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cycling southampton tech

Swytch to an E-bike

For the last few years, Wise Geek has frequently been seen using a normal pedal cycle to do errands, get around and go on adventures.

The engineer in me is always seeking ways to make this transportation more efficient – upgrading from a steel to aluminium frame, carbon forks, aerodynamic saddle, optimising seat height to get more leg-power into the pedals… even lowering the bars a bit to reduce drag.

All this has added up to a fun little side-project and a fitter me. That said, after a day out I sometimes arrive back home feeling like I’ve climbed Mount Everest. Part of this is my urge to get to places fast and partly because I live in Southampton which is very hilly in places. Especially on some of my favourite urban routes.

Now look here – I’m not that out-of-shape and I’m able to get up these hills in lower gears but, after a day of walking around the city or Southampton Common or whatever, I then have to face a ride back with tired legs. This is OK on a still, warm, dry day… but when it’s cold, windy, dark, wet (or all these things) then thoughts turn to “I wish I had taken the car”.

This hill is a beast if you’re returning on a cold, dark night…
Uphill tough, but downhill fun.

For a long time I’ve wanted an e-bike to solve this problem but I didn’t want to let go of my bike into which I had already invested with upgrades. Maybe there is a kit that can give it an e-boost… ta-da! Turns out there is! A Swytch kit.

Swytch are a UK company that offer e-bike kits for almost any bike. They provide a front hub drive, battery, pedal sensor and control module. They also provide support to assist riders with installation.

I had seen other e-bike kits on eBay but they all looked rather dubious in their reliability. I was not sure of after-sales support either.

I wanted to support a reliable and progressive local company who are doing something to get more people on bikes, reduce car journeys and help kickstart some much-needed investment into bicycle infrastructure in the UK [See footnote 1].

So back in June 2020 I placed a pre-order for a Swytch kit. I got this at a 50% discount because I was prepared to wait for the kit to be built as part of a batch. This took several months and my kit arrived in November 2020. The kits are designed in the UK but made in China, put on a huge container ship and shipped to Rotterdam. They are then shipped to the UK and quality checked by Swytch.

So over Christmas I used my annual leave to install the kit and try it out. I’m pleased to say that after testing it on my usual journeys and tinkering with the settings, I’m now happy with it.

The installation process did uncover a few snags but I expected this as part of a DIY solution.

Snag #1 My bike has a carbon fork and the axle dropouts were too narrow. To fix, I had to file the dropouts a bit so the axle would fit. Not too hard.

Snag #2 The pedal sensor was too big to fit around near the bottom bracket. To fix, I removed the adjustment shoe and cut the two plastic brackets. I then used the adhesive pad to afix it at a slight angle next to the magnetic disc (see photos).

My bike had disc brakes so it was a matter of simply fitting a rotor disc to the new wheel using the supplied rotor bolts. I then had to adjust the brake housing slightly to prevent rubbing. I think bikes with V-brakes would have a easier time of it.

The rest of the installation was pretty straightforward. I charged the battery while doing all this – a full charge takes about 3 hours. I transferred the existing tyre and inner tube from the old wheel to the new one. The control module fixes to the handlebars and the connectors are just push-fit type thingies. The kit came with plenty of zipties to keep all the cables tidy against the frame.

Pretty soon I was ready to try it out. It was dark and wet when I had finished but I didn’t care – I was eager to give it a spin. A few laps of my street confirmed that all seemed well – nothing fell off and I could definitely feel the extra power via the front hub drive.

One thing to note is that the built-in light is really not enough to light your path, it’s just for a bit of extra visibility. I fixed my handlebar-mounted light to the inner ring of one of the grips instead.

The next day was sunny and dry – perfect. I took the bike for a run to Southampton city centre. The route was from West End, along Swaythling Road, down the big hill past the White Swan, along the River Itchen, past Woodmill Activity Centre then a long uphill towards the Highfield campus of Southampton University. After this I went via Southampton Common to the Avenue, London Road and then finally access to the waterfront and Mayflower Park via the parks.

I stopped for a tea and to snap one of the massive cruise ships (the Norwegian Encore in photo below).

Forgot to mention the torque arm! It’s the silver metal piece that attaches to the fork. Torque arm will help dampen the rotational forces generated by the front hub drive. Highly recommended if you have carbon forks like me (Swytch will send you one if you ask for it).

