The popularity of electric bikes means there are great options for everyone, from short-hop commuters to serious long-distance cyclists. But with a bewildering array of alternatives, it's not easy to make the right choice. If you're in the market for an electric bike, the following guide quickly summarizes the key points, from motors to gears to maintenance. We have also included a few of our favorite models to illustrate how you can get the performance you need without breaking the bank.
Considerations when choosing electric bikes
Electric bikes fall into two main categories: e-bikes and pedelecs (also called pedal assist). As you're deciding which to buy, think about what you'll use your electric bike for.
E-bikes: These offer you the choice of whether to pedal or not. You'll save battery power and get greater range if you do pedal, but you can let the electric motor do all the work if you prefer.
E-bikes cover short distances effortlessly, but range will be restricted if you don't pedal. Many models fold small enough to go in your car's trunk, and so are a favorite with commuters. These are best for people who take trips of just a few miles and can charge the battery often.
Pedelec: With a pedelec, you pedal all the time just like on an ordinary bike. However, the electric motor can dramatically reduce the effort you need to exert.
Pedelec bikes behave more like ordinary bicycles, but the motor makes it much easier to climb hills or tow a trailer. These are more likely to suit people who might cycle anyway. Pedelecs are particularly popular with people who have reduced physical ability.
Electric bicycle features
Motor: Though larger models can be found, most electric bicycle motors range from 250 watts to 750 watts. The former is likely to be found on commuter e-bikes. You'll want 500 watts or more for decent range. A brushless motor makes far more efficient use of battery power, gives greater range and requires virtually no maintenance. Brush motors should be avoided.
Battery: Battery size varies, but it's unlikely to be less than 36 volts. Larger batteries cost more, but should give you better range. What's more important is how far the bike can go between charges. This ranges from as little as 10 miles to over 40. Look at charging time, too, which can be anywhere from three to eight hours. Bear in mind that the battery will wear out eventually, probably before the rest of the bike does. Check the battery life expectancy and replacement cost before purchasing.
Gears and brakes: Pedelec bikes often have very similar arrangements to regular bicycles, with derailleur gears and caliper or disc brakes. It's what you want if you're using your bike for any distance. Commuters will be fine with models that have only three speeds, or even those that are just "press and go."
Throttle: There are three types of throttle control: twist grip (like on a motorcycle), which is usually a smooth action; lever (similar to a lawnmower), which is not as smooth as a twist grip, but people soon get used to it), and push button, which is either on or off. It doesn't regulate speed.
Electronics: Lights are often provided, but not always. When they are, they can be brighter than ordinary bicycle lights because of the power of the battery they're hooked up to. Some electric bikes also have trip computers that give a variety of useful information, including remaining battery life. Several electric bikes have USB ports, so you can charge other devices while you ride.
Q. Are electric bikes legal for street use?
A. This is one of the most common e-bike questions, and the most difficult to answer. Federal law states that electric bicycles must have a maximum speed of 20 mph when powered by the motor alone (you can go faster if you pedal). Maximum power output must be no more than 750 watts. Many electric bicycles can exceed these limits and may then be termed motor vehicles -- either mopeds or motorcycles. The problem is that state laws vary enormously. Maximum permitted speed is 20 mph in some, but 28 mph or 30 mph in others. You may or may not be required to wear a motorcycle helmet. Some states have age limits, too. If your electric bike is within the federal limits, you shouldn't have a problem, but when choosing, it's a good idea to check your local state laws just to be sure.
Q. Are electric bikes difficult to maintain?
A. Most of the tasks are the same as for any other bicycle -- regular lubrication of the chain and gears (if fitted) and checking the brakes for wear every now and then. All simple and straightforward. When it comes to the electrics and battery, it will depend on the model and your level of expertise. Follow the manufacturer's instructions carefully. If you're not 100% confident, get expert help.
Electric bikes we recommend
Best of the best: Pedego City Commuter Classic
Our take: Super-stylish electric bike with all the bells and whistles (literally).
What we like: Stunning looks, good range, and relatively fast recharge. Fat tires and a sprung seat make for excellent comfort.
What we dislike: Not as fast as some hoped it would be. Very expensive.
Best bang for your buck: Swagtron SwagCycle Folding E-Bike
Our take: Effortless short-range transportation for the city or campus dweller.
What we like: Space-saving design ideal for trunk or apartment. Great feature set includes battery-life indicator and USB port. Cheap, too.
What we dislike: May not suit larger riders. Heavy on tire wear.
Our take: If you want a beach cruiser that does the pedaling for you, this is a great choice.
What we like: Full-size bike with a basket and back rack to help you transport groceries and other findings from around town. Perfect for vacationing and leisure riding.
What we dislike: It's pink, so has a feminine look. Large and heavy. Not great for commuters.
Bob Beacham is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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