Electric bikes aren’t all that different from standard bicycles. The main difference is how they are powered! Standard bikes move by way of human power or pedaling. Regular bicycles have come a long way since their early 1800s origins, but electric bikes mark a new era in bicycling. E-bikes come equipped with a motor, a battery, and other features to help you go faster and farther. With an e-bike, commuting to work is much easier (especially if you have to go up any steep hills). In some cities, e-bike use is beginning to replace car rides.
You may think an electric bike is just like a moped or a motorcycle, but most standard e-bikes are quite different. Let’s go over the basics of e-bikes, including the different types, how to ride one, and how to find the best one for your lifestyle.
The Basics of an Electric Bike
When it comes to electric bikes (and regular bicycles, too!), the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Two wheels, handlebars, a drivetrain, and some pedals will get you down the road, but you’ll need a motor, a battery, and brakes before your e-bike is complete.
Although your e-bike is electric-powered, that doesn’t necessarily mean you get to sit back and let the bike do all the work. Rather, think of your e-bike as a way to enhance the human power of a standard bike. You do the pedaling, and then the e-bike’s motor kicks into gear to give you a boost.
Each part of an e-bike has a different purpose, and not all e-bikes are equipped with the same parts. For instance, older e-bike models were made with lead batteries. However, newer e-bike models are equipped with lithium-ion batteries—a spendier but much more durable option.
Since e-bikes have the capacity to travel faster than regular bikes, you should always consider your safety before riding one. That includes investing in good brakes.
- Hydraulic Disc Brakes: Hydraulic disc brakes can handle more power and speed. As you pull the lever of your brake, the discs activate a piston and brake fluids in the master cylinder, which creates friction. This makes hydraulic disc brakes the safest option.
- Rim Brakes: Rim brakes, also known as cable brakes, are located on the handlebars. As you squeeze the handle, it pulls on a cable that activates the brakes, stopping your tires. You’ve probably used rim brakes before on traditional bicycles. However, on an e-bike, the stopping power of rim brakes is not considered fast enough, which is why more e-bikes are made with hydraulic disc brakes.
The battery powers the motor, so without it, your bike isn’t really an electric bike at all. Most e-bikes today are equipped with lithium-ion batteries, but there are other, more affordable choices.
- Lead battery: Lead-acid batteries are like the kind you put in your flashlight or remote control. They don’t pack as much wattage, but that’s fine as long as you’re powering something small (like a flashlight or a remote). However, if you need to fuel an e-bike, you’ll need a heftier battery. A lead battery large enough to power an e-bike would be incredibly heavy, and while powerful, it would slow down the top speed significantly. Lead-acid batteries used to be the standard for e-bikes, but now, lighter, more efficient options have replaced them. Lead batteries also only last about 300 charge cycles on an e-bike.
- Lithium-ion battery: One lithium battery for an e-bike weighs around 6-8 pounds and can power your bike for up to 1000 full charge cycles, though most last around 3 years if you use your electric bike regularly. Generally, a single charge on lithium ion batteries can last between 20-50 miles.
- Nickel-cadmium battery: Like lead batteries, nickel-cadmium batteries are not as common as li-ion batteries, but they do appear in some older models. They don’t weigh as much as lead batteries, but they have a similar power capacity, making them an affordable alternative to lithium-ion. This battery type will last about 500 charge cycles.
In most cases, recharging an electric bicycle is easy—just plug it into the nearest outlet. For some pedal-assist e-bikes, manually riding your bike can help recharge the battery too.
The electric motor gives your e-bike the power it needs to go up hills and over bumpy roads. It also gives your bike ample speed to get to where you’re going in half the time. But not all e-bike motors are the same. Pay attention to the power ratings—the higher the rating, the higher the bike’s capacity and power. The wattage power rating limit for e-bikes is 750W, but models are available with ratings between 200W-1,000W. As you might have guessed, a 750W motor will drain your battery a lot quicker than a 250W motor, but you’ll be able to go much faster.
While the motor itself influences the speed and power of your electric bike, the location of the motor also plays a large part in how fast your bike can go.
- Front Hub: The motor is located on the front wheel. As far as hub motors go, this is the more efficient of the two because the back of the e-bike already carries a lot of weight. So putting the motor on the front wheel balances the center of gravity, making the bike easier to ride. However, both front and rear hub motors are not connected to the gears or drivetrain, so going up or downhill (when you’d need to shift gears quickly) is not as smooth.
- Rear Hub: Rear wheel motors are located on the back wheel. An electric bike with a rear hub motor can make your ride wobbly and unbalanced, not to mention inefficient.
- Mid-Drive: Mid-drive motors are located by the pedals, in the “middle,” or center of the bicycle. Mid-drive motors are integrated with the crank, gears, and drivetrain. So when the motor revs up, it sends power directly to the drivetrain, so your ride is smoother, faster, and more efficient.
Drivetrain and Electric Assistance Systems
The drivetrain is comprised of the pedals, crank, chain, chainrings, and cog. All of these parts work together to move your bike forward as you pedal it. This is especially important for e-bikes because pedaling essentially “turns the motor on.”
