just aren’t capable on their own. They need some motorized help.

While the PiCycle on its own wasn’t able to get me up the most challenging part of the hill, it did get me to the top when I assisted its hub motor with some pedaling and, admittedly, some major huffing and puffing. I’ve tried this with other electric bicycles to no avail.

I actually went up the hill three times in a row, and the bike still had juice left over. Me, not so much. All the better that this bike still had some power.

How you choose to propel the bike – with the motor only, by pedal only, or in combination – determines which wheel is driving the bike. Because the motor is embedded in the front wheel, the PiCycle is a front-wheel drive vehicle when operated entirely by motor. What that means is that if you’re on an incline and starting from a dead stop with the motor only, you’ll want to be sitting in the saddle or applying at least some weight to the rear wheel so it doesn’t spin or fishtail and make you look like an ass. I frequently make an ass of myself, so that isn’t the issue. It’s making an ass of myself with other people watching that’s annoying, and believe me, on a bike so unusual and styley, everyone is watching.

Hayes is pursuing two markets with his Ferrari red e-bike: California and Italy. In Southern California, he’s found both in a single shop. Pro Italia in Glendale is adding the PiCycle to its showroom in November.

2010 Pi Mobility PiCycle

Base price: $2,499

Powertrain: 749-watt, 36-volt brushless DC motor; 10.4-amp-hour, lithium-ion battery pack; single speed with NuVinci continuously variable planetary drive

Weight: 58 pounds

Top speed: 20 mph

Range: about 20 miles

-- Susan Carpenter

Video: Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times