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Best electric bike 2021: ebike types explained and how to choose the right one for you

Thinking about buying an electric bike? Here's everything you need to know

Range-extending battery on the Specialized S-Works Turbo Creo SL eBike adds a claimed 65km

Electric bikes, or ebikes as they’re commonly known, are a really popular option to provide a bit of extra support on your ride. An electric bike will help keep your speed up on the flat and give you the extra push you need to get up any hills on your way.

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As more and more people take to ebikes, prices are coming down and manufacturers are adding new models to their ranges, with updated features like lighter motors and improved battery ranges.

We’re constantly adding to our collection of electric bike reviews here at BikeRadar, so if you’ve got a type of ebike or a specific ebike model in mind, you’ll probably find a review here.

But if you’re still not certain what you’re looking for in your new ebike, read on for our full run-down of electric bike types, to find the right one for you.

There are ebikes for every type of riding, from electric mountain bikes helping you get to the top of the next downhill trail to folding city ebikes you can take with you on your commute.

We’ll go through the different types of ebike, what they’re good for, and point you to our buyer’s guides and top reviews for each category.

The range of ebike options mirrors the range of non-motorised bikes available, so it’s also worth reading our best bike buyer’s guide too.

Electric bike basics

First, let’s start with the basics. An electric bike is a pedal cycle with an electric motor and battery that provide assistance as you pedal.

To legally qualify as an electric bike, you have to pedal for the motor to kick in. If there’s a bar-mounted “throttle” or twist grip to control the power, the bike will legally be considered a moped. That means it won’t qualify for tax- and registration-free ownership, at least in the UK and EU.

Likewise, support is legally only allowed up to 15mph/25kph in the UK, EU and Australia, above which the motor will cut out and any additional speed will have to be the result of your own effort. But you’re in luck if you’re reading this and riding in the US, where your motor can keep on pushing up to 20mph.

Take a look at our ebike FAQs for the answers to common electric bike questions.

Electric bike types

Electric road bikes

Scott Addict eRIDE Premium
The Scott Addict eRIDE Premium is without doubt a great looking bike, just like its non-assisted Addict RC sibling.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

If you enjoy riding on roads, but want a bit of help to keep your speed up or to get you up hills, there are a number of drop-bar ebikes out there from well-known brands.

Many motors and batteries can be unobtrusive, too, so it’s less than obvious that you’re riding an ebike. Fazua, ebikemotion and Bosch are motor systems to look out for.

You may not be adding a lot of extra weight either because the lightest road ebikes are touching 11kg.

Scott ADDICT eRIDE Premium
The Scott Addict eRIDE Premium is almost indistinguishable from the standard Addict RC.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

However, with many road riders achieving speeds on the flat close to 15mph or above, you may feel that you’re carrying dead weight around with the motor cutting out at that top assisted speed.

It will conserve battery, though, and with careful use you can get significantly more mileage out of an ebike system than the typical 75km quoted range, so more ambitious, longer excursions will be within reach.

Meanwhile, if you’re interested in riding a wider range of terrain, there are an increasing number of gravel ebike options out there. With wider tyres and more grip, they’ll help you tackle the rough stuff.

Pros: Fast for road riding and lightweight (for an electric bike)

Cons: Extra weight for no gain if you’re riding over 15mph

Electric mountain bikes

Canyon Spectral:ON CF 7.0 electric mountain bike
Electric mountain bikes can be great on the climbs but handling on the descents can take a bit of getting used to.
Ian Linton / Immediate Media

For some mountain bikers, the allure of that extra push up hills is hard to beat.

An e-MTB will get you to the top quicker, particularly on technical, steeper climbers, and with more energy to enjoy the descents. Plus, getting up the ups more easily will give you extra range to explore further.

Canyon Spectral:ON CF 7.0 electric mountain bike
Even though the STEPS E8000 motor only has 75Nm of torque, it’s still plenty to winch up tough climbs.
Ian Linton

Recent improvements in e-MTB performance mean handling is approaching that of unpowered mountain bikes for flat-out riding fun.

But, nevertheless, the extra weight can make handling more tricky on particularly technical sections, so it’s a good idea to ease off a bit until you’ve got the feel of the bike.

Pros: Getting to the top is a lot easier

Cons: Extra weight can affect handling

Electric hybrid bikes

Carrera Crossfuse hybrid ebike is equipped with a Bosch motor system
A classic hybrid position makes the Carrera Crossfuse an ideal bike for negotiating traffic.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

Electric hybrid bikes will have flat bars and stable handling. They’re often the least expensive ebikes and provide a good entry point if you want to go electric.

With their upright position, electric hybrids are great if you’re planning to commute to work by bike, ride around town or want to go for leisurely rides on bike trails or through parks.

Carrera Crossfuse
Electric hybrids make great commuter or leisure bikes.
Russell Burton / Immediate Media

But they’re often at the heavier end of the ebike spectrum because motor systems tend to be less sophisticated and the bikes are strongly built for robustness. So, if you need to carry them up stairs or over obstacles, it might be an effort and they can be awkward to store.

As well as general use hybrid ebikes, there are specialist models designed for carrying cargo or for shopping.

Pros: Easy riding position and versatility

Cons: Often heavy and cumbersome for storage

Electric folding bikes

GoCycle GXi folding electric bike
Commuters who travel by public transport or are short on space are catered for too.
Oliver Woodman / Immediate Media

If you want to commute or are just pressed for space to store your ride, a compact electric folding bike could be the answer. The motor means that longer bike commutes are easier and more comfortable than with a conventional folding bike.

