8 min read
Full Throttle

by William Thomas

 Moments before a championship race, with monster motorcycles revving to ear-piercing shrieks in the pits, perhaps the most formidable rider ever to strap two wheels to his armoured rump kneels on the pavement before a nearly sentient Yamaha. Resting his full-face helmet on the front fender, the rider from a picture-perfect Italian village who calls himself "The Doctor" wraps both race-suited arms around his bright blue bike. Within minutes, he will be hurtling toward the first turn in close company at 230 mph. But Valentino Rossi is not praying for his life. He is bonding with his million-dollar machine. 

     So it's not surprising that moments before my own first ride on my new Voltbike, which will soon see us both plunging downhill toward the cove's sharp left-hander, I too kneel before an unblemished fat front tire with my helmet visor tilted back in the pose of a knight of yore. Like Rossi, I am not invoking the deities of two-wheel locomotion. Having taken delivery of this replacement for its disabled predecessor in the rain and dark last evening, it’s way too late for divine intercession to spare me from this eleven-hundred-dollar (bare bike) decision and the gravel pressing into both knees of my jeans. Instead, from the vantage of an indulgence-seeking supplicant, I am staring up with hope and wonder at the reason I've forsaken my valiant Voltbike Mariner for this Mk II upgrade. 


During the hour I've spent going over every inch of my new Mariner, I've noted the newly added derailleur guard, “0” PAS setting, bigger latches on the stem and crosstube hinges, and a twist-throttle with kill switch. 

     Both "flame-throwing" auxiliary headlights, red rear blinker, crash-resistant left-hand mirror, foam handlebar grips, gel-padded cruiser seat (with white sheepskin pad), and bright yellow Rock Bros saddlebag have already been transferred from my well-used Mk I to my virgin Mk II. Last and foremost, I’ve exhumed my unused “spare” Samsung battery and slid it down the launching rail of the Mk II. To boost its longevity, I’m using a Satiator from the good folks at Grin Cycles. 

     This Rolls Royce of all-in-one battery chargers allows optional 85% charging for local rides, which Grin tests show doubles the life of expensive lithium batteries: 85% charge on the Mariner gives me 25 km “hilly” range (down to 1 bar) – vs. 35+km from a full charge. I've oiled the chain, tested the brakes, and – as I've come to expect from Voltbike – found my purchase impeccably set-up before shipping. Everything's tight. Every component meshes. So my full attention remains on that highly modified front end. 


Considering the terrain I will soon be subjecting it to, this bike looks even more capable than its predecessor. Looking up at those big front shocks gives this already rugged conveyance the look of a big black bulldog sitting up alertly, front legs defiantly planted, guarding life and limbs. The plan is for that front suspension to absorb teeth-rattling shocks up on the mountain, without pogo-ing the front end like an overexcited jumping bean.  


Back in the day, heavily armoured knights clanked up and onto their mounts from raised wooden ramps. Or they were hoisted into place like flailing grain sacks using cranes, ropes and windlass. Less encumbered riders mount their Mariners by throwing one leg over the slanting crosstube. With an inseam of 27-inches and shrinking, I’m concerned that the altered stance of the Mk II will require a stepladder to board. 

     No worries. The same modified karate-kick I've used to mount the Mk I works for straddling my new steed. But what's this? The Mk II's seat tube can accommodate riders even shorter than my 5'5". To achieve the best pedaling position (downstroke leg slightly bent), I have to get off and raise the seat. Yes!  


Power On. Third gear selected and PAS set to "2" out of respect for this beast's tree-climbing torque, I shove  down on the left pedal and glide out onto the empty road just as the Pedal Assist comes in.  I've been guessing that with its new 9-pin controller instead of the 6-pin on the Mk I, this latest iteration might feature a softer start. 

     Soft starts are handy for assuring the longevity of the nylon gear-teeth inside that 500-watt Bafang "8 Fun" hub motor. Especially when starting off using the throttle. (Not recommended for the Mk I.) Sure enough, take-off in PAS 2 is clean and smooth. Did I mention, smooth? As the bike gathers speed, the bashed-up rural road I'd been riding for nearly a decade  goes away... 

     My fatbike grin is back. This heavy-duty ebike feels like a Caddie rolling down the road! Glimpse of the Salish Sea ahead. Entering that blind downhill curve at just over 40 kph, I squeeze both binders. The instant, modulated response feels more like the hydraulic brakes on my old Motorino. The Mk II's mechanical discs haul the bike down to a pedestrian-safe velocity as we lean into the waterfront. Hard right turn and bumpety-bump over a speedbump, which registers as a nudge instead of a crash. 

     As the fatbike slows at the end of the gravel-surfaced causeway, I slide my right leg over the crosstube, side-saddle fashion, and dismount just as we come to a stop. This is a slick trick for shorter riders to gently reacquaint themselves with Ma Earth. (Don’t catch your bootheel on the crossbar!) 

