I’ve long been a fan of electric bicycles, which incorporate motors to assist with pedaling and sometimes add throttles for pedal-free, moped-like propulsion. Though I wouldn’t want to use an e-bike for the bulk of my riding—I am addicted to my traditional road bike workouts—I love hopping on a motorized two-wheeler to zip across town without becoming drenched in sweat.
Some fancier e-bikes even have companion apps that you can install on your iPhone to customize how your ride feels, decide how far and how quickly you can go, and track your progress over time. Such apps essentially turn the bike into a gigantic iPhone accessory.
You’ll pay dearly for the privilege. Bicycling estimates a good e-bike will cost at least $1500—and a top-shelf model with a motor system from a major manufacturer will increase that minimum to $2500. E-bikes with apps typically slot into the $2500 to $5500 range.
Is it worth it? Many will happily dispense with the apps if it saves them money on the hardware, and you don’t need software to have a blast on an e-bike. But for those who can afford it, such app-based functionality turns e-bike riding into a high-tech adventure.
I tried out a couple of e-bikes that incorporate app-based ride customization and tracking, and I had a lot of fun.
One of these, the Gocycle GXi from boutique maker Karbon Kinetics, is aimed at casual cyclists who may want to use it on their multi-stage commutes or weekend outings. The other, the Turbo Vado SL from bicycling behemoth Specialized, is intended more for avid bicyclists who want to go anywhere, from city streets to gravel trails.
Prices here are in the nosebleed zone, with the Gocycle GXi listing for $4799 and the Turbo Vado costing between $3600 and $4750, depending on components. Ouch.
But if these bikes are too expensive for you or not quite your style, keep in mind that Gocycle and Specialized offer app connectivity on all of their e-bikes, some of which cost less.
Gocycle: Tiny, Collapsible Dynamos
Unlike e-bikes that look like familiar road bikes, touring bikes, or cruisers, Gocycle models have a scooter-like step-in design that accommodates just about anyone with just a seat adjustment.
Gocycle e-bikes are “foldables” in that they collapse for loading onto a bus or train, or to stash in a car trunk for weekend outings. This is a bit of a production on older models such as the Gocycle G3+ but is easier on newer models such as my GX1 loaner and its GX predecessor. It also applies to new G4-series models that Gocycle announced as this article neared completion; they have essentially the same folding mechanism.
With all of these models, the bike body and handlebars collapse into a compact bundle that can be wheeled around like a travel suitcase, with the seat as a handle. Boarding a bus or train is then straightforward, though a bit of a chore if you have to lift the 38.6-pound package.
Notable Gocycle GXi features include a maximum range of about 50 miles and a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour that makes it legal on many US bike paths that do not allow higher-speed bikes. The new G4 models have similar specs.
Along with power-assist pedaling, the GXi also has a throttle, meaning you can shift into a moped-style mode with the twist of a knob on the left handlebar to move without pedaling—but that will quickly drain the battery. A knob on the right handlebar cycles through three electronic gears and adjusts the headlight’s intensity.
Some Gocycle e-bikes, including the GXi and the higher-end G4i and G4i+, incorporate a digital readout—what the company calls a “cockpit”—that displays colored dots to give you vital information. At a glance, you can assess battery-charge and power-assist levels, plus gear selection and headlight intensity. When the bike is turned on but idle, red dots bounce right and left on the cockpit—making it look a bit like a Battlestar Galactica Cylon.
There’s a Graph For That
The Gocycle bikes’ phone-based controllability via its GocycleConnect app is one of their best features. The bikes don’t need the app nearby to operate, but you must pair it (via Bluetooth) before modifying the bike’s settings.
The GocycleConnect app displays three standard ride modes, and you can create and save others. The modes determine when and to what extent the motor is activated, which affects your range. You customize modes via an editor with an interactive graph that may take you a few moments to grok if math wasn’t your jam in high school.
