Biking is awesome, but biking uphill is not. Commuting by bike is environmentally friendly, fun and good for your health, but presenting your sweaty self to your office coworkers in not fun at all. Fortunately, there is a solution! Electric bicycles offer the same great benefits as traditional bicycles including cost savings, health improving, plus some additional advantages like efficiency in climbing hills, less stress on knees and joints, which is convenient for people of all ages and health.
An electric bike (also called e-bike, power-assist bike, pedelec…) is a fairly conventional bike combined with a battery and motor that helps out when you are pedaling to make it easier to get uphill or completely takes over driving and allows you to cruise along. Best electric bikes, along with electric scooters, are revolutionizing the bicycle industry. Not only is riding an e-bike simple and easy, but a rider can significantly extend their range with minimal cost or effort.
How do electric bikes work?
Electric bicycles use batteries as a source of power and a quiet DC motor as a driving mechanism. On most e-bikes the motor is built directly into the wheel (known as a hub motor) and the batteries are discreetly hidden in the rear rack or frame. Electric bikes can be operated just like normal bicycles, but they can also be power-driven by a throttle or pedaled with the help of pedal-assist (PAS or pedelec).
Within the last several years alone, electric bike sales have skyrocketed and dozens of manufacturers have jumped on the bandwagon with new electric bike designs. With so many different options to choose from, how do you choose the right e-bike to suit your needs?
Before you start shopping around for a new e-bike, the first thing you should ask yourself is, “how do I plan on using an electric bicycle?” How far do you plan on traveling? What type of terrain will you be traveling on? How much assistance do you need? Do you plan on pedaling – or do you want the bike to do all the work? Is this bike for daily commuting or casual riding? How fast do you need to go?
After you’ve determined how you’ll be using your e-bike, you need to understand the different options available and the pros and cons of each setup. Here is an overview of some of the choices you’ll have to make when you are shopping for an electric bike:
Pre-Built E-Bike vs. Conversion Kit
There are two main categories when choosing an e-bike: a pre-built electric bike or a custom e-bike conversion. Prefab electric bikes come in a wide variety of setups and styles and are designed specifically as electric bicycles. With unique characteristics and design qualities, most meet the law requirements which limit power and speed. There is also a variety of options to choose from equipped with different design and different motor and battery configurations to suit different riding styles and preferences: cruisers, commuters, mountain bikes and more. Pre-built e-bikes are clean and sleek in design with all of the wiring and electrical components built directly into the bike. For most people, production e-bikes work great and there’s no need for a custom conversion.
Conversion kits, on the other hand, are sold and installed separately on traditional bicycles. They are harder to setup and conceal, and require some basic mechanical ability and a little bit of ‘elbow grease’ to install. The advantage of conversion kits is that you can choose almost any standard bicycle, and you have the freedom to change or upgrade components as you go. A conversion kit will also allow you to achieve higher power and speed ratings that are not possible on most pre-built electric bike models. Kits are great for tall or heavy riders because they can opt for a larger bike, with higher power and weight carrying capacity. People living in hilly terrain may require the additional torque to handle extremely large inclines. For people who prefer a specific bike model or just love to go faster, a conversion kit offers enormous flexibility.
Pedal-Assist vs. Throttle Control
Electric bicycles have two main methods of operation: pedal-assist and/or throttle-control. As the name implies, pedal-assist “assists” your pedaling and requires some input. With this method, a torque sensor picks up movement or stress to determine the power requirements of the rider. Everything is automated so there’s nothing to think about, just jump on and start riding. Some bikes have multiple settings, while others have just one setting with the addition of a throttle control. Depending on the setting, pedal-assistance can help a little – or a lot. At lower settings, pedal-assist is barely noticeable but helps extend your range. At higher settings, the power is quite obvious and feels like a strong wind at your back with the motor doing most of the work while you pedal along.
A throttle-control, on the other hand, doesn’t require pedaling at all. Just like a motorcycle, twist and hold the throttle back to control power and speed. You can assist by pedaling along, but it’s not required.
