What’s the ultimate thrill for a biker who’s also a cyclist? Testing two e-bikes in the same week. Michael MacIntyre found himself in charge of two very different models from the stable of Vintage Electric, a US e-bike manufacturer specialising in retro e-bikes.
Vintage Electric claims it has the fastest e-bikes available on the market. For the e-(i)lliterate, an e-bike is a normal bicycle fitted with an electric motor and battery to assist the cyclist while he or she pedals.
E-bikes normally have a speed restrictor to allow legal riding on public roads, without a license or vehicle registration. In South Africa the speed has to be limited to 25 km/h under motor power and the bicycle has to weigh less than 40kg.
The two models we tested were the Cafe and the Tracker models, which my wife decided are Betty Rizzo and Danny, from the film and musical Grease.
Differences between the Cafe and Tracker
The Cafe (Betty) is a traditional-looking commuter bicycle with a comfortable, upright riding position. She’s fitted with the necessary parts for cycling in workwear: mudguards, chain guard and lights. Barely recognisable as an e-bike, she is tall and trim, with a well-designed battery unit that fits above the bottom bracket, easily removable.
The Golden Gate Red paint and cream colour tyres of our test bike divulged nothing of the potent acceleration of this she-wolf in sheeps clothing. You’ll arrive at work with your leather satchel, without a single bead of sweat on your brow.
The design of Danny the Tracker is reminiscent of the early 20th century broad-track racing motorbikes. Think Flying Merkel and early Harley-Davidsons. The Tracker has an even stronger retro vibe going, with his fat tyres and big, elaborate battery housing that mimics the shape of a V-twin engine. But to my demise the beefy tires and stocky frame make it hard for Danny to catch up with the girls. He’s heavy, at 36kg, so two of us were needed to load him on the back of a 4×4 Isuzu, to prevent possible damage to bike or bakkie in the process. The battery doesn’t detach, like the Cafe’s.
The Tracker does have a race mode option that gives the rider a power increase for private roads. So, on your private estate, you’ll get to use all of the 3000 watts the hub motor has to offer. But back where everyone can see you, you have to restrict yourself to 750 watts. Perhaps you’d be happy about this power limit, as it gives passers-by enough time to get a good look at you, and there is still enough power to run at 35 km/h.
How much power is just right?
The Cafe is the practical, long-distance commuter, where the Tracker is for the retro-loving, image-conscious e-biker for whom looks take preference over simplicity and efficiency. Each is fitted with a rear hub motor that engages the moment you start turning the crank by applying force to the pedals. The power is fed in smoothly and the control unit is a small and elegant box on the left-hand side of the handlebar, with a few buttons and a small LCD display. It shows speed, distance, charge and the assistance level. The latter is controlled by up/down buttons, to adjust assistance from 1 (least) to 5 (most). All you have to do is rotate the crank. You’re cycling after all, right?
Perhaps the toughest question I pondered, while having the bikes on test, was how far and fast the battery would take me before I had to seriously engage my gastrocnemius muscles (calves), i.e. when the battery’s charge reaches zero. Look, you can pretty much cycle from Cape Town to Worcester (112km) without emptying the battery, if you work your legs really hard. But I wanted a more practical, real-life use case: How fast can I complete a return trip from Somerset West to Stellenbosch (a typical commute of 42km, return), managing the electric power delivery to last the distance?
A commuter’s test with the Cafe
The Cafe – light and fast – was my weapon of choice. I set out in correct hipster attire: unshaven, selvedge jeans, boots, denim jacket and matching retro helmet and goggles. My mission? Break some Strava records and upset the local cycling scene.
Early in my ride I realised I’d have to manage the assistance level carefully to avoid using human energy to drag an unusually heavy bicycle back home later. Riding on level 5 would have emptied the battery in no time, wrecking my carefree image. Level 2 would have required furious pedalling, making me regret wearing the unventilated retro helmet.
In the end I found a happy medium around level 3, sometimes switching up for a boost uphill, and winning a couple King of the Mountain Crowns on Strava and posting an average speed of 37 km/h. Pretty impressive with flat pedals and wearing jeans. It took me roughly an hour to complete the journey, with no need for a shower afterwards.
The Cafe is an excellent commuter tool. You can easily travel 40 km on it without recharging. No traffic jams, no excess sweat (and associated smell) at the office, and the ultimate energy and image boost. And you do your bit to save us all from global warming. If you want a simple way to get around, spare the lactic acid in your calves and the anti-chafing cream, get yourself an e-bike. If you want high performance and timeless design on top of that, get a Vintage Electric.
VINTAGE ELECTRIC CAFE
Frame Chromoly steel
Weight 24 kg
Brakes Shimano hydraulic disc brakes
Drivetrain Direct-drive 750W hub motor
Battery size 500 watt hours
Hours to charge 2 hours
Range on full charge 32km – 96km
Price R 59 000
VINTAGE ELECTRIC TRACKER
Frame Hydro-formed aluminium
Weight 36 kg
Brakes Promax Lucid hydraulic disc brakes
Drivetrain 750W hub motor (3000W Race Mode)
Battery size 720 watt hours
Hours to charge 3 hours
Range on full charge 40km – 80km
Price R89 000
For more information and full specs, visit Vintage Electric.
Michael MacIntyre is a project engineer who lives and works in Somerset West. He has owned various bikes and scooters, including a Husqvarna SM 450R and a Honda Super Cub. His project bike is a Honda CB 550 that he’s converting into a café racer. He’s an avid mountain biker too.