Bionic Tandem Part 3

Coast to Coast with a little assistance.

Way of the Roses — Route Map

Having received our pedelec controller back from Andreas Schroeer and established that the regenerative braking was working we were ready for our 5-day coast to coast trip on the Way of the Roses.

For non-Brits who might be imagining us cycling between banks of wild roses it’s not quite like that.The route goes through two big counties in the North of England, Lancashire in the West (symbol red rose) and Yorkshire in the East (white rose) The rivalry between these two came to a peak in the Wars of the Roses between 1455 and 1487 but many would say it’s nearly as fierce today.

This was the real test of whether a pedelec bike could be used for touring. From Morecambe on the West coast the route soon starts to climb into the Pennine hills and the first three days included a lot of climbing. After that it was more gentle but longer distances. Unlike our previous ride in the Black Mountains we were carrying all our luggage for 5 days.

We managed to limit that to two Ortleib Rear Roller panniers mounted in the centre rack of the Pino and a rear trunk bag on top of the rear rack with small side panniers for stuff we wanted access to on the ride. In this post I’ll concentrate on the main questions of how we used the assistance and how well it worked. I’ll follow up with another post about some problems and how the product might be improved to suit serious touring.

NB. because it’s easy to get confused about these things I will use the expression “power” when I talk about the amount of power coming from the motor (how much help it’s giving us). I will say “energy” when I’m talking about the amount of energy stored in the battery (what the motor uses to create that power)

Day 1 started with an easy ride into the city of Lancaster and onwards on a very smooth, level cycle trail which is well used by local people as well as the great many cyclists we saw following the same route as us. In fact at the starting signpost in Morecambe there was a big queue of cyclists waiting to photograph each other before setting out. This seems to be one of the most popular routes on the National Cycle Network, although it is relatively new, maybe because it is almost all on tarmac as well as passing through some stunning scenery.

After 8 miles and a halt at Woodies Crook-o-Lune snack bar in a beautiful spot overlooking the River Lune, the climbing started. We kept the power setting on 1 bar and generally found the going pretty easy. The first day was only 28 miles with around 430m of climbing. Diversions included arriving in the village of Wray in the middle of their annual Scarecrow Festival, huge crowds and our plan of stopping at the cafe there was not feasible but we made a picnic from what we had with us on the village green. Then more climbing and a chance to test the regenerative braking.

This was a bit of a disappointment. On gentle downhills you could feel the braking effect and we didn’t need much extra from the disc brakes. But on steeper hills (ie most hills on the ride ) if we built up any sort of speed it was clear that the braking was having a negligible effect, it wasn’t acting as a useful drag brake as we had hoped. Although it may have been doing a bit of work, most of the energy was soaked up by the disc brakes. So most of the energy we had stored up in climbing the hill went into heating up the disks. I guess you would need a much more powerful motor to change that.

The other issue was that Heinzmann say that it’s not safe to do more than 50kph on downhills as it could damage the electrical system. That’s 30 mph and anybody who rides a tandem knows that you can hit 40mph or more without any effort on a downhill and I’m sure we were doing that. So although we weren’t trying to hit high speeds, it felt that this restriction was just undermining the natural way to ride on a tour like this. In the end we didn’t pay a lot of attention to it and I’m keeping my fingers crossed that there is a good margin for error in that recommendation.

At the end of the ride in Austwick we felt OK, we were tired and slept pretty well but the ride had not been tough and we had only used two thirds of the battery energy. The second day was the bigger test.

Day 2 started with a 7 mile ride to the town of Settle. This was a very attractive ride with enough hills to make it scenic and interesting. Then in Settle we were faced with the most notorious hill of the whole trip, 234m of climb starting with a very steep ‘double chevron’ section coming out of the town. We had 3 bars of power turned on and got up a short ‘single chevron’ climb without much difficulty but after a short distance on an easy slope the road became steeper and the effort needed was serious. It went on for a considerable distance and with the top of the climb about 50m ahead we were really questioning whether we could keep going.

For most people walking is always an option but one of us finds walking difficult at present so would not be able to help push the heavy loaded tandem up that slope and might find it difficult to just walk up on their own. We kept pedalling with our lungs bursting and made it over the top. There’s no question in my mind that the assistance from the motor made the difference between being able to ride that hill and being stuck halfway up.

However the effort knocked a big hole in our battery energy at that early stage so it was great to be able to plug in the charger for half an hour each time at the coffee stop in Ayrton and the lunch stop in Burnsall. It makes for an expensive trip as others in our group were able to buy sandwiches for their lunch from the village shop in Burnsall but we felt we needed to eat at the cafe next door to take advantage of the mains energy. At both places the cafe owners were very happy for us to do this and we felt encouraged that our topup strategy was workable. Most cafes and pubs have a wall socket handy for a vacuum cleaner and in a bigger place, like the National Trust cafe at Fountains Abbey the next day we probably wouldn’t bother to ask for permission, there was a socket right by our table.

The experience caused me to reflect on the situation of our own government, having decided to rely on Russia for supplies of gas for homes and power stations we find ourselves having to be polite to President Putin whether we like it or not. Yorkshire cafe owners don’t seem to share Mr Putin’s endearing approach to his work but we are not inclined to complain too much!