Some e-bikes operate in pedal-assist only, others have a throttle, and some have both. Generally, pedal-assist only bikes will provide multiple power settings to choose from to help customize your ride, while bikes with both throttle and pedal-assist will have limited pedal-assist options. With these bikes, the throttle provides full control (when needed) while pedal assist is just a secondary option, great on straightaways or open road.
Different Motor Types
These days, most electric bike models include brushless hub motors built directly into the front or rear wheel. Within the hub motor category, you’ll have a few additional choices available:
Geared Hub Motors – Most pre-built e-bikes use brushless geared hub motors. These motors have internal planetary gears that help transfer power from the motor to the wheel. Because of the internal gearing, these motors provide excellent torque but are limited in top speed. On the plus side, the improved torque means better take-off power and hill climbing ability. Plus, less wattage is required to get the motor turning and they’re typically small and lightweight. On pre-built e-bikes, these motors range from 200w-500w and go up to 20mph. But some aftermarket kits can be as powerful as 1000w, with increased top speeds and huge amounts of torque (ideal for extremely hilly terrain). Besides lower top speeds, these motors tend to be expensive and it’s possible the gears will eventually wear out and need to be replaced (this is highly unlikely, they las quite a long time).
Gearless (Direct-Drive) Hub Motors – Some conversion kits (and bikes) use gearless, direct-drive motors. On this type of motor, the axle that passes through the center of the motor is actually the axle of the motor itself, with the copper windings fixed to the axle. The magnets are mounted to the outer shell of the hub motor. When electricity is applied to the stator a magnetic field is induced that causes the magnets to move. This in turn makes the whole shell of the motor turn and propels the e-bike forward. Even though corrosion will eventually have an impact, this type of motor should last for years since there’s no gearing and no contact between moving parts. They’re also capable of higher top speeds. But since there’s no gears, they have less torque and it requires more power to get the motor up to speed. Most direct-drive hub motors are 350w-500w and reach speeds of 18-25 mph. But more powerful motors can reach speeds of 35+ mph.
A few lower-cost setups use externally mounted, chain-driven motors. Although these setups are low-cost and provide a good amount of torque, they’re not nearly as quiet, efficient or ‘stealthy’ as the hub motors being used on most models. They are negligible though.
Front vs. Rear Mounted Hub Motor
There are two different configurations for hub motors: front or rear-mounted
Front-Mounted Hub Motor can be found on pre-built bikes or on custom conversions. Mounted to the front wheel, this is the easiest configuration to setup if you’re converting a standard bicycle since there’s no derailleur or chain to worry about. And since most e-bike conversions include batteries mounted to the rear rack, using a front hub motor helps equalize the weight of the bike and makes it easier to handle. But there’s a small risk the motor could cause the front forks to brake. That’s why it’s vital you only use a front hub motor on a steel fork. For pre-built bikes, this shouldn’t be an issue since the motors are usually lower-powered on steel forks.
Rear-Mounted Hub Motor, installed on the rear wheel, are more common on pre-built bikes because they’re easily installed at the factory. For a conversion, it’s a little harder to install than a front hub motor because of the chain, gearing and derailleur. Plus, you may be limited to a 6 or 7-speed freewheel. However, rear wheel drive will provide more torque and is less noticeable than a front hub.
Mid-mounted system means that the electric motor is not built into the wheel but is usually mounted near (often under) the bottom bracket shell. Mid-drive systems tend to feel more like a normal bike, since they drive the pedals, just like your legs, and those who frequently climb long, steep hills tend to prefer mid-drive systems for their ability to handle long climbs. As they can leverage the bicycles lowest gears for climbs, mid drive systems can also leverage the high gears to reach higher speeds on flat areas than a hub system. The mid-drive motor drives the crank, instead of the wheel itself, which multiplies its power and allows it to better take advantage of the bike’s existing gears. If the rider changes the gears appropriately, the motor can turn closer to its ideal rotations per minute which makes a huge difference while climbing hills, so this is a perfect option for those who love mountain biking.
