SCOUT OUT: Wheels of Fortune

electric bike wheelsEVELO's Omni Wheel

It’s a frigid Thursday in January when EVELO’s Scott Boulbol pulls into the parking lot of the Center for Arts at the Armory in Somerville, parks his black SUV and unloads his cargo. At first glance it looks like your average bike, until you catch a peek of the sleek, white electric front wheel. Boulbol points to a small handlebar-mounted monitor that communicates with the wheel and begins racing through the best settings to use on different types of terrain.

“Give it less than a quarter of a pedal stroke,” the EVELO spokesman says with pride as he hands over the bike, “and it’ll kick in.” He’s right: the rechargeable, battery-powered machine requires hardly any effort on my part. Almost as soon as I start pedaling the wheel begins humming quietly, propelling the bike forward at a pace I’d never be able to achieve with only my meager leg muscles to power me. The Omni Wheel can reach speeds up to 20 miles per hour and lets cyclists climb daunting hills with minimal effort.

EVELO is one of two area manufacturers of motorized wheels hoping to kick off a revolution (pun intended) in the way we cycle. The East Cambridge electric bike company was started more than three years ago, and the Omni Wheel—their latest project—should hit the streets early this spring.

Boris Mordkovich, the company’s cofounder and CEO (at EVELO, this stands for “Chief Electric Officer”), says he hopes that the product will encourage people who pack away their bikes for much of the year to get back in the saddle.

The wheel “creates a lot of possibilities,” Mordkovich explains. “People who already own a folding bike, or a small bike, or a large bike, or a recumbent bike—they can continue to use that particular model that they already know and like, and just convert it to an electric.” Mordkovich says that the Omni Wheel will primarily benefit three categories of bikers: commuters who would ride to work but don’t want to arrive sweaty, cycling families who have varying athletic abilities and people over 50 who might worry about biking out too far from home and then not being able to get back.

Superpedestrian's Copenhagen Wheel

Superpedestrian’s Copenhagen Wheel

As innovative as EVELO’s concept is, the company isn’t the first in the Cambridge area to develop this type of wheel. Kendall Square startup Superpedestrian has been working on their own electric product—the Copenhagen Wheel—for years now. Unlike EVELO, which is a bike company first, Superpedestrian is a tech company that sees cycling as a way to approach the mobility challenges facing modern cities. Their wheel—which was named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 best inventions of 2014—should also begin shipping out to customers sometime this spring.

“As cities increasingly become more congested and difficult to navigate, cycling represents one of the most viable solutions,” says Superpedestrian founder and CEO Assaf Biderman. “Using the bicycle as a platform was a logical choice, and combining technology and design allows us to achieve our mission more efficiently.”

The Copenhagen Wheel concept was born in an MIT SENSEable City Laboratory back in 2009, and Superpedestrian’s engineers have been honing the technology ever since. At a group demo in January, curious riders fawned over the wheel’s elegant, simple design and expressed their surprise at the amount of power the device generated.

“Our mission is to transform urban mobility by bringing together designers and robotics engineers,” Biderman expands. “The Copenhagen Wheel is our first product designed to achieve this.”

There are fairly significant differences between the specs of the two wheels. The front-mounted Omni Wheel ($999) weighs roughly 20 pounds, has a battery life of 750 cycles and comes with a wireless LCD display, while the rear-mounted Copenhagen Wheel ($949) has a battery life of 1,000 cycles, weighs in at just 13 pounds and communicates with its own smartphone app. But the wheels share characteristics as well—both top out at around 20 miles per hour, are 26” tall and have the potential to make traveling by bike an option for a far greater number of people.

Of course, there are riders who are skeptical about these motorized wheels. “A lot of ‘real’ cyclists haven’t made the switch yet,” EVELO’s Boulbol notes. “But a lot of the endemic cycling magazines and publications have been paying a lot more attention now.” An avid cyclist himself, Boulbol adds that he too was somewhat skeptical of the wheel at first—that is, until he saw the way it shortened his commute.

Mordkovich concurs: “Once people try them and once they actually get a firsthand experience of riding them, they’ll see that it’s not really any different than riding a traditional bike.”

[This story originally appeared in our March/April 2015 print edition.]