- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 27 December 2012
This article is not about a bike, this article is about a vehicle. Yes, this vehicle has two wheels and you pedal it, but it has more in common with a car than it does with the types of bikes we’re used to in Australia. The Gazelle Orange Plus Innergy XT is what happens when you take bikes seriously as a transport option rather than as something for sports or recreation.
Before I begin the review, let me set some context for this bike. Start by imagining the most basic idea of a bike, now put that basic bike in an environment where bikes are considered an essential part of the transport infrastructure, where there are more bikes than cars and where bikes are considered just a faster way of getting around than walking. Further, imagine that the bike’s “natural” predators have be tamed by legislation and common sense. What do you get? You get the Orange Plus Innergy XT – it’s a bike that has evolved, and it’s evolved in one of the most bike friendly countries in the world, the Netherlands. A review such as this would be considered crazy over there, why would someone get so excited about a bike? But here in Australia, this bike is a breath of fresh air and it’s definitely exciting enough to review in depth.
The first thing you will notice about the bike is its style. From front to back it’s a well integrated and thoughtfully designed machine. A quick visual tour around the bike will reveal the name Gazelle stamped on almost everything. This is not a hodge-podge of components thrown on a generic frame with a sticker on it, this is a bike where every part of it has been designed to mesh with every other part. Not only is it a synthesised bike, it’s a synthesised electric bike; the front wheel hub motor, battery and controller are as well integrated as all of the other components; the bike was built to be an electric bike.
After you’ve noticed the whole package, your eyes drill down to the details. Swept back handlebars, big comfortable seat, flat pedals, rear rack, built in lock, full chain guard, integrated lighting, mud guards – it even has a skirt guard! Basically, this is a bike designed to be ridden, and ridden without thinking too much about it. You jump on it wearing whatever you have on and you ride it.
All of the styling and careful design of a bike amounts to nothing if the bike doesn’t ride well. I rode this bike to and from work every day and I rode it on the weekends. Each time I rode it I was wearing whatever I had on, usually jeans, a shirt and sneakers. Essentially I used it the way it was meant to be used, and I did this for over a month, riding with the motor off about half of the time, to get the fullest picture of the way the Innergy performs.
When I set off from my house to work, the road is downhill and it’s very easy to pick up speed on any bike. Without turning the pedals over, I will hit 40 kph before I have to make a left into a slight uphill before heading downhill again to reach speeds around 50kph. After that there’s a sharp stop, several traffic lights, a main road and rolling hills. I present all of this detail to demonstrate the types of terrain I tested this bike on, that is, pretty much all of the common terrains in Australia’s major cities. Weekend rides were around Sydney Olympic Park, which is about as flat an area as you get in Sydney.
It took me about a week of riding to get used to this bike, not because it’s a bad bike to ride, rather because it is so very different to ride compared to a drop bar or a flat bar bike. Once my brain adapted to the differences, I was moving the bike around with as much verve as my regular rides.
The most startling thing about the way this bike rides is how well it handles. I was riding the large version of the bike, which puts me a fair way above the ground. Despite this, the weight of the hubs, the long wheel base and the big tyres meant that this bike handled better than my regular commuter. The centre of gravity of this bike is very low and this means you can take corners at speeds you wouldn’t think about taking them on a racing bike, especially when you’re sitting almost upright. The bike sticks to the ground and responds smoothly. The Innergy is also stable and manoeuvrable at low speeds, so it’s perfect for riding along crowded shared paths. The only time it wasn’t stable was when it was stationary, or very near to it; I couldn’t track stand this bike at all, despite trying the whole time I had it (but that’s just me playing silly buggers).
The suspension seat post and front fork suspension absorb all of the minor bumps in the road and even out parking lot speed humps. The hand grips are comfortable and support the heel of your hand to keep that comfort long term. The internal gears in the Shimano Nexus 7 speed rear hub are changed via the right grip with a twist shift; you can see which gear you’re in through a small window in the shifter. The left grip has a similar form factor to the right, but instead of changing the gear, a twist of the left grip rings the bell. Of all of the cool integrated features of this bike, this one made me smile the most. The roller brake in the back and the v-brake in the front give confident and well modulated stopping power.
Engaging the motor on the bike requires a simple button press on the control panel, accessed with your left thumb. The electrical system goes through a number of quick self-checks before the motor smoothly and definitely kicks in. As per Australian law, this bike is a pedal assist set up, so the motor will only work while you’re pedalling the bike. The Innergy has both torque and cadence sensors, so you don’t need to pedal too hard or fast to get the motor to help you along. The pedal assist cuts out after you’re travelling about 25 kph, so it gets you going, but it’s not a motorbike.