Then it was time for the return journey – previously this was not something I look forward to because of the many hills and slopes… This time though the bike ate them up and at no point did my legs feel that uncomfortable burn. That said, this is a pdal-assist e-bike which means you still have to put the work in and pedal. Believe me your heart rate does get elevated so you do get a good workout, it’s just not overbearing like before. I should mention that I had the bike on it’s default settings and default power level.

The default settings are to limit the motor speed to 15 mph – this is the legal limit for e-bikes in the UK and EU. You will feel the motor kind of stop accelerating the bike after that point. I got into the settings and after some experimentation I found a configuration that gave me better performance without sacrificing too much battery charge.

So with a 250 watt motor on front wheel and 250 watts generated by me on the rear wheel (the average power generated by an adult cyclist) that is 500 watts total – which gives me the power of an elite cyclist.

This kit is a game changer for me – it means I am more willing to take the bike to longer rides on windy, wet days.

If you are a bike commuter or someone who wants to enjoy regular cycling for fitness, fun or to do errands around town AND keep your already-great bike then I highly recommend looking at a Swytch kit.

March 2021 Update: I got my bike serviced today at a well-known UK national bike sales & service chain. I took it in without the battery attached. They did a great job and when collecting my bike they told me that if I had the battery attached then they would not have been able to service it! Turns out that they are only insured to service certain types of e-bike. With the battery off my bike was classed as a regular bike. Apparantly lots of bike stores operate like this to comply with insurance. I think this has to be another advantage of a Swytch kit!

I ain’t afraid of no hill

[1] The UK have much to learn from the Dutch – they have dedidcated cycle lanes EVERYWHERE and plenty of bike parking hoops. Oh, and the Dutch have a higher quality of life than us Brits – I am sure part of this is related to biking 🙂

Categories
cycling green health money

All Bike Lights Are Crap

Controversial title. All of them..? Really? OK, not all of them but most of them in my experience.

It’s fairly simple: I want a light that can be attached/detached easily, I want the battery to last a reasonable time with a fair amount of light thrown out and I want it to remember the last mode I used so I can get going with minimum faff.

Pretty simple eh? You would be suprised how many bike light manufacturers do not get these basics right. Oh and I’ll throw in one more – it should be easy to turn on and off while wearing gloves!

Yes, gloves – because we don’t all live in sunny California. You might as well ask for a moon on a stick because this simple thing seems to be met with “…Wow, really? Thats crazy talk!” by most light manufacturers.

OK WG calm down, just breathe, relax… and tell us which lights would you recommend? Read on…

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Lets start with the best first. The CatEye Volt 400XC is a fantastic front light that pretty much meets all my criteria. It’s also priced reasonably (I think I got it for £25 from Amazon). I’ve probably charged it just once since buying it a month or so ago with weekend use even during the day. It will flash the power button in red once battery is low which is very handy and it has a common micro USB charge port.
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It can be detached and re-attaced with gloves fairly easily and throws out just the right amount of light (400 lumens is the sweet spot for most suburban cyclists) to illuminate the path ahead without being blinding to others.

I’ve tested this cycling through Southampton Common at night (there are no streetlights in that park so it gets very dark). It also has a visually pleasing day-pulse mode which saves battery when using it in daylight. The body is tough shiny plastic rather than alumnium but thats fine as it saves a bit of weight. I normally carry a laptop bag and bike lock so saving weight and being efficient is important to me.
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Following that is a decent and simple LED rear light from ApaceVision – again from Amazon. It has several light modes but I just use the blinking one to keep it simple. The LED light is bright and makes you feel safe that you are being seen. What I liked about it is the memory function and the “it just works” factor. Also nicely waterproof and comes with plenty of rubber mounting bits for different size tubes.

ApaceVision customer support was also very good when I lost a rubber clip thingy and needed a replacement. It uses a Micro USB charge port. I would have liked some indicator of low battery though because it has mysteriously lost all charge sometimes…
I tend to keep this light attached to the bike when I lock it. The reason is that it does not stand out a great deal and unlike the Lezyne Microdrive below, it is not that expensive.
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Moving on we have a ViaVelo LED front light which I bought from Tesco for £15 some years back. Unlike the others this one uses 3 AAA batteries rather than USB charging. Now this light is not going to win any awards for the amount of light it throws out (maybe 150 lumens) but what it does have is a visually pleasing 3-flash pulse mode for daylight rides 🙂 It also has a quick release handlebar clip which many other lights (even the CatEye) do not have.

