Felt LEBOWSKe 10: The battery-powered fatbike
There aren’t many worthwhile revelations that start with “Oh, I’ll just take that one”, but this was exactly how my e-bike epiphany began. My summer interlude consisted of working on a database migration between virtual machines, in the low season at lafainera.ch, a Swiss sports and outdoor retailer. It wasn’t going to be a quick in-and-out job – given the opportunity, the guys there really take the shop apart.
Getting back to the chalet at lunchtime presented me with two options. Option A: rent a bike and pedal to the top of the hill under my own steam – an unpleasant and borderline– suicidal prospect at altitude, never mind with a dodgy knee. Option B: saddle up with one of La Fainera’s fleet of battery-powered e-bikes.
Naturally, I plumped for the e-bike option. However, all that was left for hire was the Felt LEBOWSKe; an e-fatbike, a genetically modified mountain bike with an electric motor and outsized 4in tyres, designed to take snow, sand and loose terrain in its big-tyred stride. Only one problem: it wasn’t even snowy. Undeterred, I took it outside, figured out how to adjust the RockShox hydraulic dropper seatpost, jumped onboard and pedalled off.
The sheer speed of the thing came as some surprise. Despite huge tyres designed to search out every last drop of friction, the LEBOWSKe’s pace took me unawares, prompting an involuntary “Woah!” as I sped off.
Chewing the fat
Once I was out of sight, I took stock of the machine. A small Bosch motor in a custom bottom bracket about the size of a big electric drill; a hilariously small front sprocket and a wide-ratio 11-speed rear cassette. And those tyres: they would look oversized on a moped.
In addition to the usual hydraulic brake levers and single Sram X01 gear shifter, there’s a central display and a separate three-button unit on the left of the handlebar. This is for changing the information display (I spotted that someone had got this thing up to 55km/h), and adjusting the level of electric assistance, on the fly, without letting go of the bars.
I’m mostly a sea-level rider, and my earlier visits to the Engadin in Switzerland (average elevation: 2,500 metres) had rapidly taught me that exuberant exercise was for the locals, and altitude-acclimatised masochist tourists. But the LEBOWSKe quite literally levels the playing field: even though it only adds electric boost when you’re putting in some effort by pedalling, the top level of boost (labelled “Turbo”) takes this 53-year-old back to the way cycling felt in his teenage years. When this happens at an altitude where only 80% of atmospheric pressure is available, that’s some achievement.
“The system’s killer trick is that it dynamically varies the level of assist according to how much power you push through the pedals.”
I quickly worked through the other levels. “Eco” is the lowest and is claimed to be only a 50% assist – al though it’s not clear from either Felt or Bosch e-bike systems what this is 50% of; the system’s killer trick is that it dynamically varies the level of assist according to how much power you push through the pedals. Effectively, you never get the feeling that the power is running away with you. “Eco” certainly extends the range of the battery pack, and the rider, on level surfaces – I believed that an excursion to St Moritz, some 15km away, was trivially within reach. The team at La Fainera confirmed that they get more than 50km per recharge, in the hands of some pretty aggressive riders.
Going up in the world
Playing with the other assist modes required me to deviate from the flatter trails and start to do some serious climbing. There’s no shortage of this in the area, and once again this silly old duffer was quite carried away by what was possible when you know you’re not going to run out of legs and lungs: going for a ride with friends quickly turned into an exercise in waiting at the top of each hill for them to catch up.
Here lies my only real criticism of the LEBOWSKe implementation of electric assist. The 11-speed rear mechanism is extremely broad, but Felt and Bosch have implemented a minimum speed below which the electric assistance doesn’t kick in – so where my unpowered friends could go right down to the bottom cog and spin up the steep bits, nicely balanced and smoothly powered by their own muscles, I was unable to do the same. It was either get off and push very slowly, or engage Turbo mode and hit the hill at about 15km/h, hoping that any bumps or berms would be spottable well in advance.
“That’s what electric assist is all about – pushing the boundaries; going further and faster than your own two legs ever could.”
This kind of approach is fine for well-defined tractor trails, but go deeper into the woods and you may find yourself moving a tad too fast for more technical challenges. Many other implementations of this kind of electric assist don’t suffer this issue; perhaps I was pushing the envelope of this particular design a tad too far. But then, that’s what electric assist is all about – pushing the boundaries; going further and faster than your own two legs ever could.
When I baulked at the price tag for the LEBOWSKe 10 (which is currently a cool £3,800) and observed its curious blend of fashion-conscious looks and go-anywhere utility, La Fainera’s boss, Kevin Weiner (that’s him in the winter picture below, at the head of the Engadiner Marathon) explained that he was similarly surprised by the bike once he realised what it let him do in snow. “I realised this was a bike I could ride all year round.”
Image credit: Mark Raab (https://vimeo.com/mkrsports)
Of course, for Kevin the snow-neutralising combination of fat tyres and electric assist is invaluable: he can run his outdoor events mounted on the bike all day, zipping from checkpoint to checkpoint. For my part I wasn’t entirely convinced – until, that is, I discovered that my first couple of days of e-biking had been on tyres filled with a mere 5psi.
A quick blast up to a more sensible 15psi and the LEBOWSKe was transformed into a far more responsive creature: I found myself pondering the contents of my piggy bank; dreaming about riding another two days deep into the mountain passes, right up to the cable-car pylon bases nestled in the surrounding peaks. Something this middle-aged cyclist had never even thought of as a possibility, before this e-fatbike came along.