Schwinn's Tailwind electric bike -- which has been available for just a few months -- has been sitting in our apartment since post CES, waiting for the New York weather to shape up enough for us to give it a fair spin. Well, it's been beautiful recently, so the pedal-assist bike has been taken for several spins on our backyard BMX trail to see what kind of dust we could raise together. The bike is a retro, hulking, 58 pound package, with a Toshiba SCiB Quick Charge Plug n' Drive (SCiB) battery saddled onto the back for about 30 miles of assistance. It's an expensive (about $3,200) piece of eco-friendly transportation, to be sure. So the questions are thus: what do we think about Schwinn's latest foray into commuter cycles? Just who is this bike for? Will we ever get used to carrying it up and down our apartment stairs? Join us on the road after the break.

Looks and specifications

The Tailwind is outfitted with a Schwinn City-Tuned 6000 series aluminum alloy frame which makes for an upright riding position, a Shimano Nexus 8-speed internal geared hub and rear roller brake, alloy rims, full fenders, a chain cover, wheel lock, and a B+M dynamo powered light set. All that, plus the six-pound Toshiba battery housed behind the seat, makes the bike quite heavy, and, in some ways, a bit clunky feeling to move around when you're not riding it. Where an average bike weighs about 35 pounds, the Tailwind, as we mentioned, weighs 58 pounds. Of course -- this bike does a lot more than your average bike, and its weight is actually fairly low for electric bikes (plus, we're huge wimps).

The whole package is aesthetically really old-timey looking -- which will not please everybody, though we find it to be really quite charming. It's surprisingly elegant, and though one friend described it as "goofy" looking, we think that its look suits the intended rider -- but more on that below. The bike comes with a standard residential 8.4 amp charger that you plug into the battery and a wall outlet, and the bike gets a full charge in about 30 minutes (there's also a 40 amp commercial charger that will have you moving in less than 10). For those not terribly familiar with electric bikes, the Schwinn's battery charges up about as fast as its contemporaries on the market, and is actually much faster than many.

Performance

After charging up the battery, sliding it into the rack system at the back of the bike (which could not be simpler), and locking it into place, you're ready to go. The bike comes with a key which both locks the battery in place and enables the bike to be turned on. Without the key -- well, the bike is just a bike. There is a battery life indicator on the left handlebar, and the Shimano Revo-shift lever -- which controls what gear you're in -- on the right. Riding this Schwinn without the pedal assistance on is, as you'd expect, just like riding any other bike... but way heavier. That said, the ride is extremely smooth and comfortable (likely helped by that excess weight), and it's obvious by the design that the bike has an eye on casual cruising -- and it definitely delivers that.

So what's the story with the pedal assist juice? Well, let's just say it really, seriously provides assistance. After you crank it on (okay, there's no cranking involved -- just a button press), you'll feel it kick in after maybe five seconds. It's a bit jarring the first time or two, but that's par for the course, and you'll warm up to it quickly. Once the electric's on, there are three modes of assistance to choose from on that left control panel -- flat, downhill, and hill climbing. On flat riding roads, where we did most of our testing, the assistance creates an experience where, though you still need to pedal, you can definitely feel a substantial amount of help from the motor. We're not saying it's without effort, but it's a greatly reduced effort. Uphill, however, we definitely expended a significantly higher amount of energy with our toothpick-like legs. The assistance is there, but it doesn't enable you to truck up huge hills super fast -- it'll give you enough of a boost so that you're not completely annihilated, but doesn't do all the work by a longshot. On flat roads, shifting gears will allow you to put more or less effort into your ride as you please, allowing for a lot of levity in the experience. We didn't clock our speeds, but the bike can supposedly top about 15 miles per hour on flat ground with the pedal-assist on, and that sounds about right to us.

Gallery | 29 Photos

Schwinn Tailwind electic bike

There are a few things to know about the motor itself in action. First, if you stop pedaling, after a few seconds, the pedal assist will shut down -- until you begin pedaling again, which will kick it back on. Second, when you brake, same thing -- the juice cuts off. These things do take some getting used to, but with repeated tests became expected, second nature behaviors of the bike. The battery, which cannot be plugged in or charged while attached to the bike, is advertised as lasting up to 30 miles per charge. We rode the bike for over an hour without seeing it completely drained of its juice, but keep in mind that you'll either need to bring the charger with you or take it back home for another plug-in to get the electric flowing again should it die on you. Then again -- the bike is still a functioning piece of equipment once the battery is dead, so maybe we should all stop being so lazy.

There were only two really minor complaints here -- the brakes can be a tiny bit jerky for our tastes, and we heard a bit of rattling from the battery pack when jetting over bumpy terrain, which made us a little nervous. Regardless, the battery seemed to be securely locked into its rack, so it's probably not an actual concern, and probably just more mounting evidence of our insane paranoia.

So who is the tailwind for?

The Tailwind's frame is meant for flat city or suburban riding, and, at the end of the day, Schwinn's entire package here hits dead-on a really specific and growing demographic. There is a small but ever heightening interest in alternatives to gas automobiles in the US, and bicycles, as evidenced by bike-friendly cities such as Portland and Minneapolis. Less pedal-happy cities are beginning to see the advantages of cycling (less pollution, less car traffic) and taking steps to reform their towns. Simply put -- plenty of people would rather bike to work than drive there, if distance and climate factors are in their favor, for reasons environmental and health-related. The Tailwind is a solid option and is aimed squarely at those people -- you can get to and from work without sweating profusely and horrifying your co-workers, and the little extras like the on-board lights really make it a feasible means of transportation in that regard.

$3,200 isn't cheap by any means, though it would be, over time, an extremely economical purchase when compared to fueling and car costs. There are other drawbacks, too. Anyone with a small apartment will be hard pressed to find a place to keep the Tailwind, and it's not a likely candidate for one of those wall-hung bike racks, either. Additionally, the weight of the bike makes it pretty inconvenient to carry up and down stairs on a regular basis. But, if you have a place to lock it up and store it, are looking for an attractive commuter bicycle, and you have a decent disposable income (or are willing to make an investment purchase), this is a really stellar choice. If, however, you're looking for a bike to speed away from vampires in a hilly, dangerous, pothole-ridden apocalyptic nightmare (such as, say, North Brooklyn), you might want to consider other, slightly less cumbersome options.

Schwinn

Tailwind electric bike

Pros

  • Super awesome retro looks
  • Battery keeps a long charge
  • Charges up quick

Cons

  • Heavy
  • Cumbersome in the city
  • Very expensive
Summary

HDTV Listings for May 22, 2009