One bike trend that’s hard to ignore is electric bikes, also known as e-bikes. The promise of being able to ride further, faster, for longer appeals to many people, but how do e-bikes work? How fast can e-bikes go and what’s the legality of them? Here’s our guide.
E-bikes are winning lots of fans in Continental Europe, though the UK and USA have been a little slower to catch on. That could be partly because of worries that it’s “not really cycling”, or simply confusion over how they work. So let’s dive in.
What is an e-bike?
Put simply, it’s an electric bike that will provide extra power when you’re pedalling. Most e-bikes lack a throttle and won’t assist you if you’re just coasting, so abandon the idea of zooming up hills without pedalling at all. Electric bikes are usually made from specific frames and components that are built to handle the extra stresses caused by heavier, more powerful drivetrains.
E-bike vs. normal bike
So how do they compare? Well an e-bike is heavier, more expensive and more complex than a regular push bike. That can be a problem if you run out of battery far from home or need to lift it, as they often weigh more than 15kg (30lbs). That means you’ll struggle to push it up a hill without motorised assistance.
Want to get it repaired? The components are more expensive than those found on “normal” bikes and bike shops won’t be able to help if it’s motor or battery-related. That means going back to the shop you bought it from, or else hoping that there’s a dealer nearby willing to help and asking them to help with a warranty claim.
Specialized, one of the world’s biggest bike brands, covers its e-bike batteries for two years under warranty, and the Brose motors it uses are sealed units that cannot be repaired by a dealer. The rest of the bike, however, can be repaired by any Cytech-qualified mechanic, says Specialized.
Many e-bikes are excellent at carrying loads and they can expand your horizons considerably. That could mean getting more downhill mountain bike rides done in a day without waiting for the uplift service, or making short work of a 20-mile commute.
How fast can an e-bike go?
Sorry to disappoint you, but you won’t be breaking the sound barrier — in the UK, e-bikes are limited by law to only provide power assistance up to 15mph (24kph). For other European Union countries and Australia, the limit is very similar, at 25kph (16mph).
In the USA, the maximum speed depends on which state you’re in and how they’re classified. Idaho, for instance, classifies e-bikes as a ‘motorised bicycle’, and has a 30mph speed limit — but does require you to obtain a licence plus insurance. California, by contrast, applies a max speed of 20mph and doesn’t require a licence or insurance.
In short, an e-bike is not a scooter, nor a motorbike. It’s a pushbike with a bit of extra oomph. How much power they have is down to the wattage of the battery — Shimano STEPS batteries are available in 400W capacity, though Shimano plans to release a 500W version soon.
Different types of e-bike
You can get electrically assisted versions of any bike! There are e-MTBs, e-road bikes, e-hybrids, e-folding bikes… Some are powered from the front hub, but most e-bikes now are powered via an electric motor mounted onto the bottom bracket. The battery is normally mounted on either the downtube or a pannier rack above the rear wheel.
You can also get e-bike conversion kits for your regular bike, which might mean swapping out one of the wheels or mounting a drive unit onto your rear wheel. Either way, your bike warranty will be void the moment you use one of these aftermarket kits.
Electric mountain bikes
An electric mountain bike is a powerful, all-terrain vehicle that can expand your riding range considerably, and help you get more riding done if you're pushed for time. Only got a couple of hours to spare? An electric mountain bike will let you speed up the climbs, so you can enjoy more of the downs.
You can get full-suspension and hardtail e-bikes, so you're covered whatever your riding style and local terrain. The downsides of electric mountain bikes are that they can be very heavy, particularly if full-suspension, the looks can be a bit 'challenging', and the better ones are very pricey. Some models have a 'walk' mode so they'll help you walk it up climbs, which could come in handy.
There are some e-bike-specific components and groupsets available, like SRAM's EX1 groupset and Shimano's E8000 STEPS. Both these groupsets include display units, a single front chainring, and components specifically designed to handle the high torque loads involved. Also, look out for very strong disc brakes to bring things to a stop again.
See our latest electric mountain bike reviews for up-to-date info on some of the best ones out there right now.
Electric road bikes
Don't worry roadies, you're not left out of the fun. While electric road bikes might be sacrilege to some riders who'd rather you 'feel the burn', there are models out there. There are electric road bikes that wear their electric motor (and battery) on their sleeve, like the Giant Road-E+, and some that prefer to hide the fact that they don't just rely on human power, like the Typhoon.
Of course, you should never enter a race with one of these bikes — that would be cheating — but you can keep up with fitter friends and see incredible sights aboard one of these machines. Our view on BikeRadar is that if it gets you out of the house and onto a bike, it's got to be a good thing.
We don't review many of these types of bikes, but this article by our tech writer Matthew Allen is an excellent read if you've got 10 minutes.
Electric hybrid bikes
This could potentially be the biggest e-bike segment of all: electric hybrid bikes are lean, green commuting machines. They'll get you from one end of a congested city to the other, free yourself from unreliable public transport (*cough, any British train company, cough*) and arrive at your destination with all the buzz of a morning ride, minus the sweat.
