As promisted last Sunday, I’ve had a week with the new bike and wanted to share my thoughts. The Giant Twist Freedom Dx is an electric assist bike aimed at the urban commuter market. It’s not meant to win races or make me look like a lycra-wearing badass every time I ride down Kirkwood. It’s upright design is made for point-to-point road riding. The electric assist is made for fatties like me that can’t get our giant frames up Bloomington’s hills.
Giant Twist Dx in my cluttered garage
First, a little background on me. I’m 5’10”, weigh 240 lbs (down 12lbs in the last 6 months, thank you) with little day-to-day physical activity. I’ve wanted to get into biking for a while now, but every time I hit the slightest incline, I got discouraged and parked my bike in shame. Yeah, I’m lazy. I’ll admit it. But I’m principled, too. So, I did what every American does when confronted with an insurmountable problem: I bought my way out of it.
I had been looking at electric bikes for a while. The leading contender was the eGO Cycle 2, a pedal-less moped-like bike in a bicycle-like frame. But there are no Indiana distributors and they seem to impose restrictions on sending these across state lines. I didn’t want to get something that I couldn’t service more locally anyway. Enter the pedal assist bikes. There are a lot of them showing up, lately. The Giant Twist seemed to have the highest rated distance between charges and looked the sleekest. More importantly, they had one at Bicycle Garage Indy, to my absolute delight. I took a quick test spin in their parking lot, convinced my wife to let me buy it, and cajoled my mother into driving it back to Bloomington in her station wagon. (At this point, I have to commend the staff at BGI for not being elitist bike snobs. I was a bit nervous that a bike shop would scoff at the girly bikes, but they seemed impressed with it. That may have had a bit to do with the righteous sale they just made, but I’ll assume the best of them since they’ve been nothing short of awesome on all prior purchases)
Riding the bike is….like riding any other bike. OK, so there’s a small motor on the front wheel that helps pull you along. But, for all intents and purposes, it just feels like riding any other traditional bicycle. The motor really shines most when you’re starting out from a hard stop and want to get going quickly. That makes it
The motor on the front wheel
easier to tolerate all the stop signs and obey the traffic rules. No longer is a stop sign a reminder that you have to get going again.
I would compare the pedal assist most closely to a stationary exercise bike. It makes going up inclines a little less strenuous, and helps even out your pedaling. To be clear, the bike never takes over on its own. There’s no throttle that you can open up and prop your legs up for a relaxing coast down the street. You have to pedal if you want to go. With the motor, you just have to pedal a little more gently.
It depends on the hill, of course, but the bike generally gives you enough oomph to get you up most of the hills in the Bryan Park and IU Campus areas. That doesn’t mean that it’s always a walk in the park. I’ve found myself down in first gear a few times (the bike has 7 gears) as I get near the top, eeking by at 8 or 9 mph. It’s not like the bike completely removes all effort from your ride at all. It’s just the right amount of help to stop me from having to stand up and grind on my pedals to get moving over the crest.
I actually kind of prefer it that way. I bought a pedal assist because I want to get some exercise. A co-worker once told me how he considers one of the environmental challenges to be health-related. That makes some amount of sense. If I’m going through the trouble of ditching my car and taking a longer route to work, I should get some reward out of it.
The Day Care Challenge
I knew going into this that it would be challenging to completely ditch my car. For one thing, my wife is not planning on taking up biking. So, it’s not like we can do family outings to Kirkwood on anything other than our walking feet. Getting to and from work was going to be easy, but picking up my daughter from day care required a bit of thought. I looked around at a lot of options, weighing the safety and logistical concerns of child carriers (both rear and front) and child trailers. I ultimately went with a trailer, partly because of the viewpoints represented here, and partly because bike mounted carriers just didn’t seem to mesh well with the Giant Twist’s frame. The iBert Safe Tseat, which everyone seems to really like, doesn’t look like it will work with the spacing on the front stem. I’m sure a more mechanically inclined person could make it work, but I didn’t want to chance it. Given the fairly short commute to her day care, and the lightly traveled roads, the trailer seems a good fit.
The bike handles just fine with a trailer on it. Again, it rides like any other bike, just with a little less pedaling effort. I haven’t noticed that the batteries run down any faster when I’m toting my daughter around. It doesn’t seem to affect the performance of the bike at all.
