Review of the Giant LaFree E-Bike
By Bryan A. Thompson
Last Updated 1/11/2002
Notes: This review focuses on the Giant LaFree E-bike. This is also marketed by Ford (in a slightly different configuration) as the Think! Bike. The information below applies to three versions (folding, non-folding and step-thru) of the LaFree and the Ford Think! Bikes. Giant bicycles also markets another E-Bike called the Twist (in a comfort bike configuration), which contains a different battery and motor. As a result, some information in this review does not apply to the Giant Twist E-Bike. When I refer to the E-Bike or LaFree or EV, Iím talking about any of the Giant or Ford Think bikes. Note also that there are a couple of different models. The pictures and review presented here are of the older style LaFree (battery indicators on the seatpost, not on the columns).
Iím a 31 year old out-of-shape Electrical Engineer from the hilly town of Rolla, MO. I graduated from and now work at the University of Missouri Ė Rolla. As a student I worked on the first solar car project our school and drove GMís SunRaycer in fall 1988 (for two whole laps around a smallish parking lot). After that I became interested in personal computers and pretty much lost interest in Electric Vehicle technology. That interest resurfaced on Sept 11, 2001.
Why I chose an E-Bike
Most folks who come to EV technology do so out of concern for the environment. Me not so much. When I drive, I drive a 13MPG V8 Corvette, and then only because I canít afford a V10 or V12.
Recent attacks against my country culminating in the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy have revealed that the folks that sell Americans more oil than any other country also sponsored (and largely provided) the terrorists responsible for those attacks. That country is Saudi Arabia. Unfortunately, because of Americaís dependence on oil, we have shown reluctance to pursue these terrorists into Saudi Arabia. When I learned of the Saudiís sponsorship of the terrorists responsible for killing close to 7000 Americans, I decided to do everything I could to keep as much money out of their hands as possible. It may not be much, but Iíve reduced my oil consumption by at least 40% - a level sustainable without Saudi oil.
Initial Impressions of the LaFree
My first impression of this e-bike is that the power assist is extremely well designed and implemented. How does it work? You just pedal. The motor senses the turning pedals and assists the rider in pedaling. You stop pedaling, and the motor stops helping. You want more assistance? Just twist the throttle (where the gear shift would be on the right side of the handlebars) and the motor does more of the work. You want to ride without the motor helping? Just turn off the power switch and you can pedal it like a fairly heavy normal bike. When you apply the brakes, the motor automatically stops. The whole bike takes less than two minutes to learn to ride, and maybe a half-hour to learn to ride efficiently. The bike looks like something that Pee Wee Herman would be proud to ride Ė it isnít the most stylish thing around. However the designers did a great job of hiding all the wires and cables underneath the plastic motor and frame covers.
I ride about 4 miles a day total, all on quality paved road. At the end of the day, the poor quality seat has taken its toll on my butt. Itís a whole lot rougher ride than my Trek comfort bike (a Navigator 200). I attribute this to the tires and low quality factory seat. If youíre planning on riding this every day or for distances over a mile, plan on replacing the seat. The seat post isnít the standard size (27.2mm), it's (29.2mm), so you need something called a "Problem Solver" shim to adapt a regular seatpost to the larger tube ($7). See the "Upgrading" document for more info. Then when you do that, you lose the ability to tilt the seat forward, so you have to remove the seat if you want to remove the battery.
I have no problems making it to and from work with a fully charged and mostly worn out battery. I donít recharge during the day. It sits in the cold (40+ deg F) all day and still has plenty of power when I ride home at night.
I donít have to do a lot of work during the commute, even when going up a hill that would have forced me to walk a regular bike or puke my guts out half-way up the hill. But the best part about the ride is that I still get a workout. Others have mentioned it before and Iíll mention it here: The natural tendency is to pedal the bike, even with the motor running constantly. Not just pretend-pedaling, mind you Ė actually adding power to the pedals. I attribute this as a desire on my part to get there quicker: To accelerate quicker, to go up the hill 1MPH faster, and to do what I can to help the battery last longer. Whatever the cause, I get more of a workout now than I did with my Trek comfort bike. I live in a hilly area and am pretty far from being in any sort of physical shape, and that combination just didnít work out. Iíd ride for 2-3 miles once a week, my legs would be so sore that I couldnít ride again for a week, and I just didnít get out that often. Now I ride to work and get *some* exercise every day Ė even if Iím not doing all the work myself.
As far as the biking experience goes, it handles about like an uncomfortable comfort bike. Itís heavy, so stopping is slow (it probably takes me another 20ft to stop from 18MPH). The handlebars are tall enough so that the ride is pretty much upright. Thanks to the power assist, acceleration is quite good Ė itís easy to jump into 25MPH traffic. Above 35MPH (back down that big hill in the evenings) it was quite scary until I had both wheels balanced. It still isnít fun. I started wearing a helmet because of the weird feeling I get on this bike when riding over 35MPH.
