- A visually striking bike with a stainless steel look coupled with leather accents and flat fenders to really give it a unique look like that of a work of art
- Cleanliness and simplicity are everywhere from the hidden battery and controller to the internally routed wires and the shaft drive system
- The shine of the bike may distract you from some other notable features like independent rear and front lights, bottle cage bosses, integrated bell, flat stainless steel fenders, matching stainless steel pedals, and kickstand
- Although the electrical system is configurable, in general use it feels somewhat basic having only one mechanical gear and a weaker motor and low range battery, also removing the battery and controller are difficult and you may just want to only park it in your garage for that reason
To run the forums, host the website, and travel, I charge a universal service fee for my reviews. This review was sponsored by California Bicycle Factory. My goal is to be transparent and unbiased, this video and written review are not meant to be an endorsement of California Bicycle Factory products.
California Bicycle Factory is a new company to me, but they have actually been around since 2010 and this year they are offering their take on a simple yet clean and minimalist shaft drive ebike; the Retro S. This bike hides the electric aesthetics well and looks a lot like a traditional bike. On top of that, it has this cool chrome look with what I am told is a polished stainless steel, although I thought it was more of an aluminum alloy. It also has these polished flat stainless steel fenders but I am not sure if they will get amazing coverage because of the design. It definitely looks like they went for more form over function, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, there is a lot of clever engineering to get things the way they are, and in this case, some of the simplicity means less maintenance or fuss. If you are looking for a battery or motor controller, you may miss them. The Retro S is equipped with two vintage looking leather saddle bags (I am told the leather comes from Italy and India) and inside each of these branded bags is the controller and the battery itself. The aesthetic of these bags is clean, and they match the stitched leather locking grips and even the leather wire wrap in the front. Although there are a few exposed wires, many of them are tucked away in the clean chrome looking frame. Another nice leather accent is the saddle that is hard and uncomfortable at first but will wear over time conforming to your body becoming soft and comfortable, like a Brooks saddle. One last note on the aesthetics is the matching Wellgo aluminum alloy pedals, which looks great here, but they are a little narrower, so do be mindful of that. The frame offers a relaxed riding position, thanks to the Quill zoom stem that goes up and adjusts, swept back bars, and the lower attack angle which overcomes the bumps comfortably. For tires they have a Kenda 28-622 700c x 28c narrow setup, similar to a road bike with a high 90psi pressure. Wheels here are 14 gauge spoke and 36 hole with machined double walled sidewalls. I am seeing some torque arm inserts, but no bigger torque arm, which I guess is okay since the electrical system on this bike is a bit on the entry level side. Some other features here are the headlight and rear light. Neither is battery integrated, but the front light has 3 LEDs and can be set for solid lighting or to blink while the rear light is actually a solar powered single LED which is positioned quite nicely out of the way. The Retro S does only come in one size and frame, this high-step 20” frame which is on the larger size, but the bike is fairly lightweight at 50lbs overall. Looking around the bike, I notice the 28.6mm seat post that you could swap out with a shim to get a suspension seat post, and there are tabs on the back of the saddle if you really wanted to add another bag or something. Other features include bottle cage bosses, motor inhibitors on the brakes, adjustable length kickstand (although it is positioned near the 165mm crank arm, so you can get pedal lock when reversing), and I love this big retro inspired integrated bell! As I said earlier, it is a shaft drive which means no chain and it only has one single speed for simplicity, which we will get into shortly, but for $2,499, they really pull of the cleanliness better than most and it just really looks classy.
