schwinn_campus1.jpgSo on my comp day off, I decided to swing by Skate Escape, a bike shop near Piedmont Park in Atlanta. A few months ago, after some calling around, I concluded that they were the only bike shop in town that appeared to be interested in carrying the upcoming line of Schwinn Electric Bikes. I guess the other sporty-bike shops couldn’t spare the floor space with all the racks of fluorescent spandex. :-) In any case, I had received an email from them letting me know that they had the basic model in the store for test rides. Seeing as the only opportunity for a test ride within 100 miles was only 5 miles away, I dropped in for a visit.

Let me just say that the folks at Skate Escape have always been friendly, informative and knowledge and never in the least bit pushy. They strike me as the sort that don’t believe in dumb questions. That being said, I haven’t ridden a bike seriously in over a decade and half (little jaunts and stationary bikes do not count, imho), so I’m surprised that they trusted me with on their expensive demo model. :-)

The “Campus” is the most basic in Schwinn’s 2008 electric bike line, but the term basic does not do it justice. Its a very attractive and well-made vehicle; solid construction, integrated front & rear fenders, reflectors, front & rear brakes, 21-speed Shimano drivetrain, twist-shift grips and a leather saddle. Its one classy looking bike.

After a basic tutorial of how the bike works (I’d read the material online in the past), they suggested going around the block or across the street to Piedmont Park for a test drive. In regular (non-powered) mode of the bike rides smoothly and easily; very efficient gearing. The bike itself is surprisingly light considering there is a very subtle battery and engine hidden in its construction. The throttle is integrated with the drivetrain and brakes. This is because the motor is actually an assistance system; primary meant to augment your manual pedaling. In fact, the motor disengages when you stop pedaling or when the brakes are engaged. A good thing in the case of the latter, as I discovered the motor is surprisingly powerful. The bike can also tell when you are going downhill or coasting and will disengage the motor to save battery power. The motor itself is silky smooth and whisper quiet. The acceleration is palpable but not jerky or jarring, although, like me, you may be initially surprised at its strength.

The battery case is integrated into a rear cargo rack and locks in place with a key. Twist the key and the entire battery pack can be removed (a self-retracting carrying handle is built in) for security or to charge without having to lug the bike around as well. A nice perk for those that might use the bike for commuting and cannot bring their bikes indoors. Unlike the batteries found on competing systems, the Schwinn batteries use a lighter lithium polymer technology which also has the advantage of delivering full speed/power right up to the point they are drained (the lead based ones in other bikes slowly deliver less and less power). A handy power gauge gives you a constant idea of your remaining charge. A nice addition might have been estimated remaining mileage, speedometer, etc, but perhaps Schwinn will consider those options on later models.

Schwinn claims the bike will get 60 miles pedal-assisted for your average terrain and rider. I estimated that my cautious, pedal + motor speed was around 25mph. The Skate Escape folks said that larger riders with gear and consistent hills should only expect a range 20-30 miles if they rely heavily on the motor. This sounds about right considering that this is meant to be a power assist, not a motorized vehicle. And the price, $1500 for the Campus, might seem pricey for those of us outside the cycling culture, but I assure you its actually quite competitive for integrated electric bikes of this category.

While some folks might consider this sort of bike to be “cheating”, but I think that instead of seeing it as an alternative to exercise, it should be viewed as an incentive to non-automotive commuting. Arriving at work sans car AND sans sweat makes cycling much more viable to those that don’t have the facilities or leeway at work for a morning commute work-out on a traditional bike.

Schwinn also offers several other models (I’m digging the Continental and World GSE), which the folks at Skate Escape said they could order on request.

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