First look: Test-riding a prototype electric bike wheel from GeoOrbital

GeoOrbital's prototype wheel, on a used Cannondale mountain bike. (Photo by Scott Kirsner / BetaBoston.)
GeoOrbital's prototype wheel, on a used Cannondale mountain bike. (Photo by Scott Kirsner / BetaBoston.)

Having just written about some Boston-area bike startups rethinking what the bike can be, I was excited to get a first look at a new electric wheel from GeoOrbital, a Cambridge startup. The company’s premise is that millions of people don’t ride their bikes very much, but they might if they could install an affordable accessory — like GeoOrbital’s sub-$500 wheel — to give them extra range and keep sweat stains in check.

What’s unique about the prototype GeoOrbital wheel is that it doesn’t spin — it attaches to the front forks of your bike, and three rollers inside it move the tire around the wheel, instead of moving the whole wheel. It includes a 350-watt motor and a big, honkin’ canister-shaped battery, which GeoOrbital CEO Mike Burtov says provides enough juice to cover about twenty miles without pedaling a bit. Dakota Decker, the company’s chief technology officer, says that many of the parts were either bought at local hardware stores, or are standard components used in today’s electric bikes.

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The prototype version I rode was limited to eight miles an hour, which was a decent speed for cruising around Kendall Square on a breezy day without getting tired. (Future versions will be faster, Burtov says, though e-bikes are limited by law to 20 MPH or less.) The bike definitely turned heads — the current design shows off its innards, and has a bit of a Blade Runner/Tron industrial vibe to it. The throttle on the handlebars was a little abrupt in its acceleration, and when I was pedaling without the electric assist, I definitely noticed that the prototype wheel, with its aluminum casing, is heavy: it weighs about 35 pounds, according to Decker, a former engineer at SpaceX. The next version will be about 10 pounds lighter, he said. They also plan to integrate a power adapter with a retractable cord into the wheel itself, so you don’t have to remember to carry that accessory around when it’s time to recharge.

“Our main market is people who own bikes but don’t use them,” Decker says. “Maybe they live a little too far from work, or they get too sweaty riding there. We don’t expect people to go out and buy a brand new bike.”

They’ve already filed patents on the design, and say they’re talking with investors. The bike I rode today was a yellow Cannondale that the GeoOrbital team bought off Craigslist.

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The throttle is attached to the right handlebar, with a battery charge indicator and red kill switch.

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GeoOrbital CEO Michael Burtov, left, with CTO Dakota Decker, right.

Click play below to see a short video of the wheel in action.

Scott Kirsner writes the Innovation Economy column every Sunday in the Boston Globe, in which he tracks entrepreneurship, investment, and big company activities around New England.
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