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Improving and Customizing the LaFree
Replace the Seat!
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 1.5Ē 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 of 27.2mm, itís slightly larger (29.2mm). You can get a device from Problem Solver that adapts the smaller seatpost to the larger tube for about $7 from a bike dealer. 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.
Problem Solver seat post shim
Add a rack or basket for shopping or commuting
One of the primary reasons I bought a LaFree is for commuting to work. I find that I frequently need to carry a backpack or Wal-Mart size bag of stuff to and from work with me. So I bought the LaFree rack from the kind folks at www.electricvehiclesnw.com for $30. It's made of aluminum and weighs about a pound. It's designed so that the battery can be removed with the rack in place. It's very sturdy with four mounts to the frame.
Add a headlight and taillight
I regularly commute on my LaFree. My evening commute is after dark in the winters, so I added a Trek headlight and taillight for more visibility. The taillight was really bright and has three modes Ė slow flash, fast flash, and on continuously. This really adds to the visibility (other people being able to see me) and was totally worth the money. The headlight that came packaged with the set sucks. The bracket that holds it to the handlebars broke the first night I rode with it. Moreover, the light always seems to be pointed in the wrong location and when pointed correctly, never seems to add to my ability to see. If youíre electrically handy, Iíd recommend a headlight that runs from the battery pack and that is mounted on the front tube (not the forks). In the near future, Iíll write an article detailing how to wire this to the LaFree.
Upgrade the pedals
The pedals were typical rubber-coated comfort bike technology pedals and I found myself frequently pedaling hard enough to slip off the pedals (usually forward). That scared me into buying a set of pedals that resemble bear traps for $15 from my local bike shop. I tried toe clips, but all the ones that I tried pinched pretty hard on my toes and I could never seem to get both feet into both toe clips simultaneously. The bear traps give me a secure grip on pedals, work fine even for a casual dress shoe, and give me the confidence to pedal much harder than I would have before adding them. Iím going back to retrofit my comfort bike with these ASAP.
Add a bike computer
I wanted to know if I was actually getting the speeds advertised by LaFree, so I added a Sigma Sport bike computer (model BC800). It cost about $25 and was worth every penny. It gives the distance traveled, max velocity, average velocity, trip time (it stops timing when the bike stops and starts it again when the motion resumes), has a built-in clock and gives an indicator that tells you whether youíre currently going faster or slower than your average velocity.
Upgrade the battery for more run time or lighter weight
See the battery section of this document for information about the internal dimensions of the battery box.
Reduce the weight
Itís heavy Ė 70 lbs from the factory and closer to 80 when outfitted for commuting, however the bike is quite manageable without the battery (45-55 lbs). If the weight with battery can be reduced to that weight, it would be fantastic and acceleration and stopping distance numbers would improve as well.
There are several items that can be removed or replaced to lessen the weight. Those that come to mind are the U lock (about 2 pounds), the kick stand (about 4 pounds) and the charger (3 pounds). Switching to NiMH batteries can extend the run time by 50% and still knock 10 pounds off the weight of the battery. A lighter seat could be substituted (saving 2-3 pounds on the seat and tilting mechanism) if you didnít mind either leaving the battery in the bike or removing the seat whenever you wanted to remove the battery.
Add lockable watertight storage
This bike would be fantastic if it had a small lockable watertight storage compartment for things like the bike computer, a small GPS, MP3 player, glasses, wallet, keys, a watch, gloves, whatever. Something about the size of the battery would be great, something half that size would be OK.
The closest that Iíve come to finding something like this is an under-the-seat pack that Iíve padlocked to the rear rack. Let me know if thereís a better solution out there.
Add a power takeoff jack to the battery or bike
Since the LaFree doesnít have built-in headlight and taillight, I see a need for the energy cell to power external devices (like that GPS or MP3 player stored in the non-existent lockable watertight storage compartment mentioned above), the headlight and taillight, etc. It would be nice if the bike just had a DC jack that I could plug into, or even an easy way to tap the 24V output. But the wires between the Electronic module above the motor and the battery connector are not easily accessed. My thoughts are that the battery would be easier to tap than after it passes through the 3 prong connector and into the bike. I'm thinking of adding a waterproof power takeoff. It might even be possible to add the +24VDC to +3VDC voltage regulator and related electronics.
Donít try to tap one of the batteries for a 12VDC output Ė thatíll cause the draw on the two batteries to be different. Instead make a converter that lowers the 24VDC to something like 3/6/9/12 VDC. Most bike headlights and taillights run off of two AA or AAA batteries. That makes them 3VDC.
Add Regenerative Braking
Okay, every vehicle is regenerative to some degree Ė when you coast down a hill, youíre reclaiming some of that potential energy and using it to power the vehicle. But braking is just wasting energy Ė thereís no way to use that heat to do anything useful on a bicycle. Thatís where regenerative braking comes in.
Somewhere, I think on a LaFree website, I read that the design choice was made to exclude regenerative braking because of cost vs benefit factors. It cost too much and didnít really translate into much longer riding distances.
The electrical engineer in me says that it wouldnít have cost that much more to add it in when designing the bike. It might have increased the noise levels significantly, and might have added a slight cost to the gearbox design. I agree that a lot of the extra energy would be converted to heat Ė possibly 40% and maybe up to 75% on a smaller electrical system like the e-bike. But I also recognize that I could go a long way toward recharging my battery when riding down a 1.5 mile 5+% grade hill in the evenings Ė I could actually get back some of that energy that I expended pedaling to work in the morning!
If it recharged the battery at all, it would improve the efficiency of the system, and I think thatís a big selling point among the environmentally conscious electric vehicle purchasers out there. Even if itís only 1% efficient, they wouldnít have to answer the question ďDoes it have regen braking like all the other EVs out there?Ē with ďNo.Ē
Note that in its current configuration, unless you ride it backward, thereís no way to use the motion of the bike to power the motor, so even with a different controller, it isnít possible to convert the LaFree to regenerative braking. This is more an item from my wish list than from the list of things that you should run out and do to your LaFree.