- Charge, a British startup now owned by Cannondale, wants to simplify the bike-buying process.
- I tested out their high-end model, a $2,300 behemoth designed to handle off-road trails.
- It’s the most fun I’ve had on two wheels since childhood, but just not a feasible purchase for my current living situation.
- If you have the space — and funds — it might be the best socially distant recreation option possible, and it’s actually in stock (unlike many other bikes).
There’s no real reason to own an electric bike as tough as a tank, that glides over asphalt as easily as gravel or mud and bounds up hills with no struggle.
But, if you can afford it, there’s also no reason not to.
At $2,300, the Charge XC — the heaviest duty member of the British company’s three-bike lineup meant to have a choice for everyone — is a seemingly perfect fit for the weekend warrior or a cycle-curious explorer. It’s also great for a slightly out-of-shape journalist like me, who just wants to tear up some dirt trails to blow off steam.
I took out a fully loaded version of the bike for spins around New York City to see how well it weathered rough asphalt, bumpy bike lanes, gravel paths, muddy trails, and any other obstacles I could find.
Unlike some new bikes, the Charge XC was a breeze to put together — even in a tiny apartment
The box is heavy but has punched-out handles like any good box should. It also has handy pull cords that rip along perforated edges, easily exposing the bike and its parts.
A cardboard stand — no plastic here! — helped keep the bike upright while installing the front wheel and other parts. Still, it’s an easier job with two people.
“A gigantic challenge in design, really more than the bike, was to get rid of all the plastic, the zip ties, all the foam,” Charge founder Nick Larsen told me in an interview. “That might seem like something that would be normal to most people — but if you saw the equivalent of what a bike would normally come like, it was a huge undertaking.”
From the packaging to the integrated battery, the sleek design made it clear how much thought went into the bike’s creation. Larsen told me many of his design peers from school ended up at Dyson, the legendary British design shop, and the inspiration for Charge bikes was closely linked.
“Bikes are a little bit like computers used to be,” he said. “They’re complicated to understand and a bit of an intimidating purchase. That’s what computers were before Apple and others made the user experience more simple.”
Within 30 minutes, it was ready to ride (but still needed to charge). Within a few hours I was ready go go explore — and had some hills in mind to put it through the gauntlet.
First impression: the smoothest ride I’ve been on in a while
This thing is like riding a motorcycle no matter how high the seat is set thanks to a 60 mm handlebar rise. The handlebars are also incredibly wide, which is nice for off-road control, but I was hesitant to squeeze through the gaps in traffic road bikes can go without a problem, but was never uncomfortably hunched over.
And when the motor kicks in, it’s smooth sailing. It has three settings, from “eco” mode’s slight boost up to the near-whiplash-inducing “sport” mode.
I set off with two targets in mind: the oldest bike path in the United States, and the only forest in Brooklyn.
First up was Ocean Parkway. This bustling road was designed by the architectural duo behind Central Park and other famous US green spaces, and has two grassy malls flanking its lanes from Prospect Park all the way down to Coney Island. It was one of the first true “highways” in the United States, and a few years after its construction it also became home to the first true bike path in the country — it’s only seen a spattering of maintenance since.
Jokes aside, the bike lane is notorious for bumps after years of water, ice, tree roots and other forces have buckled the asphalt. Charge XC’s massive Goodyear tires and fork suspension handled the rough riding with ease.
Its plastic fenders also helped keep disgusting gutter water from splashing up at intersections. However, for all their utility, the fenders shake like crazy over the smallest bumps, rattling loudly nearly constantly — and I’m not the first person to notice it. These seemed easily removable, and are a small part of otherwise perfect bike.
Up hills and through mud where the bike truly shined
The Charge XC isn’t a mountain bike, despite having a frame that easily could. Its numerous warnings against attempting jumps seemed funny at first, until I realized just how tempting it would be to shoot for a dangerous amount of air.
The bike didn’t skip a beat over loose gravel or puddles of mud that would be impossible to find traction on with many other bikes. Even on steep up-hill climbs, I lost balance before its motor ever spun the back wheel. With so much power underfoot, it’s easy to forget to change gears sometimes too.
Down the other side of a hill is where things got interesting. I’d never used disc brakes before this very moment. I’m here to testify that the hydraulic disc brakes on the Charge work instantaneously, and well. In hindsight the near incident was hilarious, and goes to show no matter how much energy the 55-pound bike and its rider can muster, things can stop quickly.
After an hour or so of taking the bike on every different earthen path I could find in the park’s winding ravine, I felt the bike had been adequately put through the paces.
It was when I got home that I realized an important qualifier for potential customers: the weight. It took all of my effort to get the bike up a flight of stairs, and might be more suited to someone on the ground floor or with a garage. (Though to be fair, most electric bikes are expensive and a lighter frame wouldn’t be as tough.)
“Compared to an analog bike it’s heavy,” Larsen told me, “but what you benefit from is range and performance.”
He wasn’t wrong: my 90-minute, eight-mile adventure had only used up about 10% of the bikes battery, according to the convenient heads-up display.
And even despite the struggle to take it up my building’s stairs, the folding pedals and swiveling handlebars made for easy storage in an otherwise tiny apartment.
The bikes are in stock, too — or at least they were when I spoke to Larsen in late August — a major selling point these days as manufacturers rush to build bikes as fast as they can to keep up with an absolute explosion in demand.
“We’ve got stock. We’ve got products,” he said. “How long that will last I can’t tell you.”
Browse the Charge bike lineup here.