Although electric bicycles are becoming increasingly popular for commuting, a lot of people still don't like the idea of completely shelving their perfectly-good human-powered two-wheeler. That's why companies such as Superpedestrian, Evelo and Hycore have developed electric-assist wheels containing a battery pack and motor, that can simply be installed on a regular bike. Although most of them are still in the "pre-order" stage, FlyKly's Smart Wheel is now actually reaching consumers. I recently got to try one out, and it definitely does help with the hills ... although at least one tweak is still needed.
The Smart Wheel weighs 3 kg (6 lb), and its hub contains a lithium battery pack, a 250-watt motor, a Bluetooth module, and sensors for monitoring factors such as acceleration, torque and temperature. The battery takes three hours to charge from a regular outlet, and has a stated minimum range of about 40 km (25 miles).
Using an accompanying iOS/Android app, users can set the wheel's electronic systems up for their particular bike, plus they can monitor things like speed, distance traveled and battery level. The wheel's top assisted speed is 25 km/h (16 mph).
Gettin' it on
Installing the Smart Wheel in place of my 20-speed city bike's rear wheel was mostly a straight-ahead process, although in order to accommodate its 19-mm-wide rim, I did have to readjust the cable length on my rear brake to let it open wider (the wheel only works with rim brakes, by the way). This shouldn't be an issue for people already running wider rims, but it does mean that for those of us with skinny wheels, swapping in the Smart Wheel won't just be a matter of changing wheels.
Using the app to set the wheel up was likewise pretty quick and simple. That said, I had to hold my iPhone 5c right up to the hub in order to maintain a Bluetooth connection. As soon as I moved the phone more than a few feet away, that connection was broken. This means that I could not use the app while riding – the wheel still worked, but I couldn't monitor what it was doing.
A FlyKly rep informed me that this is an ongoing problem that the company is still working on – this is backed up by numerous user complaints that are posted on the app's App Store page.
Hitting the road
The first time I tried actually riding with the Smart Wheel, there were a few problems – my not-worn-out chain skipped against the wheel's single sprocket, the motor would kick in even when I was just walking with my bike (causing it to alarmingly rear up on its back wheel), and the hub ultimately just seized up and stopped working.
This could be due to the fact that it was a well-used somewhat-buggy demo unit, so the company promptly sent me another one. It had none of those problems, working just as advertised. It automatically kicked in according to how much torque I was applying, amplifying my pedaling power. Hills were definitely easier than they would be otherwise, as was starting up from stops.
One thing that should be noted, however: whatever your bike was beforehand, putting the Smart Wheel onto it makes it into a singlespeed. I had initially thought that I'd still be able to go back and forth between my two front chainrings, but going into the small one put the chain at too much of a lateral angle, causing it to scrape against the inside of the front derailleur.
In the case of my bike, the gear ratio I ended up with consisted of a combination of my 46-tooth big chainring and the Smart Wheel's stock 18-tooth sprocket. While this is an OK cruising gear, it definitely made hill-climbing harder than it would have been in a lower gear. Although most hills were still relatively easy, I did have to stand up and hammer on some of the steeper ones, and my cadence slowed way down. Casual commuters using the same setup would definitely work up a sweat.
Battery life was roughly what I expected, based on FlyKly's claims. Because the battery pack isn't user-removable, riders do have to take their whole bike indoors when the wheel needs more juice.
The Smart Wheel is available in three sizes, with a grey or white hub, for US$1,099.
If I were in the market I'd probably at least wait until the reviews start coming in for Superpedestrian's much-ballyhooed Copenhagen Wheel, to see how it stacks up. Even if the FlyKly does ultimately come out on top, potential buyers might still want to wait until the connectivity issue is fixed – plus they might want to swap in a smaller chainring.
Product page: FlyKly Smart Wheel