Battery Options & Configurations
Battery technology continues to improve every day. Currently, there are 3 main types of batteries used in electric bicycles:
- Lithium Ion (Li-Ion) – Lithium Ion batteries are the highest quality batteries available in today’s market. Although they cost the most money (upfront), they have the longest life and the lowest weight. Because they last 3-4 times longer than cheaper battery types, the higher cost will be negated over time.
- Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) – NiMH is a mid-range battery chemistry that isn’t quite as common. NiMH batteries are light-weight and have an extended life span over cheaper SLA batteries. But for the most part, pre-built e-bikes due not include NiMH and it’s only available for people considering and e-bike conversion.
- Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) – Sealed lead acid batteries have been around for decades. Although they’re the cheapest form of battery technology, they have the shortest life and are extremely heavy when compared to other battery types.
E-bikes are typically offered in 24V, 36V and 48V configurations. Higher voltage generally means higher top speed – but that may not always be the case. Since the efficiency of a motor and drive system can have an effect on power and speed, a 24V setup could have the same top speed as a 36V setup. Generally you can expect 15-18 mph on a 24v setup, 16-20 mph on a 36V setup and 24-28 mph on a 48V setup. Although it far exceeds Federal laws, some conversion kits can even be run at 72V for speeds of 35+ mph! However, this puts significant stress on bicycle components. Consider that even the fastest athletes only travel 17-18 mph on a conventional bicycle, so 20 mph feels very fast to most riders. Anything over this speed can be unsafe and exceeds law regulations.
Besides voltage, batteries are rated by amp hours (AH). Although voltage seems to get the most attention, the amp hour rating of the battery is just as important. It is the measure of a battery’s capacity and provides a good indication of the range you can expect from an electric bike. Although lots of factors come into play in determining range (ie: rider weight, terrain, input, efficiency, etc.), a good rule of thumb is range is equal to AH. So under normal conditions, an average rider can expect 10 miles out of a 10AH battery (with no pedaling). With rider input, this number can be dramatically increased, so most 10AH batteries are rated “up to 20 miles” by the manufacturer which assumes pedaling. On pedal-assist bikes (which require pedaling), the range ratings are much higher because the rider is constantly assisting the motor and reducing the current draw.
Charging: Battery charge times will vary between manufacturers, models and battery types. Typically, the initial charge will take 6-12 hours. For routine charging, higher quality batteries (such as Li-Ion) will take less time – anywhere from 2-6 hours. Cheaper sealed lead acid (SLA) batteries will take 6-8 hours.
Electric bikes vary widely in price, anywhere from $999 to $2000+, so you’ll have to determine how important certain features are to the overall cost. The battery used to power an electric bike motor is a key factor in how expensive a particular bike is. In general, the more miles a battery can provide, the more expensive it will be, so it’s important to consider the type of riding you plan on doing. If you know you’ll be using predominantly motor-generated power, then paying a bit more for a battery with a longer range is probably a good idea. Alongside with a good quality battery, motor is the most expensive part of an electric bike. Most standard electric bike motors come with a power rating of 250W, and the industry standard in the US is 500W. Maximum power of the motor you can legally use in the US is 750W. The non-electric components used on an electric bike are almost the same with those used on the conventional bicycles. The quality of the components used will affect the maintenance costs of your electric bike down the road, and more quality components mean higher upfront cost. Lastly, there is the frame. Since the frame is basically the skeleton of your electric bike, it’s wise to select a good material that will be the optimum combination of weight and durability.
The bottom line: if you want a decent e-bike, that will last you a long time and won’t require much maintenance, you will need to spend over $2000. Anything less requires careful planning and probably some compromises.
There is a lot of information on the internet about electric bikes. Hopefully you have found lots of useful information right here, on this website. Based on this information, you may already have a preference for a specific electric bicycle and / or (technical) components. Your friends that ride e-bikes can also advise you based on their own experiences. But there is only one way you will know if you really make the right choice: take a test drive. During a test drive you will discover how close the riding experience is to your expectations.
When it comes to finding the best electric bicycle, testing is the best thing you can do before buying one. If that is not possible, the next best thing that you can do is to load on information, read reviews by people who bought the certain model and don’t be afraid to ask questions.