One of the two rear batteries with the pannier cover removed
The first question most people ask me is: how long do the batteries last. The bike has two 5 lb lithium-ion batteries that hang off the rear bracket. Giant supplies custom panniers that lay over the batteries to help keep them dry. I don’t see any reason why you couldn’t ditch them for larger panniers, as long as they keep the batteries reasonably dry.
The batteries are charged by an external charger. Being lithium-ion it remains cool to the touch. There are all sorts of warnings about not charging for more than 24 hours. I’ve read that this is more of a problem on the charger than anything else, since most of them will go into a trickle mode that will retain some sort of memory of the upper limit of the battery. Giant claims 600 charge cycles. I’ve not yet let the batteries drain completely, but I would estimate that I would get 20 miles out of each battery. That’s enough to get me to work and back, to lunch, and an evening errand on a single battery. I generally alternate back and forth, charging the left battery one night, and the right battery the other night. That should be enough for 1200 days worth of riding. If I average 5 riding days a week (a high estimate if my assumptions about my desire to ride in the winter are correct), that should yield 4 1/2 years at the current charge levels. The batteries will degrade to some level, so it’s likely in the 3-4 year range.
The super-technical charging bench.
The amount of power is controlled by two factors: the mode you have the bike in, and the amount of pedaling you do. Pedaling is straightforward. If you pedal fast, you go fast. There are three power modes: Eco, Normal and Sport. The Eco mode supplies the least amount of assist to the pedals and makes you do more work. The Normal mode is Normal (duh), and the Sport mode gives more power, but sucks down the battery more. I generally leave it in Normal mode. The difference between Eco and Normal are noticeable, but I don’t find the Sport mode has a ton of additional oomph. I should point out that the 75 mile range estimates are for relatively flat terrain in Eco mode, using both batteries. I’m getting 40 because I’m using the Normal mode, I’m hitting some hills, and I’m a heavier rider.
right handlebar battery selecter and gear shift
The handlebar has a display mounted on the left hand side that lets you select the mode. It also has 5 red LED lights to indicate how full the currently selected battery is. The right handlebar has a toggle switch to choose the left or right battery, or to turn the motor off. It generally takes 2-3 hours to recharge a battery that has two “bars” left. I’ve not yet fully discharged a battery.
left handlebar mode select
The batteries are loaded into a plastic holder on the rear by angling them in at a 45 degree angle, then pushing them toward the bike until they click. There’s a lock on the bike for each battery so no one steals them while you’re parked. Each battery has a small handle at the top that folds out to be carried. The batteries do have a sealed charger outlet, so water shouldn’t seep in. I’m not planning on driving the bike into a lake, regardless.
Cost is the achilles heal of the bike. I paid a shade over $2200 for the bike itself. The way I look at it is this: a new electric moped would cost just as much, if not more. Yeah, I can get a noisy old moped for under $1000 fairly easily, but one of my requirements was noiseless operation. There’s a jackass that rides up and down Henderson St. on the noisiest bike I’ve ever heard. It wakes my daughter up almost every time. (I’ve not heard from him recently, though. Perhaps someone popped his tires)
My Subaru Outback gets roughly 20mpg in Bloomington’s core. At $3.75/gallon, that equates to roughly $0.19/mile. I estimate that I normally drive about 12-15 miles/weekday at a cost of $2.25-$2.81/weekday. (Those numbers are actually severely low given that I tax myself on gas to keep it artificially at $6/gallon, but that’s a post for later) Using those numbers, if I were to ride every day to work, I would save roughly $585 in gas. That doesn’t factor in wear and tear to the vehicle. But, I probably won’t ride to work every single day that I can. It will rain, it will be wet, I will need to travel outside Bloomington. So, that number is high. If I assume that gas will go up (it will), the savings get better. At $6/gallon (what I artificially pay), the savings are $936/year using the 12 miles/day number.
At any rate, the bike should pay for itself within about 4 years, maybe sooner. Right around the time I’ll need to replace the batteries.
I don’t have much to compare the bike to, but it’s comfortable enough for me. It has a pretty nice suspension on it, which my other bike doesn’t have. I get the sense this would be a fairly high end commuter bike even if it didn’t have the motor on it. Both wheels have wrap-around fenders to keep road grime off your back in the rain (which I haven’t had to ride in yet). The gears and chain are enclosed, so I shouldn’t get grease on my pants.
