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Welcome to the world of electric bikes
The world of cycling is currently undergoing a significant transformation, or perhaps it is experiencing some growing pains; it is difficult to determine.
Even before the pandemic forced everyone outside (resulting in a surge in bike sales), the rising popularity of electric bikes had already attracted numerous newcomers to the world of cycling. E-bikes have revolutionized cycling, providing an opportunity for individuals who previously dismissed the sport (and mode of transportation) as something reserved for fitness enthusiasts clad in lycra. Bikes equipped with small motors and batteries are redefining what can be achieved on two wheels and who can participate, making cycling more accessible, less intimidating, and simply more enjoyable for both beginners and experienced riders.
The cycling industry is flourishing, thanks to e-bikes. So, if you are new here, welcome.
However, along with this new technology and influx of new cyclists, there is also a lack of knowledge. E-bikes can be complex, and terms such as amperage, motor type, and watt hours may be unfamiliar to those who are new to this world. To address this, we have prepared a comprehensive guide to help you navigate the growing e-bike market and choose the bike that is right for you. Whether you are a commuter, a casual rider, or an enthusiast, we will cover all the basics you need to know before making a purchase.
Looking for specific information? Here are links to different sections of this guide:
E-bikes 101: Understanding motors, batteries, and drive systems
How to control an e-bike motor
There are two primary methods for activating an e-bike’s motor.
The first and most common method is through pedaling. This type of motor control, known as pedal-assist or pedelec (short for “pedal electric bicycle”), allows the e-bike’s motor to respond to the force applied to the pedals, providing an additional boost to the rider’s natural pedaling power.
Depending on the specific bike, motor, and controller settings, this boost can range from a gentle enhancement to feeling like a small pedal-powered rocketship, especially with more powerful e-bikes.
Some e-bikes also feature a user-controlled throttle, which allows the rider to activate the motor on demand. This is the second method that gives riders direct control over the e-bike’s motor. Typically, the throttle is a lever mounted on the handlebar, which can be controlled by the rider’s thumb. It allows the motor to be engaged while coasting or even when the bike is stationary, similar to a moped. It is worth noting that e-bikes equipped with a throttle usually also offer pedal-assist functionality, although there are a few exceptions that operate solely with throttle control.
Where can and cannot I ride my e-bike? Understanding the three-class system and its significance
At their core, e-bikes are designed to enable people to ride their bicycles further, faster, and with less effort, regardless of their cycling experience or physical fitness level.
However, e-bikes do present a dilemma. On one hand, they are effectively democratizing cycling, making it accessible to a wider range of individuals for various purposes. On the other hand, their increased speed and power can pose safety challenges, particularly in areas with shared-use paths and trails that experience heavy pedestrian traffic.
These concerns regarding safety have resulted in the creation of the three-class system for regulating access to e-bikes. This system imposes restrictions on certain types of e-bikes based on their motor operation, wattage, and maximum assisted speed. Approximately half of the states in the United States have implemented e-bike laws and regulations in accordance with the three-class system. Organizations such as PeopleForBikes, which advocate for biking, are actively promoting model legislation focused on these classes. Europe has its own variation of the class system, which is more widely accepted compared to the one found in the United States.
The classes in the United States are as follows:
- Class 1: These e-bikes only provide pedal assist, and the motor deactivates at speeds of 20 mph (although you can still pedal faster on your own). They are typically permitted wherever non-motorized bicycles are allowed to be ridden.
- Class 2: E-bikes in this class have a motor controlled by a throttle, allowing it to operate even when you aren’t pedaling. Similar to Class 1, the motor cuts off at 20 mph, and these e-bikes are usually allowed in the same areas as non-motorized bicycles.
- Class 3: Class 3 e-bikes have a motor that will assist you up to speeds of 28 mph, but only when you’re pedaling. A throttle may also be included, but its maximum speed is limited to 20 mph, requiring you to pedal in order to reach higher speeds. Additionally, Class 3 e-bikes must be equipped with a speedometer and are typically limited to use on bike lanes adjacent to roads and on the roads themselves.
All classes have the motor power limited to 750w sustained, which is approximately equivalent to one horsepower. Although the three-class system is not yet universally adopted in the United States, most e-bike manufacturers and sellers adhere to this system.
E-bikes 102: Torque, watts, watt hours, volts, Et al.
By this point, you already have a basic understanding of what defines an e-bike and you’re now ready to delve deeper into the intricacies.
