Even though the first US patents documenting electric bicycles were granted in the 1890’s, it wasn’t until the early 2000’s that they really started undergoing the many changes that have led them to become what they are today. With so many components and features to consider, navigating the market for an electric bicycle can be overwhelming; finding the right one can quickly become a challenge. Whether you buy an e-bike from a local dealer or online, doing some research can mean the difference between “miles of smiles” and buyer’s remorse. Before you spend your hard-earned money on a bike, due diligence must be in order. Once you figure out which bike might work for you, spend the time reading reviews and test riding comparable models; there might be a perfect e-bike out there for you that you simply haven’t heard of yet.
Selecting the perfect e-bike
There are a variety of e-bikes available to the public, including road, commuter, beach cruiser, cargo, mountain, folding, and touring. With so many options, it can be difficult to determine what will best suit your needs. The kind of e-bike you’ll need should depend primarily on how and where you’ll be riding it. If you need it to commute around town, then a beach cruiser probably isn’t the best option. Likewise, if your plan is to eventually take your bike to the gnarliest mountain biking trails around, then a road bike isn’t going to cut it.
Pedal assisted versus throttle
Once you’ve determined why you’re getting an e-bike, the next decision to make is whether you would enjoy a pedal assisted or throttle bike. These terms refer to the method in which an e-bike generates power. A pedal assisted bike automatically generates power when the rider begins pedalling, which gives the rider a more organic experience because it doesn’t require you to operate any controls a normal bicycle wouldn’t have. However, on a throttle bike, the rider must turn the power on and off, usually by a button on the handlebars or a twist throttle, similar to that of a motorcycle. Pedal assist bikes tend to be more popular, especially among beginners, because of the automatic feature and because they increase your bicycling possibilities.
Cadence Sensors versus Torque Sensors
If you think a pedal assist e-bike is the way to go, then it’s important to know the difference between the cadence and torque sensors. A pedal assist bike is equipped with either a cadence or torque sensor that engages the electric motor to assist with pedaling.
Cadence sensors are generally found on more basic e-bikes, particularly those with hub motors, and work by measuring your pedaling cadence, or speed, and providing power accordingly. The only way to increase the power assist provided is by pedaling faster, not harder. While bikes with cadence sensors are found on more affordable e-bikes, making them an attractive option, there are some characteristics you should be aware of that could prove to be dangerous - especially to less experienced riders. Because cadence sensors can’t determine when you switch from uphill to downhill and only sense the speed of your pedaling, there is a good chance that the bike will provide you with an extra boost of power at a time when it’s not needed, significantly increasing your chances of toppling over your bike’s handlebars. Another concern is that the sudden acceleration needed to safely navigate daily traffic or trail terrain cannot be created with cadence sensors.
Bikes with more advanced electric motors rely on torque sensors which incorporate more advanced technology than cadence sensors. Torque sensors are connected to either the chain or pedal, measuring the force applied to the pedal. The technology used in this motor type essentially converts the bike into a “smart” one because it equips the bike with the ability to determine how to respond to your pedaling force and the current riding conditions. The only way to increase power is by pedaling harder, not faster. Like cadence sensors, when you stop pedaling, the motor stops helping you. E-bikes that come with torque sensors are generally more expensive, which can be a deterrent, but it shouldn’t be; safety and usability features come with a price. Because of its intuitive characteristics and force-based sensors, dangerous, untimely boosts of power are rare. Its ability to suddenly accelerate makes it a much better option for exercising, commuting, or other use that requires frequent stopping and starting. Uphill use can still be challenging, as there can be a slight delay in response time. Ideally, the motor shuts off immediately when you stop pedalling, but some e-bikes are known for sensor-related quirks. If you’re an experienced rider, you’ll be better equipped to handle them than if you’re not. It’s critical that new riders take this information into consideration, as unexpected power jolts and delays can prove to be scary and difficult to manage at best, and dangerous or injurious in worse cases.
While having a lot of power might seem like a good idea, excessive power can be very disrupting to the riding experience and could put you in harm’s way. Having extra power does not turn your bicycle into a motorcycle - it will still have a regular bicycle’s handling characteristics while being significantly faster. Bike tires have a somewhat small contact patch and require a surprisingly long time to come to a complete stop from a high speed. When paired with an excessively powerful motor capable of propelling the bike to speeds far exceeding those naturally achieved even by the strongest riders, dangerous situations tend to arise.
Most e-bikes come with motors rated between 250 and 750 Watts, but some come equipped with motors as powerful as 1,500 Watt. According to Federal regulations, 750 Watts (or approximately one horsepower) is the maximum power rating an e-bike can have, while still meeting the definition of a bicycle. Generally speaking, the higher the wattage, the more powerful the e-bike will be. Because the higher-rated motor will pull more current, the bike will require a larger, heavier battery.