You could easily mount two of these for a kind of “car headlight” effect and get better light output, in fact I saw a rider have just such an arrangement this weekend.

I use this ViaVelo light on my fast training bike for daytime rides. The downside is the light it throws is pretty poor for dark areas with poor or no streetlights. The upside is that on/off switch is easy to use even with gloves, it has a positive microswitch-style button. This model seems to be made by generic Chinese manufacturers under the name M-Wave Apollon 1.3 1W Front LED Light and I have seen good UK traders selling them on eBay. A good choice for a simple no-nonsense, mainly daylight, front light.

Sidenote: I would love it if CatEye XC400 had a seperate quick-release bracket like the ViaVelo above. It has a clip and rubber mount which is pulled around the handebar to make a secure loop. It fairly easy to clip it on and off but not as easy as the ViaVelo one.
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Moving round to the final light is the Lezyne Microdrive rear light. This little guy is compact and solid with a metal case and USB charging. It has it’s own holder clip bracket which stays on the bike thereby allowing you to easily and quickly remove it. The on/off button is a large rubber blister which is easily accessed even with gloves. The button will briefly glow green, yellow or red depending on the charge level – very fancy! It has a Micro USB charge port.

All this shows it’s premium Lezyne brand heritage but you pay for it in the price. It’s a fine light and I might use this rather than the ApaceVision is that one ever gets stolen.

The absolute best thing about the Lezyne though is the lighting modes – it has one mode which is like an angry red pulse and reminds me of the murderous A.I. “HAL 9000” from the movie “2001: A Space Odyssey”
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Which Lights I had trouble with…

Lezyne Microdrive front light – I actually got this as a pair with the Lezyne rear light described above. I bought it from well-known UK bike retailer Halfords. It throws out a serious about of light, about 500 or 600 lumens. I bought it for evening and night mountain biking.

However I found that attach/reattach was a bitch and the button did not have a positive feel so turning it on and off was not easy wearing gloves (you kinda have to hold it down hard). I think newer models have improved this but try it out yourself in-store. I also lost the rubber USB charging port cover at least once :/ It’s kinda this big hunk of rubber with no clip attaching it to the light body.

It’s really just suited to mountain bike riding in my opinion where the lights need to stay firmly attached to the handlebars while subjected to large bumps and shocks.
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ApaceVision Eagle – on the face of this, this combo of front and rear lights looks like a winner. Waterproof with multiple light modes etc… However I found the battery life was just average and the lighting modes were either too bright or too dim.

The pulse mode was also too bright and I remember passing one pedestrian who remarked “I’m glad I’m not epileptic!”. The on/off button was a bit fiddly too but at least had a memory mode. I found the light also got warm after 30 minutes use, not sure whats up with that.
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FWE Evans front light 450 lumens – I really wanted to like this 🙁 It is keenly priced for a 450 lumen unit, throws out an excellent amount of light, has a smooth premium aluminum body and a nice microswitched on/off button which is backlit with a blue LED when it’s switched on. It even has a seperate handlebar clip so you can attach/reattach quickly… So what was the problem?

For one the battery did not last very long or maybe I had a duff unit – this was a big source of annoyance because after charging it I went out for a ride and on getting on my bike in the evening… only to discover that the battery had died! I do not need to tell you how nerve-wracking it is to cycle on roads at night without a bike light. In the dark areas on the way home I actually had to let it accumulate residual charge and then switch it into pulse mode, after which it died after 30 seconds. At least my rear light was charged.

Anyway, that experience led me to return the light. A real shame as in all other areas this was almost up there with the CatEye XC.
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I later read in some of the reviews on the Evans website that newer lights have an upgraded Samsung battery so maybe I had a non-Samsung one? At any rate, it was bad quality control and put me in a dangerous situation so I was majorly put off.

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BTwin CL 500 LED clip light – as an additional/backup light you really can’t go wrong with these little bad boys! Keenly priced, waterproof and with micro USB charge port. They also have several clip options so you can attach them to BTwin brand pannier bags or your handlebars. The light has both white and red LEDs built in with two modes – constant or flash.

Thats it – choose your bike lights wisely and tl;dr buy the CatEye Volt XC400