Time for the next bike - torque-sensing eMTB

It didn’t take long to outgrow the FAT-HS BBSHD fat-bike…at least for me

For someone looking for an all-around bike, or even a commuter-type, cadence-sensing motors like the BBHSD make sense, but everyone has their own priorities and needs.  The FAT-HS wasn’t a bad bike, overall - the front forks were a bad joke, and it was heavy (~75+ lbs with single battery), and I could have thrown some more money at it to upgrade the forks and the brakes.  

For me, I both like to tinker and modify things, and well - I want what I want.  There are few real ‘do it all’ solutions out there, which I found from years of dual-sport motorcycles doing both real on-road as well as off-road riding on them; there are just better or worse compromises, with the trick being finding the one that works best for your purpose.

I really preferred the feel of torque-sensor equipped ebikes.  On the FAT-HS, I  was able to more or less get exercise on it by ‘up-gearing’ to make sure I was always avoiding the ghost-pedaling effect of cadence-sensing bikes, but it was still heavy, still a bit ‘un-natural,’ and deperately needed forks that inspired confidence when taking the bike into the air.  Ultimately, I could have added a bunch more $ into the FAT-HS, but it would still be a cadence-sensor-equipped heavy bike with a fat-tire frame.  

A day riding near the lake

What are the options?

So - I went to see what else was out there over months of research.  The good news is most of the ‘big brand’ bikes (Trek, Specialized, Orbea, Giant, … … ) are pretty much all torque-sensor-equipped bikes.  The bad news - is most of them have either truly mediocre components, or can quickly apporach the $10K USD mark, at least for a full suspension eMTB - which is just a bit insane.  Additionally, most of them even if sold in the US were still EU-specced with a 20mph top assistance level.  

To be fair, that may well be adequate if the only place you ride is 100% off-road, although even then many of us will have sections of fire-road or flat trails which lend themselves to higher speeds, and some of the newer bikes are starting to at least cap out at 28mph.  This whole subject is a near religious debate online, with many Eurpoeans being so used to their restrictions they can’t easily fathom why US citizens are screaming over it, with US limits being either 28mph/750W or even unrestricted in some states.  

Realistically, we ride a mixture of surfaces, including some all-pavement trips from the house, and I could probably live with a 28mph limit, but anything less just really isn’t safe on US roads, IMO.  As it is, we try to limit riding on main roads, as the US infrastructure and roads in many places simply isn’t really bike-friendly, and there are times you need the ability to add a bit of speed simply to stay safe(r).

I did consider a used Trek or other ‘big brand’ bike, although their nominal 250W motors (versus 750W in the US), still concerned me a bit - it’s a bit of a ‘game’ on the power ratings, as there’s a very specific test, and the ‘250W’ motors, still exceed 250W of output when/as needed, but I do wish some of the big brands would make more US-friendly bike variants - which in many cases would simply be in removal of restrictions and changing firmware settings at the factory.  

There’s also a newer class of eMTBs that I think will continue to grow over time, the ’superlights.’  While an analog/’normal’ mountain bike may weigh ~14kg or so, and typical alloy (and even carbon fiber) being 25kg or more (50-70#), the ’superlights’ sit right in the middle of these two.  The Speicalized Turbo Levo SL and Orbea Rise are two such examples - weighing in similarly, the Orbea Rise has significantly more power than the Specialized, but different strokes for different folks.  

Beyond the usual group of big brands, spanning Bosch, Brose, Shimano and Yamaha motors for the most part, the only other ‘real’ contender I’d consider would be Bafang, who has a handful of torque-sensing mid-drives - the EU-spec M500 250W, the M600 500-750W, and the M620 ‘Ultra’ 1kW motor.  the M500 and M600 have the same mounting, so the same frame for one could also use the other, while the Ultra/M620 is much heavier, wider, bigger and has a different mount.  The ‘big brand’ bikes/motors also have their own unique motor mounts.  They also overall are evolving in what their controllers/displays support, such as direct Garmin and other integrations - where Bafang and others will need to play catch up on at some point - but not a huge concern to me.

Bafang-powered options

I did go through a bit of angst here on motor selection for a bit - why (potentially) choose a ‘weaker’ motor like the M600 vs the Ultra?

Well, looking at my usage of the FAT-HS, expecially when out riding with my wife on her Gazelle/Bosch - my wife’s bike seemed to ’sip’ power by comparison…I don’t think we’ve done a single ride where she didn’t have more than 50% battery (usually 75%) remaining. Meanwhile, I’d run the BBSHD battery down to nothing inside of 16 miles if running in higher power levels. It’s true I could have replaced the 14.5aH battery with a 17.5aH battery, and over time I usually ran in much lower assitance levels like 2 or 3 out of 9 - while the Ultra/M620 should perform at least somewhat similarly to the BBHSD with respect to power consumption.

