Whether you’re new to bikes or an experienced cyclist, there are many doubts and questions you will have when deciding whether an electric bike is the correct purchase compared to a normal road bike. I will offer my experience from several years commuting both on a regular bike and an electric bike to help to guide your decision.
An electric bicycle is very similar to a normal bicycle, with added components to help the rider to go faster, for longer, with less effort.
What exactly is an electric bike?
Let’s start with the basics. What is different about an electric bike compared to a normal bike?
As we’ve seen above, an electric bicycle is essentially a normal bicycle with some added components to enable you, the rider, to travel faster, for longer distances, with less effort.
In this article, we will examine the electric-specific components and the riding experience on an e-bike.
The major components we will look at are the motor, the battery, and the display and controls. So, what function do these components provide? Let’s dive in and find out.
Electric Bike Components
The motor is of course what gives you the extra power and speed on your electric bike. Motors come in different types- hub-mounted and mid-drive mounted motors, and in different power levels too- measured in Watts- anywhere from around 250W, which is suitable for most commuting and casual usage, all the way to motors with 1000W, 2000W of power- or even more! I personally use a rear-hub mounted, 250W motor on my daily commuter e-bike, and find that it’s more than enough for my needs.
You may be tempted to think “why not go for a massive motor that has huge power?”. But keep in mind that an average commuter cyclist, with average fitness, may only produce around 180W-200W for a typical 20 to 30 minutes burst. So even a relatively “small” 250W motor will more than double your power output (unless you are a Tour de France rider, hopped up on performance-enhancing chemicals)!
For commutes on flat surfaces, 250W is more than enough for many people. Additionally, very large motors will cause additional headaches- think extra upfront cost to buy it, extra wear and tear on the mechanical bike components like the chain and brakes, a bigger battery is required since there is more battery drain from the higher Watts, and so on.
So think carefully about your typical uses when sizing your motor.
The battery is the next major component that a normal bike doesn’t have. Batteries in general have gotten drastically cheaper over the past decade- lithium battery prices have fallen from $1,100/kWh in 2010 to $156/kWh in 2019, an 87% fall in real terms.
This drastic fall in price is spurring big changes in transportation around the world- look at all the electric vehicles, e-bikes and e-scooters on the streets almost everywhere.
For e-bike owners, it means you get a higher capacity, longer range battery today than at any other time in the past. It enables you to spend more time riding at higher speeds and you have more time in between battery charges. All this means that e-bikes are becoming every more viable for much more uses and at the same time, much more affordable for most people.
Expect to pay anywhere between $500-900 for a new, high-quality lithium battery pack. The price depends on the capacity needed and the brand, and is dropping gradually over time. Premium e-bike battery makers like Bosch typically cost more. It is not cheap to replace an e-bike battery, but keep in mind that if you use an e-bike as a car replacement, you’ll save $1000s over the lifetime of an e-bike battery (think of the cost of fuel, parking, maintenance, insurance, tax and so on)- not to mention the health and quality of life benefits from getting regular exercise!
Display and Controls
An e-bike will normally have dedicated controls and a display so that you understand exactly what’s happening with your e-bike and battery at a glance. In the picture above, which is my e-bike, you can see the LCD display circled on top and the power output selector buttons below-left from that next to the left handle.
On your e-bike display, you can expect features such as:
- Current speed
- Odometer – total mileage
- Current electrical motor output in Watts (good for pinpointing problems if the power assist isn’t working as expected)
- Current battery charge level
- Current headlight status- on or off
Some higher-end displays may have features such as GPS navigation, color display, fitness tracking, shift recommendation (just like a sports car!), and smartphone integration.
The other important piece of kit on the handlebars that a regular bicycle doesn’t have are controls to select the level of power assist that is required. On my e-bike for example I can select power levels from 0 to 5. 0 is off, 1 is the lowest, and 5 is the maximum output possible.
Ok, now you have an idea of the differences in how an e-bike is constructed compared to a normal bike, but what about the riding experience? Can you expect to get any real exercise on an e-bike? Read on for more.
- E-Bike versus E-Scooter for commuting
- E-Bike motor basics – which one is right for you?
- E-Bike battery basics- what you need to know
- Are electric bikes good for commuting?
Pedaling on an e-bike is much less effort than on a regular bike, as you can imagine. This is most noticeable when pedaling from a complete stop, such as at a traffic junction, when pedaling up a steep hill, or pedaling into a stiff headwind. I’m often grateful for pedal-assist when I am traveling along a riverside on my daily commute – there is often a strong wind blowing in my face that the electric motor helps to overcome.
Note that there are several types of e-bikes you can buy (which I cover below), and here I’m mostly referring to pedal-assist (Pedelec) e-bikes.
Pedal-assist e-bikes are great for getting regular exercise since the rider must do half the work or more, depending on where the electric assist cuts off on your particular e-bike. If you regularly travel above the cut off speed, which in my case is just 15.5mph (25km/h) you are pedaling on human power alone 🙂
Studies show that e-bike riders get more exercise on average than riders of regular bikes, so that’s a great motivation to jump on your e-bike every single day and save money but also lose weight at the same time!
a modest 250W e-bike motor will more than double the power output of the average cyclist.
