Cars & Bikes

The Surly Big Easy shows how electric cargo bikes can eat cars

Big Easy bike at Trailhead, Theodore Wirth Park

This is a serious family hauler that will change the way people use bikes.

Regular readers will know that I like the European style of electric-assisted bike with pedal assist (pedelec), rather than a sort of downsized motorcycle with throttle controls. Oh, and the motors should be limited to 250 watts so that it plays nice in the bike lanes. I thought that E-bikes should be regular bikes with a bit of a boost.

Well, you can forget all that. I just spent a day riding through the snow and ice of Minneapolis on a Surly Big Easy long-tail cargo e-bike, and it totally changed my thinking.

The Big Easy eats SUVs

Lloyd on a big EasyLloyd Alter on a Big Easy/CC BY 2.0

I once quoted analyst Horace Dediu, who said, “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars.Bikes will eat cars.” But people still complain that bikes can’t replace cars, that you can’t really shop on a bike. Or they can’t easily get the kids to school on a bike. Or that it is too far, or too hilly, or too sweaty.

The Big Easy puts paid to all of that. It doesn’t just eat cars, it eats pickup trucks. Modelled after Surly’s current non-electric cargo bikes, it has a low center of gravity, fat grabby tires and, like all Surly bikes, is a bit out there for adventurous get-out-there types. But add a big Bosch motor to it and it becomes the Ram 3500 or GMC Denali of bikes: it looks the part of a working tough truck but suddenly it is almost effortless. It belies its brand name and isn’t surly at all.

Bosch motor on Big Easy© Bosch motor on Big Easy/ Surly

The Bosch Performance CX motor is so smooth on the pickup that you really can pretend it is not there; it senses you pedalling and gives you a smooth boost that feels totally natural. Switch it up from eco through touring to turbo and it feels totally supernatural; you have power to push this heavy bike to 20 MPH (the motor has a governor limiting speed to 20 to comply with regulations) and it feels like you could go anywhere. I wondered how it could be so smooth and spoke with Rick Hoak of Bosch, who explained that there are three kinds of sensors:

…a torque sensor (measures pedal force / human input), a cadence sensor (measures how quickly the rider turns the pedals around), and a speed sensor (measures the speed of the eBike). Each is measured over 1000 times per second to intuitively blend support and human power for the perfect ride experience.

The motor is rated at only 250W but peaks out at 600W, with a maximum of 75 Nm torque in Turbo. So many readers have complained in other posts that 250 Watts are not enough for big hills and heavy loads, but this bike just chews up the scenery. How does Bosch do it? Hoak explains:

On a basic level, what this means is as follows – Rated Power / Nominal Power refers to an amount of power a drive unit can produce for extended periods without experiencing a heat related issue / reduction of power. This factor is determined in a lab with defined conditions and a constant power source.

controllerI’m in eco mode, of course. / Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Maximum or Peak Power refers to an amount of power a drive unit can produce for shorter periods, for instance when climbing a hill or starting from a traffic light. Depending on all the factors below (3 sensor inputs), plus the riding mode selected, a Performance CX drive will deliver mechanical assistance of up to 600w. As a very basic example, if a rider in ECO mode was pedaling with a wattage / pedal force of 100w, the drive would provide up to 50% of that input in mechanical support e.g. 50w for a combined wattage of 150w. If that same rider was in TURBO and pedaling with a wattage / pedal force of 100w, the drive would provide up to 300% of that input in mechanical support e.g. 300w for a combined wattage of 400w. In the two examples above, if the rider increases their pedal force above 100w, the mechanical input would also increase. That mechanical input varies depending on this input, plus eBike speed and rider cadence for that natural ride feel you spoke highly about. If a drive simply delivered maximum power, the ride feel experience would be more like a light switch, on or off and not very smooth.

Because of the backstory of this bike and its evolution from Surly’s existing long-tail Big Dummy cargo bike, everything is really well-resolved. Bikes with Bosch drives have to be designed around the motor; it is not an add-on. But they know from experience what works, and I have really never been so comfortable on a bike – lower, more stable, more solid and shock-absorbing with those immense tires. Surly writes on their website:

When it comes to geometry, Big Easy rides and feels like a normal-length bike. We also increased stand-over height clearance and threw in dropper post routing to promote bike sharing across different-sized riders. So whether you want to wave goodbye to the old family gas hog, upgrade your bike-supported business’s two-wheeled fleet, or simply haul more bowling balls during your daily commute, Big Easy makes doing all that, well, easy.

CiviaCivia on snow/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

At one point I switched to a light Civia recreational e-bike and for a moment I was disconcerted and wobbly, being higher up on a regular light bike again. I certainly wasn’t as comfortable in a patch of snow. I wanted to get back on the Big Easy.

Even without loading the bike up, the weight and inertia of it give you a totally different feeling on the road, probably the misplaced feeling of confidence that ICE powered SUV drivers have. The fat tires eat up bumps and give you confidence in snow and even on a bit of ice, although the same rules apply: it is heavy and it has momentum, so don’t take it for granted. Because this is truly a boosted pedal driven SUV that can carry kids or groceries, or kids and groceries.

Paul with Big EasyWait, there is more to come/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Paul’s Big Easy here is loaded up with a fatbike, his cross country ski equipment and other gear. Oh, and he is stopping on the way home for two 24-bottle cases of beer. I regret not trying his fully-loaded bike out, but I suspect that the Bosch motor would have just sucked it all up without complaint.

Big easy with kids© Big Easy with kids on back/ Surly

I have paid less for used cars than the price of a new Big Easy (US$ 5,000) but this is without question a bike that can be considered a car replacement. Put the kid rack on and take the little ones to school; open the side bags and carry enough food for a week. Do long commutes in hilly terrain; not a problem. In hot weather you can let the motor do most of the work, stay cool in the moving air and arrive sweat-free. In winter, wear your winter clothes and get a little extra warmth from the pedalling. If you start getting cool, turn it down to eco or off and do a bit more work; it is up to you.

Electric cargo bikes are climate action.

Big easy loadedBig Easy fully loaded/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

One of the biggest issues for those of us trying to convince people that climate change is a major crisis requiring immediate action is that nobody really wants to give anything up. So even the wonderful Green New Deal proposes electric cars replacing ICE powered cars instead of alternatives to cars, which is exactly what this Big Easy is.

But you are not giving much up; you are in fact gaining a whole lot. You get the kind of exercise you need to keep you healthy, enough to add years to your life. You save a huge amount of money on parking and licensing and car insurance. In many cities you can probably get to work faster than in a car (especially when you add in the time finding and getting to and from a parking space). Perhaps the biggest saving is in real estate; garages take up a lot of it. If your family gets rid of one car or even goes car-free, you can spend less money on housing.

And as Andrea Learned keeps saying, bikes are climate action. E-bikes are even more so. They are an extremely low carbon form of transportation, sucking watts instead of the kilowatts a bigger electric car, with a fraction of the embodied carbon. Combine bikes like these with decent safe bike infrastructure in our cities, and we really can replace a lot of cars with efficient alternative transportation.

This bike is pretty wonderful, but is obviously not for everyone; it is heavy and takes up a lot of space, and at US5K, you really need secure places to park it at home and at work.

But this is the kind of alternative to the car that can really make a difference. It is accessible to a huge audience of people of all ages, it can haul more than I can squeeze into my Subaru; it is the family hauler of the future and more fun than you ever had in a minivan.

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