How to pick the right e-bike for you
E-bike is a broad term used to describe any bicycle fitted with a battery-powered motor. This latest trend of electric vehicles has divided the bicycling community, but it reopens the sport for those who felt excluded due to their physical abilities.
Matt McGowen, owner of the Freewheel Bike Shop in Albany, says that most people who come into the shop to buy e-bikes are of retirement age. “There’s this trope that e-bikes are for lazy people, or [if] you don’t want to ride a real bike,” he says. “I think that’s kind of untrue and not a fair assessment. Generally they’re good for getting people out more because it overcomes that barrier.”
E-bikes also offer an emissions-free option for commuting, make it safer to share the road with cars, and have proven to be a boon for getting people reinvolved in a healthy hobby. One thing they are not, however, is inexpensive. Here’s what you need to consider before you purchase.
E-bikes are great for people who love the idea of riding a bike but feel as if they can’t because their fitness isn’t what it could be, or isn’t what it used to be, due to age or illness. This makes them a particularly wonderful choice for older people, especially if you’re trying to get out into nature again but are aware there are certain limitations in the beginning.
For example, many people struggle with hills and headwinds, or are limited by their endurance capabilities. An e-bike can allow riders to stop worrying about overcoming these obstacles on their own. As long as your battery is fully charged, you never need to worry about getting home. You are also able to control the amount of assistance you get from the motor, making your ride highly adaptable. As your confidence grows, so will your physical fitness.
E-bikes are also safer in road-sharing situations. You can keep up with the flow of traffic more easily using the motor, making it so that fewer cars will feel the need to overtake you. Navigating intersections becomes less awkward as well, because you can use the motor to accelerate more easily from a dead stop.
This also makes e-bikes perfect for those wanting to rely less on cars for transportation. Their motor assist makes it possible to accomplish errands that you would never attempt on a regular bike and without polluting the atmosphere. You can go further, faster, and farther on an e-bike, and you wouldn’t be showing up drenched in sweat, either. You would dramatically decrease your carbon footprint, avoid traffic congestion, and save a ton of money on gas.
Picking the Right E-Bike
Picking the perfect e-bike is less about what name is emblazoned across the frame, and more about where you go to get one. Visiting a bike shop in person is an important first step. “In my experience, the most important thing is fit and comfort on the bike,” says McGowen. “Having something that you can try out in person is to your benefit.”
Shopping online for an e-bike can yield bikes built overseas in factories with very little quality control, so you might save some money but you can end up with an unreliable product. As one of the only bike shops in the area that will fix all kinds of e-bikes (even those not purchased from his store), McGowen bemoans the number of people needing significant repairs on these substandard bikes. His advice is to use brands that care more about their quality control and reputations for reliability. “Try to purchase from an American company — Lectric, based in Utah, or Aventon in California are good companies. They’re more reliable; they’re like the Hondas of the e-bike world,” he says, “and Trek, Giant, Specialized — they’re the Mercedes.”
Working with an e-bike specialist in person eliminates the need to make sense of all the bicycle-specific data and jargon. “Getting a bike that is comfortable from a reputable brand that will back their product with a good warranty — there’s a huge benefit to getting it from a shop,” he says. “We know the product, we can source the parts and can trust where the parts come from.”
Customers can also try out a bike. While researching components and brands is helpful when buying your first e-bike, nothing is better than experience. “Taking a test ride is the best way to sort out what you want and don’t want,” he says.
Things to Know Before You Buy
Bicycling requires some familiarity with the sport’s jargon and highly specialized technical specifications. McGowen provided some simplified explanations for what to look for when buying an e-bike.
E-bikes are generally separated into three classes:
Class 1: offers pedal assist up to 20 mph, providing a bit of additional power as you ride.
Class 2: has pedal-assist mode as well as a throttle — a little switch on the handlebars — that when engaged negates the need to pedal at all. You don’t need to use the throttle if you don’t want to, and the max assist speed is 20 mph.
Class 3: is solely pedal-assist (like class 1), but the pedal assist stops when the e-bike reaches 28 mph.
Motor Type: Hub versus Mid-drive
You can pretty easily distinguish the two types of motors by sight: a mid-drive motor is usually located on the bar that goes between your legs, whereas a hub motor is located on the hub of the wheel (usually on the rear, but sometimes on the front wheel).
Mid-drive motor: Mid-drive motors work a lot like traditional bicycles: They drive the chain ring from the crank just as you provide power when you pedal. Essentially, you are working with the motor, doing the same motion to move the bike forward. A mid-drive motor e-bike is usually geared by using the shifter just like on a regular bike.
Hub motor: Located within the hub of the wheel, a hub motor operates more like a tandem system: You’re up front driving the chain ring that moves the wheel, and then the motor itself is running the wheel. It’s like two different drive modes operating at the same time. Because of this, the hub-motor bikes are geared differently. McGowen also says that traditionally, hub motors provide a less smooth ride.
The average price of an e-bike is about $2,000. Entry-level e-bikes start around $1,000, while high-end ones can cost $6,000 or more. Some things that determine the price of an e-bike include:
Battery: Greater battery capacity provides more riding time between charges so you can ride farther with assistance. Measured in watt-hours (Wh), battery capacity typically ranges from 250 Wh to over 650 Wh, with higher capacity batteries being more expensive.
Motor: Hub motors are usually cheaper, while mid-drive motors start at a higher price point, due to their function as well as manufacturing costs.
Motors come in a range of sizes — 250 W to 750 W — and the power determines how strong the pedal assist can be. The higher the watts, the more work a motor can do — but also the more battery power it consumes.
Torque measures the rotational force of the motor. The higher the torque, the stronger the support for the rider, especially at low cadences (like going uphill) or higher loads (carrying cargo).
Reliability: On more reliable bikes, McGowen says the battery, motor, and controller are all the same brands. A well-known brand adds reliability as well as the ease of finding replacement parts or service tools. Cheaper systems or ones with mix-and-match components may not be as dependable and may cost more in the long run.
Design: E-bikes designed to integrate electrical components like the battery, motor, and wiring into the bike frame, as in a mid-drive, are going to cost more. A bike with an externally mounted battery and a hub motor costs less to design and produce.
Main photo: iStockphoto.com/Uwe Moser.