The idea seems sound enough: instead of buying an ebike, why not just take your regular bike and add the bits you need to make it electric? You get the benefits of an ebike, your regular bike gets a new lease of life, and you’ll likely save some coin. But does this theory stack up in the real world? How many compromises do you have to make when opting for an add-on instead of a dedicated pedelec? We strapped on a Swytch ebike conversion kit and took to the streets to find out.
I’m an ebike convert. They’re a fantastic commuting option that can get you to work without being too sweaty and give you a workout on the way home, they make cycling accessible to more people, they flatten hills, increase your range, keep cars off the road, and they’re just plain good fun.
That said, I’m a bit wary of conversion kits. There’s definitely merit in the idea, but tacking something on rather than building it from the ground up generally means there’s going to be compromises along the way. And while designs can be flexible up to a point, there’s also an element of “one size fits all” … and in most things, one size does not fit all.
So that brings us to the Swytch. This Universal eBike Conversion Kit was crowdfunded through Indiegogo back in 2017 and the London-based company says it’s moved around 40,000 units since then. The kit is made up of a front wheel with a 250-W, 40-Nm (29.5-lb-ft) hub motor that’s sized to fit the bike you’re converting, a battery pack that sits on the handlebars like an old-school carry basket, a handlebar bracket, and a pedal sensor.
The hub motor weighs about 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) and the battery pack about the same, so unless you’re chasing the Polka Dot Jersey up L’Alp d’Huez, extra weight isn’t a huge issue – especially since you can just unclip the battery when you don’t need an electric boost. There’s also a lighter version on the way, but it does sacrifice a big chunk of the 35-km (22-mile) range offered by the standard “Eco” model we tested. That model has a top speed specced at 25 km/h (15 mph), while the more expensive Pro model has a range of 50 km (32 miles) and a top speed of 32 km/h (20 mph).
The first step toward electrifying your bike is making sure you measure your wheel size correctly. The Swytch online ordering process provides guidance to make sure you get this right, then it’s just a matter of selecting the finish of your motor and spokes (satin black or polished silver) and waiting for the package to arrive.
Swapping out your old wheel is straightforward. In our case we’re dealing with a 27-inch mountain bike, but the type of bike doesn’t matter – if you can fix a flat front tire you can make pretty short work of it. Setting up the pedal sensor can be a little trickier. The sensor comes in two parts: a magnet disk that attaches to the crank arm and a sensor unit that attaches to the frame. There are four different configurations for the disk, so it’s going to accommodate most bikes, but in keeping with Murphy’s Law, it didn’t fit neatly on ours.
In the end I just performed some extra modifications by trimming down the teeth that help keep the magnet disk in place. This allowed the disk to sit flush with the crank arm, leaving the correct gap between the disk and the sensor unit. Job done. The fact that we could do this mod is still a tick for the design, which keeps things simple and makes use of the venerable zip tie to hold components in place. You can make anything work with zip ties.
From there you just clamp the handlebar bracket into place, run a cable to the sensor and another to the motor and charge up the battery, which takes about 2.5 hours. The written instructions were refreshingly easy to follow and the only other niggle was that flicking the primary switch on the battery, which is inside the very tight-fitting cover, seemed harder than it needed to be. (You don’t need to do that in regular use though, you just push a button on top of the unit.) The end result is a little messy, which is what you tend to get with DIY external cabling, but you could certainly make this neater than we did with the aid of a few more trusty zip ties.
How does it perform?
I’m used to riding a decent mid-drive ebike and it’s fair to say my expectations here weren’t sky high, but using the Swytch was definitely a pleasant surprise. There’s enough grunt in the motor to flatten most hills, but not enough to ruin your drivetrain in a hurry. Five power levels cater for cruising the flat or tackling steeper slopes, and help conserve battery life. The range estimate of 35 km with moderate pedaling effort held true in our tests – we actually went a few kilometers further, but it’s always hard to nail down ebike range figures given the number of variables.
There’s some lag before the drive kicks in, about half a pedal stroke, but that’s absolutely fine as having the power engage too early can be a problem. When you stop pedaling it stops delivering power quickly enough – it’s not as responsive as the baked-in sensor on my regular ebike, but it doesn’t feel like an issue once you get used to it. There’s also an optional sensor available that ensures the motor cuts out immediately when you hit the brakes. This isn’t something I was really looking for, but the bike we were testing with only has caliper brakes, and riding with sharper disc brakes could change that.
Overall, the combination of light weight and smooth power delivery make it easy to forget you’re riding an ebike, until you remember you’re not that fit. The chunky little battery on your handlebars is another giveaway, and that’s where one or two niggles come in. The buttons for adjusting the power level are on top of the battery unit. They’re simple and fairly easy to get to, though you do need to remove your hand from the handlebar to get to them. An indicator light on the up and down arrows, or a raised “+” and “–” you could feel without glancing down would save you that fraction of a second glancing downwards when changing settings on the fly.
There’s no walk mode, which can be a handy feature when you’re off the bike, but there is an optional throttle, which will do the same job (if it’s legal where you live). Given the unit is light and getting stuck at the bottom of a steep gully isn’t going to be on the agenda for most Swytch users, this isn’t a huge issue.
The battery mount and quick release mechanism is solidly built. The unit is compact enough to slip in a bag when you park your bike (and the new version is getting close to pocket-sized). It does shake around when you hit rough terrain, and the magnet disk got a little out of shape for us, though it still worked fine, and in any case, serious off road riding is not really what the the Swytch is about. And while the Pro model has a light on front of the battery pack, the standard model could probably do with some sort of light mount … but these are niggles, the overall package is definitely fit for purpose.
Should you become a convert?
Deciding to go the conversion route is going to come down to what you want out of an ebike and what sort of regular bike you have sitting in the shed. In our case we’ve resurrected a perfectly decent bicycle that wasn’t getting a lot of use. It’s now more practical in the hilly area where we live, and is more likely to get ridden on trips that previously involved a car. That’s a good thing.
According to Swytch, manufacturing a regular eBike produces eight times more CO2 emissions than its add-on kit, and regardless of how accurate that figure is, there are clearly sustainability benefits to conversion. This is especially true if you’re in the market for an ebike and you have a perfectly good non-ebike already. Sure, ebikes are getting cheaper, but cheap usually means poor build quality, and you may be better off converting your existing bike … though once you start getting into higher performance ebikes with designs and components tailored specifically for electrification, it’s a different story.
Above all, at least in the case of the Swytch, it works. It’s priced at US$999 for the Eco model and $1,249 for the Pro, and while there is the odd compromise along the way, it’s a great way to upcycle your cycling experience.
Product page: Swytch