The vertical y-axis shows, percentage-wise, to what degree the battery should be engaged. The horizontal x-axis displays, numerically, the pedaling effort in watts. To tweak how the bicycle behaves—that is, when and to what degree the battery kicks in to help on the ride—you move sliders at the bottom and top of the graph.
The standard City mode is a good example. With the lower slider at 100 out of 600 watts on the x-axis, only a small amount of pedaling effort activates the motor. With the upper slider at 200 watts, revving the motor to 100% needs only a moderate additional increase in pedaling exertion. This is a nice mode for regular riding, but it will limit how far you can go.
(For context, an average fit cyclist might be able to average 250–300 watts for a 20-minute test, whereas pros usually average about 400 watts, and top racers can approach 2000 watts for short sprints.)
Compare that with the standard Eco mode. With the lower slider set at a modest 200 watts on the x-axis, you have to make a concerted but not Herculean pedaling effort to engage the motor. But, with the upper slider all the way to the right at 600 watts, you would really have to up your pedaling game for full motor assistance. This boosts range and gives you a decent workout.
The On Demand mode is the most difficult, with both sliders at 600 watts. It requires vigorous pedaling and provides no option to engage the throttle.
The graph’s adjustability means you can spend a fun few hours configuring additional modes, which you’d save as personal presets. Don’t forget to tap the Sync to Gocycle button so your modes transfer to the e-bike.
Scroll down on the mode editor screen to find a separate control for setting the bicycle’s maximum speed, which can be 20 mph or lower.
Fitness buffs who are also data geeks will love all the information the app provides, including current speed, average speed, cadence, calories burned, mileage, average power in watts, and equivalent auto miles per gallon for a bit of eco-smugness.
Fourteen data options are available—and you can display any eight at once with the app in portrait mode. As you ride, you will aggregate weekly and all-time totals for each of the categories.
Rotate the phone to a landscape orientation, and the app will morph into a dashboard you can use while you ride (Gocycle offers a handlebar mounting kit).
The dashboard displays your current speed, average speed, current gear, charge level, and more. It has a bit of interactivity: Tap the lower right to change riding modes and the lower left to choose among four headlight settings to change intensity and whether the lamp starts flashing.
The iPhone dashboard is not a must-have since the integrated Cylon readout provides quite a bit of information, but you’ll definitely want to use it on models that lack the cockpit. Again, the fact that app-based customizability is standard across the Gocycle line means there are options for those with tighter budgets.
Turbo Vado SL: Power with Grace and Subtlety
Specialized, one of the best-known brands in bicycling, has an exponentially larger lineup than Karbon Kinetics. In recent years, Specialized has branched into e-bikes and now offers models suitable for various riding styles: mountain, road, and what it describes as “active,” in the sense that users are mainstream and typically urban.
The Specialized Turbo Vado SL is at the apex of that “active” category, with a design that will appeal to dedicated cyclists who require a high-quality hybrid—part road bike, part gravel bike, part commuting rig—for paved and off-road adventures.
Notable Turbo Vado SL features include a maximum range of 80 miles, a top speed of 28 miles per hour (which will get you pulled over for speeding on some bike paths), the lack of a throttle (which I did not miss), a reasonably lightweight design at 33 to 38 pounds, and dead-simple operation.
The top tube incorporates a power button along with illuminated readouts. One of these shows battery level via 10 stacked blue bars. Another is a circle that fills in partly or totally, depending on how much the battery is engaged. This is indicated via three modes—Eco, Sport, and Turbo. Eco provides the most range but the least amount of pedaling help, while Turbo offers the most power at the greatest expense of battery life. Press the circle to shift among the modes.
You can also engage the modes on the left handlebar using a small shifter that a casual observer might mistake for a gear changer or bell button.
An App With “Smart Control”
You can summon bike data via the Turbo Vado SL’s app, called Mission Control. If your Turbo Vado SL does not have the optional physical display, pairing the app with the bike with Bluetooth is a bit of a chore. You have to unscrew and pull out a panel on the top tube to find the pairing code.