     It's a glorious day, sunlight glinting off the mountain-rimmed water as passing crows comment on my new ride. Life is fantastic! Heading back, I try the throttle for the first time. No response. Eh wot? As the bike slows, I remember to push the Red Button before twisting the half-grip.  


The bike smoothly accelerates with the same sensation you felt when your dad removed the training wheels and launched you into your first two-wheel adventure with a gentle yet firm push on your back. I've been worried that up on the mountain, where I depend on blipping the throttle to surmount surprises, a big bump jerking my throttle hand could send me into a tree. Or someone walking her pooch. (First rule of trail ebiking: Don’t hassle hikers!) I find that with the same hand anchored on the stationary half of the grip, I can manipulate the twisty throttle part without fear of an "undesired control input". Or I can just turn it off. Neato! (Except, complains this ever-doubting Thomas, when that kill switch fails, so will the throttle.) Of course, unlike crazily-complex carbon-burners, electric bikes are super-reliable. 

Until they're not.  


So I'm more disappointed than surprised when two weeks or so into my new love affair, the object of my infatuation turns coy. Sometimes the throttle works. Sometimes – no matter how I cajole the Red Button – it doesn’t. I phone George in his busy Burnaby warehouse, where Voltbikes are flying out the door as fast as they can prep and pack each container load. 

     This is Not Good, I tell the man I’ve come to know so well without ever meeting. Up in the deep dark woods, when I need a ton of torque I need it Fright Now! Without a reliable throttle to power me out of trouble, I could run out of forward motion. And capsize. Mountain-bikers know that if they ride enough trails, they will occasionally drop their bike. No biggie. The Mariner is tough. And having calmly stepped off at zero forward speed, most times you can catch your bike before it hits the ground. But as I am about to discover, there are some places where dropping your ride is not a safe option.  


On warranty, I request and receive by return mail a familiar thumb throttle. Installation is plug-'n'-play. First ride after the throttle swap and my grin is back. A thumb throttle can get tiring if held down against its return-spring for long distances. But the Mariner's 9 power settings are so perfectly integrated with that six-speed rear cassette, no further inputs are required for cruising. For zipping up a small hill, thumbing the throttle brings immediate power   unlike having to punch up a PAS setting you’d rather not linger in, given your immediate circumstances. 

     To avoid unintended accelerations into immovable objects, my tactic for navigating local mountain-bike trails studded with helicopter pads to evacuate the fallen: 3rd gear, PAS 2. Blip the throttle if you need extra.  


Because I live on a hilly isle webbed by mountain-bike trails, more than half my Voltbiking is done off-pavement. But even smoother bike paths can surprise riders with tree roots cleverly offset to shove the front tire sideways. A bulbous fat front tire will gleefully skip aside. Just keep your grip and the fatbike will easily keep its feet. A jerk on the bars hauls it back on course. (If you suddenly encounter an angled bump too late to avoid, don’t side-swipe it. Stand on the pedals to unload the bike, turn in and hop it head-on.)  

TRUE CONFESSIONSThe reasons this car-free geezer’s been in such a hurry to get back on the road with this upstart fatbike are: 1. Haul my 17-foot, 85-pound modified Grumman canoe up from the cove for winter storage. 2. Vanquish bone-jarring trails. Especially the downhill connector linking an intermediate two-track with the beginner-rated Beulah Creek trail. 


Just thinking about that shortcut has sucked some  of the pleasure out of my rides. Fairly steep and cut by jagged ruts, this gravel-bedevilled descent is further booby-trapped by loose rocks and exposed roots cunningly laid like angled railway ties to upend evasive maneuvers. It’s the kind of surface that makes duffers ask themselves, “Why am I?” 

     Now, with those front shocks swallowing each pothole as daintily as a debutante eating lemon meringue pie, I’m wondering why I ever rode a bicycle without front suspension. With the tires inflated to nearly twice my Mk I’s 8 PSI, this compact fatbike is quicker on pavement and still less harsh off-road than my softer shod Mk I. (Try using 10-12 PSI for rough trails.) Though hard-pressed by repeated blows, those bomb-proof shocks keep the formerly hippety-hopping front wheel firmly on the undulating ground. 

     My aversion to teeth-rattling discomfort is replaced by loud laughter. By the time we make the swooping left onto Beulah, I am sold on this already-sold bike. But when bumping over bigger obstacles the front end seems to be bottoming out with a slight but noticeable thunk. It’s a simple matter to dismount and dial-in one full turn of extra stiffness on the shock’s adjustment dial. But as sporadic light bumps continue I realize this is not the suspension reaching the limits of its travel – it’s the slight jolt of both springs re-extending to their stops. I dismiss this new normal and settle back to enjoy the ride. (I don’t even notice it now.) 


Weeks later, I’m not sure what’s going to happen when I ride down to meet King in the cove. Within an hour, we’ve unlashed the outrigger and iako crossbeams, unstepped the mast and sail, removed both batteries, both solar panels and 55-pound-thrust trolling motor and stowed all components in his Volksie van. 