The Heinzmann charger is light and compact enough to fit in one of our small rear panniers with our waterproofs and sweaters, or in the trunk bag with the tools and snacks.

We ended the day with less than 1/6 battery energy, the indicator flashing to say it was low on energy, but the assistance continued to work with its full effect right to the end of the ride in Pateley Bridge. The total climb for the day was around 1000m over 34 miles with steep sections in each part of the route. While the hills called for a good effort from us we never felt really strained apart from that very steep climb from Settle.

We used three bars of assistance quite a few times, it adds a little to the challenge to be juggling both power level and gears and there is a danger of not noticing that you are going uphill in a high gear using more battery energy than necessary. Towards the end of the ride on the last uphill section and the undulating road after that I was pretty generous with the power to compensate for our fatigue, knowing that we had a long downhill to finish so the battery would last.

It’s also worth saying that this days ride is one of the most beautiful routes we have ridden, from Ribblesdale on the western side of the watershed into the Yorkshire Dales through the Airedale, Wharfedale and Nidderdale. Beautiful country and very pretty villages with plenty of those essential cafes to keep you on track.

The third day started with some stiff climbing, a whole sequence of single chevrons between Pateley Bridge and the famous beauty spot of Brimham Rocks but after 16 miles, at Ripon, the terrain became much flatter (rather boring and tedious on the muscles when you have to keep pedalling continuously) for the remaining 30 miles to York. The climbing was very manageable, generally we were keeping up with everybody else including the fitter cyclists without feeling any strain and we used the power on the level whenever we found ourselves heading into the wind.

For the rest of the trip the terrain was well within our abilities with a bit of help on uphills. On the level we generally cycled above the pedelec’s cut-out point of 15 mph (25kph) but if there was any incline or headwind it would cut in as we dropped our speed. I was quite surprised how little battery energy we used on these easier sections across the Plain of York and gentle hills of  Yorkshire Wolds and also that we had under-estimated out range on these easier sections.

On the previous years CycleSheffield tour we had found the fourth day, 50 miles, generally flat, extremely tough. It felt as though we had used up our energy on the previous three days and we began to appreciate why organised cycle tours often include rest days. The last section of the Way of the Roses, from York to Bridlington on the coast is 62 miles so we elected to break this section with a stop at Hutton Cranswick after 38 miles.

However we found ourselves at Hutton Cranswick quite early in the afternoon and feeling reasonably fresh. I had been particularly profligate with the battery energy knowing that we didn’t have any big hills so the battery was quite low at that point but if we had a little more energy in hand I would have felt fine continuing to Bridlington for the remaining 24 miles. As it was we didn’t like the accommodation we had booked so we rode on 5 miles to Driffield and the very individual and rather wonderful Bell Hotel. The next day was an easy 20 miles across gentle hills in sunshine with a strong following wind (worth noting that we had a really helpful SW wind for the whole trip) and arrived in Bridlington in warm sun. Which rather justified our decision to stop in Driffield as our friends had arrived the night before in p0uring rain.

What did we learn about the Heinzmann Direct Drive kit?
The main thing is that it enabled us to make a trip that would have been impossible otherwise. I’m reasonably fit and could cope fine on a solo bike but my co-pilot was convalescing from a knee replacement and her arthritis over many years has prevented her from developing the sort of fitness that most cyclists take for granted. The trip was great for us because she feels reasonably comfortable cycling for 40 miles on the Pino but walking any distance still causes her great discomfort.

A loaded tandem, weighing the same as two bikes and their riders, is a very serious test because the power restrictions on e-bikes in the UK and many other countries mean that you can only have the same 250 watts of power that is allowed on solo bikes. If you are a solo cyclist feeling limited by health or disability I feel that a kit like this will give you a huge extension of your range. I would imagine that used carefully you might go quite a lot further than we did on a single charge.

The Heinzmann Direct Power kit has some specific advantages over some older designs. The motor is big and heavy but it delivers more torque than many others, vital for low speed use. The Heinzmann rack battery we use is one of the biggest available but if the Heinzmann frame fit battery will fit your bike (should be ok for most solo frames or conventional tandems), you have an extra 25% energy stored.

So is it all positive?
Not completely. I’ll write another post about what needs improvement and some problems we still need to overcome. If you really feel you need electric assistance right now, as we did, then I would say the Heinzmann Direct Power product should be on your shopping list, not least because the company has a formidable reputation for reliability. For us I think it’s the only kit that will do the job we want. Other products are available, like the Protanium kit that Hase also fit to the Pino, but there are drawbacks to those as well.

If electric assistance is something you are considering for the future then I feel there are quite a few other things that might be fixed or improved to make it a more suitable system for a touring bike or touring tandem.

And from this first report you can see that the lack of a serious ‘drag brake’ effect from the regenerative braking was a disappointment, we’ll not be relying on it to bring us safely down from the Alps, but I’m sure it does a little to extend our battery life. That 30mph speed limit on downhills is just silly and I would say it must be dealt with for this to be a touring bike product.

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