This week marks my 14th anniversary with my Surly Long Haul Trucker. This is a picture of us on our first ride together (yes, New Orleans in February is sometimes warm enough to dress like that!). A friend met me for a photo shoot, and this is me, on my bike, talking on the phone to someone about how amazing my new bike is. I imagine I was talking to my dad, who was even more excited about the bike than I was. His motto was always “shop often, buy once,” and he had done a lot of shopping on my behalf. It was between this bike and the Trek 520–I don’t even remember why a touring bike was deemed necessary–and the LHT was a few hundred bucks cheaper, and dad’s good friend Tom rode it, so voila, my new bike! I ordered it from Bicycle Michael’s on Frenchman Street, paid half in cash from the six hundred dollar bills my dad sent me in the mail–always cash in the mail because as a former postal officer, he trusted the U.S. Mail like no one I have ever known.
The bike and I were fast friends, once I moved the seat up from where it is in this picture. We have been on so many adventures. We went bike camping in Mississippi in December. We rode the Tammany Trace so often I became the Four Square Mayor of the Red Roof Inn in Covington, LA. We toured the Adirondacks together, rode rail trails all over the Mid Atlantic region, took trips to the Eastern shore, Boston, Niagara Falls, Paris, and more, and we have ridden up and down so many streets over and over again. The place I feel most at home and like myself is this bicycle.
And I’m getting older, and my knees are starting to talk, and sometimes I fantasize about one of those electric bikes. I had my first spin on one at my grandfather’s funeral in the late 1990s, if that’s possible. An uncle brought a prototype and I zipped around the parking lot of the church where we ate food and drank too much as we said goodbye to George. It was cool, but I wasn’t a bike rider yet and so didn’t think about it after I hopped off of it.
Then there were the electric bikes in various bike share systems. Bike share bikes are incredibly heavy, and though I am grateful for bike shares that have let me ride in Denver, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Baltimore, and New York City, a little incline and I’m struggling with those weighty machines. And then I rode an electric one. Wow. One pedal and I was zooming up the hill in Baltimore. The ease! The speed! The joy! I loved it. But does it count as “riding a bike?” What would my dad say, the man who told me to never, ever, ever walk a bike up a hill when there’s a lower gear left to try? The older I get, though, the less I feel like I have to prove. When my dad died, I got his bike tour journal. It was a new one and had only a few entries in it, but one was from a hotel room where he was staying to charge his phone, talk to his wife, and get a good night’s sleep. He was a purist, but he also took a break. I cannot begin to express how good it has been for me to see that tiny entry from a rainy night in some tiny town in Montana.
So I started to idly look for an electric bike. The thing is, I want to ride my bike, not some new fangled machine. I have spent hours and hours looking at the internet for kits to convert the bike I already have into an electric one. There are ways to do it, but they required a skill set I didn’t feel like acquiring–including patience. Not my strong suit.
Then I stumbled on the Swytch electric bike conversion kit. It seemed like it would solve all of my problems. It was touted as incredibly easy to install and able to make any bike an electric one. The kits are incredibly popular, and I put myself on the wait list to get notified when they were on sale again. I’d get a bunch of reminder emails to place my order in the tight ordering window, and I’d spend hours on sale morning reading reviews, figuring out if “any bike” would include mine, doing the math to see if I could afford it. And then I wouldn’t pull the trigger, and I’d wait for the next sales window, and I’d start all over again.
And then they offered me their newest kit to test ride in exchange for this review. This one promised to be even lighter and sleeker than the original kit, and I was already buzzing about it. It was like winning the jackpot! A dream come true! I got to spend some time with my Swytch kit to see if it would live up to my expectations. I’d have to send it back, but I’d know if I liked it enough to buy it, and I had secret hopes for a “mate’s rate” when I ordered my own. So, let me finally tell you what it was like to ride my Surly LHT with a Swytch on it for a couple of months.
