Review: Raleigh Velo-Cité Xbar (early 2012)
We try the £1200 Velo-Cité Xbar from Raleigh – a torque-sensing, hub-motor bike from the company which has just turned 125 years old. Read the review in full.
Posted by Peter Eland on Monday 13 Feb 2012
This review appeared in Electric Bike magazine Issue 4. Click the viewer below to read the review with the original print layout - or scroll down for the full text and images online!
Raleigh Velo-Cité Xbar
We try the £1200 Velo-Cité Xbar from Raleigh – a torque-sensing, hub-motor bike from the company which has just turned 125 years old...
Raleigh’s electric bike range has expanded somewhat since we reviewed their ‘Dover’ back in Issue 1 – at the time you had a choice of crossbar or step-through frames, but that’s about it. Now, they still do the Panasonic-powered Dover (as a three-speed version), and also with Panasonic drive are the higher-spec ‘Leeds Tour’ models at £2000.
Alongside these are two ‘Velo’ bikes (again in the two frame types) using identical hub-drive electric assist systems, the Velo-Trail and Velo-Cité. The former is flat-barred and derailleur geared, with 26" wheels, and goes for £1100, while the Velo-Cité, as reviewed here, has seven-speed hub gears, swept-back bars and a slightly higher level of equipment, for an RRP of £1200. Two frame sizes are available: 20" (50 cm) and 21.5" (55 cm) for the ‘Xbar’ (we reviewed the smaller one), while the ‘Lowstep’ comes as 20" only.
One of Raleigh’s strong points has always been the availability of their bikes (and subsequent back-up) through a network of dealers across the country. The number of Raleigh dealers stocking electric bikes has now risen to 150, and I’m told that all have undergone product training to ensure they can resolve any technical challenges arising with the bikes.
The bikes are backed up with a two year warranty (including the battery).
The Raleigh is unusual for a bike at this price-point in that it is fitted with a torque-sensing drive system; the actual sensor is the black widget fitted to the aluminium plate shown above, bolted to the main frame and supporting the rear axle.
One reason I was particularly keen to try the Velo bikes is that they represent, as far as I can tell, the most affordable torque-sensing bikes on the market as we go to press. Torque sensing means that the bike measures your pedal effort and matches it automatically and instantaneously, giving a very intuitive and natural-feeling ride. It’s a system usually found on crank drive systems, and some higher-end hub motor bikes – but seeing it on a bike at the £1200 price point is unusual to say the least.
» ON THE BIKEThe Velo-Cité is very evidently an electric bike, with a hefty 36V, 10 Ah Li-ion battery pack fitted into the rear rack. Substantial rubber ‘bumpers’ at either side ensure that it’s rattle free, while there’s the usual locking mechanism so that it can be removed for charging if required. Cables from the battery run neatly down a channel behind the downtube and then inside the frame, including wires apparently carrying something called an ‘SMbus smart communication protocol’ which allows battery status, torque sensor output and other data to be updated constantly and shared between controller, battery management system, and handlebar display.
There’s no missing the bulky battery box on the rear rack, unless perhaps you conceal it with a pair of drape-over panniers.
Key to the drive system is the torque sensor, which is a wee device fitted onto the aluminium plate which supports the drive-side end of the back wheel’s axle. As you put effort in via the pedals and hence tension the chain, it measures the miniscule distortion of the plate which results, and passes this info on to the controller.
The amount of assistance provided depends on the handlebar display, a neat unit with an LCD display. The red power button doubles as the backlight control. There’s a four-level battery status readout, and the ‘M’ mode button cycles through the three power level settings. The top button changes the display from riding speed, to distance, riding time and average speed – press and hold to zero those last three. A surprising omission perhaps is that there’s no ‘odometer’ or total distance covered reading, to help track your mileage over longer periods.
The display is permanently mounted to the bars – it’s not removable, although it can be swivelled so that it sits at the right angle. A removable display would be nice, if only to prevent the light-fingered trying to remove it for you while the bike is parked up.
The motor is fitted to the front wheel. On our bike at least I thought the cable and connector near the axle looked a tad vulnerable, forming a loop which could catch on something – it might be worth adding a cable tie or two to snug it up if you ride through woodland tracks or the like. But generally the wiring is very tidy, mostly concealed within the frame tubes.
So to the bike aspects. The alloy frame is smartly finished in a sort of dark bronze, and equipped with a Suntour suspension fork, adjustable for preload. There’s also a suspension seatpost.
Wheels are both 700c, fitted with Raleigh’s own 38 mm puncture resistant tyres, and the back wheel hosts the Shimano Nexus 7-speed hub gear, controlled by a twist shifter on the bars. A good low-maintenance choice – with slightly less range than the commonly used 8-speed, but more than enough for most users alongside the electric assist. A chainguard keeps trousers off the chain, and good SKS mudguards keep road muck off you and the bike, though I’d have liked to see a mudflap to extend the front one.
A kickstand is fitted to a neat frame mount near the rear wheel. It supports the bike well on good surfaces, but one which swings wider might be welcome for less ideal parking spots – there’s quite a bit of weight from the high-up battery for it to support.
No lights are fitted, but battery models would be easy to fit neatly – replace the rack-mounted rear reflector with a red LED model, and fit the front light to the handlebars. Any dealer will do this when supplying the bike if required.
