The sheer exhilaration of riding a bike as a child is enough to get someone hooked for life. Add a motor to the mix for some extra speed and it almost seems too good to be true—but it’s not. Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are pedaled like a traditional bike and often look so similar that upon first glance, you might not be able to tell the difference
First defined and regulated in 2002 at the federal level, e-bikes have continued to grow in both design and popularity since. In fact, there’s been a notable increase in e-bike sales in countries across the globe, not just in the US, but even more so in Europe and Asia. When compared to the first electric bicycles, it’s easy to see why there’s an increase of interest and demand in recent years. Some e-bike manufacturers have such sleek designs that without careful inspection, it’s hard to determine where the motor is being housed! In addition to the aesthetics of modern e-bikes, these two-wheeled machines bring such a wide range of conveniences and benefits, that nearly anyone can understand why an e-bike might be the way to go.
What is an e-bike?
As mentioned previously, e-bikes have been recognized at a federal level since 2002, after Congress enacted a law (HB 727) that amended the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s original definition of e-bikes. The law defines a low-speed electric bicycle as "a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph." The definition specifies a maximum speed of less than 20 mph when powered by motor alone; e-bikes that are powered by both human and motor are legally permitted to reach speeds of up to 28 mph.
How do e-bikes work?
E-bikes are federally permitted to be powered in one of two ways: throttle or pedal assisted. Similar to motorcycles, throttle equipped e-bikes move without any assistance from the rider with the simple twist of a throttle, push of a button, or flip of a switch. Despite this similarity to motorcycles, e-bikes have more in common with traditional bikes than with mopeds, scooters, and motorcycles. Pedal assist e-bikes rely on a combination of motor and human-generated power. As its name suggests, pedal assist e-bikes only offer support to the rider if they are pedaling.
An e-bike will have one of three motor types: front hub, rear hub, or mid-drive.
As the names suggest, front hub motors are located on the front wheel while rear hub motors are located on the rear wheel, and both function by spinning the wheel. The location of the motor will affect the overall riding experience; the front hub will create a pulling sensation, whereas the back hub will create a pushing sensation. Mid-drive motors are most common on newer e-bikes and reside at the bottom bracket instead of a wheel. Its central location helps create a more balanced riding experience and reduces the push-pull created by the other motor types. Additionally, mid-drive e-bikes are often equipped with torque sensors which provide a more linear onset of power and a more natural riding experience.
Why ride an e-bike?
It’s no secret that exercise promotes overall physical, cognitive, and emotional health and well-being, but plenty of research is showing that cyclists often see health benefits that are specific to riding a bike. However, many have yet to discover that riding a bike brings all kinds of benefits to the table. For example, an e-bike can be an attractive car replacement for shorter trips and errands, as the many hassles associated with driving cars, including finding parking and sitting in traffic, are eliminated. The US Department of Transportation reported that half of all trips taken in the US are three miles or less in length, a distance that is considered bikeable—especially on an e-bike.
A common misconception about e-bikes is that they're for people who can't ride without supplementary power. While it's true that the extra power can help overcome a variety of physical limitations, the truth is that anyone can benefit from and even enjoy riding an e-bike—even those who have been cycling for years! The battery provides an extra boost of power, making the overall e-bike riding experience less physically demanding than that of a traditional bike—a benefit that can be appreciated by anyone who's ridden a bike before!
Benefits for those who require some physical assistance
For those who already ride and who want to take their riding to the next level, an e-bike can help overcome climbs that were otherwise impossible and extend the range of any ride, including that century ride that’s been just out of reach. Additional power can also prove to be advantageous when riding with a stronger cyclist. Some physical limitations, such as insufficient strength, endurance, and even balance issues can impede one’s ability to ride a bike, but a little extra help from the battery might be all that’s needed to close the gap.
Benefits for those who are financially conscientious
An e-bike is a viable transportation option for people who don't need to travel beyond a rideable distance and are hoping to stick to the least expensive option possible. A reliable, durable standard bicycle generally runs around $1000, whereas a decent e-bike will cost between $2000 and $3000. That price tag might sound a bit steep, but it’s generally less than half the cost the average 2010 family sedan. By opting for an e-bike instead of a used car, the initial start up costs alone will likely offer several thousands dollars worth of savings. Additional costs associated with operating a motor vehicle include that of insurance, fuel, and maintenance & repair. These expenses can easily run the car owner close to $4000 annually, or more!
When first beginning your e-bike journey, there are certain accessories you may need to purchase, such as bike locks, a helmet, weather and safety gear, and a pump, all of which should survive several seasons before requiring replacement. Most e-bikers can manage to acquire everything they need with a budget of around $500, bringing the initial riding startup costs to the $2500-$3500 range. E-bikes require little maintenance or repair, putting the average upkeep budget at approximately $250 annually. When used appropriately, e-bike batteries should only have to be replaced every few years and run between $500 and $1000 for most e-bikes.
