Proudly sitting as the fastest growing category in the cycling industry globally, the rise in popularity of electric assisted bicycles, or e-bikes, is impossible to ignore. This is largely thanks to the many ways in which an e-bike can be of benefit for everyone from non-riders to engrained cycling enthusiasts. Simply put, an e-bike widens the possibilities of cycling being viewed as a viable transportation option as well as a sustainable leisure activity.
In this comprehensive guide, we take you through what you need to know about e-bikes and to help you find the perfect ride to suit your needs and budget.
What Is An E-bike?
An e-bike is a bicycle with an integrated electric motor offering some form of assistance to a rider in propelling the bike forwards. This assistance can come in many forms including hub assist, however, pedal, or pedelec assistance is by far the most popular option.
Pedelec motors are fitted to the crank area (where the pedals attach) of an e-bike frame and offer electrical assistance relative to the amount of power being exerted by a rider.
The power output of these motors or drive units is typically governed by regulations however, it is fair to assume that the majority of e-bikes being shipped are equipped with a power output of 250 watts.
Riders also have to be fitted with functional pedals for the bike to be considered a power assisted bike.
How E-bikes Differ From a Normal Bike
Aside from the often obvious electric motor system that integrates into an e-bike, modern e-bikes are starting to look more and more like their traditionally pedal powered cousins. When looking at a regular commuter and an e-bike side by side, it's easy to see some resemblance between the two, start looking a little closer and a number of differences start to become more noticeable.
As e-bikes often come with extra heft, and more power output to manage, they will typically be built tough. The differentiation between a standard bike and an e-bike is that the latter will typically be built with a specific frame, as well as reinforced forks and components to handle the additional loads on offer. As a result of this they often tip the scales in excess of 18kg, and that's before adding such accessories such as water bottles, luggage, and tools.
Despite featuring relatively “new” technology in relation to their traditional pedal-powered cousins, the sheer amount of e-bike styles on offer is almost as wide as traditional bikes. The list below outlines the more popular iterations of e-bikes that you’re likely to find.
Also referred to as “commuter” e-bikes, urban e-bikes are among the most popular options available on the market today. Perfect for commutes around urban and city areas, these capable bikes enable riders to make short trips without sweating or expending large amounts of energy. Most at home on bike paths, urban bikes are extremely practical in terms of carrying cargo, as well as providing a safe and reliable ride.
Urban e-bikes will typically feature either a step-thru or low slung top tube frame designs made from either CroMoly steel or aluminium. Component wise, you'll find a mix of entry to mid-level mountain bike groupsets with some bikes opting for internal hub gears for ease of use and low maintenance. Wider tyres will often feature for increased puncture protection and disc brakes are almost exclusively used thanks to the increased stopping power on offer. It's also common to find some urban e-bikes outfitted with a small amount of front suspension travel.
You can also expect to find accessories integrated into these bikes such as a kickstand, fenders, lighting both front and rear as well as racks for carrying bags and goods. Additionally, urban e-bikes are typically set up for riding in casual clothing, so expect pedals suitable for regular shoes, and a chain guard to keep your pants grease free.
Commonly referred to as eMTBs, electric mountain bikes are amongst the most powerful e-bikes on offer. Effectively a normal mountain bike but with pedal-activated power assistance located in the bottom-bracket, these capable trail shredders are typically available in either hardtail or dual suspension configuration.
With suspension travel in excess of 100mm (and sometimes as much as 180mm!) and large volume tyres, these capable off-road machines are likely to be more forgiving than their unpowered cousins, making them perfect for beginners and experienced mountain bikers alike. eMTBs will often feature componentry and groupsets similar to those found on traditional mountain bikes. More e-bike optimised groupsets and components are starting to appear, however, often with beefed up parts to deal with the additional load required.
You can also expect wheelsets to be shod with 2.3in rubber or wider, all in an effort to add traction on the trail. Frames will typically be made of aluminium, however, more and more carbon fibre options are starting to appear in flagship options. Carbon fibre offers the key advantage of saving substantial weight in a frame that's more complex than a regular mountain bike.
