Want to turn your bike into an electric bike? Here is just the gadget | Cycling
II’ve been somewhat skeptical of tech gadgets on the bike over the years, add-ons that too often seem to represent a solution in search of a problem, an attempt to reinvent something – the bike – that doesn’t. wasn’t far from perfect anyway.
I am not Luddite. New developments make cycling even more enjoyable and useful, including nearly puncture-proof tires and tiny retina-burning lights. Plus, of course, there is the amazing world of e-bikes or e-bikes.
There is no space to fully explain why e-bikes can be a game-changer in cycling, but they are becoming more and more common, even in the UK, roaring with a passenger or a load of children and shopping.
If I have a problem with electric bikes, it’s that some can be slightly… oversized. Once you get a battery and motor attached to a bike, weight becomes a slightly moot point, and modern electric bike motors are so powerful that they can easily bring riders up to the maximum allowable speed of 15mph.
And so, some electric bikes tend to be inundated with extra bits. Inexpensive suspension forks. Foreign lockers or baskets. Components too bulky. There are of course many great e-bikes out there, but the world of conventional bikes is a little simpler. Plus, of course, e-bikes can be expensive, and those under £ 1,000 tend to involve some trade-off.
What if you could turn your existing bike into an electric bike? It is not an entirely new idea. The much-vaunted Copenhagen wheel a few years ago attempted this. Some liked it, but it was extremely expensive – £ 1,700 in the UK – and seemed too complex, only working through a proprietary phone app.
After many preambles, this brings us in Swytch, a British mini-company that raised large sums via crowdfunding, and now make kits that they say can fit almost any bike – rim brake or disc brake, 700C wheels, or even Brompton.
A standard order costs £ 999, but if you wait a bit, the company has ‘pre-order’ windows every two months, where you get a 50% discount.
The concept is quite simple. Your money gets you a front wheel, a compact battery / control panel that sits on a handlebar mount, as well as a sensor that attaches to a crank (e-bikes provide power when you pedal, and the sensor lets the engine know). With no app in sight, it connects via large wires.
I decided to electrify a very old, very shabby hybrid bike, someone else’s “spare” bike that had been sitting idle in a garage for a few months. Why? Partly for the fun of it. Partly to see if, indeed, “any” bike could be converted.
But I also realized that the bike I was going to use had carbon forks, and I was worried about straining them too much. Ultimately, Swytch makes an optional torque arm for this, but it’s something to keep in mind.
So, was it easy to adapt? After a first hiccup, the short answer is: fairly easy. Hiccups? The axle of the wheel that was originally sent to me was too wide to fit. There are various threads of the fork dropout rating, but Swytch sent me the 10mm version, when I needed 9mm.
I’m moderately comfortable with bike-twiddling, and once I have the right wheel, opening the box on the first try took maybe 90 minutes. All it needed was a wrench to attach the wheel, an Allen wrench for the bracket, and something to cut off the ends of various zip ties.
It’s simple once you know how – tighten the wheel the right way around, attach the battery holder and sensor, and connect the wires – but I haven’t always found the instruction manual as clear as it could be. I also had to find my own rubber grips to properly secure the mount as the ones provided were too thick.
I also spent a while thinking that I had the wrong wiring, as there were two spare ones hanging off the battery. Eventually I figured out it was about attaching optional brake sensors, which shut off the engine when you slow down.
But those are only minor things compared to the big question: how does it feel to ride? As with just about all e-bikes, it’s a huge pleasure.
Modern e-bikes have largely lost the sudden tick when the engine starts and a thud when it stops, and the Swytch is smooth and intuitive. It’s not as fancy as the more expensive e-bikes, in part maybe because it’s front-wheel drive, but for the price it’s really great.
What I liked the most was the simplicity. Above the battery are some nice basic knobs and gauges – a big on-off switch, up-down arrows to move the power setting between five levels, and a similar five-step battery indicator. Some people might prefer the VanMoof style bike speedometers and endless app settings, but I found the Swytch system to be reliable, clear, and easy to use.
The battery is also easy to remove and portable. When turned off, the bike is still quite obviously an electric bike, but might be less visible to thieves.
The relatively small size of the battery limits the range a bit. The claimed average for average power and a bit of pedaling is around 30 miles, and if you’re using the system at full power – like I’ve done with every e-bike I’ve tried – you apparently average about 45 minutes of use. But even if, say, you had a very long, hilly drive, it would be possible to leave another power cable at work to charge the battery there.
The whole installation weighs about 3 kg, although the net space requirement depends on the weight of the wheel to be replaced. Fortunately, I could have lifted the faded hybrid on which I installed it a few steps if necessary, which is not always given for an electric bike.
But the great thing about Swytch is that you can attach it to a bike you already use and know you love to ride. And with the battery off, the bike still feels more or less like it used to be, albeit a bit heavier up front.
There was something particularly joyful about adding it to such an old bike, like putting a supercharger on a Volvo estate from the 1980s. And that’s the thing – e-bikes are, in the end, a lot of fun. If you have a bike that you love and don’t want to give up, but are considering going electric, then Swytch might be just what you need, especially if you can get it for £ 500.