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HNF-NICOLAI XD2 Urban and UD1 Unisex e-bike review – S-pedelec for daily use

In a somewhat quirky manner we’re condensing two bike reviews into a single article. The reason for the departure from the norm is that both e-bikes we received for testing come from the same manufacturer, employ more or less the identical technology, both are top-end in terms of innovation, the only variance is probably the target audience. The HNF-NICOLAI UD1 is a unisex pedelec model with a lower, more comfortable step-through frame design, making it ideal for riding in the congested city streets. On the other hand, the XD2 “Urban” features a much more aggressive design, making it a beast of a commuter. It’s endowed with a single-minded attitude toward making every journey as fast as possible.

Concerning the manufacturer of these bikes, as I have spoken at lengths about the origins and aims of the HNF-NICOLAI joint venture in a previous write-up. To anyone familiar with the legendary luster of the NICOLAI brand, the level of craftsmanship found on these two bikes should come as no surprise!

Although the two bikes bear little resemblance based on the first look, the exact same “clock” is stomping in both machines. The motor unit is the much ravished Bosch Performance Speed, which conforms to the S-pedelec regulation, providing a whopping 350 watts of power that provides pedal assistance up to 45 km/h tempo. This almost twice the speed as the basic pedelec bikes allow, moreover the level of assistance can be as high as 275%, and the torque approaches that of a mid-size motorbike: an astonishing 63 Nm! We must add that serious rider input is needed to reach such level of assistance, so one should not assume that a light stroll with the bike will make it overtake cars in traffic. A 30-35 km/h speed is easily attainable with moderate pedaling effort, as the drive system is optimized for a 35 km/h tempo. Above this speed the rate of assistance decreases until the rider reaches the 45 km/h cutoff determined by the E.U. traffic regulation. As Bosch has just introduced a new range of motors, we’re eager to see how those will perform.

We’ve just received information from the distributor concerning choice of motors for the 2020 HNF-NICOLAI lineup. The new Bosch motor units will be available on these bikes as early as this autumn, and the much needed battery capacity will also be boosted to 625 Wh.

HNF-NICOLAI philosophy involves an unmatched level of craftsmanship paired with the least amount of maintenance possible. These demands are best achieved with the Gates carbon belt drive and the NuVinci continuous variable gear system. Hence both our test bikes feature these advanced technologies. The other bikes in the lineup couple the Gates belt drive with internal gear hubs, the added option of the renowned Rohloff drive system. Many of the selected bike’s properties can be configured to riders’ preference when placing an order.

 

HNF-NICOLAI UD1 Unisex

This bike features charming a frame design, the frame’s outlines and the color was much adored by our female test rider. Nevertheless the color is not feminine as such, rendering it “unisex” in our books. In case your opinion differs, there is a matt black and silver alternative in the model range. Under the hard plastic casing there is some raw power to be enjoyed: the exact same amount as on the “beasty” XD2. HNF-NICOLAI makes no discrimination gender-wise, and neither did the wide-eyed onlookers: all they could see is a cyclist riding unusually fast on a stylish bike!

The main points of the bike’s configuration is the Gates carbon belt drive system and the Enviolo continuous variable transmission (CVT) with non-locked gears. Although most bike would be proud to boast top-level equipment like the Shox Paragon suspension fork, here it’s standard equipment. Apart from these features there are additional ones that are optional, and can be configured when placing your order for the UD1. These include the Cane Creek Thudbuster suspension seat post found on this test bike which provides added comfort without tarnishing the clean design of the UD1. Likewise the Abus Bordo folding lock is a useful option for city riding, and the manufacturer devised the perfect spot for its storage. It uses some idle space behind the saddle, while still convenient to access. Last but not least, it fits well into the frame’s lines. It’s evident that the bike has a well thought-out design. One can literary see the vast amount of hours that went into designing every detail, from the drafting board all the way to the finished product. Well done HNF-NICOLAI!

The level of support from the motor can be adjusted and monitored on the tried-and-trusted Intuiva display unit and its dedicated remote control extension. The UD1 features a 500 Wh battery pack, and the range of the bike varies depending on the drive mode. In the “Turbo” setting you may only get 30 km out of one charge, while paying attention to the available power – selecting predominantly the “Tour” and “Sport” modes – the range should be about twice as much. The distributor’s website features a very handy range calculator module (BOSCH RANGE ASSISTANT), which you can try out by clicking on this link.

If you are riding a bike this fast, you need to have good brakes to stop. HNF-NICOLAI specifies the Magura MT4 on the UD1, which is quite effective offering plenty of modulation to boot. I think the targeted rider will appreciate having more control than raw power, which makes riding in urban areas safer. The same can be said about the Continental Contact II tires which not only perform admirably, but offer advanced puncture protection and durable rubber compound. This is especially convenient as this bike employs a hub gear mechanism, so repairing a flat tire is much more cumbersome. A sturdy Racktime rear rack – rated up to 15kg – is included as standard equipment to carry loads on the bike. This quality accessory forms a well though-out transport system, the dedicated attachment allows the rider to mounting and removal of bags in a pinch. I tried a pair of Racktime-compatible Ortlieb Back-Roller City bags during the test. They proved to be a very convenient way of transporting a vast amount of stuff on the bike, while protecting everything from the elements in a textbook manner. If the bike is used for everyday transportation or commuting, such a load-pack setup is worth every penny.

