Biking is awesome, but biking uphill is not. Commuting by bike is environmentally friendly, fun and good for your health, but presenting your sweaty self to your office coworkers in not fun at all. Fortunately, there is a solution, and it’s called an electric bike! Electric bikes are revolutionizing the bicycle industry. Not only is riding an e-bike simple and easy, but a rider can significantly extend their range with minimal cost or effort.
What is an Electric Bike?
An electric bike (also called an e-bike, power-assist bike, pedelec…) is a bicycle combined with a battery and motor that helps out when you are pedaling to make it easier to get uphill or completely takes over driving and allows you to cruise along. E-bikes are classed according to the power that their electric motor can deliver and how much assistance they give.
How do electric bikes work?
Electric bicycles use batteries as a source of power and a quiet DC motor as a driving mechanism. On most e-bikes, the motor is built directly into the wheel (known as a hub motor) and the batteries are discreetly hidden in the rear rack or frame. Electric bikes can be operated just like normal bicycles, but they can also be power-driven by a throttle or with the help of a pedal-assist (PAS or pedelec).
Types of Electric Bicycles
Just like regular bicycles, electric bikes come in a variety of shapes and designs to suit a range of riding styles and preferences. Different types of e-bikes are designed for different purposes, such as mountain biking, commuting or touring.
Electric Road Bikes
A road bike is a racing bicycle designed for competition or training on paved roads. They typically have drop-style handlebars, plus thinner tires and wheels for reduced rolling resistance and weight. Electric road bikes use a motor to assist the rider, making pedaling easier and allowing for higher speeds.
Mountain Bikes (eMTB)
A mountain bike is designed for off-road riding on rough terrains, such as dirt trails, single track and rocky roads. They usually have wide knobby tires, a rugged frame and suspension forks to absorb shocks from bumps. An eMTB has all the same features as a regular mountain bike, plus a motor and battery to help you ride up hills and over rough terrain.
A hybrid bike is a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. They are designed for riding on paved roads, but can also handle light off-road riding. Electric hybrid bikes combine the features of a regular hybrid bike with an electric motor. Hybrid bikes typically have wider tires than road bikes, and some models come with suspension forks.
A cruiser bike is a type of bicycle that is designed for casual riding, and they often have features that make them more comfortable than other bikes, such as a wide seat and upright handlebars. Electric cruiser bikes are perfect for riders who want all the benefits of an electric bike without sacrificing style or comfort.
A fatbike is an off-road bicycle with oversized tires, typically 3.8 inches or larger. Fatbikes are designed for riding in sand, snow or other difficult terrain. Electric bicycles with fat tires are ideal for riders who want the stability and traction of a fatbike, with the added power of an electric motor.
Folding Electric Bikes
A folding bike is a bicycle that can be folded into a compact form, making it easy to store and transport. Electric folding bikes are perfect for riders who need to store their bike in a small space, or who want the convenience of being able to fold their bike for transport.
A cargo bike is a bicycle designed for carrying heavy loads. Cargo bikes typically have a large cargo area, and some models come with electric motors to make carrying heavy loads easier. Electric cargo bikes are designed for riders who need to transport large or heavy items.
An electric trike is a three-wheeled bicycle that is powered by an electric motor. Electric trikes offer the stability of a three-wheeled bike, with the added power of an electric motor. They are a great option for senior riders, or riders with some physical impairment that makes riding a regular bicycle difficult.
Buying an E-Bike: Key Considerations
Within the last several years alone, electric bike sales have skyrocketed and dozens of manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon with new electric bike designs. With so many different options to choose from, how do you choose the right e-bike to suit your needs?
Before you start shopping around for a new e-bike, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “how am I going to use my electric bike?” How far are you going to travel? What type of terrain will you be traveling on? How much assistance do you need? Are you okay with pedaling – or do you want the bike to do all the work? Is this bike for daily commuting or casual riding? How fast do you need to go? Do you need an electric folding bike that fits in the trunk of your car?