It is heavy. If you live or work somewhere where you need to carry the bike up stairs, get a different lighter bike. I go up and down one 1ft stair to and from my apartment and it sucks. The bike can be made lighter by removing the battery, but thatís a nuisance, so I donít do it. Instead I deadlift a rather awkward 70 pound weight and try to maneuver handlebars through a front door that doesnít want to stay open.
How much power does it really have?
The web site claims 400W continuous and 1000W peak. That translates into about .54 HP continuous and 1.34 HP peak. But how much power is that really?
I had no idea how powerful this thing was before buying one, and so I didnít really know what to expect. I live *way* downhill from work (1.5 miles on a 5+ percent grade) and wanted help getting up the hill in the morning. I weigh 275lbs. This bike will pull me up that 1.5 mile hill with me in pretend-pedal mode at about 8 MPH. The bike slows to about 6MPH on a section thatís roughly 10 percent grade, but it still pulls me without me having to do any work. The bike accelerates fairly quickly. On flat ground, 5-6 revolutions of the pedals is all it takes to accelerate to top (motor assisted) speed of 18 MPH.
I understand that itís possible to swap out the rear gears for something that will provide an even lower gear ratio, allowing for more pulling power (at a slower speed, of course). This might be useful if youíre towing something, but I think itís probably unnecessary otherwise.
Closeup of the motor and front sprocket
The Throttle (VPC)
The throttle is located on the right-hand side of the handlebars and is twist-activated instead of thumb-activated. Iíll start by saying that it isnít necessary to use this at all. You can just pedal and still get a motor assist. Without turning the throttle, the motor runs full speed for about 0.5 seconds (which translates to about Ĺ of a revolution of the pedals). If you want it to give more of a power assist, twist the throttle (called the VPC, or Variable Power Control by Giant/LaFree). This causes the motor run duration to increase (up to 2-3 seconds at a time). If after that time youíre still pedaling, whether youíre pedaling hard or just causing the pedals to revolve, the motor will continue to run. If you continue to pedal, the motor assist stays on and the power feels quite smooth. The motor will stop after the 0.5s Ė 3s bursts if you stop pedaling.
The Throttle and On/Off switch
The bike has a 7 speed gear system built-in, and the motor powers the front sprocket (it doesnít move the pedals, however). This means that the motor works through the gear system. If Iím going up a long hill, I select low and it has plenty of power at about 6-8MPH tops. In 7th gear, it tops out at about 18-20MPH. The best part about the shifting mechanism is that unlike most multi-speed bikes, it will shift while under load (like going up a hill). On a regular bike, you either need to anticipate gear shift changes well in advance or youíre stuck in the wrong gear when going up a hill. With this system, I listen to the motor RPM, and when it sounds loaded down, I twist the grip and shift into a lower gear. This works whether the motor is busy pulling me up a hill or if Iím just coasting. This is really well designed. No problems starting in the wrong gear here Ė on level ground I can start off in any gear. Acceleration is not much in 7th gear, but can be assisted via the pedals.
The LaFree comes with a built-in ignition key lock. The lock retains the battery pack and acts as an on/off switch for the bike. Unfortunately this is all housed in some cheap plastic and doesnít really provide any security other than keeping the bike and battery together. Any kid with a screwdriver could crack the plastic and easily hotwire the bike.
The bike also comes with a front wheel U-lock that uses the same key as the ignition. This seems like a great idea, but in practice, it is difficult to weave the u-lock between both sets of spokes and still get the ends of the U lock to line up with the holes in the lock mechanism. The result is that the paint on the front forks is chipping pretty bad and I get grease on my fingers every time I use the lock. It would not be an ideal situation for a businessman commuting to work.
Paint chips from the U-Lock
Both wheels have quick releases, which means you need something to hold the rear wheel on the bike. Although itís heavy (70lbs), someone could pick it up and carry it off a short distance, so I think itís a good idea to lock it to something (tree, bike rack, etc). I use a 3ft cable lock to accomplish both. It coils around the seat post when Iím riding.
One thing that Iíve noticed is that the seat also has a quick release/adjust and no way to secure it to the bike. If someone wanted to steal my seat, itíd take them about 2 seconds to do so.
Some folks claim their E-Bikes are silent except for the tire noise. Not so much here. The motor noise is about the same as an electric golf cart Ė a slight whir. Not very loud, but enough to remind me that itís not me doing all that work. It growls about like my dachshund when pulling me up a 10% grade.
The brakes grab unless theyíre new Ė use them sparingly. I use the rear brake exclusively after seeing my friend flip over the handlebars of my LaFree stopping from about 5MPH when he locked up the front brakes. The flip wasnít too bad, but the LaFree came down and did a Gillooli on his knee. The bike was uninjured.
The front sprocket is really small (21T). The rear sprocket is the same size as most 7 speed rear gears. At first I thought the gearing would be extremely low, but it turns out that the front sprocket and pedals are connected through the gearbox. One turn of the pedals results in 3 turns of the sprocket, making it in effect a 63T front gear.
Closeup of Sprocket
Gear selection isnít nearly as critical as it is when the rider is providing all the power. The motor has a fairly constant torque output no matter what its speed. So if you start off in a high gear, acceleration is less than it would be in the lower gear, but the bike still goes forward. Iím sure that battery economy suffers from this, so I recommend starting in lower gears and working through them as the bike accelerates.