If you plan on commuting on your e-bike, the commonly standard 250 Watt motor should be more than sufficient. For those who prefer a ride with an adrenaline rush, mountain biking might better fit the bill. Mountain bikes are designed for unpaved, twisty trails, so they must be as light and agile as possible - which means a smaller battery. The sweet spot for the mountain e-bike is 250 to 500 Watts. If you live in a hilly area or will be carrying heavier cargo, you may also consider a cargo bike with a greater amount of power.
Cargo bikes represent the segment of biking that most benefits from the e-bike technology. Since these bikes are designed to carry substantial weight - be that kids, pets, or groceries - they trade speed and maneuverability for carrying capacity. Regular cargo bikes are notoriously heavy and hard to maneuver. Luckily, with the addition of the electric motor, they become useful to a much larger group of people. Cargo e-bikes have very powerful motors, usually in the 500 to 750 Watt range. Because of the motor assist, these bikes are now capable of climbing even the steepest San Francisco hills and have a range adequate enough to be considered a replacement for a second family vehicle.
Keep in mind that when opting for an e-bike with extra power, you will also have to contend with the extra weight. Bikes with a smaller motors almost always have smaller batteries, which makes them reasonably light and maneuverable. A lighter bike is also much easier to pedal without electric assist when the battery runs out. Whenever possible, you should test ride a bike prior to purchase. By doing so, you can feel the weight and maneuverability differences between different manufacturers, as well as the different power and motor types.
All electric bikes fall into one of three classes, each class based on two features: power generated by the electric motor (the maximum speed to which assistance is provided) and the kind of control system (pedal assist or throttle). If an e-bike is equipped with pedal assist, the rider only receives power when they are pedalling. An e-bike with throttle-based power, on the other hand, provides power when a button or switch is hit, thereby activating assistance.
The first class of e-bikes are often recommended for new riders, as these bikes are more affordable, are commonly accepted in the same areas as regular bikes, and are most likely safer than bikes in the other two classes. The power of the bikes in this first class is automatically provided when the rider is pedaling. Power is also limited to 20 mph; assistance stops once your bike is going 20 mph. Both the automatic pedal assist feature and the 20 mph speed limitation tend to make these bikes safer and easier to use, a better overall option for new riders.
The second class of e-bikes are less common among newer e-bike riders. Bikes in the second class are only throttle-powered, which means power is activated by pushing a button or switch or by a motorcycle-type throttle, but not by pedaling. Power is not provided automatically and these bikes require the rider to determine when they need additional assistance, which makes it less beginner friendly. Because throttle-actuation tends to cause more damage to trails, throttle-powered bikes are not accepted at all parks or on all trails. While these bikes are not necessarily suited for singletrack mountain biking trails, it is still a solid option for multi-use OHV trails.
Bicycles in the third class of e-bikes are very similar to those in the first class. Like their first class counterparts, e-bikes of the third class are pedal-assist only. However, unlike e-bikes in the first class, the rider receives power assist until they hit 28 mph. (versus 20 mph). Even though e-bikes within this class tend to be faster and more powerful, those features come with a hefty price tag. The extra speed also comes with additional accessibility restrictions, as there are fewer trails and paths that permit class three e-bikes.
Understanding E-bike Motors
E-bikes have a number of motor types and only a few places they can be mounted. Brushless motors are by far the most popular, and for several good reasons: they’re quieter, more compact, and do not require servicing. These motors are mechanically simpler than their brushed brethren, and also happen to be more reliable.
Brushed motors are preferred by some e-bike aficionados because they are thought to be more reliable and capable of producing more torque, which makes them more capable on steep hills. While they do require some servicing, maintaining a brushed motor is relatively inexpensive and easy to do.
Does motor location matter?
Since the location of the electric motor can make a difference in how the bike handles, location can also matter. The three most common motor locations are hub, mid-drive, and friction-drive.
Initially, the hub was the most common location for the motor, as it required no modifications to the frame. The hub motor is located at the axle of the rear wheel. It is often used on single-speed bikes and is best for flat terrain. The hub motor shifts the weight of the bike to the rear which affects its handling characteristics at high speeds.
As e-bikes became more popular, bike manufacturers started producing frames designed to accommodate the electric motor near the crank. These bikes are known as mid-or crank-drive. A crank-drive motor transfers energy to the very same chain that the leg-generated energy is applied to, which in turn accelerates the bicycle. Crank-drive motors are preferred because they’re not only efficient, but also suitable for carrying heavy loads or riding at an incline. Because the motor is located squarely in the middle of the bike and in the lowest part of the frame, it effectively lowers the center of mass of the bike, making the added weight seem almost non-existent.