The kit arrived in a big box filled with little boxes to hold all the parts of the kit. The main thing is the front wheel that replaces the front wheel on the bike you already have. These are built to order, so knowing your own bike wheel dimensions is essential. I was sure I’d do it wrong, so I asked my local bike shop to confirm my numbers–26″ wheel, 10mm spacing–and that’s the wheel I got. I very quickly swapped out my front wheel, easy peasy. The rest of the system was also incredibly easy to put on my bike. I just screwed the battery pack holder on the front handlebars, put the pedal sensor on the pedal, hooked up some wires to connect them, and was basically ready to go. It was incredibly quick and easy, even for someone like me who gets frustrated much faster than I want to. I walked it over to the bike shop for confirmation that all was safe, and they tightened up a few things for me, adjusted my brakes, told me I could take one of their electric bikes for a few weeks to test ride–I’ll have to take them up on that–and I was off.
And oh, was I off! The electric assist on this thing is amazing, and it was really easy to adjust how much assist I was getting. One of my worries about the electric bike was that it wouldn’t feel like riding a bike anymore, but I love riding a bike and didn’t want to lose that feel. I could keep the assist turned off, and with a little push of a button I could increase the assist. I quickly stopped shifting gears and let the electric assist make up the difference. I was speeding up the hills that even after years of riding up and down them are sometimes a struggle. This was especially exciting after long work days when dragging myself home is not always as fun as I make it out to be on this blog.
When I got home after my first ride I was all smiles and excitement. I said to my ladyfriend, “THIS IS LIFE-CHANGING,” and I meant it. I don’t need an electric bike, but at some point I’m going to want one, and Swytch means I can have one and still ride my favorite bicycle. It made my daily riding so much easier, and I could see immediately how it would extend my range. Total game changer.
I spent the next two months riding my Swytch-ed bike like I rode my bike before. We did daily commutes and longer rides for pleasure. We went on rail trails and regular streets, up and down hills, in traffic and in parks. I got used to what amount of assist I needed to get the boost while still getting my heart rate up. I cannot stress this enough–riding my bike with this kit felt like riding a bike. I was not suddenly on a scooter or not working at all. I was still riding my bike, just with a little assist.
Like anything, it wasn’t perfect, at least for me. I don’t like to leave anything that can be taken off my bike on my bike when I lock it up outside, which meant carrying the battery pack and handlebar control around with me all day. That was fine, but also added some extra steps when locking and unlocking my bike in the city. The kit comes with two batteries–a smaller blue one and larger orange one. The smaller one has a range of about ten miles, the orange about twenty. I ran out of power a couple of times when I forgot to charge the battery or though I wasn’t going that far, and that was a bummer. That’s on me–sometimes I forget to charge things. When I get a kit of my own, I’ll likely order a second charger to keep at work so I can charge both directions.
Also, sometimes the kick just wasn’t there, or it felt a little jumpy. I think this was an issue with the alignment of the pedal sensor, or maybe with my pedal stroke when going uphill. It isn’t a great surprise to be expecting electric assist and then to not get it. This didn’t happen much, but it did happen, and my guess is it wouldn’t happen with a purpose-built electric bike. But I wanna ride my bike, so Swytch is still how I’ll go when I go electric, I think.
My other big worry about the kit was that it would make my bike too heavy to ride as a regular bike. The front wheel is heavier, since that’s where the motor is, but it wasn’t a huge difference. I noticed it when turning my bike around on its rear wheel, but otherwise it wasn’t a big deal. I have center pull brakes, and it definitely took a bit more to stop, especially if electric assist had just kicked in. Going through brake pads more quickly is hardly a problem, but that was something else I noticed.
The Swytch kit turned out to be just as described. It’s easy to put on a bike, easy to take off, and it indeed makes your bike an e-bike. It will make riding so much easier for me as my body requests increased ease. I took the kit off and went for my first ride without it recently, and it was like a homecoming. The Swytch was still my bike, but it also wasn’t quite my bike, and it felt so good to be back on my bike again, as it was built and meant to be. It isn’t time yet for my Swytch, but I’m so happy to know that when it is, the Surly LHT and I will still be able to continue our adventures together.