Electric bicycles, more commonly known as e-bikes, have become one of the most successful electric-powered vehicle categories. Not only have they proven to be a popular alternative to traditional cycles but they also highlight future opportunities for electric vehicles and other sustainable transportation systems. Find out everything you need to know about e-bikes, including specs, laws, and the public response, with the comprehensive guide.
Four Facts about e-Bikes
- There is a persistent myth that Leonardo Da Vinci invented the first bicycle.
- China is the largest e-bike manufacturer.
- The fastest e-bikes travel around 45 miles per hour.
- Studies show e-bike riders tend to get more exercise than traditional cyclists.
e-Bikes come in many different styles and are produced by many manufacturers around the world. While each has its own specs, this table represents some common ranges that cover many e-bikes.
- Original price
- Units Sold
- Approximately 3.7 million sold in 2019
|Price Range:||Between $600 and $8,000|
|Top Speeds:||Up to 45 miles per hour, but only between 20 and 28 miles per hour for street-legal riding|
|Range:||Between 20 and 100 miles on average|
|Charge Time:||Average of two to six hours|
|Weight Rating:||Between 40 and 80 pounds|
|Max Load:||Typically between 200 and 550 pounds|
|Battery Size:||Between 12 and 72 volts, with 300 to 1,000 watt-hours|
Power on Demand vs Pedal Assist
The design of an e-bike can vary but most use one of two types of power delivery: power on demand and pedal assist. There are many pros and cons to each type. Power on demand typically uses a throttle, trigger, button, or another device to activate the motor. This style of e-bike allows you to ride without any assistance and turn it on to reduce the amount of pedaling you have to do or completely stop pedaling as you allow the motor to take over. Most allow you to adjust the amount of power to control the speed of your e-bike.
Pedal-assist motors provide power as you move the pedals. Also known as pedelec, this type of e-bike motor doesn’t take over from you but augments your pedaling power. Depending on the type of bike you have and the setting you choose, it can add between 20% and 300% of pedal effort as you ride.
High-quality pedal-assist motors use a torque sensor. This matches the electric power with the amount of torque required to turn the gear. This instantly matches the increased speed with your increased pedaling. Another form of pedal assist is a cadence sensor. While still matched to your pedaling, it looks at the pedal crank speed in a way that can delay the increased speed by up to a few seconds for a less smooth ride.
All e-bikes have batteries to store electricity used to power the motor. Beyond that, the specifics of each battery vary dramatically. Some are removable and easily replaceable, while others are built into the frame and difficult to replace. Both removable and non-removable batteries can be found on the back rack or on the frame and have their own pros and cons.
A non-removable battery doesn’t take up space on the rack and creates a more sleek look to the cycle. Removable batteries, however, allow users to easily remove them to replace or charge them in a different location.
The size of the battery affects both the range and top speed. Compare batteries by reviewing their voltage and watt-hour ratings to see which one packs more power and is capable of holding a longer charge. Some e-bikes use lead-acid batteries, which use the same technology as car batteries, but most are lithium-ion. Lithium-ion batteries are lighter, hold their charge longer, and are less susceptible to temperature changes.
The number of miles you can ride before your battery runs out depends on a number of factors. Most e-bikes have a range between 20 and 50 miles, though some of the best electric bike motors and batteries have ranges up to 100 miles. Here are some features that affect the range:
- Size of the battery
- Weight of the rider and equipment
It’s important to note that you can still ride your e-bike after the battery is drained. Simply pedal the bicycle as normal until you reach a suitable location to plug it in and wait for it to charge. The charge time of fully depleted lithium-ion batteries used by most e-bikes is between two and six hours.
The other additional component in an electric bike is a motor. There are three types of motors, each with its own pros and cons. Review the features of each to determine the best electric bike motor for your situation:
- Front hub motor: These motors are the least complicated and affordable. Unfortunately, they can also feel like they’re pulling your bike forward, rather than naturally propelling it.
- Rear hub motor: A more popular option, a rear hub motor typically offers a virtually maintenance-free option. It requires different brackets, chainrings, and cranksets than a traditional bike. In some cases, pedaling can still feel less natural.
- Mid-drive motor: A mid-drive motor with a torque sensor offers the most natural option for convenient pedaling and dynamic riding. It allows you to easily swap out both the front and rear wheels without worrying about replacing complicated e-bike components on the hubs. Typically, it’s the most expensive motor option.
Beyond the motor and battery, an e-bike looks and operates just like a traditional bicycle. That means you can use accessories to personalize your ride. e-Bikes can come standard with, or be upgraded with, racks, storage baskets, locks, headlights, and other items.
e-Bikes: Where To Buy
e-Bikes are available online and in-store. You can purchase them straight from the manufacturer, through a third-party distributor, or second-hand. Here are some leading e-bike manufacturers around the world:
- Damon Motors Inc.
- Merida Industry Co. Ltd.
- Bosch Limited
- Yamaha Motor Company
- Giant Bicycles
- Energica Motor Company
- Lightning eMotors, Inc.
- Zero Co., LTD.
- Harley-Davidson, Inc.
In the United States, companies like Schwinn, Electra, Juiced, Rad Power, and Electric Bike Company are popular options as well. In addition to purchasing e-bikes straight from manufacturers, companies like Amazon, Walmart, and Best Buy also sell them. A new e-bike can cost between $600 and $8,000, depending on features like the design, motor type, and battery size.
Many countries are incentivizing e-bike use to promote sustainable energy alternatives to internal combustion engines. The Build Back Better bill, for example, offers Americans a 30% refundable tax credit for participating types of e-bikes that cost up to $4,000. Other countries have similar programs in place, with over 300 incentives and assistance programs in Europe alone.