One of the latest categories to score electrical assistance, electric road bikes marry together the rolling and aerodynamic efficiency of a traditional road bike with the effortless power of a pedelec drive unit. The result allows cyclists of all abilities to tackle any climb or epic ride with a little more ease.
With an endurance focussed geometry electric road bikes are best suited to big days in the saddle or tackling the kind of hilly terrain that would make a professional cyclist wince. Frames will typically be constructed of either aluminium or carbon fibre whilst groupset options will be similar to those found on traditional road bikes. Stopping power will typically be provided by hydraulic disc brakes, whilst wheels will be built with additional spokes for added strength and stiffness. Tyres will typically be wider than standard (30c +) to provide additional comfort, traction and puncture resistance.
The load luggers of the e-bike world, cargo e-bikes are quickly becoming a viable option for both commuters and businesses to move goods. Combined with the effortless power on offer from an electric drive unit, cargo e-bikes are perfect for people wanting a bike capable of commuting to work, or carrying kids, pets and shopping. Weather permitting, a cargo e-bike can be a viable replacement for an around town car.
Often outfitted with large racks, baskets or flatbeds for carrying loads, it’s common for cargo e-bikes to feature modified frames and a longer wheelbase for additional stability. Wheel count is sometimes increased too, with 3 wheels offering a nice and wide stance to ensure the bike is both comfortable and easy to control when fully loaded.
Perfect for those limited on storage space or wanting to use a bike in addition to bus and train travel. A city bike is small in stature, making it more compact for storage and portability.
City bikes, folding or not, will often feature limited gearing and smaller wheels, which means they are best used for shorter town trips on smooth surfaces. Some city e-bikes will also be fitted with racks at the front, ideal for carrying small loads on your commute. Expect to see a mix of basic mountain bike groupsets with some featuring more city-friendly internal hubs at the rear for ease of use. Integrated lighting front and rear are typically standard for use in all light conditions, as are mounts for fenders and frame bags.
With exception to pedelecs up to 25km/h and maximum continuous rated motor output of 250W, all e-bikes are subject to type-approval.
Most new e-bikes sold today come with a motor system that is comprised of the drive unit, battery pack/s, wiring, and a control unit. Typically these will all come from a single supplier such as Shimano, Bosch, or Yamaha, however, some brands have begun to integrate their own proprietary units such as displays and drive units that work with other aspects of the motor system.
Motor power (and torque) output, battery size, and assist modes are typically tuned for the bike’s intended use. There are two main e-bike styles: those with a motor at the rear hub (sometimes retrofit e-bikes see the motor in the front hub), and those with one mounted to the frame at the bottom bracket (between the cranks), commonly referred to as Pedelec motors.
Hub driven motors are often found as conversion kits that can be fitted to eligible traditional bicycles, or as a cheaper option
Pedelec motors offer better ride quality, efficiency, and more setups that use more standardised parts. The main advantage of pedelec motors over hub-driven motors is that they include a sensor that detects how hard you're pedaling so that the drive unit can meter out the assistance given accordingly.
E-bikes motor systems will typically be programmed with three-five levels of assistance, below we cover off what you can expect from each.
At standby level, e-bike systems operate exactly the same as a traditional bike, albeit a heavy one. Offering no electric assistance, the majority of e-bikes will still offer basic metrics on their display controllers when in standby.
The lowest setting is commonly referred to as Eco mode. This is typically optimised specifically for range, with most manufacturers claiming a theoretical range of over 100km. On Eco mode, assistance levels can range between 25-80% of maximum. This means that for every pedal stroke made by a rider, the drive unit will provide an additional 25-80% on top of this, up to 250 watts or 25kph. Eco mode is best suited for those wanting to maximise the range of their e-bike, and is often best suited for use on flatter terrain.
Normal mode will typically see drive units now match pedalling effort by around 100-150%. The range is roughly halved when utilising this additional power. The additional power on offer makes setting off from traffic lights and intersections a breeze with motors providing noticeably more torque than Eco mode when accelerating from a standstill.
