Reinventing The (Hubless) Wheel, E-Bike Edition: But Why?

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In what looks like yet another misguided attempt to disrupt the electric micromobility scene, a Korean company has recently announced its Top Secret e-bike, which features hubless wheels and and airless tires. A quick caveat before I begin: I have not seen one of these in person, and probably never will, but a lifetime of cycling informs me that buying in to these kinds of ‘new and improved’ bicycle/e-bike designs are rarely a wise choice. That being said, let’s take a look at the Top Secret e-bike, which is not much of a secret anymore, via the company’s own promo video.

I mean, I’ll go ahead and give some points right now for the ambitious undertaking of building a company around unproven technology (hey, it’s 2024, so anything goes maybe?), and perhaps award a few more points for the audacity of calling it a “sophisticated design,” but right away a few major issues rear their ugly heads for me. Also, I’m curious if the Tron Light Cycle was a major inspiration for this hubless wheel design, or if it is trying to emulate the Reevo hubless e-bike,

One of the beautiful things about modern bicycle wheels is their ability to flex and absorb shock, while also providing an efficient method of transferring the torque from the wheel’s hub to its rim, all while keeping the wheels light and durable. Additionally, the spokes can be tightened to true up the wheel, and as anyone who puts a beating on their wheels from jumping curbs or bombing down some ugly singletrack can attest to, it’s nice to be able to take the wobble out of your wheel once in a while. This begs the question of just how rigid the hubless wheel needs to be in order to never be out of true, and supposing it does get out of round, how in the everloving world do you get it true again?

Airless tires are another bugaboo, as they may ‘solve’ the issue of getting flat tires (although a tire liner and some tire slime will go a long way toward that same end), but do they ride as well as pneumatic tires? Hmm. I have not seen any head-to-head tests for this, but looking at the Top Secret website, it almost looks like they are foam-filled, which, unless it’s some new space-age material, is likely to break down over time. And if they do break down or are otherwise damaged, you can’t exactly roll up to your local bike shop and pick up a replacement, whereas traditional spoked wheels are super easy to get replaced or rebuilt. Of course, I did recently cover the NASA-inspired airless tires, which are in the same boat in terms of replacement availability, but at least there’s some serious science behind those.

And last but not least, the relative simplicity and interchangeability of modern bike drivetrains means that they are usually user-serviceable (or for the fumble-fingered, serviceable by any bike shop), and any problems that they may develop do not require special training to address. Plus, the more complex the machine, the more chances for parts to break or wear out, usually more maintenance is necessary, and again, you probably can’t exactly cruise to your local bike shop and get parts or service for niche-type bicycles, whereas your basic chain/cog/derailleur setup is bog standard and easily fixed or replaced by yourself or a bike tech.

Now, I may get panned for being a Debbie Downer about new and innovative micromobility options, but I do admire those entrepreneurial souls who are taking big risks and trying new things. However, let’s be real here. Does reinventing the wheel really benefit anyone other than the manufacturer at this point?

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