Some e-bikes have something called an electric assistance system. These have replaced the typical throttle found on the handlebars (simply twist or press the power button to turn the motor on). The two types of electric assistance systems most common to e-bikes are cadence sensors and torque sensors.
- Cadence sensors: Located by the pedals, a cadence sensor “senses” the movement of a magnet. This magnet moves as you pedal, so when you go faster, the sensor tells the motor to give you more power. If you go slower, the motor gives less power. This seems logical in theory, but if you’re going uphill, you will go slower, but need more power.
- Torque sensors: Torque sensors measure the pressure being exerted on the pedals to “tell” the motor how much power to emit. That way, if you’re going uphill, your motor will still give you plenty of power to get up and over it.
How to Ride an Electric Bike
Riding an electric bike is not too different from riding a standard bike. In fact, if you’re a long time regular bike rider, you can probably acclimate to an e-bike fairly quickly.
Most e-bikes are pedelec, meaning they engage pedal-assist to give you a boost of power. As you pedal, the motor starts up and gives you a bit of thrust. Electric bikes meant for the road and other public spaces are either Class 1 or Class 2 e-bikes—these bikes only give you electric power up to 20 MPH.
After that, you can pedal as fast as you want, but without assistance from the motor. In the United States, Class 3 e-bikes are classified as mopeds because they can go up to 28 MPH with electric power. Class 3 e-bikes are not yet allowed in all cities, and they most often require a license to operate. To find out more about Class 3 e-bikes, contact your local DMV (Department of Motor Vehicles).
Pedal assist bicycles are great for work commutes, replacing short car rides, quick trips to the store, or even hauling large loads. In pedal-assist mode, you can control how fast you go. The bike gives you some extra power, but it’s not doing all the work. You can still get a good workout and arrive at the office on time without showing up disheveled and sweaty.
Electric Bike Frequently Asked Questions
How much does an electric bike cost?
On the low-end, electric bicycles cost between $1,000-$2,000. High-end models can cost $10,000 or more. Things that usually hike up the cost of an e-bike: lithium-ion batteries, hydraulic disc brakes, lighting, fatter tires (for mountain bikes), or rechargeable batteries (batteries that charge as you pedal). Some of these features make riding much easier and make your bike last longer, but others, such as cosmetic fixtures, aren’t necessary and going without them can save you some money.
What is the difference between a pedelec bike and an s-pedelec bike?
A pedelec bike is powered via the pedals, which you move with your feet. Many e-bikes are pedelec and can go up to 20 MPH. S-pedelec bicycles can go faster and are usually regulated by federal or local jurisdictions. Electric-only bikes are powered via a throttle, and you don’t do any pedaling at all.
Can go up to 20 MPH
Can go up to 28 MPH
Can go up to 28 MPH or more in some cases
Powered via moving the pedals
Powered via moving the pedals
Powered via a throttle that you twist or turn on
License not required to operate one; can use bike lanes or paths
Classified as mopeds; must have a license to operate
Highly regulated, not always allowed on public paths or roads
Do you have to pedal on an e-bike?
It depends on the type of bike you own—if your bike is pedelec, and most e-bikes are, then yes, you do some pedaling. By working the pedals, you “signal” the motor to turn on, which powers the bicycle, helping you move faster and farther. Lots of people prefer pedal-assist bicycles over electric-power only e-bikes because they still allow you to get a workout in, and you can control the speed. The regulations on pedelec bikes are much lighter so you can ride them on public roads and paths.
How fast does an electric bike go?
The top speed of an average e-bike is about 20 MPH. E-bikes that go faster are regulated and usually require a driver’s license to operate. 20 MPH might not seem very fast, but it’s actually pretty good for a bike. A regular bicycle goes about 10-15 MPH on a flat road. Plus, when you’re riding a standard bike uphill, it takes much more effort on your part. With an e-bike, you can press “turbo” mode, and give yourself a powerful push up steep inclines.
What are the disadvantages of electric bikes?
An e-bike may be faster and more powerful than a standard bike, but it still comes with its own downsides. For instance, e-bikes are much more expensive than standard bikes, both to initially purchase and then maintain. You should take your e-bike in for a tune-up every 500 miles or 6 months, whichever comes first. Servicing the motor and battery can be more costly than a typical bike tune-up. Also, each time you drain your battery, you have to wait for it to recharge, which can take up to a few hours. E-bikes are heavier too, so it can be harder to carry them up stairs or lift them into the back of a truck.
Electric Bikes: The Future of Cycling?
Electric bikes are beginning to take over, even replacing motor vehicles in some high-population areas where commuter traffic is heavy. E-bikes open up the possibilities for people with disabilities or chronic pain to ride a bike with ease, and they cut down on traveling time. One study from 2018 found that e-bike owners rode their bikes more often than regular bike riders. When you commit and make the switch from a traditional bicycle to an electric bike, you’ll quickly start to appreciate all its different benefits and wonder why you didn’t try one sooner.