» ON THE ROADSetting off on the Velo-Cité, the power assist kicks in immediately – and powerfully, if you’re in high assist mode. From the instant you push the pedals to accelerate the motor assists with a low hum, whisking you up to speed with only moderate effort. When you stop pedalling, the motor cuts out too after a barely perceptible delay. So you do have to be pedalling to get any assistance or motion – just like unassisted cycling. But the assist takes the hard work out of it.
It does help to use the gears, especially as the hills get steep, or for maximum acceleration from the lights. But if you’re not in a rush, leaving it in top gear works too on the flat at least.
The display is easily legible as you ride, with its large digits. It’s surprisingly useful to see when you’re reaching the ‘assist cutoff’ speed, so you can anticipate the motor ramping back. It was a bit surprising to see the motor helping up to almost 28 km/h, rather than stopping at the 25.5 km/h legal limit, but apparently it’s just taking full advantage of the 10% allowable tolerance in this cut-off speed.
The non-removable display console looks smart and has large, legible read-outs, plus a backlight for night time use.
The motor isn’t silent, but the noise it makes is unusually low-pitched, so it doesn’t penetrate in a buzzing sort of way. Nor does it carry well – even away from traffic passers-by will barely hear it from more than a few yards. It’s just a little louder than most crank-drive systems, I’d say.
There’s a low-pitched, non-penetrating quality to the noise made by the front wheel motor. One of my minor niggles is that the loop of cable from the motor looks a little vulnerable to getting snagged.
Generally the torque sensor worked seamlessly, adding power unobtrusively and evenly. On just a few occasions, straining somewhat at the pedals in too high a gear, I could hear and feel the motor ‘pulsing’ in time with my pushes on the pedals – but this happened rarely, and a slight change in pedalling rhythm made all smooth again, the system seeming to average out your pedalling and maintaining an even motor note.
Generally the ride feels very much like an unassisted bike with a tailwind: you can pedal at your usual rate, and use the gears as you would normally. This tends to help conserve battery too, because you’re always working to help. The 360 Wh pack should give masses of range for most commutes or even longer day-rides.
I wasn’t too convinced by the suspension: the forks at the front do contribute a bit to comfort perhaps, with visible movement on rough surfaces, but the seatpost seemed rather stiff and reluctant to absorb anything but the biggest bumps. But saddle and grips are both comfortable.
Some lighter riders expressed concern that the battery, high up on the rack, would affect handling. To an extent it makes wheeling the bike around a little less easy, but when you’re riding it just isn’t noticeable, even for the slightest of riders. Picking up the bike by the downtube reveals it’s actually quite well balanced, with the motor at the front counteracting the battery at the back.
A couple of minor ergonomic niggles did surface. The handlebar display is mounted centrally, too far to reach without taking one hand completely off the handlebars. Buttons closer to the grips would be good if possible (easier on the straight bar models, perhaps). That said, one of the advantages of the torque sensing system is that generally you don’t need to fiddle with the controls as you ride.
Shorter riders, and the less agile, also found that you have to swing a leg rather high over the rear rack to clear the battery as you get astride the bike. Of course the low step-through version would be better if this is an issue.
It also struck me that at 6' 2", I found the smaller of the two frame sizes fitted me fine, although close to the limits of its adjustment. It does adjust down a fair bit smaller (Raleigh say to fit 28" – 33" inside leg) but given that the low-step version is also the same 20" (50 cm) frame size, availability of an even smaller frame would perhaps be a welcome addition for shorter riders.
» SUMMARYRaleigh seem to have come up a rather groundbreaking machine here. I’m fairly certain that as we go to press it’s the only torque sensing bike at anywhere near its price point in the UK, and it manages this without undue compromise.
Of course, torque sensing isn’t going to be the perfect system for all riders – many prefer simpler systems which can let the bike do all of the work when necessary. And its hub motor won’t match crank drive systems for extreme hills. But if neither circumstance is relevant for your riding, it gives a responsive ride which alternative control systems can’t replicate. Riders with a background in unassisted cycling may particularly appreciate the very ‘natural’ feel.
There are some concessions made to achieve the price: seven speeds not eight in the hub gear, limited frame sizes, and less than brilliant suspension, for example. It’s also not the most discreet of electric bikes visually, with that battery on the back rack. And of course I can think of several nice features that could be added (and often are on more expensive machines) such as lights and a removable display console. But none of these quibbles is really all that significant.
The Velo-Cité is quiet, well built, has local backup almost anywhere, plus a two year warranty. It’s an impressively complete package and torque sensing at this price is remarkable. Until its competitors catch up, it’s a unique offering at £1200; I’d definitely recommend giving it a try.
SPECIFICATIONWeight overall (inc batteries): 26 kg
Battery weight: 4.8 kg
Bike only weight: 21.2 kg
Charger weight: 0.66 kg (inc. mains cable).
Battery type: Lithium-ion.
Battery capacity: 360 Watt hours (10Ah 36V).
Gearing: 7-speed Shimano Nexus hub gear. 38T ring, 16T sprocket. Ratios 41-100".
Brakes: V-brakes front and rear.
Other accessories fitted: bell, mudguards, carrier rack, stand.
Price as tested: £1200
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