Driving the Retro S is a 250 watt nominally rated planetary geared Bafang hub-drive motor. This motor is kind of the entry level motor for Bafang and offers 50nm of torque. This bike is ready to go for Europe since 250 watt is the legal limit, but here in the states you may be used to something a little more powerful like a 750 watt. In use, the motor is quiet and is smooth in the lower levels of assist making it very fun to ride…. It feels like the motor never cuts out and keeps going and going. Keeping with the clean theme, I actually looked for a cadence sensing unit, and I know it is there somewhere, but I couldn’t find it. The motor cable is bent a bit coming out of the hub to get around the shaft drive, but it is out of the way and secured by that shaft in the event of a crash. I did notice a bit of delay on the cadence sensor with stopping and starting. Since this bike also has a throttle and some settings allowing you to push the limits, I decided to crank up the settings and see what happens. After adjusting the settings, I got 25mph on both throttle and pedal assist! With these road bike style tires, it almost changes this to a speed pedelec! Braking was a bit harder however, and you could tell this bike may not be made for such riding continually. Stopping the Retro S is a set of 160mm mechanical disc brakes. At that high speed, the braking was harder since there was no mechanical advantage due to the smaller size of the brake disc and the larger size of the wheel. Plus, mechanical disc brakes require a bit more of a hand pull and can have a slight bit of lag sending the braking down the rear cable. The single speed shaft drive is unique and interesting to me. The nice thing is there is you don’t have to worry about chain guides or if you are wearing pants… you also don’t have to deal with chain noise which is nice. But of course, you are limited to just that one gear, however I suppose having the modes of pedal assist can kind of make up for that, offering you different levels of assist is similar to what the traditional gears were added for back in the day. I am told a bonus to shaft drive is that it requires less maintenance and even avid riders don’t need to have it serviced until years down the road.
Powering the bike is a 48v 8ah battery with a total of 384 watt hours. Not the largest battery out there, but in keeping with simplicity I guess it fits okay. The battery is 6lbs and is enclosed in the saddle bag hanging from the top tube. I removed the bag and opened it, but upon inspection found that the battery itself doesn’t look like it can really come out of the bag. There are some nice foam inserts to keep the internals from rattling which is nice, and the physical size is small. They have an insert in the front of the bag to charge the pack and it looks like it may just be best to charge it on the bike. I do worry about these bags being out in the open to thieves and the elements. While they are removable, they would have to be disconnected and reconnected from the wiring each time, making for a complex routine if you are a daily commuter. Also included here is the 1.3lb charger which runs at 2amps. I did notice that there was no LEDs on the battery to read charge level, so you will have to turn on the bike to look at the display to know where the charge level is at. To really care for this and other lithium-ion packs, I have heard that storing in a cool dry location vs. extreme heat or cold will extend the life and try to keep it about 50% full when not using for long periods so you won’t stress the cells. Try not to let it run down to zero, because that’s really hard on the cell chemistry.
To turn on the bike and display, hold the M button on the controls on the left, there you will also find an up and down arrow. This a display from a company called Marcham and while it is not the brightest display, it does have a lot of settings to browse through. RT labeled big in the middle is actually your speedometer. The bike starts in assist level 1 and has pedal assist modes ranging from 0 (off) to 5. The throttle is always a live throttle, even at 0, so do be mindful of that. It is great to have a trigger shifter as it doesn’t get bumped as easily as a live twist throttle does when you grab the handlebar. I love that on the display there is a battery percentage for accuracy as well as an infographic in 5 ticks. Also, on the display, it shows current power output in watts, an odometer, and a clock. If you hold the up button, it will invert the colors, which is great for night time riding. Going back to those settings I mentioned, if you hold up and down together, it will grant you access to a couple of deeper menus that let you change a lot of settings. Just a handful of the settings I am seeing here is brightness, auto off, battery, clock, temperature, wheel size, start password (you can actually lock the electric system with a password), speed limits, power limit, etc. This is really a massive set of controls and it was here that I configured the bike to hit that 25mph top speed. As neat as this display is I have to iterate that it is not the brightest, also it does not have any USB charging, so sort of a missed opportunity there.
