Ampler Curt e-bike review: electric doesn’t have to mean big and uglySeptember 6, 2018
Buying an electric commuter bicycle is expensive. The best ones usually start around $2,500, but can quickly approach the price (and weight) of a small car. That’s a lot of money to entrust with a bicycle upstart like Ampler, a company that hails from Tallinn, a capital city of a country I once had to Google. Can an obscure company started by three childhood friends with its origins in crowdfunding really make a bicycle worthy of all that cash? That’s the question I set out to answer this summer in the bicycle proving grounds of Holland. As that famous song about New Amsterdam goes: if they can make it here, they can make it anywhere.
Ampler built its first prototype in 2014, and sold its first bikes in 2016. The company now employs 18 people, a number it plans to double in the next eight months. The company has sold about 1,700 bikes in total, with more than half of those being sold since February when Ampler unveiled its latest models: the quick and lightweight Curt, the sturdy Stout, and humble Stellar. It’s the sporty Curt that I’ve been riding, an electric pedal-assist bicycle that looks too svelte to be electric.
The Ampler Curt starts at €2,490 (about $2,918 if Ampler ever starts selling it in the US). Yes, that’s expensive, but pedal-assist bikes can serve as replacements for cars or public transportation for many urban dwellers by greatly extending the radius of what’s normally consider bikeable. By comparison then, it’s a far less expensive means of travel that also promotes a healthier person and planet. My review Curt included a number of optional components like a silent belt drive that doesn’t need oil, mudguards, integrated lights, a rear carrier, a more comfortable saddle and grips, and a bike lock mounted onto the frame just above the pedals. Those additions mired the stealthy clean look of the base model a tad, but they also made it a much more practical city bike, while bringing the price closer to €3,200 (about $3,750). And it still didn’t include a kickstand or bell.
I received the Curt in early April, shipped directly from the Estonian factory in a box so big it eclipsed my kitchen table and chairs. “Oh no,” I thought after years of Ikea conditioning, “this assembly is going to suuuck.” Opening the reinforced cardboard box revealed a nearly fully assembled bike, to my relief, and a neat wooden toolbox holding a smattering of hex keys, a wrench, and a piece of yummy chocolate. All I had to do was straighten and tighten the handlebars, attach the pedals, and adjust the seat height. That was it. The Curt was unboxed and ready to ride in just under five minutes, with its battery already charged to 84 percent according to the app I had downloaded the night before.
The importance of a delightful unboxing experience is not lost on Ampler.
The first thing I noticed about the Curt was its lithely profile. It’s gorgeous to see in person. The second thing I noticed was its weight, or lack thereof. Having assembled the Curt in my living room, I had to haul it up a handful of steps and onto the street. At 14kg (about 30 pounds) for the base model, Curt is noticeably lighter than most e-bikes, and only slightly heavier than the tank-like city bike I bought from a thief for $25. The Electrified S2 from VanMoof, for example, starts at 19kg (about 42 pounds), while the massive Stromer ST3 weighs 26kg (about 57 pounds). In human terms, lifting the Curt is akin to picking up a three-year-old, while the Stromer is the size of a child you have no business lifting in the first place, creep.
On my first ride, I immediately detected an annoying rattle. A $3,750 bike with a carbon fiber belt drive should not rattle! Many Amsterdam streets are constructed of bricks, so if something’s loose, you’ll know it. The source of my rattle was a locking pin on the front brake. Tightening the pin by bending the locking clip with a pair of pliers made the bike silent. Too silent, I noticed as I crept up on unsuspecting bikers and pedestrians. So I bought a $5 bell as a warning system.
While e-bikes ship with firmware that governs the legal top speed of the bike, it’s usually a trivial task to override it. The max speed and continuous output allowed in Europe without a license is 25 km/h (15.5 mph) and 250W, while the US maxes out at a more generous 32 km/h (20 mph) and 750W. One of the first things I did on the Ampler Curt was override the speed and power settings after swatting away a liability disclaimer.
I’ve written about what I like to call the “asshole factor” that affects e-bike riders — myself included — in the same way that BMWs affect middle-aged salary men. With my power maxed out, I was racing through road traffic on a nearly silent bike capable of delivering 348W of power up to a top speed of 35km/h (22 mph). I was crazy with power on such a lightweight bicycle, following slower bicyclists much too closely, or startling them by passing unexpectedly just as they began their left turns. I also rode much faster than pedestrians, cars, and buses are accustomed to, creating real danger for myself and others.