The motor works in three modes: eco, normal and boost. I tended to use only normal and boost; normal for flat riding and boost for the hills. If my journey to work is mostly downhill, it stands to reason that the journey home is uphill, and I found myself using boost quite a lot coming home. According to the specs, the battery will give you about 30 kms worth of constant use in normal mode, but I found I got about 50 km worth of use out of the battery using a mixture of normal and boost. This was because of the 25 kph cut-out; I used the motor to get me started on the flats and then kept the speed in the low 30s where the motor doesn’t operate. The battery recharges in about 3 hours and it doesn’t have memory effects, so I could just plug it in at the end of each journey and have it ready for the next.
One of the counter intuitive things about the Innergy is that you don’t really notice your speed. I spend a lot of time on the bike and I’m pretty attuned to how fast I’m travelling when my legs are turning at a particular rate and I’m in a particular gear. On the Innergy, with the motor on, I’d be turning my legs over at a rate that would have me riding at about 10-15 kph, but a glance at the speed on the control panel would show I was travelling closer to 30!
The motor, in boost mode, really makes a difference on the hills. When I found myself struggling up a slope, a quick press of the button on the control panel and the boost mode kicks in with more power. Having that extra power really flattens the ground out and gave me a good 5 kph over the speeds I take these hills at on my normal commuting bike, and the best bit is that I didn’t have to kill myself to do it – I just pedalled the best I could and the motor did the rest.
The best evidence I can give for the quality of the motor is running it along the street I live in; it’s over a kilometre long, has an average gradient of 12% with a “wonderful” 21% section. Running the motor in boost mode got me home easily up sections around 10 and 12%, but continuing up the street to the 21% section…well, it was slow, but I was able to do it without killing myself, as I normally have to do on my other bikes. Yes, it did require significant effort from both me and the motor, but not nearly as much as it should have. It took me around 6 months to get enough fitness to do that climb on my regular bike, a moderately fit person riding the Innergy could do it first go.
About the only thing I have against the pedal assist system is that the mode switch for the motor is located just below the on off switch for the system, and you only need to touch it to turn it off. There were several times where I felt the wonderful helping hand disappear exactly when I needed it most, much like the hot water all of a sudden being turned off during a shower. If only they made you hold the power button down for a few seconds to turn it off, this would all be avoided -take note Gazelle designers.
Without the motor operating, the Innergy rides very comfortably on the flats, a lot better than I expected. The gear range has enough to get you to some good speeds, but the relaxed nature of bike means you’re not going to be standing and sprinting to get there. Cruising along in the mid 20s is an easily achievable scenario without needing to put too much effort into it or use the motor.
Where I found myself really struggling without the motor was when it came to the hills. Even on the lowest gear it’s hard work. If I were buying this bike to ride in my area, I would be getting a bigger cog on the rear hub, something which is trivial to change but which would make a good bit of difference. Of course, that would knock some off your higher end, but it’s not often you’ll be riding in the highest gear, so a bigger rear cog would give you a much more usable range in Sydney.
A lot of thinking has gone into this bike so that the rider doesn’t have to think about it. Ride with whatever shoes you’ve got on? Check, you can even ride barefoot (don’t ask, it’s a long story). Ride without changing clothes? Check, you don’t even need to roll your pant legs up. Bike lock? Built in. Pump? There’s one that fits into the standard rear rack.
And now we come to the point where I have a bit of a problem with the Innergy; it’s only a minor one that requires some thinking around, but it is a concern. Because of the electric motor and the internal rear hub, taking the wheels off the bike to fix a flat is not something that can be done quickly or easily. What this means is that you will either have to learn how to repair a flat without removing the wheels, learn how to remove and reattach the wheels (it takes a little learning) or you will have to work out some way to transport the bike home. Fortunately, Gazelle have thought about this: firstly, the tyres used, Schwalbe Marathons, are the most puncture resistant tyres available; secondly, in the unlikely event you do need to transport the bike, there is a towbar mounted carrier available that will hold the Innergy for a car ride.
There are simply too many features on this bike to cover in an article like this. You can read more about the Orange Plus Innergy XT on the Gazelle website. What’s not mentioned on the web site, but is worth mentioning, is the dealer servicing of the bike and, importantly, the motor. When you take the bike back to the dealer, they can plug the pedal assist system into their computer and get a complete history of how the motor has been used, how the battery has been performing and can diagnose any problems the system has been having. They can work out how the bike is being used and adjust the power profile to better match the terrain you’re covering. This is exactly what they do when I take my car in for a service and it shows just how far from a “normal” bike the Innergy is.
If you’re ready to take bicycle transport seriously, and if you demand utility, efficiency and style, the Orange Plus Innergy XT is highly recommended. It’s not a cheaply hacked together bike shaped object, it’s a well constructed and thought out vehicle; the Orange Plus Innergy XT is a genuine car replacement option. It’s available in a variety of sizes and in men’s and women’s models. At $3000, it’s well priced to recoup its purchase price in insurance, registration, parking and fuel costs within months.
There are Gazelle Innergy dealers across Australia, specialised bicycle shops who sell and service these eBikes. Gazelle bicycles are imported into Australia by Gazelle Australia.
Title photo by Stuart Low.