     Then, with the help of two bystanders, we hump my water baby up to the road. With this outrageously long seacraft lashed firmly to its own wheels, and the trailer hitched to the Mariner II’s seatpost, I cautiously head for the sharp uphill turn leading home. This crazy bike doesn’t even register the load

     Defying gravity, I make the turn, choose PAS 9, and continue pedaling easily uphill. When we hit 24 kph, I decide I’d better slow down… OH VERY YES!

     With Electra safely back in the yard, King drives in with the chase van to find me hopping around screaming like the kid who’s just discovered there really is a Santa.  


Maybe 300 km into my new ride, I’m tooling down Beulah again when I come to a sequence of footbridges. The approaches to the first three are so eroded, the bump up onto the planking used to rock my world. Not now. 

     Like Little Red Riding Hood on her way to grandma’s, we come to the Scary Bridge. A bit wider and higher than the others, its often-wet surface lacks their metal mesh. Heading down-island, it’s entered by a hard-right turn, immediately followed by a 45-degree dogleg over hungry water, rocks and deadfalls. Overcook either entry and you will be sad. And in a lot of pain. 

     I used to skip this challenge. Instead, with great glee I’d charge the Mk I down a steep embankment and splash across the “crik” in an exultant sheet of spray. To my eventual cost. 

     Not wanting to drown this new Bafang (even with the controller box front-sealed, and the power-cable slot in the rear axle swaddled in Gorilla Tape), my cross-island rides now bring me face-to-face with this death-defying obstacle. Sure, I can chicken out and lead my steed across on foot. But giving into fear saps courage and can become habitual. Plus, it’s disrespectful to my sure-footed Mariner and my own spirit. So I make myself ride across. 

     While mountain bikers would have no problem with this bridge, an electric-assist bike brings serious torque to the party. On this particularly memorable morning, instead of dismounting and confirming my entry points, I psyche myself out, focusing ahead on that dogleg… and misjudge that initial turn-in by maybe three-inches. (Remember, sports-fans: the back wheel does not follow the front wheel through turns!) My subconscious registers the back wheel partially missing the edge of that wet planking. 


     While I’m still debating whether to panic immediately or wait until after lunch, my right thumb is already mashing the throttle for full afterburner to boost us the rest of the way onto the bridge and power us out of this hazard. Nothing happens. The fricking thumb-throttle does not respond! 

     Thanks to that big tire, we bump up onto the bridge. But the Mariner is slowing rapidly, aimed for Valhalla. Pumping the pedals, yarding on the bars, I haul us into the dogleg, half-cockeyed and the bike almost at a stop as I frantically punch the keypad like a broker who’s just learned his favourite stock is heading below a nickel. 

     As the bike teeters… I try the thumb-throttle again. It responds instantly, yanking us clear. Huh?  My exhausted "guardian angel" subsequently summoned a storm to take out the scary bridge. 


About a week later, everything’s good when I come down off a duffer’s trail to cross Central Road and regain the bike path on the other side. Clear right. On my left, an oncoming car is still a safe distance away. But I don’t want to wait a pedal-turn to engage the PAS. So as I start pedaling, I depress the thumb throttle to help zip us clear. No response. Happily, I’ve left enough room to pedal clear of further drama. But what if I hadn’t? That’s twice the throttle’s failed at “inconvenient” times. Three strikes and you-know-what.  


Then this: twice while tooling along, the LCD goes nutso.* The first time, I watch in disbelief as the speed display dropped to 0… before flicking right back to 30. Weeks later, I am amazed to find myself momentarily proceeding at an indicated 64 kph uphill. Both glitches lasted an eyeblink and the fatbike kept trundling along unperturbed. Until I rolled into King’s yard months later and the ebike completely shut down.* 

     Of course, when I switched it off and back on again later, it started right up.  Dirty battery contacts? Since cleaning them during the bike’s weekly check, lube and wash, I’ve suffered no more loose electrons.  


Was this upgrade worth it?You couldn’t pry this folding fatbike out of my hands with a hydraulic jack! While front-suspension now comes standard on many bicycles, I’m glad I stuck with Voltbike. (Even when Murphy came to play.) For an affordable folding bike to do everything this one does, I haven’t found anything like it. 

     And before choosing the Mk II, I looked. Very few decent ebikes sell for under CDN$2,200. Why spend money better put toward another battery? Or a bus ticket into the BC Interior with a Mariner packed as luggage… 

     At 698 km and counting on my replacement transportation – mostly off-paved roads   since that last hiccup, the MkII’s been running flawlessly. Maybe Murphy will send me a card from Mexico. 


* Mk II is the author’s designation.  It now occurs to me that the LCD mischief could have been caused by using my original,    1 1/2-year-old battery. The shutdown in King’s yard was a plus for the Mariner II, since I was using the old battery, which has "acted out” on occasion. In this case, if voltage drops too low (or   presumably, fluctuates outside parameters), the bike shuts down to protect itself. The old battery “self-corrected” while sitting. The bike has not glitched with new battery. Except for the throttle!


Photo Caption:

eBikes Seduction -Will Thomas photo

Where’s my line? -Will Thomas photo