We have to admit, when we first took delivery of a pair of Electra Townie Go! bikes to test, we didn’t start out with too high of expectations about what kind of performance we’d get out of them. However, it didn’t take long for us to realize that (as is most often the case) our presumptions were wrong, and we came away pleasantly surprised at the power, range and simplicity offered up by the SRAM E-matic hub-drive system.
E-bike historians might recall that SRAM was actually a player in the market back in 2000 with the five-speed Sparc system that they acquired with their purchase of the German drivetrain company, Sachs. Due to the primitive stage of the e-bike market at the time, the Sparc system failed to catch on internally, and eventually the flame for it was blown out.
Of course, as a celebrated bicycle technology company in the drivetrain business, the e-bike market was hardly something that SRAM could forgo. Intrigued as we were with the Electra bikes, we tracked down Rob Cappucci, SRAM’s category manager for electric bike products, to find out more about the SRAM E-Matic powerplants.
EBA: Can you give us some background on the E-Matic system?
Rob: We began designing it about five years ago, and right now it is only available at the manufacturer’s level. It’s a rear hub-motor design, and we offer it in three different sizes, which reflect the variation of range offered. The 6Ah offers a range up to around 38 miles, the 8 Ah gets between 25–50 miles, and the 10Ah system will deliver between 30–50 miles of range. Of course, those numbers all depend on the weight of the rider and type of terrain the bike is ridden on.
EBA: As an OEM supplier, how do you see the differences in the e-bike market between Europe and America?
Rob: They definitely look at e-bikes differently between the two continents. Right now the mid-drive motor seems pretty popular in Europe, but in America, I think it’s still too early what the preferences are. Regarding our E-matic system, it was definitely something that was designed to be easy to maintain and not as attractive to the sport use of e-bikes as some other systems.
Our design goal with E-matic was to create a simple, low-maintenance system that functioned well for easy transportation needs. I think the product really worked well with the Electra line of bikes and the culture that the bikes were designed to cater to. It’s really a seamless operation—just an on/off switch with nothing to clutter up the handlebars.
EBA: As SRAM is a major player in drivetrain systems for the entire industry, where do you find yourselves in the various debates that circle the market in terms of optimum technology?
Rob: We have a big urban category, and yes, we supply drivetrains to all the bike brands, so in that regard we’re really agnostic when it comes to picking and choosing. We offer a wide range of internally geared hubs and derailleurs to help product managers accomplish their design goals without showing favor. Our goal is simply to get more people out on bikes and to let the consumers choose the bikes they think will work best for their needs.
EBA: Do you guys get pressure to build a more powerful system?
Rob: First of all, we’re not a motor builder; that’s not our game. SRAM’s objective is first and foremost to get people on bikes, not to worry about how fast they go. For SRAM, it’s not about maximizing speed as much as it is minimizing the pedal effort, and we feel that, in conjunction with designing systems that are simple to use, is the best way to get people off the couch. From some of the conversations I’ve heard about attaining more speed, it seems to have less to do with an e-bike, and I’d just tell a person to buy a motorcycle.
EBA: Is there anything you would hope to see take place in the e-bike market?
Rob: I think more system integration would be cool. Right now most of the e-bikes are based on standard bike platforms, and the fit between the two isn’t always smooth. I think the bike industry has its own history, its own quirks, which much of the e-bike stands apart from. Some of the designs I’ve seen from the carmakers speak to this; there are some pretty cool designs coming from less traditional [bike] designers.
EBA: What do you think it will take for the e-bike market to grow in popularity in America, maybe even match the movement in Europe?
Rob: Obviously it’s two different cultures. In Europe, the bike is seen less as a recreational tool and more for transportation. For that to happen in America, there needs to be a greater effort put into building bike lanes. The urban infrastructure needs to evolve before e-bike popularity gets to the next level—that’s still the missing piece to the puzzle. Ironically, as much as the carmakers are jumping into the e-bike market, they are the ones with the influence to make those kinds of changes happen. Wouldn’t that be interesting to see Chevy and Ford lobbying for more bike lanes!
Of course, it’s also about the culture. They say kids don’t care about cars anymore. When we were growing up, it was all about the day we could own our first car, but apparently that is no longer the case. Fashion is another part of it. I think that’s where brands like Electra and Paul Frank are making in-roads with kids growing up.
EBA: What does the future of the e-bike market look like to you?
Rob: I don’t think we’ll be seeing the huge leaps in design and technology that have occurred in the last few years. I think that just as we’ve seen with other technologies that the batteries are shrinkable, but because of their chemistry limitations, you can increase their density, but not in a ten-fold way. I do think the potential for new software is still a blank slate, and that’s exciting to think about. The bottom line, I think, is that when really capable e-bikes with good range can sell for around $1200, that will be a whole new world.