Similar to cars, the size, strength, and power of an e-bike’s motor and battery can vary significantly across different models. Even a single change in the drive system component can have a profound impact on its performance.
The following list encompasses various variables and terminologies used by e-bike manufacturers to describe their motor and battery systems. By comprehending these concepts, you can gain a rough estimation of how a specific e-bike may perform (at least on paper).
- Torque refers to the rotational force generated by the motor and is usually measured in Newton meters (Nm). In the context of e-bikes, torque plays a crucial role in acceleration and uphill riding.
- Volts essentially represent the level of electrical pressure within a battery. An analogy that often explains this measurement is comparing a battery to a water tank, where volts correspond to the water pressure accumulated inside. The higher the pressure within the tank (or the volts in a battery), the quicker electricity (or water) will flow from the tank (or battery), and at greater volumes. In summary, the higher the voltage of an e-bike battery, the more power is available to the motor, resulting in increased speed.
- Amps (short for ampere) serve as the fundamental unit for measuring electrical current. It quantifies the consistent rate at which electricity flows out of a battery. The higher the amperage, the greater the flow of electricity.
- Amp hours: Returning to the water analogy, amp hours describe the capacity of the water tank. In the case of e-bikes, this unit indicates the size of the battery and how much power it can sustain for one hour. For instance, a battery with a rating of 10Ah can deliver 10 amps of power in a single hour before becoming depleted. This rate can also be accelerated or decelerated, allowing the same battery to discharge 20 amps within half an hour or 5 amps over a two-hour period.
Watts (often shortened to just a “w”) are the equivalent of horsepower for e-bikes, measuring the power output of the motor. In the U.S., e-bikes can sustain up to 750w according to the three-class system, although some motors can produce even higher bursts of power. To put it in perspective, a professional road cyclist typically averages between 300w and 400w during a race, so e-bike motors are quite powerful.
Watt hours (Wh) indicate the amount of energy available in a battery for one hour of use. For example, a battery with a rating of 480Wh will provide 480 watts for exactly one hour before it runs out. With a 750w motor, the legal maximum in the U.S., the same battery would be able to sustain maximum throttle for approximately two-thirds of an hour before it depletes.
So why do these terms matter? They offer insights into the capabilities of an e-bike’s motor and battery when combined with specific drive systems. However, it is important not to solely rely on the specifications listed in a bike’s brochure. Factors like amp hours and watt hours can be misleading, while aspects such as temperature and terrain can significantly affect the performance of the motor and battery. To truly understand how a bike will perform, there is no substitute for actually riding it.
The most important part: How to choose the right e-bike for you
Ultimately, an e-bike is fundamentally similar to a regular bike. It rolls, it pedals, and it takes you where you want to go.
When purchasing an e-bike, there is one question that surpasses all others in importance: What do you want to do with the bike? This is a crucial question that deserves careful consideration. While salespeople and bike brands may claim to offer a bike that can handle anything, the reality is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. While certain e-bikes may excel in multiple categories, such as a fat-tire folding e-bike that serves as an urban commuter and can handle light off-road use, it will not be suitable as a cargo bike or be able to match the speed of a lightweight electric road bike, regardless of how powerful the motor is.
In my years of experience working with bikes in various shops across the American southwest, this is the most important question I would ask potential bike buyers. It is also one of the most challenging questions to answer. Many first-time e-bike buyers may not be familiar with the different categories of e-bikes or understand why it may be worthwhile to spend more (or less) money to find a bike that aligns with their specific goals. If you find yourself in this situation, or if you feel overwhelmed by the vast world of e-bikes, here is a breakdown of the different e-bike categories and their intended purposes.
- Step-thru frame e-bikesMore than just an e-bike type, step-thru frame e-bikes offer a specific frame style characterized by a low-slung design that facilitates easier mounting. This style is commonly found in cruiser and commuter e-bikes, making it ideal for individuals with limited hip mobility, back issues, or those who need to wear work clothes while riding.
Popular in Europe and a novelty in the United States, folding e-bikes are an excellent option for individuals who desire to store their bike in a compact space such as a trunk or RV, or for those who need to stow their bike in a cramped office. As the name suggests, a folding e-bike can literally fold up and become remarkably small in some cases. While still providing comfort for adult riders, these bikes are physically smaller and typically feature smaller diameter wheels, thus altering the handling characteristics and riding position.