As we’ve seen above, even a modest 250W e-bike motor will more than double the power output of the average cyclist. This translates into more speed, and more fun! After all, if you’re struggling to get exercise regularly, the thought of tackling challenging hills and long distances will be off-putting. Now imagine you can double your pedal power output and tear up hills with ease- you’ll be much more inclined to get out on the roads and trails!
When commuting in the morning, speed is important to me. I want to cruise along between about 15-19mph (about 25-30km/h) with minimal effort to make it into the office in good time. At the same time, I don’t want to be completely soaked with sweat when I arrive. This is the ideal scenario for an e-bike, where I can commute faster than a car in the city by avoiding gridlock, for less money than public transport (when I save several dollars per day without a train ticket), and make efficient use of my time by combining my daily commute with a moderate impact workout in the fresh air.
In short, by commuting by e-bike instead of on a normal bike, I get to work faster, sweat less and still get most of the exercise benefits and the refreshment of being out in the fresh air.
Exercise and Burning Calories
An e-bike is a great form of exercise and a viable way to burn calories. As we’ve seen, studies indicated that e-bike riders get more exercise than users of normal bikes.
According to a popular fitness app MyFitnessPal, you can expect to burn anywhere from 250-420 calories in a 30-minute commute on regular terrain on an e-bike. These numbers are approximate and depend on many factors but they give an indication of the value of including an e-bike ride into your regular routine.
Types of E-Bikes
There are three broad types of e-bikes on the market:
- Pedal-assist only (the motor cuts off as soon as you stop pedaling)
- Twist-and-go (no pedaling is needed, you control the power output with handlebar controls)
- A hybrid of the above– you can pedal only, pedal assist, or use the electric motor only
When I talk about the reduced pedaling effort, getting more speed, and getting more exercise on an e-bike compared to a normal bike, an important distinction must be made. I am talking about pedal-assist e-bikes only.
Another type of e-bike exists on the market known as ‘twist and go’ electric bikes, also known as ‘throttle assist’ e-bikes. These types of e-bikes are designed so that the electric motor does 100% of the work for you, no pedaling is needed. This is more akin to having a lower-powered electric moped than a bicycle, so these are really in a different category of electric bikes.
Many of the benefits of regular e-bikes apply, but you don’t get the exercise benefits, and legally this type of e-bike may require an additional driver’s license and insurance requirements like a regular moped. It’s also possible that a twist and go e-bike may not be allowed on cycle trails like a regular e-bike, so make sure to check your local traffic rules to avoid a nasty surprise after purchasing a throttle assist bike.
There are also some types of e-bikes that are in between, which is a hybrid approach between pedal assist only and twist and go only.
Electric Bike Appearance
Another way of comparing electric bikes to normal bikes is their appearance. Visually e-bikes are similar to regular bikes at first glance but there are differences.
Some people are conscious of been seen riding on e-bikes (as if there is somehow a problem with riding one!). They might not like the bulky battery mounted onto the frame of their e-bike which is the most visible giveaway. It’s possible to get stealthy e-bikes where the battery is cleverly hidden inside the bike’s frame if the aesthetics of your e-bike are a big consideration for you.
Personally, I don’t mind if people know that I’m on an e-bike or not and I embrace the look of my frame-mounted battery. It also helps that by having the battery in the frame, the battery itself is removable so that I can charge it anywhere, including at work. I park the e-bike in the underground garage and take the removable battery to my desk for charging. This enables a longer commute, since I can charge at home or at work, and saves a small amount of money too.
Next time you are out on the street- pay close attention to the bike frames being ridden by the cyclists around you. You will be surprised at just how popular electric bikes have become, a real green revolution happening quietly on our streets!
There are some differences in maintenance tasks between e-bikes and regular bikes- e-bikes are of course a bit more complex due to their electrical components. In general, the electric motors last indefinitely, and an e-bike battery will last several years before needing replacement. Most other components like the controls, display, cables, etc should generally last for the lifetime of the bike itself.
One area of maintenance I’ve run into is tire and tube replacement. On my rear wheel hub motor e-bike, replacing the tire and tube is tricky.
I had to disconnect the cables to the motor in the middle of the rear wheel, lift off the heavy wheel, replace the tube as you would on a normal bike, and carefully re-mount the rear wheel back into position and reconnect the cables. If I had to do it again I would leave this job to the local cycle repair shop. It’s a difficult task to do alone and without specialist tools like a bracket to hold the bike in position.
Overall though, it’s a small price to pay for the convenience of having an e-bike, and I don’t regret having an e-bike for a second. I did purchase puncture-resistant tires though and haven’t had a flat tire since then.
Rules and Regulations
In some areas, there are restrictions placed on e-bikes that don’t exist for regular bikes. The most obvious of these is that in some areas, like in some national parks and bike trails, electric bikes are not allowed.
More restrictions exist in much of Europe for high powered, high speed electric bikes known as S-Pedelecs. These are a special category of e-bikes that are more like electric scooters than regular electric bikes. This should be at the forefront of your mind if you are considering one of these high-powered machines, especially if you intend to ride it on cycle trails- in many places, this isn’t allowed and you can only ride on the road like other larger vehicles.
Therefore, make sure to research ahead of time when exploring bike trails in a new area, and do extra research when buying an S-Pedelec.
There are several areas in which electric bikes differ from normal road bikes. There are additional electric components on the bike and the riding experience is quite different, enabling higher speed travel for less effort. Lastly, there may be additional rules and regulations that apply to e-bikes in your area, so do your research before buying an e-bike.