Folding ebikes often have the battery hidden in their frames, or they may come with a removable battery to make carrying them on and off public transport a bit easier. A removable battery also means that you can take it somewhere where it’s easier to charge (at your desk, for example, if you use the bike to ride to work).

But the extra weight of the motor and battery mean that carrying a folding ebike on and off public transport and up and down stairs will be harder, and the available range can be quite limited in some models.

Pros: Ideal for a longer commute, can be taken on public transport

Cons: Can be heavy to carry on and off public transport and may have limited range


What to look for when buying an electric bike?

Motor position

2021 Specialized Turbo Vado SL 4.0 motor
Specialized’s own-brand motor is considerably lighter than most other designs.
Oli Woodman / Immediate Media

Electric bikes have their motors mounted in one of three places: in the middle of the bike, in the rear hub or in the front hub.

Many systems will have mid-mounted motors that sit at the bottom bracket and power the ebike through the chain. It’s a good position for the motor because it puts the extra mass low down and centrally in the frame where it won’t affect the bike’s stability and handling.

The rear wheel hub is also a popular place to put the motor. Again, it’s low down and since a lot of the rider’s weight is on the back wheel, handling and road grip are not too adversely affected by the extra weight and power.

Finally, the motor may be in the front hub. It’s a slightly trickier position because the motor unit can affect steering and generally there’s not as much weight on the front wheel, so grip may be impacted. It’s often used for folding ebikes and sometimes for hybrids.

As well as ready-built ebikes, you can buy kits to convert a normal bike to an ebike. There are kits that use a motor in each of these positions. We’ve got a round-up of the most popular ebike conversion kits.

Batteries

An electric bike will be powered by a rechargeable lithium-ion battery. Like the batteries in other electric vehicles, they’re used for their low weight and performance, along with rapid recharging – typically in a few hours.

In general, the more expensive the ebike, the larger the battery capacity, so the mileage you can get between charges increases.

There’s a range of battery shapes, sizes and positions. Bolted to the top of the down tube is a popular option but some ebikes will have their batteries hidden within the down tube or sometimes the seat tube, making for a more elegant (and invariably more expensive) solution.

Bottle cage batteries are another way to disguise the battery and are often used for a back-up battery to increase range.

The batteries themselves can normally be charged from a standard wall plug, either in situ on the bike via a port or with the battery itself removed from the bike. It’s very common to see removable battery packs that are secured with a key.

Electric bike range

Shimano EP8 electric mountain bike motor and groupset
The modes have customisable levels of torque.
Russell Burton

How far you can ride before your battery gives up is unlikely to be an issue for most ebike riders – it’s more a question of how often you can ride before you need to recharge it.

Range is very dependent on your riding style and where and how you ride, as well as being dependent on the battery capacity. Some ebikes will have multiple batteries that might eke out 100 miles plus on a charge, whereas others, particularly folding ebikes designed for easier carrying and folding and for shorter city rides may have a range of 20 miles or less.

There will be multiple assistance levels that you can tailor to your needs and select between as you ride. Select an eco or low assist mode and you will need to put in more effort, but your battery will last longer.

On the other hand, a higher assist setting is useful to get you up the hills and to accelerate more easily in stop-start conditions, but will drain your battery significantly faster.

You can usually switch the motor off entirely to conserve battery and with most systems there won’t be any additional drag, although you still have the extra weight of the motor and battery.

Sensors

To control the motor’s output, an ebike will have a range of sensors. First, there’ll be a speed sensor, so that assistance cuts out at the legal maximum speed.

To match the assistance level to your pedalling input and make sure that an ebike won’t run away with you, there’ll be cadence and torque sensors too.

More sophisticated systems may add more sensors; to control its output in Smart Assist mode, the Giant Trance E +1 electric mountain bike uses five sensors in all.

There’ll be some sort of display of battery and assistance level, along with buttons to select the assistance mode. The display is often a bar-mounted LED unit that might also give you speed, distance and range info. More minimalist displays are often used on racier road ebikes though, with the front of the top tube being a popular position.

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Many ebikes will also come with a companion smartphone app. Functionality varies, but more sophisticated apps will give you battery status info, let you tailor assistance levels and may include some GPS-based route planning and navigation, as well as ride sharing.

Electric bike jargon buster

Assist level

How much additional assistance your motor gives you as you ride. Most ebikes will have multiple levels to switch between as you ride, depending on the terrain (and your energy levels). Some will be able to automatically switch support level up and down, depending on where you’re riding or to conserve your battery levels. More power means less range.

EAPC

Short for Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycle, this is the official legal term often used by the UK government to describe ebikes.

Watts

Output for an ebike motor is typically measured in watts. That’s a measure of the maximum power it can produce.

Watt hours

Ebike battery capacity is measured in watt hours – or, in other words, how many watts a battery can put out and for how long. So if a 250-watt motor was fed by a 250Wh battery and run at full power, the battery would drain in an hour. In practice, your motor doesn’t run at full power much of the time, so your battery will last longer than this.

Torque

For eMTBs, in particular, torque is also an important figure. It measures how much turning force a motor will put in, something that helps add to your own effort especially when climbing hills.

Pedelec (pedal electric cycle)

Another synonym for an electric bike.

Walk mode

If you’re going to have to push your ebike, a walk mode will use the motor to move the bike along with you. Since ebikes tend to be heavy, it’s useful if you need to push your machine any distance.