Turn the wick up to High mode and it’s easy to get a sense of what e-bikes are truly capable of. Selecting the highest level of assistance will make light work of steep uphill gradients and make riding into a stiff headwind a breeze. With units providing a maximum assistance in excess of 200%, the higher output is perfectly suited to more spirited riding at a higher cadence. With great power comes reduced range though so this mode is best used sparingly or for short trips.
Depending on motor power, battery size, assist level, and your riding style, expect e-bike ranges to span anywhere from 50 kilometres to in excess of 150.
Batteries and Charging
The battery pack is arguably one of the most important aspects of electric bike motor system. Available in a range of wattages spanning anywhere from 200w to 550w; the number of watts or watt-hours a battery has will be indicative of the range on offer, with a higher number typically being able to provide increased range. E-bikes will typically be sold with one battery pack fitted, however, on some motor systems it is possible to run two battery packs in tandem, effectively doubling the range on offer.
When it comes to replenishing a depleted battery, it's simply a matter of plugging the bike into a standard wall outlet via the supplied charger. Charging times depend on battery capacity, charger amperage output and the power standards that your country adheres to. A full charge from completely empty will take anywhere from three to five hours. Most motor systems will ship with a two amp charger as standard with more powerful options typically available either direct from the motor system manufacturer.
The battery technology currently employed by leading manufacturers typically uses the same lithium-ion technology as found in everything from laptop batteries to electric cars. You can expect a battery pack to have a usable life of in excess of 1,000 full discharge-recharge cycles.
For most users, this should provide around a three to five-year cycle for the battery. Much like the battery in your smartphone, users should expect battery life to slowly degrade to about 80 percent of the capacity when new. Most manufacturers will typically offer replacement batteries that fit specifically with their motor systems, with many offering a limited warranty on the battery itself.
It’s also worth noting that current aviation laws prohibit riders from flying with their e-bike batteries, so if you plan on traveling with your electric steed, it may be best to arrange a hire battery at your destination or send your battery over ahead of time.
For best performance and life, lithium-ion batteries shouldn’t be completely discharged and should be charged once every three months if you’re not using them for long periods. In the interest of safety, you should always use the charger that came with your system to prevent power spikes, short-circuiting or overheating.
Electric motors by their very nature produce high amounts of torque, that accelerates wear on consumable parts such as tyres and chains. So it pays to be vigilant in ensuring that you’re properly shifting through the gears when riding and not letting the drive unit force a shift. Just like any other bike, it’s also worth regularly inspecting your drivetrain and tyres for signs of wear.
- Related Reading: For more information, check out maintenance guides for basic DIY tips including how to check replace the chain, cassette, and tyres on your bike.
As the motor systems are sealed units, any maintenance or work on the motor, or battery system is to carried out by a certified e-bike technician. This includes replacing individual battery cells, fixing controller electronics, and troubleshooting issues with the motor itself.
That being said, small electric motors will rarely (if ever) need this kind of service. As the motor systems are largely waterproof, you can wash an e-bike so long as you avoid spraying water directly at the motor, battery housing, or controller. It’s also worth noting that most manufacturers would advise against cleaning your e-bike with a pressure washer.
ASSIST MODES: These are the different modes that allow the rider to control the level of motor assistance on offer.
PEDELEC: A contraction of "pedal-assist electric bicycle”. A pedelec bike is an e-bike with the drive unit fitted to the bottom bracket. The motor automatically activates when the bike is pedaled.
RANGE: The range refers to the distance an e-bike can travel while assisting the rider.
TORQUE: A measure of force on a rotational axis. More torque offers a higher rate of acceleration when the assistance is given to the rider.
WATTS: A measure of the motor's power.
WATT-HOURS: A measure of a battery's capacity. A 200Wh battery can produce 200W of power for one hour.
We hope this guide has given you newfound confidence in the world of e-bikes. You can shop the wide range of E-Bikes right here on BikeExchange, all available through leading retailers across the country. Or if you're after a new bike but unsure on what type or where to start looking, our guide on how to choose the right bike is the perfect place to start