There are a lot of reasons to go car-free. And you’ve likely heard them all: Cars contribute to harmful greenhouse gases; ditching your SUV is one of the most effective ways to combat climate change; fewer cars on the road would alleviate the metro areas’ crushing traffic.
But one reason to trade four wheels in for two doesn’t get talked about very often: Riding a bike is just plain fun.
This is the message that resonated over each pothole and through every signal in the past two weeks, as I switched from being a part-time bike rider to a full-time commuter cyclist. I also had a fancy new tool at my disposal that made the experience much more enjoyable: the Copenhagen Wheel.
Pedal-addicts might remember when the prototype of the bright red Copenhagen Wheel was released by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Lab in 2009. The company Superpedestrian—which launched in 2013—debuted a new version of the product earlier this year to consumers after years of intense anticipation, improvements, and criticism about delays.
Now, however, the Copenhagen Wheel is available for purchase and has a growing cult of followers. The Superpedestrian PR machine makes the Wheel sound like the next big thing in cycling. And maybe it is. Using “human-enhancing technology” to amplify a rider’s pedaling power by up to 10 times, the red hub houses a motor, battery, and computer that can be swapped out for the rear wheel of almost any bike you want.
It also uses a semi-autonomous robot that adapts to a person’s biking style, a phenomenon that Assaf Biderman, founder and CEO of Superpedestrian, says “makes you feel naturally stronger.”
As someone who rides a bike almost every day—whether it’s a cargo bike to get my kids to school or a mountain bike on trails about 35 minutes outside of Denver—would the Copenhagen Wheel live up to the hype? In honor of Transportation Week at Curbed, I tested the Wheel for almost two weeks and came to the conclusion: This thing’s the real deal.
A local Denver bike shop, Oh, Wheelie?, helped coordinate the delivery of a Marin Kentfield CS1 equipped with the Copenhagen Wheel, then explained how to download the Superpedestrian app, and within a quick 10 minutes of drop-off, I was all set.
The app tracks the distance, duration, and speed of each trip, and connects to your Wheel so you can choose your assistance level. It has five different modes: off, standard, eco, turbo, and exercise. Standard is the default mode; in “turbo” you get an extra boost, and in “eco” you use less power, but get a longer mileage range. In “exercise” mode, the wheel resists your pedal instead of assisting you, and as you go faster the wheel will push with increasing strength.
My first outing with the wheel was a quick morning trip over to my daughter’s elementary school, only a mile away. I turned on the wheel, connected it to my phone, hopped on the bike, and made the first pedal stroke, unsure of what to expect. I regularly haul two kids and groceries on my cargo bike—a total weight of easily 120 pounds—so I have a mid-drive electric assist kit on that bike too. I thought the Copenhagen Wheel would be slightly similar. I was dead wrong.
My normal electric assist has a lag before the motor engages, a small but perceptible moment when I’m balancing the bike, all of its weight, and waiting for it to do its thing. The Copenhagen Wheel didn’t feel like that at all. Instead it engaged immediately and felt like a normal pedal stroke. Except this time, the pedal stroke was really, really powerful.
Longer rides confirmed my initial reaction. Riding in turbo mode felt like me, but better. All of a sudden I wasn’t a 33-year-old writer with two kids and a penchant for biking. I was my most athletic self, accelerating easily, conquering inclines like they were nothing, and making drivers do a double take because, damn, that woman can bike.
On a 5-mile jaunt to an appointment in the heart of downtown Denver, I arrived without breaking a sweat in 90-degree heat. Of course, that same ride I also forgot to charge the bike before hand—and turn off the bike while I was in my appointment—so my return trip started with only 13 percent battery life. I switched the bike to eco mode and hoped the Wheel would make it.
It didn’t. About 1.5 miles from home I was down to 1 percent and pedaling all 16.8 pounds of the Wheel’s weight. There was a headwind, and when I finally made it home to a glass of ice water, the sweat pouring down my back indicated how hard I had been working.
The experience wasn’t the Wheel’s fault; I should have charged it before I left the house. But it does illustrate one of the potential drawbacks of the Copenhagen Wheel, and of electric devices more generally. The Copenhagen Wheel is only as good as its range, and right now that’s about 31 miles, in normal riding conditions. Extra weight, wind, or hills could shorten that time, and if you ride the Wheel in eco mode, Superpedestrian says that the range increases to about 40 miles.
Sticking with a range of 31 miles, that means that every mile should only deplete the Wheel about 3.22 percent. According to my research, that seemed about right. I probably needed at least 16 percent left to bike 5 miles home from my appointment.
A completely drained Copenhagen Wheel took 3.5 hours to charge, so I do think the Wheel would work for urban bike commuters who have less than 30 miles to bike each way to work. But you’d need to ensure that there was a plug to charge the Wheel wherever you locked it up during the day.
I was also extremely nervous about leaving the bike anywhere in Denver, even when I used both the automatic lock system that locks the bike through the app and my normal locks. Maybe it’s because I didn’t actually own the Wheel or maybe I just feared its novelty would be a magnet for thieves, but if I purchased a Wheel I would make sure I had a secure place to lock it 24 hours a day, and especially at work.
The other potential drawback is its price. Buying just the Wheel will set you back $1,499, and a set-up like the one I tried, bike included, costs $1,999. That’s a steep price, especially when a large percentage of people who commute by bike do so because they have no other means. The League of American Bicyclists reports that, “immigrants are twice as likely as U.S.-born Americans to travel by bicycle. Those earning less than $35,000 and living in dense residential areas are more than 10 times as likely to travel by bike."
For anyone lacking a car, an electric system like the Copenhagen Wheel could ease commute times, expand the distance someone could bike, and open up new possibilities for travel. But if you make less than $35,000 a year, a $2,000 bike isn’t feasible. Of course, the problem of affordability isn’t unique to the Copenhagen Wheel; in fact, it’s more affordable than all of Bicycling.com’s picks for the best E-bikes of 2016, which run as high as $5,000.
When I asked Copenhagen Wheel CEO and co-founder Assaf Beiderman about the cost, he was adamant that the Wheel’s unique technology and experience more than warranted the price point.
“We’re measuring real biometrics, including actual torque, power, cadence, pedal position, acceleration in multiple directions...all at a rate of over 100 times per second,” he said. Beiderman goes on, “The e-bike system needs to imitate the rider very fast so that it still feels like a bike and can be controlled like a bike. That’s what the Copenhagen Wheel does, and it’s not cheap to produce.”
For me—an already enthusiastic biker who was slightly skeptical of the Wheel’s claims—the Copenhagen Wheel is worth it. I found myself looking forward to each ride instead of dreading it, even if I was weighed down by laptops or lunch bags. This is the kind of bike technology that would encourage more people to forego their car simply because it’s so damn fun. It could convince non-bikers that cycling is for them, if only they’d give the Wheel a try.
On top of that, the implications for this technology could transform city commutes. Other electric bikes can often feel like they’ve taken over, overpowering and intimidating more cautious riders who don’t want to feel like they’re on something with a motor. But the Copenhagen Wheel simply accentuates the best version of your own pedaling style, smoothly accelerating in a way that could make cycling more accessible for people with physical limitations. Simply put, I like that the Copenhagen Wheel might open biking to groups of people who are currently left out of the cycling community.
For now, I’ve returned to my own quiver of bikes. I ride singletrack on the weekends, pile the kids into the cargo bike every morning, and still use my red townie bike for date nights and close-range commuting. Still, I find myself thinking about the Copenhagen Wheel and when I might be able to add it to my collection. Even for this seasoned cyclist, it made me remember why I like riding bikes in the first place.