Benefits for those who are trying to be green
If minimizing your footprint on Earth by going green is a priority, then an e-bike might look like a dream come true. E-bikes use human and electric power to propel forward instead of gasoline, making them emissions-free. In regards to maintenance and repairs, there are plenty of ways to reduce your footprint. For example, opt to patch a punctured tire whenever possible instead of simply replacing it. When it’s finally time for a replacement, reach out to some local bike shops; many shops can recycle tubes or refer you to a location that does. Discarded tubes can even be used as bar tape by simply splitting and rinsing the tube, and then wrapping it around the bars inside-out. There are endless ways to reuse and recycle worn bike parts!
Laws and Regulations
Knowing the most basic cycling road rules is essential and if you're an avid cyclist, then it's recommended that you familiarize yourself with e-bike ordinances in the areas in which you frequent most. If you plan on riding somewhere new, take a few minutes to familiarize yourself with any regulations that might be different than what you’re used to. Laws and regulations vary from state to state—some are specific to counties and even cities—but there are a few standard expectations that all cyclists are expected to be mindful of, regardless of what state they're riding in.
Three-tiered classification system
One of the best ways to ensure consumers are going home with the bike best suited to their needs is by promoting bike specifications transparency among manufacturers. To better protect consumers, a three-tiered e-bike classification system was developed. It outlines the different e-bikes based on specific features, including top motor assist speeds and the manner in which power is generated.
If the e-bike you're hoping to purchase doesn’t fall within these parameters, then reconsider your choice. Marketing and lack of universal e-bike ordinances nationwide often result in mopeds, motorcycles, and other electric riding devices being confused for e-bikes. If an e-bike has been modified to generate power that exceeds 28 mph with assistance, regardless of its original specs or if the rest of the bike is original, it is no longer considered an e-bike; it is considered a motorized bicycle, scooter, etc.
Sometimes, unethical marketing uses specific phrases, such as "electric vehicle" and "can go anywhere" to describe the machine in question. Such word usage can often mislead consumers to believe that the two-wheeled machine in front of them is an e-bike — even if the manufacturer knows it's not. An electric vehicle is only an e-bike if it meets specific criteria. Further, the machines' physical capabilities do not override laws that prohibit bike access of any kind. To alleviate confusion, it has become standard practice for manufacturers to label their bikes according to class, making it easier for consumers to identify an actual e-bike from bikes that don’t meet e-bike standards.
Even though this classification system creates a standard set of expectations that protect consumers and reduce confusion about whether or not a machine is an e-bike, it is currently accepted by only 26 states. Those states that have yet to accept the class system simply navigate current laws to the best of their abilities, usually at the expense of cyclists.
Because e-bike laws vary from one state to another, keeping track of said laws can be especially confusing not just for consumers, but for retailers and suppliers alike.The map below highlights some of the most important e-bike law differences among states.
The issue of safety is one of the most common concerns expressed about riding a bicycle, especially one with a motor. Adding a motor to a bicycle can certainly increase efficiency, but because many equate a motor with unsafe speeds, e-bikes are still viewed as dangerous. While e-biking comes with its set of risks, associated risks are comparable to riding a traditional bike. Believe it or not, low speed e-bikes are as safe and sturdy as traditional bicycles and move at speeds similar to conventional bikes! Other factors to consider when addressing safety are the rider’s ability to handle the bike, the terrain that will be ridden, and the actions of others with whom the cyclist is sharing the road.
Like other aspects of bike law, there’s no standard set of safety rules, but just because it’s not a law doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take every precaution possible. Looking to states with legal requirements is a good starting point when determining which safety accessories and gear you’ll need. For example, it’s no secret that helmets are one of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce, or even prevent, severe head injuries. Research shows helmet use can reduce risk of severe head injury by as much as 88% and reduce risk of traumatic brain injury by 50%. Because helmets are so effective in protecting riders, 25 states and DC have some variation of a helmet requirement for e-bike riders and passengers.
Unlike driving a motor vehicle, there is no legal requirement of insurance for an e-bike, but just because it’s not required doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider it. E-bikes are only as safe as their riders and their environment, and you’re only in control of one of those factors. Suiting up with the necessary safety gear, making responsible riding decisions, and knowing local e-bike regulations are simple precautions that any cyclist can take; so is enrolling in e-bike insurance. Velosurance offers customizable plans, so both you and your bike can be protected in all kinds of situations, including theft, crashes, and even roadside assistance in the event that your e-bike battery becomes depleted.
Riding a bike is a pastime that can be safely enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. E-bikes might not be for everyone, but there are countless people who have yet to discover the joy of riding an e-bike. Accessories and gear are important parts of the safety equation, but it doesn’t end there — knowing how to be a cautious and conscientious rider is equally as important. With bike laws still evolving and varying from one state to the next, it can be confusing for cyclists to determine where or how to ride. Clear up some of the confusion by checking local and state bicycle laws every now and then to ensure you’re up to speed with whatever changes may have transpired. And if you want the security of knowing someone’s got your back in an emergency situation, then consider Velosurance to insure your ebike.