The History of e-Bikes: What To Know
The history of electric bicycles starts with the history of traditional bicycles, which is complicated and full of disagreements among historians. There is even a myth that Leonardo Da Vinci drew a sketch of a bicycle in Codex Atlanticus, though most historians agree this is a forgery. Karl von Drais, a German baron, is credited with the first invention of a bicycle in 1817.
In 1895, the U.S. Patent office registered Ogden Bolton Jr.’s battery-powered bicycle. There were many other electric bicycles registered between 1895 and 1899 but this is considered the first e-bike.
e-Bikes didn’t become popular in the United States until the 2000s. Not only did many models come out in this decade but improvements in battery technology allowed them to be more affordable, fast, and long-lasting.
e-Bike Types: Road, Mountain, and More
Just like traditional bikes, e-bikes come in several different styles. Each of these offers benefits in different riding situations. Some manufacturers focus on a single type of e-bike, while others offer several designs in each category.
Road bikes are designed for speed and simplicity. These aerodynamic bicycles usually have drop handlebars and large wheels to excel in long-distance rides on paved roads. Consider a road e-bike if you’re staying on the pavement, looking for a fast ride, and prepared for a ride with little or no suspension.
City bikes, also known as commuter bikes, are built for balance. These two-wheeled rides typically include a more comfortable seat, straight handlebars, and a more upright riding position. They’re still geared for use on asphalt but have slightly wider tires for a more relaxed ride. Think of a city bike as a balance between road and beach cruiser alternatives.
The name captures the feeling this type of bike tries to evoke. Beach cruisers are generally a one-speed ride with wide tires, handlebars, and seats. Many have a step-through-style frame for ease of use. You may not be able to beat anyone in a race but you can enjoy your ride with a beach cruiser e-bike.
Choose this bicycle type if you’re planning on cycling on dirt trails, uneven paths, or steep inclines. Mountain bikes typically feature multiple gears, rugged tires, and generous suspension systems. A heavy-duty frame may be a great feature for off-road rides but it can be cumbersome for riding on smooth trails. Mountain bikes can also be more expensive and slower than road bikes.
Take your bicycle with you on public transport or store it in the trunk of your car by choosing a folding e-bike. This convenient design folds in half or in thirds to make a full-size bike fit into surprisingly small spaces. It’s not only useful for transportation but can also make storage more convenient in a small house or apartment.
Folding e-bikes may not be as comfortable or affordable as standard ones. Some seats sit higher than standard seats, which can be a benefit but can also take some adjustment to get used to.
As the name implies, fat tire e-bikes have larger-than-standard tires. While bicycle tires are generally between 1.75 and 2.21 inches wide, fat tires are usually between 3.7 and 5.2 inches wide, though the specs can vary. These large tires create their own suspension system, so many don’t have a separate system.
Consider a fat tire e-bike if you’re traveling on sand or snow. An extra-wide tire gives you extra stabilization and traction in these difficult riding situations. They can also be useful in off-road terrain. Don’t expect to keep up with road bikes with a fat tire ride. This design is built with durability and traction in mind, not top speed.
Classes of e-Bike
Currently, 26 states and the National Park Service regulate the use of e-bikes through a three-tier classification system. Some streets, trails, and other areas are restricted to certain classes of electric bicycles, so it’s important to understand which model falls into which category. There are some types of e-bikes that don’t comply with any class, which may make it difficult to ride them legally in certain states, parks, and cities. These classifications are generally standardized but it’s important to check with your particular state and local area to confirm each definition.
These electric bikes use pedal assist that only operates up to a top speed of 20 miles per hour. A class 1 bicycle itself may be capable of faster speeds but the motor doesn’t assist the rider to go any faster.
A class 2 bicycle includes a power-on-demand motor to alternate between assisted riding and full-electric riding. These e-bikes still have a top speed of 20 miles per hour.
Class 3 e-bikes can reach top speeds of 28 miles per hour with pedal assistance. As the most restricted category, class 3 bikes typically require additional safety restrictions or aren’t permitted for use in the same areas as other bikes.
The Public Response
While the initial reaction to the invention of e-bikes was slow, these devices have dramatically grown in popularity since the 2000s. Recent years have seen a particularly large boost in e-bike sales. In 2020, there were an estimated 500,000 e-bikes sold in the United States.
While there are some cyclists who are hesitant to switch to the new technology, many embrace it as a fun alternative to analog bicycles. e-Bikes may not replace traditional bicycles but they do offer distinct advantages for commuters. Here are some of the more popular benefits of using an e-bike:
- Decreased commute time: Compared to riding an analog bicycle, e-bikes with pedal assist can be faster and more convenient.
- Reduced effort: Many cyclists enjoy the ease with which e-bikes can climb hills or make long commutes that require less exertion.
- Environmentally friendly alternative: While not as eco-friendly as an analog bicycle, an e-bike does use very little energy compared with a car or motorcycle.
- Popular exercise: Many e-bike riders report cycling more often than they did with an analog bicycle, which means more health benefits due to exercise.
There are, however, some controversies linked with e-bikes, particularly in mountain biking circles. The largest concern is with additional erosion and trail disruption caused by e-bikes. Some electric bicycles have large motors and make considerable amounts of noise compared with analog alternatives. Because e-bikes can travel so much faster, many believe they cause greater levels of erosion and trail damage.
Studies, like one performed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association, show that the level of trail disruption is roughly the same between an electric bicycle and an analog one. Gasoline-powered bicycles, however, were shown to cause more trail damage.