Part of the decision-making process was really looking hard at how I’d used the BBSHD, and while it’s fun to turn up to full power and ride by throttle, it’s a pretty short experience range-wise, and I very rarely went over 1/3rd power in normal riding of all kinds. The Ultra is a much heavier motor than any of the others, which has both positives and negatives to it - weight adds up pretty quickly on bikes, although for most casual riding it’s not noticeable then (it is on tight technical trails, however..), but the heavier motor also acts like a massive heatsink - letting the motor run at near top capacity almost indefinitely without concerns of overheating.

The bikes out there didn’t really make decisions much easier. I could afford to go buy a $10K ebike, but with over 50+ cars and motorcycles owned over time, I literally only bought new once (just too much depreciation), so the thought of spending 2x or more over a motorcycle - just seemed crazy to me. That left used options on the table, but challenging to find, or very few new options.

Biktrix announced the Monte Capro with an Ultra motor, and later the Monte Capro Lite with an M600, while WattWagons had the Hydra with an Innotrace controller. Luna had their fairly long-running X1 enduro with M600, and not a bunch else out there, at least lookiing for reasonably light, or at least lighter, with full suspension for my preferences. I actually would probably prefer an aluminum frame, but so many of the full suspension bikes were weighing in at 70+ pound weights (the Trek, Specialized, etc. are a bit better). One of the tradeoffs in carbon frames or eMTBs in general is forget about a kickstand, and in most cases, the ability to add on racks - eMTBs are more single-purposed in general, although with a backpack much can be mitigated.

The Monte Capro is beauftiful, IMO. It looks like a Dengfu E22 carbon fiber frame, with an added ‘diamond’ up front for the shock mount, but the paint makes them look very nice. Somehow in particular, the yellow really grabs me, although I’m not usually a fan of the color. However, their pricing is quite high for what amounts to ’straight from China’ components - Tektro brakes, no-names forks, and DNM shock at $6K retail? Nope from me - by the time I’d be done with component upgrades, it would be another $2K added on before touching the hubs or wheelset. One other downside is Bafang’s firmware and configuration, including on their torque-sensing motors (at least the Ultra, but the M600 has had it’s own issues across firmware versions as well) has been a bit hit and miss with room for improvements compared to e.g. Bosch drives. Bafang did (possibly still does) make a ‘UART’ version M620, which allowed the use of a ‘programming cable’ along with a PC and software program to be used to fine-tune much of the motor’s behavior - it was kludgy and not the best software I’ve seen, but you could remove over-run, adjust power levels, torque/pedal sensitivity and overall - make it perform and feel - much better. Unfortunately for consumers, Bafang has been pushing the Ultra using the CANBUS communication protocol, similar to what is used in many cars and trucks today, with the caveat being - there is no way currently for end-users to adjust settings on the CANBUS motors, unless an aftermarket replacement controller is used - of which there are very few available today.

The Monte Capro Lite is a Dengfu E10 frame with an M600 Bafang 500-750W motor. There are tons of E10 builds out there from users on eMTB Forums, and the frame and motor can be purchased directly from Denfu, seemingly unless you’re in the US, where it looks like Luna and Biktrix have the exclusive rights. The original pricing of the Monte Lite was very similar to the Monte Capro Ultra - that is, IMO, quite over-priced, but it seems they have lowered the pricing to be more in line with the Luna offering. Sadly, the color choices here are black, baby blue, or red - no yellow like on the Monte Capro Ultra, and the components are still lower tier out of the gate, similar to the Monte Capro. Having said that, pricing ~$4500 puts it at a more competitive price point, and casual riders may do just fine on the OEM components, although I’d be looking to at a minimum replace the suspension ASAP.

The WattWagon Hydra. The Hydra is based on the Dengfu E22 carbon fiber frame, which is an overall solid frame to start from, and uses the Ultra/M620 motor. I like what the owner is trying to do - he’s sort of a mad scientist to some extent for ebikes, and I believe is truly trying to improve what’s available to consumers. Unfortunately, it seems like they’ve been both under-capitalized, along with over-promising and under-delivering for some time now. Forums are full of people hearing ’your bike will ship next week’ - for months on end, and it’s not atypical for people to be waiting 9 months or longer to receive a bike, let alone those waiting on refunds sometimes more than a year. Meanwhile, for replacement controllers for the Ultra, which can add even more power as well as add some programmability/configuration options, users not in the US can purchase one from Innotrace directly, but in the US there is a single dealer exclusive, WattWagons - who no longer even lists parts on their site, while I know of at least one person waiting over a year for a motor and controller at this point…

Unfortunately, the Hydra is also over-priced in my opinion. Between the Archon controller upgrade, which I would consider mandatory for Bafang Ultra motors unless you can be guaranteed to get a UART/programmable Ultra motor, at which point I’d still expect the Archon Ultra to overall feel better… you can very quickly wind up at the $7-$8K price point or higher. I wish them well, and hope things improve there in the future - I wouldn't mind buying only a frame, motor and controller in the future from them if things get sorted with them as far as reliability of delivery.