In conclusion, the Retro S really is somewhat of a work of art and makes quite a statement as well as compliments the rider. A bike that prioritizes form over function however will have some tradeoffs, so I would consider weighing them to see if the bike is a good fit for you. For example, although the bike is shiny, it could wear over time. The mechanicals may be low maintenance, but if you really want the bike to keep its shine, it may transition into high maintenance trying to keep it from looking worn. Similarly, the leather could dry or crack over time if not taken care of and that could make it weak, so keep an eye on that. I do worry about some little things such as the rigid front fork that can’t really be swapped out, the little bit of rattling in the fenders, drive system is somewhat basic, no walk mode, and the fact that if you were putting it on a hanging rack, you would have to unplug the battery and cables. But the big tradeoff here is keeping those great leather pouches holding the battery and controller safe. A lot of people commute on their bike, so when they park it they remove the battery not only for charging indoors, but to keep the expensive electronics away from thieves or the weather elements. This is possible with the Retro S, don’t get me wrong…. But the process entails unplugging and plugging back in wires over and over again going to the electrical system. Just trying it once for myself after being used to other systems was enough to make me feel like this could either become annoying, or possibly mess with the wires so much that it could cause wear on the ends. On the other hand, the bike is undeniably clean and minimalist. The ride feels very balanced, quiet, and it is using a very reliable system. I am told the shaft drive only needs servicing once every 5 years which is great for keeping ownership cost down. And speaking of cost, $2,499 can be very attractive to someone who wants a cool, clean, and reliable ebike that not only doesn’t look like one but looks entirely unique. I want to thank California Bike Factory for letting me check out the Retro S.
As always, I welcome questions and feedback in the comment section below. Whether you own a previous version of the bike, have taken a test ride, or are brand new to the space, my goal is to provide an objective and honest resource. You can also join the Ebike forums and share your own photos, videos, and review updates to help others! Have fun out there, and ride safe :)
- A visually striking bike with a stainless steel look coupled with leather accents and flat fenders to really give it a unique artistic look
- The leather bags hold the battery and the motor controller as well as hide them, this coupled with some internal wire routing and a small hub-drive motor gives it a minimalist look that also hides the fact it is electric
- This is a shaft driven electric bike which means no mechanical speed changes, just the one gear, this keeps things simple as well as making for very low mechanical maintenance
- The leather accents continue with the wire wrap and the stitched locking grips, everything looks great and is branded, I am told the leather comes from India and Italy
- Adding to the cleanliness is the routed cables, the stainless steel pedals, and the fact that a shaft drive has no chain bouncing around which is great if you’re wearing pants and want to ride, or don’t like the chain noise
- Riding position is relaxed with the swept back bars, adjustable stem, and a saddle that wears over time to conform to your body
- The bike comes with independent lights, although they are not integrated to the battery, I love that the rear light is solar power and the front like has 3 LEDs for visibility
- I really love the little extras here like the bottle cage bosses, adjustable length kickstand (although it is mounted near the crank arm), and this awesome large integrated bell
- The display has a battery percentage level which is my favorite way of reading the battery, far more accurate than ticks and notches
- The display allows you to deep dive and configure the electrical system, this was really fun as I was able to get the bike to do 25mph on both throttle and pedal assist
- A simple bike like this is also fairly light, weighing in at 50lbs total
- This design is a statement and really stands out as well as compliments the rider, it is hard not to stop and stare when it goes by, it definitely has the ‘cool’ factor
- The drive system is quiet and smooth at lower levels, but is a more basic entry level setup, having it be only a single speed can further this feeling
- There is a delay on the cadence sensor when you are starting and stopping, not sure how many magnets there are on this, but do be aware of that
- The fenders look cool, but I do wonder how much actual protection they give you, also I did notice some fender rattling due to the design
- The bike has a great shine, but that can wear over time if you are not inclined to upkeep the finish, making a low maintenance bike cross over into high maintenance
- The leather looks great and compliments the chrome aesthetic well, but the leather could wear over time if not taken care of, make sure that it doesn’t dry or crack because that could weaken the straps and the materials itself
- The bags contain the battery and controller which would be something you would want to keep from thieves or the elements when you park it, but this is easier said than done as you must continually unplug or plug back in wires pertaining to the electrical system
- There is no way to remove the battery from the saddle bag as they are integrated as far as I can tell, it could be because of this that there is no LED charging read outs on the battery
- The throttle is always active when the bike is on, even at pedal mode 0, so be careful not to bump it or engage it on accident
- Having one mechanical gear is great for maintenance and simplicity, but it may not be for everybody, so make sure to understand how that integrates with the cadence pedal system to see if it is right for you
- Official Site: https://electricbikeca.com/