After you’ve determined how you’ll be using your e-bike, you need to understand the different options available and the pros and cons of each setup. Here is an overview of some of thing you’ll need to take into consideration when shopping for the best electric bike:
Pedal-Assist vs Throttle Control
E-bikes have two main methods of operation: pedal-assist and/or throttle-control. As the name implies, pedal-assist “assists” your pedaling and requires some input. With this method, a torque sensor picks up movement or stress to determine the power requirements of the rider. Everything is automated so there’s nothing to think about, just jump on and start riding. Some bikes have multiple settings, while others have just one setting with the addition of a throttle control. Depending on the setting, pedal-assistance can help a little – or a lot. At lower settings, pedal-assist is barely noticeable but helps extend your range. At higher settings, the power is quite obvious and feels like a strong wind at your back with the motor doing most of the work while you pedal along.
A throttle-control, on the other hand, doesn’t require pedaling at all. Just like a motorcycle, twist and hold the throttle back to control power and speed. You can assist by pedaling along, but it’s not required.
Some e-bikes operate in pedal-assist only, others have a throttle, and some have both. Generally, pedal-assist only bikes will provide multiple power settings to choose from to help customize your ride, while bikes with both throttle and pedal-assist will have limited pedal-assist options. With these bikes, the throttle provides full control (when needed) while pedal assist is just a secondary option, great on straightaways or open road.
Most electric bike models include brushless hub motors built directly into the front or rear wheel. Within the hub motor category, you’ll have a few additional choices available:
Geared Hub Motors – Most pre-built e-bikes use brushless geared hub motors. These motors have internal planetary gears that help transfer power from the motor to the wheel. Because of the internal gearing, these motors provide excellent torque but are limited in top speed. On the plus side, the improved torque means better take-off power and hill climbing ability. Plus, less wattage is required to get the motor turning and they’re typically small and lightweight. On pre-built e-bikes, these motors range from 200w-500w and go up to 20mph. But some aftermarket kits can be as powerful as 1000w, with increased top speeds and huge amounts of torque (ideal for extremely hilly terrain). Besides lower top speeds, these motors tend to be expensive and it’s possible the gears will eventually wear out and need to be replaced (this is highly unlikely, they las quite a long time).
Gearless (Direct-Drive) Hub Motors – Some conversion kits (and bikes) use gearless, direct-drive motors. On this type of motor, the axle that passes through the center of the motor is actually the axle of the motor itself, with the copper windings fixed to the axle. The magnets are mounted to the outer shell of the hub motor. When electricity is applied to the stator a magnetic field is induced that causes the magnets to move. This in turn makes the whole shell of the motor turn and propels the e-bike forward. Even though corrosion will eventually have an impact, this type of motor should last for years since there’s no gearing and no contact between moving parts. They’re also capable of higher top speeds. But since there’s no gears, they have less torque and it requires more power to get the motor up to speed. Most direct-drive hub motors are 350w-500w and reach speeds of 18-25 mph. But more powerful motors can reach speeds of 35+ mph.
A few lower-cost setups use externally mounted, chain-driven motors. Although these setups are low-cost and provide a good amount of torque, they’re not nearly as quiet, efficient or ‘stealthy’ as the hub motors being used on most models. They are negligible though.
Battery Options and Charging
Battery technology continues to improve every day. Today, most commonly used type of battery on electric bikes is the Lithium-ion battery. Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) batteries are the highest quality batteries available in today’s market. Although they cost the most money upfront, they have the longest life and the lowest weight., which makes them a perfect solution for electric bikes.
E-bikes are typically offered in 24V, 36V and 48V configurations. Higher voltage generally means higher top speed – but that may not always be the case. Since the efficiency of a motor and drive system can affect power and speed, a 24V setup could have the same top speed as a 36V setup. Generally, you can expect 15-18 mph on a 24v setup, 16-20 mph on a 36V setup and 24-28 mph on a 48V setup. Although it far exceeds Federal laws, some conversion kits can even be run at 72V for speeds of 35+ mph! However, this puts significant stress on bicycle components. Consider that even the fastest athletes only travel 17-18 mph on a conventional bicycle, so 20 mph feels very fast to most riders. Anything over this speed can be unsafe and exceeds law regulations.
