After testing a number of commuter and townie e-bikes, we have found our favorite, the Class-I Embark from Priority Bicycles. The most important factor is that it is the most comfortable geometry we have come across. Add to that the reliable Bosh motor and other top of the line components which don’t require any sort of maintenance and the Embark is very much worth the pricier than average for this category $4,000 price tag.
We tested the Embark for nearly a year in Boulder, Colorado. Not surprisingly, it got the most use in the late spring, summer, and fall taking kids to school or daycare, weekly trips to the farmers market, and running the regular errands of life. We do get enough clear and sunny, albeit cold, days in the winter where we bundled up and kept the testing going.
Part of the great design of the Embark are the high-volume WTB Horizon 650B PLUS 47M/M Tubeless tires. That equates to a 27.5-inch diameter and 1.8-inch width and WTB recommends they be run between 35 and 55 psi. The higher volume, broader width, and lower pressure all contribute to the comfort of the ride and the versatility of the Embark. It’s versatile because those softer tires allow for getting off of the pavement without rattling the bike (or the rider) to pieces and it remained relatively stable when we braved riding with snow and ice on the ground.
Some things to be aware of with tires like this—especially if you’re a more technical rider—include: 1) Cornering at speed will cause the tires to rub against the fenders; and 2) Always check the tire pressure before going for a ride, we found we had to top the tires off about once a week; 3) The bike ships with tubes in the tires so they will need to be converted (tape, sealant, etc.) to tubeless if that’s preferred.
The Embark comes in three sizes which will accommodate riders from around five to 6.5 feet tall. We went with the large (21-inch) frame which has the most unique geometry of the three options, and as I mentioned above, it turns out to be the perfect shape for both my wife (who, at 5” 8’ has a long torso) and me (5” 11’). We just have to bump the seat up or down which is easy with the quick release seat stem.
The key comfort factor of this frame is the excellent balance between sitting relatively upright to minimize weight on the arms, wrists, and hands with just enough forward lean so we’re not too upright with the wind pushing against the rider like a sail. This balance of body weight is key in providing ride stability (especially when adding the weight of a child on the back) and to keep it easy to use the grip twist CVT shifting (more on that below).
The swooping toptube is a stretch from a step-through frame, but still makes it just a little easier to throw a leg over to mount up, especially if (like us) you have a kid seat mounted on the back and can’t throw your leg over the seat. The 6061 T6 Aluminum frame is hydroformed for precision and to optimize weight and durability efficiencies.
Gearing & Shifting
As part of their fleet wide zero-maintenance goal the team at Priority has centered their entire fleet around the Gates carbon belt drive instead of a chain. The carbon belt doesn’t stretch, wear down the cogs on the hubs, and is clean—no grease or sharp points to snag pants on and all the gear shifting happens internally.
Inline with the zero-maintenance theme Priority landed on the Enviolo (previously known as Nuvinci) Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT) shifting hub. This is pretty incredible technology and the whole system is completely contained. There are no adjustments to be made and it’s controlled by a twist sleeve built into the right-hand grip. The Enviolo does not have traditional gear numbers because it doesn’t have specific gearing rings to choose from. Instead, it’s a smooth (theoretically, infinite) transition from as big or as small of a twist applied to the grip control. It provides a 380% range of gearing ratio which is totally fine for a commuter bike. It sits between an 8-speed internal hub at 307% and an 11-speed internal gear hub at 409%. So, it could be argued to be on par with a 10-speed internal hub. Compared to a traditional chain and cassette derailleur system a typical single chainring 10-speed (1×10, 11-36) range is 327%. This has proven to be plenty of gearing range, even with extra load like while pulling a trailer or having a kid on the back. The limitation was only noticed while on a steep descent, traveling over 30mph and trying to pump more speed into the bike—a rare and relatively unnecessary circumstance on this bike.