The Luna X1 has been out for a few years, and is based on a Dengfu E9 carbon fiber frame and weights in somewhere a few pounds over 50#, with an M600 motor. The X1 was offered with a ‘Ludicrous’ option which was basically a ’shunt mod’ to allow the controller to double the power to the motor. Unfortunately, the M600 was only factory programmable at the time, and while Luna did some work with Bafang, most users were quite unhappy with the firmware supplied on those bikes, while over time Luna reverted to prior Bafang firmware which improved things overall for both ‘Ludicrous’ and non-Ludicrous bikes. Overall, however, the non-Ludicrous X1 is still a pretty solid bike, and priced at ~$4K with Rockshox mid-level suspension - not a bad deal. One major problem - there haven’t been any in stock for some time, and no indication of when they may be back in stock.

I did look at a few other bikes, like the Biktrix Juggernaut Ultra FS. I really like Biktrix as a company - they have some very good support articles online, and when I mailed them trying to get some parts (I believe some of their models share the same frame as some of the Eunorau offerings), I actually got a real, understandable and helpful person - fairly quickly too! The Juggernaut was sadly just too heavy overall - I already had a 75#+ ebike, and while the torque-sensing of an M620 would be welcome, this time around I really wanted lighter. Even the carbon-fiber framed WattWagon Hydra weighed in at ~60# (be careful with published weights - Biktrix and some others seem to list weights without battery- which is in most cases another ~8lbs or so).

What about just building my own?

I did go down the path of simply building the bike myself entirely from parts. I’ll do another separate article on this, but while noting the still relative scarcity in the supply chain driving prices higher, using mid-level to slightly higher level components, I was winding up at over $4500 in current prices + wheels and paint, and could fairly easily go higher.

For a while, I was very actively refreshing Luna’s site and checking online for a used or new X1 (non-Ludicrous), as well as their forums, and saw somewhere some ‘hint’ that ’something is coming’ for ‘Black Friday’ (day after Thanksgiving, typically a big in-person and online shopping day in the US), so I filed that away while continuing to shop for frames, motor and components to see if I could get the price down a bit.

I did find a couple of new M600 and Ultra frames on Alibaba.com and AliExpress.com and had numerous conversations with vendors, still somewhat waffling between the Ultra and M600, but finally decided I wanted to build an M600 eMTB, most likely on the E10 Dengfu frame. I was able to also find the manufacturer of the Monte Capro frame, or a reseller, but as seems to be the case, they couldn’t be sold in the US as someone (Biktrix) had locked in an exclusive...

Enough research and searching - time to do it!

All the above happened over months of consideration on the next bike, and as I had my ‘parts list’ as backup, I’d decided I’d be making the purchase over Black Friday weekend.

Amusingly, I had gotten my COVID booster the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and while it didn’t have a huge impact, I slept most of Thanksgiving, but woke up early on Friday. I grabbed my tablet while still in bed and brought up Luna’s site to see - Black Friday Sale - including two new bikes, the Z1 and the X2 Enduro!

Luna announces the Z1 Ultra and X2 Enduro - and ready to ship!

In the recent world of waiting months and months for most ebike purchases, Luna actually had bikes ready to ship before they announced the bikes on their site.  

Better yet, the Z1 with an Ultra was confirmed to be a (user-programmable) UART motor, and the X2 had a completely new VESC-based controller for the M600. In other words, a true and competent controller than enabled user-programmability on the M600 for the first time.

At 6’, I was sort of ‘in the middle’ on Dengfu frame sizing, with some at similar height on Larges saying they wish they’d gone with a medium sized frame, and some on mediums saying they wish they’d have gone with a Large, so - I still had a bit of waffling for a bit, but at their intro price of $4100 + $400 controller, with Rockshox Yari forks and RockShox shock, I literally couldn’t build it for that price (or get an aftermarket M600 controller at all), so I was all in and ordered. A few hours later, the Mediums were out of stock, and a couple of hours later, all X2s were out of stock.

Unlike many ebike ‘e-tailers,’ it seems Luna learned some lessons early on, and do not do endless pre-orders with unknown delivery dates. My bike showed up at my door within 2 weeks, followed by Luna opening up a pre-order for the next batches (albeit with DNM suspension, but Hayes A4 brakes which are solid) for bikes already in transit. I was ecstatic, expecially considering at one point I had considered a Hydra with a ’30-90 day delivery claim but in reality might be 9 months’ delivery schedule.