Thanks to the belt drive and the CVT internal hub gear, there is no audible noise while riding other than the unobtrusive whir of the motor unit. Most of the time – and especially when using a low level of support – all you hear is the leading wind. Despite having a powerful “engine”, the UD1 may be quieter that your present two-wheeler. This is likely due to the sturdy construction and the manufacturer’s great attention to design down to the most miniscule details. The UD1 is unmistakably a product of the highest quality.

HNF-NICOLAI’s strive for ergonomic riding is also well demonstrated on the UD1. Both test riders reported having enjoyed a surprising level of comfort and great handling. In addition, the bike corners well even in tight spaces, which is especially important attribute in an urban environment. Having ridden this e-bike, I have no doubt HNF-NICOLAI takes all aspects of design seriously, they seem to have a perfectionist approach that’s very rare in the cycling industry.

What kind of bike is the UD1? This question is not easy to answer, especially since we’re dealing with a rather pricy S-pedelec. I consider the main target group to be the aging demography, who requires or expects to need the low step-through frame design in the near future. Presently there is a large social strata of individuals with various musculoskeletal disorders who nevertheless desire to live an active lifestyle. A powerful motor-assisted bike can restore their confidence of these individuals, while providing for a useful transportation alternative.

The UD1 might also appeal to women looking for a stylish bike which makes riding less demanding and faster than any other type of two-wheeler. Likewise, the easy to use frame design is great for commuters irrespective of gender. The low step-through paired with a belt drive system protects clothing from physical contact and getting soiled while riding.

With all these advantages, I feel a slight dissonance between the frame design and the S-pedelec drive system. It may make more sense to supply this type of bike with a conventional pedelec motor, which would offer greater range in return for some compromise regarding speed. The more modest tempo might also be more suitable for elderly riders, or those who use the bike for carrying load or children at the back.

We should also touch on the UD1’s special internal hub gear, the Nivinci N380SE. It’s a high-end system where the planetary gear is shifted in offset, much like the CVT gear boxes in various motor vehicles. It’s maintenance free, and allows the rider to vary the gear ratio between the drive and the wheel with no steps, over a 380% gear ratio. It makes no difference whether the gear change is performed while pedaling or standing idle, the desired ratio is set instantaneously. Maybe it’s a good idea to keep torque at a reasonable level while changing gears in order to prolong life-span of the unit, but from the point of view of performance, it doesn’t really matter. Since the same unit can be found in both our test bikes, all the above applies to our next candidate, the XD2 as well. So it’s time to switch bikes!

HNF-NICOLAI XD2 Urban

Before we get into the nitty-gritty of this S-pedelec model, it’s important to point out that the XD2 was designed to be a “destroyer”. A bike that’s very powerful, looks mean, and takes the rider through the urban jungle like no other bicycle on the market. In order to achieve this, the XD2 features an unusually slack head tube angle, placing the emphasis on high speed maneuverability as opposed to nimble handling. Once it gets up to speed, not much will distract it from the course. It behaves more like a motorbike than a conventional pushbike, and if we want a comparison with pedal-equipped brethren, handling of the XD2 is not overly dissimilar to an enduro or a downhill bike. Primarily it’s meant to be ridden on asphalt, however there is also an optional off-road kit available to make it more trail worthy.

As you can see, the XD2 is a special bike in from every aspect. Starting with the powerful Bosch Performance Speed motor unit, including the Gates carbon belt drive, the Nuvinci CVT gearing all the way down to the unique frame geometry. The rustic road surfaces leave this bike untouched, and in case you want to hop onto a curb, it will respond to your request in perfect demure. HNF-NICOLAI doesn’t do thing half-heatedly!

The bike employs the same brakes and gear mechanism as found on the UD1. So it’s essentially the frame construction, the more aggressive fork and wheelset that make all the difference. The test ride revealed that he whole S-pedelec concept comes to life with these alterations, providing a level of performance never experienced on a pedelec type of bike. While the UD1 is great bike in its own right, here we have something really special!

Optionally the XD2 can be ordered with larger diameter brake discs, although even the stock configuration (180mm) stopping was more than adequate. The large volume Schwalbe SuperMoto X tires provide much greater grip in corners, so you can lean the bike into them at surprisingly high tempo. The wide rubber also improves comfort, and lends the bike an indestructible sensation. As we have a proper top tube, the frame feels much more rigid, further enhancing stability and dominance. I find the design of the frame is aesthetically pleasing, it lends it some real character, and the 500 Wh battery fits seamlessly into the frame lines. The motor unit has also been positioned in line with the downtube forming a continuous sweep at the bottom section. The frame commends an exceptional quality of workmanship from the neat welds on the frame to small details like the cable entry points.