Specialized’s Mission Control app functions much like GocycleConnect, though it is more streamlined in design and easier to comprehend and offers some features unavailable to GocycleConnect users.
A Tune screen lets you access the same Eco, Sport, and Turbo modes found via the physical bicycle controls—but, in the app, each of the modes is adjustable. You can tweak how much battery support and peak power each provides. You can create new modes, as well, and give them names, similar to what you would do in GocycleConnect.
The Ride screen in the app lets you plan an outing and stay on top of the data it is generating. Its stats screen displays your current speed, distance, battery level, time from start, and more. A map shows your location.
My Rides archives your outings, including maps, and each ride can be exported via email in a .fit file format used by certain fitness-tracking devices—like the Garmin Edge and Forerunner.
By far the most interesting and useful part of Mission Control is Smart Control. It lets you automate battery consumption based on a range of factors, so you are assured of having sufficient juice to complete a ride, and then some.
For instance, you can tell Mission Control roughly how long a ride will last, how much distance you will cover, or what you want your maximum heart rate to be (using an external sensor you provide). Within each of these categories, you can adjust subfactors, like elevation, climb response, and how much battery charge you want remaining at the end. The e-bike then metes out the required amount of power for the entirety of the outing, regardless of what conditions you encounter.
I tested Smart Control on a 50-mile eastward ride from my St. Paul home to Stillwater, a town on the Mississippi River bordering Wisconsin. Not entirely trusting the app, I gave it a shorter ride distance and generously padded the “battery remaining at the end of the ride.” Predictably, I had ample juice at the ride’s midpoint, so I turned off Smart Control and rocketed home on full, manual Turbo mode with charge to spare. Whee!
I put more faith in Mission Control on subsequent rides, punching in precise Smart Control settings, and battery consumption ensued as expected. It’s a worthwhile feature.
The Turbo Vado SL does not depend as much on Mission Control as the Gocycle GXi relies on its app. In fact, you would never need to use Mission Control, or even know it exists, to derive nearly full enjoyment from the bike. This makes The Turbo Vado SL an e-bike for geeks and Luddites alike.
The Bottom Line
I conclude by stating the obvious: Wow, these bikes are expensive! That is partly because the Gocycle GXi and Turbo Vado SL are computers on wheels.
For a bit of perspective, though, consider that some Specialized road and mountain bikes run into the tens of thousands of dollars, without electric motors. And of course, an electric bike might enable some people to avoid owning a far more expensive car.
In comparison with a high-end bike or a car, a Turbo Vado SL is an aspirational but not unattainable purchase for average folks who mind their budgets, and other Specialized models cost less. The company has just released the Como SL model that starts at $4000 and is compatible with the Mission Control app. Earlier Como models are still available and retail for as little as $3250.
Likewise, it’s easy to get into a Gocycle at a lower cost. Gocycle’s entry-level G4 retails for $3999. Discontinued models may be available from third-party retailers, and those include the GX for $3299 and the GS for $2799, not counting any discounts those vendors might offer. (The GXi also is now in the discontinued category, but third-party retailers should continue to carry it for a while and may offer discounts.)
The apps are a bonus and greatly enhance the experience for those inclined to master their intricacies. In fact, if you plan to buy in this price range, I would rule out any e-bike that didn’t provide such functionality in this high-tech day and age.
But Gocycle and Specialized have drastically different philosophies with their apps, something you should keep in mind when considering e-bikes from either company for use by family members of varying technical proficiencies.
Using a Gocycle GXi or one of its siblings almost requires you to interact with the app, without which it’s harder to get the most out of the bike. Specialized, on the other hand, requires less reliance on its Mission Control app. Those who don’t care about it needn’t put it on their phones, and they’ll extract nearly full enjoyment from the Turbo Vado SL or other models.
Regardless, e-bikes with app-based customizability are a blast and definitely worth considering if your budget permits.