Electrified Pelotons?

By Bill Moore

Posted: 02 Jun 2010

Electric bicycles are heavy, cumbersome, and well, obviously electric. They have large, visible battery packs, motors, gauges and control throttles. There's no way you can confuse a regular pedal bicycle with an electric-assist version… or can you?

That's the question stirring up European cycling associations. Have riders found the mechanical/electrical equivalent of "doping" that gives them an unfair edge over the competition? The video below purports to show that at least one racing cyclist, Fabian Cancellara may have surreptitiously exploited a new form of electric-assist that is virtually invisible to the eye and weighs nearly nothing.

The cycling world has been buzzing about this topic ever since Davide Cassani, a retired professional rider, stepped forward to say he's actually ridden such a bicycle, one equipped, it's been presumed with something akin to Gruber Assist technology, depicted below. The 200W motor and batteries are housed inside the bike's 31.8 mm tubular frame. The control button is usually mounted, very unobtrusively on the handlebars. One click turns on the assist, a second turns it off. The entire unit weighs just 900 grams or just a hair under 2 pounds.

View of Gruber Assist system

According to Cassani, who not only saw the modified bicycle, but also claims to have ridden the machine, supposedly developed by a Hungarian. Quotes The New York Times

“Unbelievable,” he gushed. “You press a button and the bicycle quickly picks up speed. All you have to do is keep your legs in sync on the pedals. You move at 50 kilometers an hour without effort, without strain.” Fifty k.p.h., or 31 miles an hour, is almost 10 k.p.h. above the usual speed of a race.

“I’m 50 years old,” Cassani said, “and if I was the only one using this bicycle I could easily finish a stage in the Giro or a classic.”

Cassani is not alone in taking the bicycle for a spin. “Its designer told me that it’s been around since 2004 and that some riders have used it in races,” he said.

The designer, that would be whom? “He wouldn’t tell me if he was an engineer or simply a do-it-yourself handyman. All I know is that he’s of Hungarian origin.”

At this point, no solid evidence exists that anyone in the professional cycling community is cheating by using a hidden electric assist system like that developed by Gruber. The company claims their 200W drive system can run for anywhere from 45 minutes to an hour and a half at a steady cadence of 60 rpm using the lithium-ion battery built into the seat post-attached saddle bag. Readers on the Cozy Beehive Blog have vigorously debated the feasibility of such a drive system; the more technically-minded will find the discussion interesting, though unresolved.

Has electric-assist secretly invaded the peloton? At this point, it's still an open question.

While using electric assist to enhance one's performance (cheat) in a conventional bicycle race clearly is wrong, the introduction of lighter e-drive systems like a Gruber Assist, can make cycling more practical for many more people, extending the health and wellness benefits of bicycling to a population of increasingly obese, out-of-shape individuals around the world.

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