Since the battery lock is made by the German security specialist Abus, the owner has the chance to order an Abus Bordo bicycle lock which uses the same key. It’s a great help not having to carry two keys in order to lock the bike on the street, making it’s a practical all-in-one solution that I can truly appreciate. The drive link between the motor unit and Nuvinci CVT hub is once again the fabulous Gates carbon belt system, utterly noiseless, maintenance free and leaves no stains on the rider or the clothing. As the belt is an endless loop, the frame has to have an open junction. Here the right seat stay contains a technically well executed break point. Next to it is an elaborate wheel positioning mechanism which is responsible keeping the belt tight while holding the wheel rock-solid in the rear dropouts. The wheel attachment is via two locknuts: loosening them allows for belt tensioning, aligning the rear wheel or fixing a flat tire.

The Rock Shox Recon front suspension fork is a good match for the bike’s character, and it’s sensitive enough to attenuate the rough road surfaces in the city. The Recon has an air spring and effective oil dampening, along with a wide array of adjustments, so the fork can be adopted to off-road use as well paved riding. Unsurprisingly there is a lockout function for smooth road surfaces and intensive sprint efforts. Just like its brethren, the XD2 is wholly noise-free apart from the whir of the motor drive.

The Supernova M99 light system seen on the photos cost 299 euros extra. In return it delivers incredible brightness along with a horn function which I fond especially useful in city traffic. Mind you, car drivers are not expecting a bicycle to move so quickly in traffic, so often the rider has to draw their attention. Most will find it unusual that the light cannot be turned off, but this is all part of the S-pedelec regulation.

The Bosch Kiox display unit is another component that involves a surcharge at purchase. It’s quite tiny compared to other pedelec displays, featuring an elegant design while providing all the information we ever need during the ride. The Kiox can be paired directly to a hear rate monitor enabling the bike to be used for fitness training purposes as well. Once paired with the Bosch eBike Connect app, it can record and display GPS-based information. The cyclist has the chance to chronicle the commute, tour or training ride, analyze it at a later date, collect statistical information, or carry out a complete training plan. Last but not least, the handlebar remote control unit is also more compact that with the Intuvia display unit featured on the UD1, which I found not only eye-appealing but more ergonomic to boot.

Testing these two bike involved a lot of work. Not only did I have to do research about the construction and available functions of these bikes, but merely riding the test course involved a lot of effort. You might think that a pedelec is easy to put miles in since the motor is always there to help you. This might be true for a conventional pedelec bikes, but not the “S”-variant. In order to reach and maintain the higher tempo, the rider has to work quite hard. It’s probably more taxing than pedaling a “motorless” bike. The comfortable cruising tempo for an S-pedelec is between 27-30 km/h, than as wind resistance increases, and your share of the required wattage also goes up. Up to 35 km/h this is not an overly difficult task provided you’re at least moderately fit, but then the motor drive – in order to conform to the S-pedelec regulations – starts to withhold its own “share” of the work. Thus you have to put in a colossal amount of effort to reach 45 km/h, so much in fact, that most riders will likely give up before the motor completely cuts off. In theory this bike could probably reach 70 km/h or more with just the motor, but as it’s not a scooter, there is a required input from the rider. Actually this makes sense, as even with this symbiotic power-saving measure, the range of an S-pedelec is not stellar, the constraint and the cutoff is needed to make it practical for everyday transportation.

The present test demonstrated that the XD2 is a viable transportation alternative in city traffic, and could be used as a commuter between the suburbs and the inner-city. It’s quite effective as it provides both the needed speed and the range for most commutes – that is unless the trip is over 20 km each way. So it can essentially replace a car for many people. I’m also certain that most of the time the rider will get to his or her destination before the car driver. It’s possible to cut through traffic, use alternative routes through parks and inner city streets where motorized traffic is prohibited. The rider can also choose to ride though cleaner environments than the busy multi-lane roads. So there is way more freedom, more tempo, and less costs involved.

There is one caveat: I recommend the purchase of an S-pedelec only for experienced cyclists. It needs more attention and more confident handling due to the higher speeds, and – somewhat surprisingly – it necessitates above average fitness as well. It’s true that an S-pedelec provides a considerable advantage in tempo compared to a conventional push-bike, but no-one should expect it to function as an electric scooter. Nevertheless, if you are always in a hurry, don’t have the possibility to wash-up and change clothing at the workplace, an S-pedelec could be the best choice for a two-wheeled vehicle. Although you can carry quite a lot of stuff on XD2 if you make use of its luggage rack, some commuters may require even more capacity. Such riders will probably be happy to learn that we have been promised a hand-on experience riding the manufacturers CD1 Cargo bike, thus a full review can be expected in the near future.

You can learn more about the HNF-NICOLAI brand from an article we have published recently, or you can look up the distributor’s excellent website. The bikes in this test can be purchased on the website using the configurator app, where the exact pricing can also be found.

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