I did learn to temper my riding after a few close calls, something Ampler facilitates with its two user-defined Assist modes that control the power delivered to the pedals. With the app, I configured the first assist mode to comply with the plodding EU limits, and then maxed out all the performance sliders on the second. You can switch between the modes via the app, or by the multi-function button on the left side of the bike. I then only rode in the maxed-out mode when on the outskirts of the city. Still, after riding a Curt all summer, it’s very clear to me why e-bike fatalities are on the rise.
The Ampler app is… not great, and the company knows it. It’s buggy and weird and I avoid it whenever I can. Fortunately, that’s easy to do thanks to a multi-function button located on the left side of the bike. Press it once to power the bike on and make the motor ready to assist the next pedal downstroke. Press and hold (for about a second) to turn on the front and rear lights, with the latter neatly integrated into the seat post. Pressing and holding it longer (about three seconds) causes the button to turn orange telling you that you’ve switched between Assist modes, blinking once for mode one (legal power and speed, in my case), or twice for mode two (configured for max power and speed). The app, then, rarely needs to be used in day-to-day riding.
Ampler says you can except an average of 70 km (43.5 miles) after each charge of the Curt’s 336Wh battery, or 45km to 100km depending upon terrain and the chosen power-assist mode. These are accurate estimates based on my riding logs. I can exceed 70km if I scale back the power — but that’s boring. Besides, I usually carried the bike inside each night where it was easy to top off the charge (the battery can’t be removed). I managed to ride just under 50km after my last charge, with the bike set to max power about half the time. The battery fully recharges in about 2.5 hours, or charges to just under 50 percent after about an hour.
My test Curt was the single-speed version. That lone gear made it a bit heavy to get started, especially if stopped on an incline. The latest two-speed Electrified bikes from VanMoof get off the line much easier, and offer a smoother power delivery curve. They also put a boost button on the handlebar for anytime acceleration — something the single-speed Curt would benefit from. With the motor off, the Curt was just as heavy to get started but not too bad once up to speed. So don’t worry: if you do deplete the battery you can always get home by riding it as a standard bicycle. Ampler offers a 10-speed Curt configuration, although then you can’t opt for the belt drive.
People were universally surprised that Curt was an electric bike. First, it looks like a regular bike, albeit a beautiful one, in my opinion. Many of the electric bikes seen in Amsterdam are used by people over 65 who would otherwise struggle with a standard bicycle. These bikes are ugly, usually with a large unsightly battery pack bolted onto the frame. Ampler integrates the battery into the frame tubing, and the rear-hub motor is barely noticeable to the untrained eye. I’ve received countless compliments on the bike, with each encounter going something like this:
”Thanks. It’s from a startup in Tallinn. That’s in Estonia.”
”I know that.”
“Well, it’s electric.”
“It is? But it’s not ugly!”
”Here, try to lift it.”
”Wow, it’s so lightweight!”
The conversation usually ends with the person taking photos of the bike and jotting down the name as a catalyst for future action. I even rode the Curt over to the VanMoof HQ where both the co-founder and company CTO fawned over it, impressed not only with the ride, but at the tight integration of the off-the-shelf components (VanMoof prides itself on using components it designs in-house). High praise, indeed.
I never once had to have the bike serviced in the five months I’ve been riding it. On two occasions, however, when starting to pedal from a full stop, I did feel the motor cut out and then kick back in within a split-second. It was so fast that I thought I had imagined it the first time. To be clear, this happened twice out of what must have been tens of thousands of similar actions. Ampler is investigating it, and thinks it might be solvable with a software update.
Ampler notes that “all professional bike shops can carry out the maintenance of our bikes” — a benefit of using standard parts from Shimano and others. Ampler’s two-year warranty covers all original parts, including the power panel, motor, controller, and battery, but only if you live in the EU, Norway, or Switzerland — countries where Ampler currently sells its bikes. Issues might be solved by Ampler shipping parts and instructions to the owner, which they can install themselves, or have a local bike shop do it. Otherwise, a courier will be dispatched to pick up the bike to resolve more complex issues. Either way, Ampler covers the costs for those two years. Service is still available outside of the warranty period, but then the owner must cover the shipping and labor costs.
My testing this summer has proven to me that Ampler is the real deal, making excellent, fun, and desirable electric pedal-assist bicycles. I’m already dreading a return to my normal bike when the Curt goes back to Tallinn.
Ampler’s also maturing since I first wrote about them in 2016. The company just opened its first flagship retail store in Berlin where it sells and services its bicycles, and offers test-ride opportunities in Amsterdam, Zürich, Munich, Düsseldorf, and Vienna. That should put Ampler squarely on the map for anyone considering an electric commuter bike.
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