Rear rack with the pannier on
As I mentioned, the bike is sold with special panniers on the rear rack that cover the batteries. They’re hard-shelled, so they provide a bit of additional protection. I’ll probably replace them at some point or move the bags off my other bike to give me a bit of additional room. The rear rack isn’t supposed to hold anything over 35 lbs, but that may be standard language. Rear child carriers don’t look like they’d work, but I haven’t figured out the marketing language from the reality. I’m thinking of getting a B.O.B trailer or something else to carry groceries. Right now, my backpack does fine for the small things I’ve been picking up.
The Social Factor
Don’t ride one of these bikes if you don’t want people to ask questions. I’ve struck up a lot of discussions with people at stop lights asking me how I like the bike, how it works, how much it costs, etc. I’ll probably just print out some cards with a link to this review since our encounters are brief. There seems to be a lot of interest in electric assist bikes lately. CNN just ran a story last week entitled “Electric Bikes Provide Greener Commutes“. This makes my wife think I’m a trendy bicycling hipster, which I’m all for. I showed it to a friend at work, let him have a test ride, and I heard later that it was the buzz of the local HAM radio scene that he’s wired into.
Eventually these will become more commonplace, and people will go “meh”, but I’m riding my 15 minutes of local fame. Maybe there’s an 8-year old out there who will see me and grow up to work in a factory where they make electric bike charger plugs. Or maybe a sorority girl will put down her vendi triple machiato espresso Red Bull and say “I wish I ran over that little shit when I had a chance, he makes me so upset at my 8mpg beast”. And maybe one of the local bicycle cults will amend their charter to allow electric bicyclists to attend their chapter’s monthly spandex party at Laughing Planet Cafe.
You knew it was coming. This isn’t the Jesus bike. It has some foibles.
- It’s only a 7-speed bike, for starters. I’m still not sure that’s really a drawback since it’s aimed at people like me that don’t want to deal with a gear in the front and in the back. Simple may be better.
- The motor on the front wheel means that flat tires should be interesting. I’ve not yet tried to pop that front tire off, but it’s definitely not a quick release.
- The batteries do require charging, which means some power suckage (generally at night, when the grid has excess capacity).
- You have to stay on top of your charging schedule. This is countered by the fact that it does have pedals, so if you forget to charge the batteries, the bike still functions normally.
- The external charger is exactly that: external. I can’t just plug this in at my office
- The bike is heavy. It weighs about 50lbs. You won’t be hauling it up stairs. Be thankful for the Americans with Disabilities Act. If not for the millions of people who need to take advantage of wheelchair ramps, for the fact that it saves you from hauling your bike up a few stairs.
- The fact that the batteries are external and hang off the back mean that you have a little less potential cargo capacity there.
- I’m not sure the bike is very modifiable. I’d be interested in knowing whether an Xtracycle modification could be made to apply here
- It’s a bit nerdy. In my case, I embrace that, so it’s a plus. But you may not
I’m not about to say that my new $2k bike is a heap of junk, but fortunately I don’t have to. It’s an outstanding way to get around town and has really helped reintroduce me to the joys of biking. I do wish that the batteries were smaller and werent taking up cargo space, but its an understandable tradeoff. Doing maintenance (flat tire repair) will be a bit more challenging since there are more moving parts. I’m hoping to dive a bit deeper into that shortly, but for now, if I get a flat, I’m calling my wife or a co-worker. I might be nice to have the option for a completely pedal-less throttle available for those days when you just don’t want to bike. But I’m guessing that on those days, it’s not going to be the strength of your legs that’s the difference, but your exposure to the elements and the time it takes to bike. Neither of which are solved by a pedal-less design. The advantages you gain in battery life and in forced exercise far outweigh the drawbacks to missing a non-assist mode.
I wouldn’t recommend this bike to anyone who really wants to get in shape quickly or be totally carbon neutral (after the initial environmental hit to manufacture the bike, that is). There are cheaper bikes for that. Cost is the only big drawback to this whole deal. I’d like to see these come into the sub $1000 range within the next year, and get down into the $500 range shortly after. These bikes are sold by the millions in Asia and are very popular in Europe. As we strain our oil supplies, as gas continues to surge, as we contract our communities, and build out rational infrastructure to support the commuter biker, these will no doubt play a large role in bringing an alternate transport mechanism to the masses.