Friction drive electric bike systems are usually sold as kits that you can install on your existing bike. These systems are quite simple and contain a motor that presses against the tire with a roller. In friction drive set up, the battery is usually mounted on the rack above the rear wheel. Because of its simple design and limited integration, friction drive produces the least amount of power, but it is a great way to convert your existing bike to electric power on a tight budget.
Go the distance
The next thing to consider is the distance you expect to ride and how much range the battery will provide. If you buy an electric cargo bike to ride the kids to school or run some local errands, then a battery of around 400 Watt hours (which gives you a riding range of 25-35 miles) should be sufficient. On the other hand, if you have a 20 plus mile daily office commute, you will need a higher capacity battery, a second battery, or an office charger to make sure you make it home with power to spare.
Electric motors and batteries are quite heavy and add substantially to the overall weight of the bike. While the added power more than compensates for the weight when the bike is ridden, it does nothing to help when the bike is stationary. If you are planning on keeping your bike in an apartment or like to roll it into the office, make sure to evaluate the weight of the bike - sooner or later you will end up carrying it up stairs. If your storage space is limited or if you will often end up transporting the bike, consider looking into folding e-bikes, which are optimized specifically for urban living.
Nothing Can replace first-hand experience
E-bikes are exciting and are here to stay. It’s very likely that you will love yours. Like many personal items, an e-bike needs to appeal to you visually and fit you physically. If you rush into purchasing one or even worse, buy one “sight unseen,” you will probably be disappointed. The e-bike technology is still a young and very competitive market with a tremendous rate of innovation. As motors get smaller, batteries gain capacity, controllers become more intelligent, and levels of integration become deeper; “last year” technologies tend to move down-market. The difference between the current and the previous year model of the same bike can be barely noticeable or truly staggering. At the same time, the market is flooded with a large number of opportunistic companies producing very cheap and often unsafe technology disguised by flashy and enticing design. It is important to test ride as many e-bikes as possible to gain “a feel” for what’s out there. It’s entirely possible that you might completely change your mind about your initial pick for the bike and go for a model that you wouldn’t consider otherwise.
You get what you pay for
Prices of e-bikes vary greatly and the saying “you get what you pay for” certainly holds true to e-bikes. If you rely on your e-bike for a daily commute, then buying a highly-rated and known manufacturer’s bike is recommended. However, if the e-bike will be a family novelty and your first step into the e-bike market, you might consider taking a chance on a lesser known brand before stepping up to a more expensive one. E-bikes with just a few “bells and whistles”cost around $1,200. As you add power, battery capacity, and more technical features, the price increases proportionally. A high-end electric mountain bike could cost as much as $9,000
As mentioned in the “E-bike classes” section above, not all parks, trails, and riding lanes are e-bike friendly; those that are do not necessarily accept all e-bikes. And while the class of your daily e-bike may be accepted on the paths of your favorite local park, the park in the neighboring town could have entirely different rules pertaining to e-bikes.
In general, class 1 e-bikes are allowed on most bike paths and city streets, with more mountain biking parks and trails also allowing accessibility. Because of its throttle-based power, class 2 bikes are generally prohibited from riding biking paths and mountain biking trails because they tend to cause additional, unnecessary damage to riding surfaces. The main difference between class 1 and class 3 e-bikes is that class 3 bikes come equipped with greater power and speed. With more power and speed come more restrictions, as the features that make these bikes more desirable also make them more dangerous on trails with pedestrians and other cyclists. But don’t fret - some parks are starting to allow class 3 e-bikes.
It’s important to always research rules and regulations regarding e-bike use prior to planning your riding weekend; failure to do so could result in a disappointing lesson about e-bike accessibility.
Value your investment
As prices of bikes increase, some now costing more than our first car, it begins to make sense to insure the investment in your new e-bike, along with the liability that comes with riding a motorized bicycle. It is important to consider that, as a cyclist, you will be sharing space with both pedestrians and vehicles, all moving at significantly different speeds. Many people have learned that you don’t have to be wrong to get sued: all it takes is a pedestrian staring into a cell phone to step off the curb in front of you. Don’t learn this lesson the hard way. It’s better to manage the risks associated with riding an e-bike by taking out an insurance policy now than to regret passing the opportunity.
Protect your investment
Most home insurance policies do not include e-bike liability. According to the insurance company’s rule book, an electric bicycle is a motorized vehicle and therefore excluded from home insurance coverage. E-bike insurance from Velosurance recognizes the need for equal insurance protection - whether a bicycle is electric-assist or pedal-power - and offers insurance policy to protect your e-bike from all the risks associated with bicycle riding. You can get a quote and insure your e-bike in just five minutes by visiting velosurance.com