Tips on buying an electric bicycle

If you’re in the market for an electric bicycle, you are probably overwhelmed. With so many options, 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.

Which e-bike is right for you?

There is a wide variety of e-bikes, including road, commuters, beach cruisers, cargo, mountain, folding, and touring. The type of e-bike you get should directly correlate to the way you plan on using it. If you plan on commuting, you should not consider a beach cruiser and if you plan on riding offroad, a cargo bike is not for you.

Once you agree the intended use for your e-bike, you need to decide whether you would enjoy a throttle bike or pedal assist bike. 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. A pedal assist bike is equipped with a torque sensor that engages the electric motor to assist you with pedaling. Torque sensors dynamically adjust the amount of power sent by the motor: the harder you pedal, the more the motor helps. When you stop pedaling, the motor disengages. This provides a more organic experience since the rider doesn’t need to operate controls a normal bicycle wouldn’t have.

Whether you go with throttle or pedal assist, you do not want to your bike to feel overly sluggish or outrageously powerful. While an underpowered e-bike will not be much of an issue on flat ground, it will quickly become an annoyance if you have to pedal up a steep hill. What’s worse, an underpowered e-bike will have to work extra hard to climb a hill and could overheat or even break.

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 the harm’s way. Having extra power does not turn your bicycle into a motorcycle, it will still have a 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 when an excessively powerful motor, capable of propelling the bike to speeds far exceeding those naturally achieved even the by strongest of riders, dangerous situations tend to arise.

Most e-bikes come with motors rated between 250 and 750 Watt, but some can be had with motors as powerful as 1,500 Watt. According to the Federal regulations, 750 Watts, or about one horsepower, is the maximum power rating an e-bike can have and still meet 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 a lot more current, the bike will require a larger, heavier battery.

If you plan on commuting on your e-bike, a 250 Watt motor should more than sufficient. If you’re on a heavier side or live in a hilly area, you may also consider a 500 Watt bike. 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.

Many electric mountain bikes are equipped with 250 Watt motors but can be had with motors as powerful as 750 Watts. Because mountain bikes are designed to be ridden on unpaved, twisty trails and even rock gardens, they must be as light and agile as possible, which means a smaller battery. The sweet spot for the mountain bike power is 250 to 500 Watt.

Cargo bikes represent the segment of biking that benefits from the e-bike technology the most. Since these bikes are designed to carry substantial weight, be that groceries, kids or even kegs of beer, they trade speed and maneuverability for carrying capacity. Regular cargo bikes are notoriously heavy and hard to maneuver. Luckily, with 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 range adequate enough to be considered a replacement for a second family vehicle.

What kind of motor do you want?

E-bikes have a number of motor types and 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 require no servicing. These motors are mechanically simpler than their brushed brethren, and also happen to be more reliable.

Brushed motors are prefered 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 inexpensive and easy to do.

Does the motor location make a difference?

The location of the electric motor can make a difference in how the bike handles. The three most common motor locations are hub, mid-drive, and friction-drive.

Hub motors

Initially, the hub was the most common location for the motor since 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 are is reserved for flat terrain. The hub motor shift the weight of the bike to the rear which affects it’s handling characteristics at high speeds.

Mid-drive

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 negligible.

Friction drive

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 very small budget.

How much range do you need?

The next decision 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 either a higher capacity battery, a second battery, or an office charger to make sure you make it home with power to spare.

Weight considerations

Because both the electric motor and the battery are quite heavy, they 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 roll it into the office, make sure to evaluate the weight of the bike, considering that sooner or later you will end up dragging it up the stairs. If your storage space is limited or if you will often end up carrying the bike, consider looking into folding e-bikes optimized specifically for urban living.

First-hand experience is of utmost importance

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.

How much does an e-bike cost?

Prices of e-bikes vary greatly and the saying of “you get what you pay for” also applies 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 few technical features cost around $1,200. As you add power, battery capacity, and more technical features, the prices increase proportionally. A high-end electric mountain bike could cost as much as $9,000.

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, both moving at significantly different speeds than you. 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 than to regret passing on the opportunity.

All We Do Is Insure Bicycles

Most home insurance policies do not include e-bike liability. In the insurance company’s rule book an electric bicycle is a “motorized” vehicle and therefore excluded from home insurance coverage. Velosurance recognizes the need for equal insurance protection, whether a bicycle is electric-assist or pedal-power, and offers a cyclist insurance policy to protect the e-bike owners from all the risks associated with bicycle riding. You can get a quote and insure your e-bike in just five minutes at velosurance.com.

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