The Copenhagen Wheel: How a Cambridge company is trying to change cycling

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — The latest booming startup out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology is a relatively modest establishment in Cambridgeport.

What looks like an old garage serves as the headquarters of a company delivering cutting edge technology to cyclists all over the world.

The company, called Superpedestrian, has been working for a few years now to develop and manufacture the technology they licensed for what is called the Copenhagen Wheel (named for the city that supported the technology’s development).

It’s a small red hub nestled within the spokes of a bike wheel, which can be installed on any road bike – provided the wheel can be custom manufactured with the right diameter and tire size.

The company was founded in 2012 by one of the co-inventors of the Copenhagen Wheel, Assaf Biderman. The idea is that the simple, self-contained wheel can turn virtually any bike into an electric hybrid.

“We set out to do something that will change electric bikes,” Biderman explained. Bicycles are a great way to move around. But there’s a problem with them. The bicycle was developed for a city that’s a lot smaller than where most of us live today.”

With the addition of the Copenhagen Wheel, the company says, “hills seem flat, distances shrink and you can cycle just about anywhere.”

The beauty is in the simplicity of its functionality. The wheel attaches to a normal bike and you pedal just like you would ordinarily. But you feel the difference when the wheel kicks in and starts giving you a boost.

It’s a product that promises to make commuting much more friendly for many people and the company quickly amassed a number of pre-orders. However, it took some time to start shipping the first orders.

Getting it to market has been a challenge, but it turns out the obstacles the company has faced have given them the time to test it for use in ways they never imagined.

Take, for example, Sarah Kuehnle. She’s a bike enthusiast who was sidelined by colon cancer a few years ago.

Among the things it took from her, was her ability to ride a bike. And getting back out there was a shock. She went from being able to ride 100 miles to barely being able to ride just one.

Then, she tried riding with the Copenhagen Wheel.

“It was transformative,” Kuehnle said. “I didn't feel that fatigue.  I slowly felt my strength building up because the Copenhagen Wheel gave me that extra push and that bit of strength that I didn't have anymore."

The goal was to get more people out of their cars and onto bikes, but the original mission grew as Copenhagen Wheels found their way into the world.

“We had stories from people that are just remarkable,” Biderman said. “Somebody who’s disabled, somebody with Parkinson’s, cancer survivor.”

To change modern commuting, he knew he’d have to create something that allows people to faster and farther on a bike than ever before.

FOX25 wanted to put the wheel to the test on a commute to see just how much of a difference it made.
So digital producer Dalton Main borrowed a bike with a Copenhagen Wheel from the company and put his 10-mile commute to the test.

Commuting with the wheel

Living in Roxbury, I wondered how the wheel would help change a ride that really pushes the boundaries of a comfortable bike commute.

I have commuted to work in the past, but never quite this far. In a car, my commute ranges from 15 minutes to 30 minutes on average, here’s what it was like to make it by bike.

First off, the wheel has four modes: Turbo, Standard, Eco and Exercise (it also technically has an ‘off’ or neutral mode).

The first three are varying degrees of power output and the exercise mode actually gives you resistance, which will make it harder to pedal and can help recharge the wheel.

I’ll admit, turbo is addicting. It was hard to go back to standard after trying it out.

I split my morning commute into half on standard and half on turbo and it really provides a noticeable difference – particularly on turbo.

%

INLINE

%

The commute totaled 9 miles and took 39 minutes. I averaged 14 miles per hour, which, as a cyclist, would be pretty difficult to do on a typical ride.

The ‘Wheel’ app provides you with several statistics it gathers as you ride. It breaks down how much power (in watts) you are putting out and how much power the wheel is putting out to assist you. There’s a noticeable difference between the power output in the different modes – both on the road and in the app’s statistics.

There’s a steep hill I had to climb in Roslindale that really did seem to ‘flatten out,’ especially with the help of the gears on the bike itself.

Obviously, it’s still exercise, which is good if that’s what you’re looking for; but the idea that you could commute by bike and show up as fresh as you left the house doesn’t seem to be the case (unless your commute is very short and very flat). I really needed a shower when I got to work after 9 miles – even in 35-degree weather.

But the wheel certainly delivers on its promise to make commuting more comfortable. On a busy, rush hour-congested Mass. Ave., the wheel alleviates the stress of getting your bike moving when a light turns green. The wheel kicks in and gets you off the line quickly so cars aren’t immediately bearing down on you.

I was curious as to how the wheel would handle when it ran out of battery, and unfortunately, I found out on the way home in the middle of a 30-meter (almost 100-foot) climb up the Enneking Parkway.

Once the wheel is dead, it basically becomes dead weight. You’re back to riding a normal bike – but it’s really heavy, which makes it somewhat tough to lug in and out of the nearest T station you can find.

Call me lazy if you want, but I much preferred the wheel when it was in turbo mode.

The company’s promise

But the company isn’t just about helping sedentary people like me get some exercise on the way to work. The company tracks all the data acquired through the app and hopes it will help improve the way cities interact with cycling communities.

For example, the wheel tracks not only location and speed, but also little things like bumps in the road. It could tell a city what roads and/or bike paths need attention.

Part of the company’s pledge is to use the data to better commutes for all – not just those willing to pay the $1500 price.

The wheel first launched in 2013, but shipments on pre-orders really only started going out recently.

While some have been frustrated with the wait, for Sarah Keuhnle, it was a blessing.

“I think it makes us all really excited and we just want to share it with the world,” Kuehnle said.

You can find the company and shop its wheels online here.