Meanwhile, possibly in response to seeing the X1 sell out immediately, or just to round out their offerings, Biktrix announced the Monte Capro Lite, an M600-powered eMTB which looks to also use the Dengfu E10 frame (same as the X2 - I would have expected Luna to get an exclusive like they did on the E9 for the X1, but looks like it’s not the case..). They initially claimed a $5K or higher retail price, I think with an early bird (pre-order) price of $4100. Looks to be sitting at $4399 at time of this writing. On the positive side, Biktrix offers a few colors of paint choices, while the X1 was either matte black or ‘Galaxy,’ the former being a bit dull and dirt-attracting IMO, and the latter being, well, like a fairy threw up glitter into glossy black paint. YMMV on color preferences, of course. Biktrix’s colors aren’t much better - gloss black, gloss baby blue, or gloss red - I think the yellow from the Monte Capro would probably be quite nice, although I generally don’t like or want yellow vehicles. ;)

Unfortunately, the specs tell the tale there on the Monte Capro Lite - Tektro brakes, RST forks, and looks to be a DNM rear coil shock. Not too different than the DNM variant of the X2, although I’d take the Hayes A4s over the Tektro brakes every day of the year. Monte Lite has 11speed NX 11-42T, the X2 has 12s NX 11-50T - points to the X2 but not a huge difference for most. The one ‘big miss’ is in the controller, however. The Ludicrous ‘V2’ controller on the X2 has a real pedigree with VESC-based controllers for all kinds of motors being out for years now and well-respected, while the predecessor of the M600 controller was released over a year previously for the BBHSD (not torque-sensing for the BBHSD, but the controller itself is a close descendant with minor changes outside of firmware).

Trying to be fair to the Monte Capro Lite - it’s $300 more than the currentlu DNM/A4-equipped Luna X2. The paint choices may suit your preference more. The Monte Lite tires are 27.5 x 3”, whereas the X2s are a more offroad-oriented 27.5x2.8” but overall a wash. The X2 hubs are made bespoke for them and the rims are heavy duty Alex MD35s versus what I’m assuming are Quando hubs. I know Rohan from Biktrix had posted on Facebook about working with some company making DT Swiss hub clones - so there may be an upgrade path there, but of course, at higher $. I suppose it comes down to which is in stock or guaranteed to ship in a reasonable time frame - Biktrix originally claimed shipping in January for the Monte Capro, and I believe they just started shipping out in March - not a huge delay, but some. The Monte Capro Lites haven’t shipped yet but should be soon.

Of course, if you want the programmability on the M600, the X2 and Ludi V2 controller is currently the only game in town. The same holds true if you want the ability to crank the little M600 up to ~2kW peak power output or anywhere in-between. Having said that, the recent versions of Bafang M600 firmware are reasonably good, so the Monte Lite is at least in the ballpark and may have some value if e.g. someone wants a red or baby blue M600 eMTB, or if Biktrix offers future upgrades of note. If they raise the price towards ‘retail,’ it’s a non-starter IMO as specced, however.

Meanwhile, the ‘other’ new Luna bike - the Z1, also at $4100 is a Bafang E22 or E23 frame with Ultra M620 UART (user-configurable) motor. Colors of matte black (sometimes?) or Galaxy gloss black. Compared to the very sexy (IMO) Monte Capro (non-Lite version), well - the Monte is very nice looking, and I suspect near identical geometery or even a Dengfu E22 frame with the added ‘diamond’ up front, but - CANBUS motor, and by all accounts Bafang’s M620 out-of-box firmware is not great, exhibiting over-run (power continues for a few seconds after you stop pedal movement and pressure), which might be OK for a commuter or road bike, but certainly would pose some challenges in tight or technical trail riding.

Beyond that, it seems the early-bird pricing is gone on the Monte Capro Ultra, and with a base price of $5999, to still have Tektro brakes and Quando hubs, well - I think it’s significantly over-priced over both the Luna Z1 at $4100 or the WattWagon’s Hydra Black at $4899, assuming you can get the Hydra Black in a reasonable time frame (Bolton ebikes is claiming to start carrying WW Bikes - time will tell if this improves the delivery times). For the price different vs the base Monte Ultra, you can add the Archon controller to the Hydra Black and have a bit of $ left over, or you can pick up a top-line DVO fork or RockShox Zeb Ultimate and top-end rear shock - again, and still have money left over, with a Luna Z1, or even get a Hydra with Archon controller (2300W), including a DVO fork and DVO T3 Air shock in the color of your choice (beyond the 5 colors Biktrix offers on the Monte Ultra) for $6500 (once again, assuming WW resolves it’s delivery timeline issues). Again, I like Biktrix as a company, but the pricepoint seems to be a cash grab at a time of supply chain unreliability, and it simply isn’t price-competitive in my eyes - but man, it sure is pretty in yellow!

A thorough review of my X2 to come...