Itís possible to start off in 7th gear and accelerate to full speed fairly quickly. However I like the feeling of better acceleration, so I usually start in 5th gear and shift to 7th after I get going. When going up hill, I shift to 2nd. If the motor still sounds bogged down, I shift to 1st.
Nothing appears to be too well sealed in this thing. Even though the factory claims theyíre OK for the rain, I wonít ride in the rain. The motor and electronics probably shielded from the weather well enough to ride on wet pavement after rain. Donít try driving through a foot-deep low water crossing (theyíre common around here).
I average faster speeds than I do on my non-e-bike, and during the winter (I ride when dry and above +40 degrees F), I find myself getting colder faster.
Iíve seen 24-25 Miles advertised, but I assume thatís with quite a bit of pedaling and on flat ground and minimal starts and stops and a 150 pound rider and probably a 20MPH tail wind. 288 Watt Hours just isnít that much power. Others that own them say 15 miles. I assume theyíre doing some pedaling, too.
My experience (with the known-to-be-dead three year old pack that came with my bike when I bought it used) is that it lasts about 4-5 miles, 1.5 miles of which is mostly pulling my 275 pound ass up a 5-10%, 1.5 mile long hill.
The range can be extended by doing the following things: Pedaling (not just making the pedals go around, but actually doing some of the work), riding on flat ground, raising the air pressure in the tires to 65-70 psi (which makes it less comfortable to ride), crouching instead of riding upright, switching to low gear before starting uphill, riding in temperatures around 70 degrees F (hotter or colder decreases battery capacity), replacing 1 + year old batteries with new ones, and minimizing the total weight of rider, bike and cargo.
Iíll report more when I have replaced my batteries with a fresh pack.
Max speed on flat ground without pedal assist is 18MPH. The motor drives through the gears, and experience shows that it goes about 6MPH in first gear, 8MPH in second, etc, up to 18MPH in 7th gear.
Speed up hills depends on the hill. It slows to 13MPH on a 3% hill, 8MPH on a 5% hill, and 6MPH on a 10% hill.
Riding on Hills
Since the motor turns the front sprocket, the motor drives through the gear system - 7 speeds. This means that it has the ability to climb incredibly steep hills (manual says 14% grade max) and still have a decent top speed (18MPH).
Speed up hills depends on the hill. It slows to 13MPH on a 3% hill, 8MPH on a 5% hill, and 6MPH on a 10% hill.
Before loaning it to your friends so that they can see how cool it is, ask if they know how to ride a bike.
When climbing hills, use 1st or 2nd gear. It wonít go any faster in a higher gear, and using the lower gears minimizes the current draw on the battery. Itís also easier to help the bike up the hill when itís in a lower gear.
It isnít a mountain bike Ė donít try to ride it like one. Even rolling off a curb gives bike and rider a tremendous jolt due to the weight of the bike. These suckers are made for smooth paved roads.
Keep the tire pressure at 65-70 psi. This helps reduce rolling resistance, making it easier to pedal and easier for the motor to power. This doesnít help the ride.
Dangers of starting on a hill: Positioning the pedals when stopped is different than on a regular bike. When stopping, I usually roll back to get the pedal in position for me to power my way out into traffic. This doesnít work with the LaFree Ė in fact, rolling backward causes the torque sensor to think that Iím trying to pedal (even if Iím not turning the pedals), and activates the motor (sending me out into traffic before I expected to start). The same behavior happens when I stop on a hill steep enough to cause the bike to roll backward. Applying brakes overrides the motor drive, so I always apply brakes until the last second before I want to start.
There are a few things you need to know when purchasing a used LaFree. These are things that I learned the hard way. I list them here so that maybe you wonít have to.
- The battery will probably need to be replaced. They last about 1 - 1.5 years if used to commute to work several miles per day. Replacement battery packs (the things inside the gray energy cell housing) cost about $25 each, and there are two in the housing ($50 total). Even if the battery level indicates a full charge, worn out packs can drop to 0 power very quickly (in 50 ft of riding). See the battery section for more info. My point here is that if you donít confirm that the battery is good by riding it through an entire discharge cycle, expect to replace the batteries.- The bike likely needs new brake pads and cables. Theyíre really heavy (~70-80 pounds). Maybe thatís why they need brakes so often. Maybe itís the higher average velocities that causes it.
- Almost no one bids on these things on EBay. Theyíre available new in box for about half list price. This method would be much preferable to buying used.
- Be prepared for paint chips. Paint chips easily on Aluminum frame bikes, including these.
- If price is no problem and you want more power, check into one of the EV Global 36V SX bikes (about $1500 new despite the ďfrom $1895Ē claim on the website). Theyíve got about 25% more power than the Giant LaFree bikes and look cooler, too.
This is a great bike and Iíd buy one again in a minute. ok like a danged idiot to those around me, but by commuting via E-Bike, Iím keeping at least $500/yr out of the hands of the Saudis.
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