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Civilized Cycles' Model 1 is a posh, surprisingly practical e-bike

Think of it as a more practical electric Vespa you can pedal.

For many, e-bikes have become a fixture of life in New York City. Couriers use them to zip between apartments, bags of fragrant takeout in tow. Tourists grab them from CitiBike stands to lazily loop around parks. And more recently, an uptick in sales has proven residents are embracing these easy rides as they contend with streets that still aren’t quite as full as they used to be.

Point is, we’ve seen a lot of them cruising through the boroughs in the last year. But none of them look like the Civilized Cycles Model 1.

Conceived and created by founder Zachary Schiefflin, the $5,500 Model 1 looks more like a Vespa than a traditional e-bike, which — strangely — makes perfect sense. A lifelong rider, Schieffelin, and his wife opened the first Vespa dealership in New York around 20 years ago before pivoting into selling electric Zero motorcycles and dreaming of building a vehicle of their own. The end result of that long gestation is an unusually genteel e-bike that officially goes up for pre-order today, with shipments expected to land in bike shops and doorsteps later this year.

Make no mistake, though: the Model 1 might not look like a traditional e-bike, but it sure rides like one. In fact, it rides even better than a traditional e-bike. That’s thanks in large part to the Model 1’s most novel feature, an automatic suspension that smooths out rough roads for the bike’s riders. And yes, “riders”, plural. And no, we don’t just mean the many members of a household taking their individual turns; the Model 1 was designed with tandem riding in mind, and can support up to 400 lbs worth of passengers.

Tweaking the suspension for one rider is easy as it is for two — you hold down a button on the left handlebar while sitting on the seat, and wait for a computerized air pump to adjust to you. (Fair warning: it’s pretty loud.) Once that’s done, the Model 1 is set to take even gnarly urban terrain without much issue. Video producer Brian Oh and I spent the better part of an afternoon zipping around the Brooklyn Navy Yard and looking like a 2021 remake of Roman Holiday — the only difference is that Brian is better on two wheels than Audrey Hepburn was. It didn’t matter what kind of debris we deliberately ran over, or how many times we cruised into Belgian block side-streets — we agreed it felt like we were rolling around on a cushion of air. (Which, technically, we were.)

When you’re hunched forward out of your seat on a road bike, taking a couple of divots in the road may not feel very jarring. Attempting the same while sitting upright, butt planted firmly in-seat, is a different story, but that suspension has made the Model 1 the most comfortable e-bike we’ve ridden yet.

With all that said, it’s still an e-bike, which means it really moves when you need it to. Despite weighing around 90lbs, a mid-frame motor connected to a five-speed transmission and a battery mounted next to the rear wheel means the Model 1 can hit top speeds of nearly 30mph. Like some rival models, the Model 1 offers two methods of hitting those speeds: a pedal-assist system that responds to each stroke with additional power, and a throttle built into the right handlebar for true, Vespa-like riding.

Of course, the Model 1 will never be a Vespa — for one, its natural whimsy is girded by a focus on practicality. Beyond just comfortably seating multiple riders, the Model 1 also has two hard-shell panniers mounted to both sides of the rear wheel. In future models, you’ll be able to pop them open with the press of a button, but for now, you have to wedge your mitts into two handholds and pull. The work is worth it, though: each pannier can accommodate 20L of junk when closed, and 80L when open. That meant I was able to stow a backpack with a laptop and camera inside the bike with no problem... apart from having to avoid smashing the pannier into oncoming obstacles. (Don’t worry, you get used to it pretty quickly.)

Civilized Cycles Model 1 first ride
Chris Velazco/Engadget

The panniers also conceal the Model 1’s most important component: a 10.5 amp-hour battery that’s rated for up to 25 miles on a single charge. This placement seems particularly inspired for a few reasons — because the battery is just strapped to the side of the wheel, it’s easy to disconnect and charge it while the bike is locked up outside. Since it hasn’t been engineered into the frame itself, the battery can also be easily removed when its cells can no longer hold a full charge, making it much easier to recycle or responsibly dispose of. For that matter, you can also extend the Model 1’s range by buying an additional battery and strapping it in yourself.

Oh, and you can use it as a power bank to recharge your phone or tablet, just because. That nod to our always-connected lives doesn’t end with the battery, either. While we couldn’t try it out for ourselves, the Model 1 can be locked with a PIN you punch in on a small LCD touchscreen, and an integrated GPS should be at least somewhat helpful if the bike ever gets boosted.

Before you assume we’re in love with this thing, it’s worth noting that the Model 1 still has its share of caveats. The company claims the seat can be adjusted for people as short as 5’3”, but my 5’8” frame and I had trouble getting comfortable because my legs are on the short side. (Pro tip: just goose the throttle a bit to build some momentum, then swing both feet onto the pedals.) The addition of turn signals for street riding was a welcome touch, but you can’t signal a turn with both hands firmly in place — you have to reach for the very tip of either handlebar. Manually changing gears is also handled through a knob on the left handlebar, which for better or worse makes the whole affair feel a little more like riding a CitiBike than a $5,000 luxury machine.

Beyond all that, the one thing that might throw off some riders is the bike’s weight: with the panniers completely empty, the Model 1 weighs around 90 lbs. While that means it feels plenty sturdy while moving in straight lines, you’d probably do well to avoid sharp turns whenever possible.

So, no, the Model 1 isn’t a perfect e-bike. Even so, its charm lies in how it melds practicality with a mostly comfortable design and excellent speed. That mix explains why Civilized Cycles is trying to pitch the Model 1 as a potential car replacement for some people — after all, why deal with the expense and effort of car shopping when all you need is something to ferry yourself, your partner, and a couple bags of groceries around town? Personally, I’m not convinced by that argument just yet, but the Model 1 may well find its footing now that many cities are starting to rethink their relationships with cars.