- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 10 January 2017
The biggest problem I have when I write e-bike reviews is dealing with the issue of price. Good e-bikes are expensive. Crappy e-bikes are also expensive, but they’re expensive in terms of throwing good money down the drain with poor performance, the need for repairs, and reduced lifespan. Good e-bikes are expensive up front but don’t cost you much after that. My philosophy on doing reviews is to never do a review for a product I wouldn’t consider buying, so I’m going to tell you why I would buy a Riese&Muller Charger Mixte.
Riese&Muller are a German company and, like many German companies (and I’m thinking Mercedes Benz and BMW here), they make well engineered products and yes, they are expensive. I’m mainly a road biker and if I had a spare $5,000, which is roughly the price of the Riese&Muller bike I rode, I wouldn’t be spending that money on a road bike for myself. While there are some very sweet high-end bikes (many roadies would argue that $5K is mid-range), I’m simply not a good enough rider to justify getting one. If I were going on an extended bike tour I might spend considerable money on a good touring rig with an internal hub and so on, but that would be a good bit down the track. In the meantime, I have four reasons I won’t be getting a new road bike, but five reasons why I would spend the same amount on a Riese&Muller e-bike.
The four reasons are aged between 7 and 15 and they all have bikes. The five reasons are those same four kids plus my wife – she doesn’t have a bike. We’re a one
car van family and the van usually goes where the majority of us are. I ride to work and the kid’s schools are within walking distance, though they often get dropped off and picked up. That’s all going to change next year when we’re going in many different directions. My wife, who works part time, is heading back to school, and my eldest is heading into year 11 and is doing some study off campus at the local TAFE some days. We’re not getting another car because (a) they’re really expensive to buy, run, and insure (even the non-German ones) and (b) one car is really enough for us when you factor in public transport and, of course, bike travel.
This is where the Riese&Muller comes into the picture. For a few years now I’ve been reviewing e-bikes and have loved watching the technology evolve. I rocked into Eurocycles a few months ago with an invitation to review an e-bike motor, the Bosch Performance Line (see the Bosch Performance Line review here), and obviously in order to do that properly, I had to ride a bike equipped with one.
Rick at Eurobike offered me my choice of several Riese&Muller bikes he had in the showroom, all of which had the Performance Line motor. He was steering me to the Charger GT Urban bike, a big behemoth of an e-bike that was almost a fat bike (maybe we can have a chubby bike category). This was sitting next to a beautiful black traditional Dutch style omfiets, also with a motor (the Cruiser City). Sitting in the middle of the floor, however, was the Charger Mixte and that’s the one that caught my eye immediately.
I have a soft spot for Mixtes. They’re everything a step through frame should be without being a “girl’s bike”. I’ve seen some lovely retro ones with stylish trussed top tubes that wrap around the seat posts and functionally demonstrate the bike maker’s art. The Riese&Muller isn’t a retro Mixte, but in its modern incarnation it’s still a beautiful piece of functional art.
That’s not the reason I chose it, however. If you look at the bike share programs around the world, you’ll notice that most of those bikes are step through bikes of some sort, though they’re pretty naff looking creations. Where they do shine is that almost anyone can jump on one and ride it – that’s why I chose the Riese&Muller Mixte. I’m 190cm tall and my wife is about 165cm tall. My three girl’s are all taller than their mother (guess which side they got their height genes from?) and my son will be there in about two year’s time. I could see straight away that the four females in the house would all fit the Mixte and a quick seat adjustment to almost the full extension had me comfortably perched. Given that I’m at the upper end of the height spectrum (about the 96th percentile, I think) and my wife is pretty much right on average, that covers quite a lot of the adult (and teenage) population, even more so when you consider that there is wiggle room on the lower end.
So, while not quite as butch as the chubby tyred beast next to it, the Mixte was the most versatile urban vehicle they had. That’s what I wanted and needed. It’s not a bike for me, it’s a vehicle for all of us. I chose the words carefully in that last sentence, because people need to stop seeing e-bikes as bikes and start seeing them as very versatile vehicles (apologies for the alliteration). Think about it: I already pay rego and insurance on the van. Having another car, even if someone gave it to me for free, would still incur those costs every year. Then you have petrol, oil, service, repairs and so on. Do you know how much an alternator costs for a Toyota Tarago? I do. Oh, and parking, I almost forgot about that since I haven’t had to pay for parking my bike for the past almost decade.
Financial arguments aside, my 15 year old can ride the e-bike the 5 km from school to TAFE, mostly along bike paths, and park it there for free. She doesn’t need a license and she doesn’t need insurance, though she does have a Cycling Australia membership via Audax Australia which covers that to some extent. It gives my daughter the ability to leave school when she needs and come home when she wants, because she is in control of her own vehicle. She can use it to head wherever she needs to after studying (dance training, flute lessons, etc) and she can share the bike with her sisters when she’s not using it.