Besides voltage, batteries are rated by amp hours (AH). Although voltage seems to get the most attention, the amp hour rating of the battery is just as important. It is the measure of a battery’s capacity and provides a good indication of the range you can expect from an electric bike. Although lots of factors come into play in determining range (ie: rider weight, terrain, input, efficiency, etc.), a good rule of thumb is range is equal to AH. So under normal conditions, an average rider can expect 10 miles out of a 10AH battery (with no pedaling). With rider input, this number can be dramatically increased, so most 10AH batteries are rated “up to 20 miles” by the manufacturer which assumes pedaling. On pedal-assist bikes (which require pedaling), the range ratings are much higher because the rider is constantly assisting the motor and reducing the current draw.
Charging: Battery charge times will vary between manufacturers, models and battery types. Typically, the initial charge will take 6-12 hours. For routine charging, higher quality batteries (such as Li-Ion) will take less time – anywhere from 2-6 hours.
Electric bikes vary widely in price, anywhere from $499 to $2000+, so you’ll have to determine how important certain features are to the overall cost. The battery used to power an electric bike motor is a key factor in how expensive a particular bike is. In general, the more miles a battery can provide, the more expensive it will be, so it’s important to consider the type of riding you plan on doing. If you know you’ll be using predominantly motor-generated power, then paying a bit more for a battery with a longer range is probably a good idea. Alongside with a good quality battery, motor is the most expensive part of an electric bike. Most standard electric bike motors come with a power rating of 250W, and the industry standard in the US is 500W. Maximum power of the motor you can legally use in the US is 750W.
The non-electric components used on an electric bike are almost the same with those used on conventional bicycles. The quality of the components used will affect the maintenance costs of your electric bike down the road, and more quality components mean higher upfront cost. Lastly, there is the frame. Since the frame is basically the skeleton of your electric bike, it’s wise to select a good material that will be the optimum combination of weight and durability.
If you want a decent e-bike, that will last you a long time and won’t require much maintenance, you will need to spend over $2000. Anything less requires careful planning and probably some compromises.
Max Load Capacity
The vast majority of electric bikes on the market are rated for a max load of 220-250 lbs. This is plenty for the average rider, but if you are a heavier rider (over 250 lbs), then you will want to make sure to find an e-bike with a higher weight capacity. Most manufacturers list their max load right in the product specs. If you can’t find it, give them a call and they will be able to tell you.
New E-Bike vs. Conversion Kit
There are two main categories when choosing an e-bike: a pre-built electric bike or a custom e-bike conversion. Ready-made electric bikes come in a wide variety of setups and styles and are designed specifically as electric drive bikes. With unique characteristics and design qualities, most meet the law requirements which limit power and speed.
There is also a variety of options to choose from equipped with different design and different motor and battery configurations to suit different riding styles and preferences: cruisers, commuters, electric mountain bikes, folding e-bike and more. Pre-built e-bikes are clean and sleek in design with all of the wiring and electrical components built directly into the bike. For most people, production e-bikes work great and there’s no need to tinker with your old road bike trying to electrify it.
Conversion kits, on the other hand, are sold and installed separately on traditional bikes. They are harder to setup and conceal, and require some basic mechanical ability and a little bit of ‘elbow grease’ to install. The advantage of conversion kits is that you can choose almost any standard bicycle, and you have the freedom to change or upgrade components as you go. A conversion kit will also allow you to achieve higher power and speed ratings that are not possible on most pre-built electric bike models.
Kits are great for tall or heavy riders because they can opt for a larger bike, with higher power and weight carrying capacity. People living in hilly terrain may require the additional torque to handle extremely large inclines. For people who prefer a specific bike model or just love to go faster, a conversion kit offers enormous flexibility.
Just like with standard bikes, there is a range of different types of e-bikes: electric folding bike, electric mountain bikes, electric road bikes, cargo bikes… When it comes to finding the best electric bicycle for you, testing is the best thing you can do before buying one. But as it is practically impossible to test every bike that catches your eye, the next best thing that you can do is to do the research, read reviews by people who bought the certain model and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Hopefully you have found lots of information here to help you decide which type or bike configuration is right for you.