Cons: can be tricky to set up, low max speed
E-bikes are expensive. €1,500 upwards is what you’ll normally spend on a full-size electric road bike.
One alternative option is to get a conversion kit. This is basically a power-assisted wheel, a rechargeable battery and a pedal sensor that sells for half (or less) than the price of a full e-bike.
And this is what I’ve been testing for the last month on my older, but perfectly functional, road bike.
Overall, the kit, from the British company Swytch, works pretty well.
While it took me a while to set it up, the power controls are simple and a single charge is good for around 30km to 40km of range, depending on how much assistive power you need.
Although it doesn’t quite have the power of some e-bikes I’ve tried, it has never had a problem pushing me up pesky hills and it consistently gets me to around 20kph, sometimes more. So I’m quite happy with it.
Before I get more into some performance and set-up issues, let me say that the value you’ll get here depends a lot on exactly when you buy it. Swytch sells this by ‘pre-ordering’ it from its website (it has sold about 20,000 of them so far). But while the standard price is €950, it regularly (every two or three months) sells them at half price. Even though delivery takes three months, €475 for this kit is a bit of a bargain.
Once set up, using it is very simple. There’s just one user-active part, which is the all-in-one battery and control panel that sits clamped on your handlebars. This has pressure buttons (on-off and up-down arrows for five different power assistance levels) and a battery light indicator. As soon as the pedal sensor detects you pedalling forward, the front wheel will pull on the battery to propel you forward. This is a gentle enough transition. Even at its level five maximum setting, there’s never any sense of you being caught off guard or unbalancing; you’ll rather feel like your bike has been given a solid push.
During my tests it often faced a stiff headwind on Dublin seafront cycleways and an incline of around 25 degrees on one particular route home. It handled both without any problem, although always at a lower speed than I’d get on a flat surface with no wind.
As is standard for most electric bikes here, Swytch’s system is designed to get you up to around 25km per hour before ceasing to push you anymore. My experience was that while it always got me above 15kph, it rarely helped me to get beyond 20kph. I was sometimes able to get to 25kph or even 30kph, but only going down a steepish hill or really giving the manual pedals socks.
I’m not sure whether falling short of 25kph is an instrumental variance or me setting it up slightly imperfectly (for more on which, see below). But if you’re after speed, Swytch’s device isn’t the first one I’d think of.
I also found that, other than the gap between power levels one and two, there’s not that much difference between many of the power levels. I generally kept it between levels two and four most of the time. But, other than going up a hill, I often couldn’t tell the difference.
The range I got between charges was consistently over 30km, though not much more than that. This isn’t surprising as the battery pack is significantly smaller than what one often sees on standalone electric bikes.
But it’s easily enough for what I might need it for on a daily basis.
This is very easy to recharge. The battery slips out of its power cradle easily and is then recharged (from two to three hours, I found) from any normal wall socket, using the supplied adapter. That ability to slip the battery out of its cradle is also a handy security feature if you’re locking the bike somewhere, as you can simply take the unit with you in any small bag.
There are two Swytch conversion kits you can buy, one for Brompton bikes and another for everything else. This ‘universal’ e-bike conversion kit is supposed to fit most existing bikes. While it does work fine on mine, I did need to work laterally around its integration instructions.
Indeed, the only real challenge to this whole enterprise was setting it up.
Swytch says that it can be done in 30 minutes. It took me something closer to five hours, with two support calls from the company’s (excellent) customer support team when I became stumped.
To be clear, I’m not an experienced biker. I don’t really know my nuts from my washers (as you can tell from my language – bikes don’t really have nuts or washers). But even if I was, it seems that I’m not alone in my stumbling. YouTube shows me some seasoned bikers having to modify the process outside what the instruction manual tells you.
I only really got completely stuck once, around the placement of the pedal-assist sensor. This is supposed to neatly fit in between your existing bike’s main frame and the chain hub.
There simply isn’t enough room for it on my (common) bike model. A call to support elicited the advice of taking bits of the sensor’s plastic off to flatten it out. Even that didn’t make it fit, so I ended up simply bending bits of out of shape.
This was enough to interrupt the set-up sufficiently to become frustrated. But I did get over it. Which means the majority of people, and certainly more experienced bike aficionados, would also get over it.
One thing I love about putting the Swytch system onto my own bike is that I get to keep my gears. Most of the electric bikes I’ve tested have been limited to three or five gears, topping out at a fairly modest speed. My existing 21-gear set-up gives me more flexibility here, even if most of my gears are designed for hills and lower speeds.
The other big advantage is weight. Most of the full size electric road bikes I’ve tested have been very heavy. You notice this when trying to shunt the bike up onto a path or manoeuvre it by hand into a tight space to lock it. In contrast, the entire Swytch kit adds just three kilos to your bike. That makes it more portable for lifting and more manoeuvrable in tight spots.
Overall, this is a very interesting proposition. I’d recommend it, especially if you can get it at a good price.