You’re probably thinking that it isn’t that easy, and you’re right, she has to wear a helmet, but that’s not really a problem. The Riese&Muller bike is a fully equipped urban vehicle. It has lights front and back which run off the main battery, it has mudguards, it has very tough tyres, it has flat pedals, it has a rack, and it has a built in bike lock. While I’d probably throw on a cable lock just for visibility and to lock it to something, the built-in lock goes right through the rear wheel and means the bike won’t be moving unless someone picks it up and carries it away, which isn’t very easy because this bike is big and heavy. You’d need a ute and a couple of strong guys to steal it. The key for the lock will also lock the battery to the bike and enables or disables to electronics, which means it’s just a bike without the key. Parking this bike somewhere is as safe as parking a motorbike.
Riese&Muller, and in fact the whole evolutionary course of e-bikes in Europe, has managed to reduce the “cons” side of the sheet down to price. That’s it, and if you didn’t read between the lines above, removing a single car from your life will more than pay for this bike within two years (actually, probably one year; do the numbers yourself). The Riese&Muller bikes, all of them, not just the Charger Mixte, are really well constructed. Yes, they are heavy, and that’s got a little something to do with the motor, but even if you removed that it would still be a chunky bike. They’re engineered for the long run and they’ll take whatever you can throw at them in the city.
The build quality means you’ll have this bike for years, so you need to amortise the cost. When you do that, you should start to realise that it’s actually a very sensible alternative for single person travel. That’s when you start to look a bit further down the rabbit hole and then your costs are going to blow out. Let me explain.
When I returned the bike to Eurocycles, I got chatting with Rick and, since the review I was originally meant to write (and did) was about the motor, we got chatting about that. The Charger Mixte pairs the Bosch motor with an Shimano XT Deore groupset which makes changing gears nice and smooth, though you do have to do that yourself (a flick of the finger or thumb on the shifter and it’s done). I observed to Rick that it was easy to change gears by just listening to the motor and mused that it should be quite easy have a system that automatically changed gears with an internal hub on the rear. Rick smiled and we got talking about the NuVinci hubbed system that did just that, and it would work with this bike…for a price. “But”, I objected, “that would mean using a Gates carbon belt drive, wouldn’t it? Which would also mean a new frame?” Rick smiled again (he likes smiling when it comes to his bikes) and pointed out that the drive side chain stay was actually raised to accept a carbon belt drive as well as a normal chain drive!
I was floored by that. I had been riding the bike for about a week and I noticed that there was something strange there, but couldn’t put my finger on it. Normally a Gates belt drive requires a bike with a closeable gap in the chain stay so you can change the belt if necessary. The Riese&Muller bike just had the chain stay raised up above the chain, which gives full access to the whole drive line, so even if you didn’t want a belt drive, you can change the chain easily or completely remove it to clean it without much effort at all.
People always say “it’s the little things that count”, referring to the little details that separate product a from product b. I hope you’re seeing that getting one of these European style e-bikes means you’re getting lots of those little details. To tempt you some more, I was chatting with someone from Bosch just last week who told me about the new computer for their motors, called the Purion, which will, in addition to other features, offer a walk assist mode so when you’re pushing your grocery loaded e-bike though a plaza, for example, to get to the road, it will give you some electric assistance. You can also add another battery to your frame to give you extra distance (perfect for touring), or you can grab a smaller format charger to keep at work or even carry in your backpack to recharge your batteries wherever you go. It’s all very sensible, it’s all tried and tested in the places they use e-bikes on a daily basis, and it’s all available to us here and now.
You’re convinced, I know, and you want one of these bikes right now. Before I get to that, Riese&Muller have a very interesting build and distribution model that’s worth talking about. Bike companies usually make bikes in batches to save on tooling and material costs and logistics. Bikes might come out in small frame sizes first, followed a month or so later by medium, and then a couple of months later in large and extra large. Getting the right frame size for you would be entirely dependent on local availability and when the frame you want is out of stock, you’re out of luck. It also means you will find discounted bikes in “odd” sizes when the retailers haven’t been able to sell them locally or ship them elsewhere in their network.
The approach taken by Riese&Muller is to make a small number of each frame model every month and customise them at the factory to the customer’s specifications before shipping them. As a customer, you work out what model you want, what motor you want, what parts and options you want, then Riese&Muller put it all together and ship it to you. This gives you a turnaround of around 6 weeks from when you place your order to when the bike arrives at your bike shop ready for final partial assembly and for you to pick it up.
So how do you get one? Eurocycles, who import the Riese&Muller line, have test bikes in most big cities. You go and try one out, work out what you need, go down the rabbit hole of added extras, and then place an order. The bike shop will work out the rest with Eurocycles and you’ll get your bike quite quickly.
I realise that this wasn’t really a review, per se, rather it was a justification of why I would buy this particular bike, or one like it. As I mentioned before, I did this because people often baulk at the price of a quality e-bike and they are, after all, a very sensible option. It’s so sensible, on so many levels, that the tax office is trialling a novated lease scheme for e-bikes, which can’t get here soon enough if you ask me. It looks like we might be slowly changing in this country, but I think it will be a long time before other countries stop laughing at our car-centric culture (and our internet speeds, but that’s a whole other story).
Details and specifications for the Riese&Muller Charger Mixte.