Novice and casual riders take to this gearing method very quickly and love it. Those of us used to click-shifters may take a little longer to get used to how this works, but it comes with practice. My only quip is the little indicator to show what “gear” the bike is in. Instead of using a numerical system (because they could and just have used the numbers 1-10 and let the dial move smoothly between the indicated numbers—but that wouldn’t have jived with the truthful phrasing of there being an infinite possibility of gears) the indicator is a little orange bicycle that changes from being on a steep hill to a flat surface. This is not an accurate illustration because when starting from a dead stop—even on the flats—the shifter needs to show the “climbing” mode, not the “level riding” mode. Totally minor, but it’s what the nit-picker gear tester in me notices.
The Motor & Components
The Embark is driven by one of the best e-bike motors available, the Bosch Active Line Plus and powered by the Bosch PowerPack 400 battery. The mid-drive (at the pedals) motor only provides pedal assist, there is no throttle to just go without pedaling. The motor has a number of sensors to determine how much to assist the rider up to 20mph depending on which of the five options for power assist has been selected. They include: off, eco, tour, sport, and turbo. The most (un)noticeable feature about this motor is how quiet it is. We’ve tested a few e-bikes with relatively loud motors. This works right in harmony with the rest of the silent components like the Gates Carbon Drive, the internal shifting hub, and the Tektro Hydraulic Disc Brakes. Even the softer WTB tires absorb little bumps quietly.
The only place we saw the Active Line Plus Bosh motor have a hard time is on long steep hills. This was evident on the ride up to Boulder’s Chautauqua Park riding alongside a friend with a different brand ebike (and different motor). The motor got the bike and the rider up the hill, it was just slower than expected. Still, with patience, it saved the rider from being a hot sweaty mess—which would have been the case on a non-ebike.
The Bosch Purion display and motor control console is easy to use. Two large buttons, a plus (+) and a minus (-) are easy to tap with the left thumb to select the pedal power assist. It also displays all the expected data like speed, odometer, range estimate, and long-hold on the plus button controls the built in lights on the bike. The display is always easy to read in the direct sunlight (even with polarized sunglasses) and is backlit in the dark.
The Bosch PowerPack 400 battery is a 400 Wh battery capable of providing up to 50 miles of range on a single charge (that’s in Eco mode with very little hills and going easy). With our riding style (Turbo, hauling kids or trailers, a few hills, etc.) we usually maxed out around 35 miles per charge. But that was more than plenty for a day’s worth of riding for us so charging the battery overnight (on the bike or detached) just became part of our routine. However, if we tried to push it too far and the battery died mid-ride, the broad range of gearing, made it so it wasn’t a horrible experience getting the rest of the way home under our own power. If the battery dies at night, it still has enough power to keep the lights on even if it won’t run the motor—a nice safety touch.
With two young children, we do a lot of hauling with the Embark. We have rigged the Embark with a number of configurations, mostly products from Burley, to get kids and all the related gear loaded. The first thing we mounted was a Peg Perego 10+ Rear-Mount Child Bike Seat, which has since been discontinued. But it is still working great. That however has negated our ability to attach a rear rack on the bike. Instead, we found the m10 Burley Ballz Nutted Axle Adaptor fit great on the rear axle of the Embark so we can use the Burley Coho XC trailer to haul extra gear even with the Peg Perego seat on the back. It also takes the Burley Steel Hitch for our Burley Kid trailer. Finally, we also have the new Burley Travoy and use the Quick Hitch on the seat stem when not hauling a kid in the bike seat.
The Priority Embark has proven to be an incredible addition to our family and our lifestyle. While we live in a town that has lots of bike specific trails, the Embark could easily take on less bike friendly communities. The low maintenance aspect of the Embark has provided me (as the family mechanic) some nice relief from needing to futz with it to keep it running (instead, I’ve been tinkering with it in other ways beyond the scope of this review—note the basket on the front and the headlight moved to the handle bar).
Dig it? Buy it at prioritybicycles.com!