Civilized Cycles is an electric bike full of surprises

The first thing you notice about Civilized Cycles’ first electric bike are those enormous, fully integrated panniers on the rear rack. They’re impossible to miss: massive, dual saddle bags encased in a seemingly tough carbon fiber shell. You could carry a whole load of groceries in those things, while also transporting a passenger (or two) on the padded rear rack. But this is not a cargo bike. It’s something else.

One of the things that excite me the most about e-bikes is the experimentation with form factors: mini-bikes that look like motorcycles, freight bikes that look like tiny trucks, fat tire bikes with a ton of power and maybe an automotive badge.

Civilized Cycles’ first e-bike has the functionality of a cargo bike inside the frame of a Dutch cruiser. The company’s founder Zachary Schieffelin says he first began thinking of designing his own e-bike while running the Vespa dealership in the tony Soho neighborhood in Manhattan. Even then, he knew that he needed to do something that “moves in the direction of cars.”

“People have expectations from cars,” Schieffelin says. “They expect them to be comfortable. They expect them to be able to carry a partner, a friend, or a child. They expect to be able to carry stuff. And they expect a totally familiar driving experience.”

This is a refrain I’m hearing from e-bike companies more and more: how do we design a bike with the right specs, a good amount of power, and enough versatility to lure people away from their cars. It’s a difficult proposition, especially in a country so desensitized to the ugly externalities of car ownership. Civilized Cycles is the latest to try to knock some sense into us.

The company’s first bike is called the Model 1 (shades of Elon Musk!), and it has a lot of interesting features that I’ll get to in a minute. But first Schieffelin has an interesting analogy that describes how he approached designing a bike that strives to be both unique and familiar at the same time.

“How do we make something that’s just easy and delightful? Kind of like how the iPod shifted things from the Zune, right,” he says. “I feel like most e-bikes are kind of in the Zune phase right now. They’re built by technologists, or by super bike enthusiasts, who have completely gotten themselves accustomed to all the compromises that come from the regular pedal bike world.”

I’m not sure I entirely agree; there are a growing number of e-bikes that are approachable, delightful, and don’t require you to know the difference between a derailleur and a cassette. The Model 1 definitely falls into that category, as well. This is not a bike for spandex-wearing, weekend road warriors. It was designed to have cross-appeal with both urban dwellers looking for an easier way to get around than Uber or the subway and suburbanites who are looking for a way to reduce their car use, but still need space for passengers or cargo.

Schieffelin doesn’t come from the bike world; he’s a scooter guy, and that design influence comes through. Much like a Vespa or a Lambretta, the Model 1 has a generous step-through frame, which he thinks will greatly expand the bike’s appeal. It’s also about two inches shorter than your average long-tail cargo bike, meaning it can fit into an apartment building elevator, Schieffelin claims.

According to the spec sheet, the bike can carry a max weight of 400 pounds, rider included — which is just astounding. The bike itself clocks in at 75 pounds, which is not the heaviest e-bike I’ve encountered, but also nowhere near the lightest.

It’s got a high-torque, mid-drive motor that comes in three different types, depending on your locale: 350W, 500W, and 750W. The 10.5 amp-hour / 48 volt lithium-ion battery (or about 500Wh) is mounted inside the right rear pannier, with the option to add a second battery on the other side. It’s a unique placement for the battery, but I’m not entirely sure it’s easy or intuitive. Schieffelin argues it gives the frame a cleaner look, without a big battery mounted on the downtube.

One battery equals about 25 miles of range, while the addition of a second gives you (surprise!) double that amount. The panniers will eventually open automatically with the click of a button, but the preproduction version I got to test doesn’t have the functionality yet.

Schieffelin says he took some inspiration from a defunct e-bike design called the Stokemonkey that developed something of a cult following in the early aughts, despite being kind of dangerous. For his bike, Schieffelin mounted a hub motor in the frame, then used a chain to unify that power with the jack shaft that runs through the center of the rear suspension pivot. The result? A high-torque motor right off the line that’s more “economical” than your typical Bosch mid-drive. “So we think it’s kind of the best of both worlds solution,” he says.

Another thing that surprised me about this bike was the automatic dual suspension. Schieffelin knew that dual suspension would be a key ingredient for a bike built for more than one rider. Without it, “customers were going to take exactly one pothole shot to the ass, and they’d be like, ‘We’re done with this.’” But he also didn’t want to burden his customers with tuning and retuning the suspension every time they went for a ride. His solution was to integrate an air compressor in the bike with a level sensor that allows you to reset the pressure and air shock to match the weight that’s on the bike “in real time.”

I got to experience this feature in my short test of the Model 1, and it worked just as advertised. Holding down one of the buttons on the bike’s display triggers the rumbly air compressor, and presto: a perfectly aligned suspension.

There’s a lot more to come from Civilized Cycles, including an app that connects to the bike via Bluetooth and can detect service and repair needs as they arise, and Tesla-esque “over-the-air” software updates. But of course, the company needs to start shipping bikes, which it hasn’t done yet. Schieffelin says the first “Founders series” bikes will start shipping in the second quarter of 2020, after which the company will begin ramping up production — most likely in the fourth quarter of the year.

Like most good things, Civilized Cycles’ Model 1 won’t come cheap. Schieffelin says the bike will retail for $5,999, putting it in the upper, luxury tier of e-bikes. Founders edition bikes, of which there are about 15 available right now, will be supported with three years of complimentary routine service, two years of complimentary hardware and software upgrades, and one year of roadside assistance.

For that much money, anything less would be uncivilized.

Photography by Andrew Hawkins / The Verge