They start at a very reasonable price indeed — less than £1,000 / US$1,500 / AU$2,000 will get you a simple city e-bike like the B'Twin Bebike 500 from French brand Decathlon, which has a battery range of up to 40km. That's enough for almost any city dweller to get to and from the office without recharging in their lunch break.
Going up in price, Dutch brand Gazelle has a smooth, sensible commuter called the CityZen C8 HM (£1,999 / US$3,999) which features an 8-speed Shimano Alfine hub gear, four-speed Bosch motor and some practical included features like a sturdy kickstand, rack, securing strap and integrated lock.
Electric folding bikes
For some commuters, this is the dream: an electric folding bike that can be compacted down small for stowing in a small apartment, office or train carriage. All the benefits of an e-bike, in a smaller package.
There are aftermarket kits available for converting an existing folding bike, such as those from Nano Electric Bikes, which puts a direct drive motor in the front hub and a battery in luggage above the front wheel. It's not cheap though at £710 (international pricing not available) for the conversion kit.
There are some off-the-peg electric folding bikes available, like the Tern eLink, which has a range of up to 50km and can reach speeds of up to 25kph. It's quite a heavy beast though, at 22kg. It comes with full fenders, rear rack, chainguard, and front and rear electric lights, and costs €1,999 (international pricing TBC).
Brompton itself has been saying for a while that it wants to build its own folding electric bike. We asked Brompton's Chief Marketing Officer Stephen Loftus at the Brompton World Champs in London earlier this year, and he said they're working "incredibly hard" to make an electric Brompton, and hope to bring a few to market in 2017. He added they're taking their time to build an "exceptional" product that looks similar to a regular Brompton.
Electric utility bikes
Our last category is the electric utility bike. These hold massive promise for transporting loads of various sizes without resorting to cars, everything from your weekly shopping to flat-pack furniture to your kids.
Because of the loads involved, they usually feature stronger components, powerful motors and a non-sporty riding position. They might be a little larger than other e-bikes, take up extra storage space, and weigh a bit more too, but don't let that put you off, we think they're brilliant.
We recently reviewed the Yuba el Boda Boda V2 (US$2,999), and found it a fun, stable, easy-to-ride electric utility bike that can haul kids, cargo or both. Every test rider who piloted the big bike and every small passenger who climbed on the back smiled widely when the throttle kicked in and the instant electric torque snapped the bike forward.
How long does an e-bike battery last?
There’s no simple answer to this, unfortunately. It depends on how big the battery is, how heavy your bike is, how technical the terrain is, and… um… how heavy you are. For the latest Bosch e-bike motors, they expect a rider under 80kg to get around 80km riding at 20kph when using it in Touring mode, or 140km in Eco mode.
In terms of the lifetime of an e-bike battery, it depends on your usage. Bosch covers its e-bike batteries for two years and Shimano expects the battery to be good for 1,000 charge cycles, which should equate to around 37,000 miles of riding.
Whatever brand you’ve got, they use an intelligent battery management system to protect from excessive temperatures, overcharging, and deep discharge. A new Bosch e-bike battery will cost you US$750, and Specialized will sell you a new Levo e-bike battery for £650 / US$1,000 / AU$1,999, so they aren’t exactly cheap. A new Shimano STEPS battery costs a (slightly) more wallet-friendly £350.
How do I charge an e-bike?
E-bikes will charge from any mains power socket and most newer models let you remove the battery so you don’t need to leave your bike plugged in overnight. That’s good news if you were worrying about getting it near a power point every time you wanted to charge it.
A full charge normally takes around 3-4 hours, but the batteries have improved to the point where you can partially charge them in a couple of hours, without damaging the battery cell. Neither do you have to fully discharge them either — the latest one can be partially charged and discharged without any problems.
How much do e-bikes cost?
Another difficult question! Most e-bikes will cost quite a bit more than regular push bikes, though the cost of batteries, motors and components is coming down all the time. Bosch says that it expects prices to decrease over time as batteries get cheaper, which most of the main manufacturers seem to agree on.
If you’re looking to just get started, a simple city e-bike from French brand Decathlon can cost just £550, with a battery range of up to 40km. Going up in price, a decent Touring Hybrid e-bike from German brand Cube might cost you £1,700 / €2,000.
Going up in price again, if you want a whizz-bang full-suspension e-bike from Haibike or Specialized it can easily see you spending over £3,000 / US$4,500. You’ll get a bike that can ride the roughest of terrain all day and haul you back up the hill after each exhilarating downhill run, but you’ll have to decide if that’s what you’ll spend most of your time doing.
Do I need an e-bike licence and insurance?
In most countries you don’t need e-bike licence or insurance. As mentioned already, in the UK and Europe you’ll need to get a licence if it's capable of going more than 25kph (16mph).
In the United States, the picture is a bit more complicated — it depends on which state you’re in, but generally most e-bikes don’t need a licence or insurance provided they can’t go more than 20mph. In Australia, you won’t need a licence or insurance provided it won’t help you go faster than 25kph.
What e-bike should I buy?
As always, we recommend you try before you buy. E-bike shops are popping up all over the place now, so find your local one and head over there to chat to them. They’ve got a wealth of knowledge and will be more than happy to lend you a bike or two to try.