Fat-tire e-bikes can be considered the monster trucks of the bicycle world. Just as the name implies, these bikes have wider tires than the standard models, usually measuring about 3 to 4 inches wide. Originally designed for effortless snow riding, they also excel in sand and various terrains with ease. The fat tires instill confidence, but the additional rubber increases rolling resistance and rotational weight, which ultimately affects energy efficiency.
Cargo and utility e-bikes
If you’ve ever doubted that an e-bike could replace your trusty minivan, think again. Cargo and utility e-bikes are colossal pedal-powered vehicles capable of transporting hundreds of pounds of cargo and people. They are the most peculiar members of the e-bike family, available in a myriad of configurations, nearly all of which possess a wheelbase long enough to accommodate a cargo area in front or behind the rider.
Whether you prefer a leisurely ride along the Mission Beach Boardwalk or a quick and comfortable journey on a bike path, cruiser e-bikes blend timeless style with remarkable efficiency. However, prior to the rise of e-bikes, I must admit to dissuading numerous potential cruiser buyers. Why? Well, these bikes were notoriously inefficient to pedal. Fortunately, everything changed when companies started combining the cruiser design with e-bike drive systems. Now, with the majority of the pedaling power delegated to a motor, the comfort and relaxed flair of these bikes can truly shine.
Electric mountain bikes (eMTBs)
True to their name, electric mountain bikes are the epitome of off-road e-bikes. Engineered to tackle drops, steep climbs, and rocky terrains with an added boost, eMTBs have seen a surge in popularity. The motors are meticulously calibrated to handle the vigorous, torque-heavy power needed to conquer steep hills and obstacles. Additionally, there are lighter versions available as companies like Specialized and Orbea cater to e-bike riders seeking a more agile and organic ride. These bikes often fall under the Class 1 e-bike category, although some Class 2 alternatives are also available.
Electric road bikes
Electric road bikes provide the perfect amalgamation of traditional style and e-bike efficiency. Prior to the advent of e-bikes, I frequently advised potential buyers against investing in this style due to their inefficiency when pedaling. However, everything changed when manufacturers began pairing the sleek road bike design with e-bike drive systems. Now, with the assistance of a motor, the comfort and laid-back elegance of these bikes truly come to the forefront.
In the world of bicycling, the term “superbike” is used quite frequently nowadays. However, when it comes to high-end electric road bikes, calling them superbikes might actually be an accurate description. These bikes can be considered the Ferraris of the bicycling world, especially when you look at their top price points. They possess the same advanced technology and aerodynamic advantages as the race bikes that win the Tour de France, but with the added bonus of a small electric motor integrated into the bottom bracket. In essence, these bikes are incredibly fast and exciting, although you still need to put in the effort to pedal hard and unleash their full potential. It’s important to note that most of these bikes fall under the Class 1 category, meaning they have smaller motors and batteries.
Electric Gravel Bikes
Electric gravel bikes represent the latest evolution in the world of e-bikes, and indeed, bicycles in general. These performance-oriented machines are specifically designed to excel in terms of pedaling efficiency and speed on gravel roads. They typically feature drop-bar designs that closely resemble traditional road bikes, with some key differences such as increased tire clearance and specialized brakes that perform well in muddy and dusty conditions. The motors on these bikes are usually compact and refined, designed to complement the rider’s natural pedaling rather than overpower it. It’s worth noting that electric gravel bikes also fall primarily within the Class 1 category.
Once again, it’s crucial to carefully consider what you aim to achieve with your e-bike. Do you need a compact and foldable model that can easily fit into the underfloor storage compartment of your RV? Are you searching for a reliable and speedy option (Commuter Electric Bikes) to conveniently commute to and from work? Perhaps you’re the type of rider who enjoys donning lycra gear and embarking on a 60-mile journey on Saturday mornings, but desires a little extra boost to enhance your pedaling efforts.
If you find yourself overwhelmed by the multitude of bike brands available directly to consumers, don’t worry. We’re here to assist you. The experienced team at electricbikereport.com, comprised of e-bike enthusiasts, riders, and racers, rigorously tests bikes on our local roads, trails, and paths in southwest Utah. This hands-on approach allows us to provide you with a comprehensive understanding of how these bikes perform in real-world conditions.
In addition to putting bikes through their paces, we stay up-to-date with the latest industry news (Most Recent News) in e-bike technology, meticulously assess the top e-bikes across various categories, and create content that educates you on bike maintenance or when it’s appropriate to seek professional assistance.
So, if you’re new to this community, we extend a warm welcome to the world of e-bikes. We’re thrilled to have you here.