Electric bike technology has improved massively in the last few years and they are now very reliable and easy to ride. Electric bikes, also known as ebikes, are already very popular in Europe and sales are increasing in the UK. Official organisations are now starting to get behind ebikes and Transport for London are among those promoting their use.
In this electric bike buyers guide we will look at the main issues around electric bikes and what to consider when buying one.
Electric bikes and the law
The ebikes we sell, and the ones made by all of the major bike brands, are classed as ‘electrically assisted pedal cycles’ (EPAC). As long as your electric bike meets the EPAC requirements you don’t need insurance or a licence to use it and it is treated in the same way as a normal bike. This means you can ride it on the road and on cycle paths and are covered by the normal Highway Code rules.
The EPAC rules do place some limits on electric bikes. These are that:
You have to be at least 14 years old to ride an electric bike
- It must have pedals that can propel the bike
- The motor must have a maximum power output of 250 watts
- The top speed of the bike is limited to 25 kmph or 15.5 mph
How do electric bikes work?
The EPAC rules mean that the electric bikes available in the UK all work in very similar ways. They will all have a motor which engages automatically when you start pedalling and stops automatically when you stop pedalling. There is no need to press a button and no throttle.
Cheaper electric bikes (under £1000) tend to come with a hub drive motor which is mounted in the middle of the front or rear wheel and turns the wheel directly. Electric bikes from £1500 and up tend to use mid-drive motors which sit in the centre of the bike and drive the cranks and chain around, supporting your normal pedalling motions.
The cheaper hub drive motors tend to be very either on or off whereas the more expensive mid-drive motors have much more gradual power. Mid-drive motors will sense how hard you are pressing down on the pedals and give you more, or less, power to help you maintain your speed.
All electric bikes will come with battery which you will need to plug into the mains to charge. Bike with a mid-drive motor can easily do 50 to 60 miles on a single charge and it takes 4 to 5 hours to recharge the batteries.
What to look for when buying an electric bike
Not only are the top speed and power on electric bikes both capped by law but nearly all electric bike manufacturers use the same motors and battery packs. Bosch motors are used by brands like Raleigh, Trek and Cannondale and Shimano STEPS motors are used by brands including Whyte and Merida.
There are some slight differences within the Bosch and Shimano motor ranges with both producing different motors aimed at the commuting and mountain bike market. However, you will tend to find lots of different manufacturers using the same motors on their bikes.
Although all electric bike motors have the same maximum power they do come with different levels of torque.
The amount of torque decides how quickly the bike will get going and how fast it will accelerate. Having more torque will give you extra power to get over obstacles. The top of the line Bosch mountain bike motors produce up to 75 nm of torque whereas a commuting bike in eco mode might only produce 30nm. So, when shopping for an electric bike torque is one of the key factors to look at.
Nearly all electric bikes use lithium ion batteries, the same basic type found in mobile phones and laptops. These batteries are relatively light, powerful and quick to charge.
There are three basic ways to mount a battery onto an electric bike:
- Rack mount – the battery is stored above the back wheel as part of the luggage rack
- Frame mount – the battery is mounted direct to the frame within the front triangle
- Integrated – the battery is mounted within the frame as part of an integrated system
The rack mount option is most common on hybrid and commuting bikes. Mountain bikes normally use the frame or integrated mount system as it keeps the battery out of the way and keeps the centre of gravity of the bike more central.
Electric bike batteries come in different wattage and amperage ratings. This tells you how much energy the battery can store and how quickly it can give that energy to the motor. In both cases the bigger the number the more energy can be stored and the quicker it can be released. You will generally pay more for bigger capacity batteries so it’s worth thinking about how you will use the bike. If you are doing a short commute of a few miles at a time you are unlikely to need a 500w battery with a 95km range. Instead a bike with a 400w or 300w battery may suit you better.
Types of electric bikes
Although there are a few electric road race bikes around the vast majority of electric bikes on the market are either hybrid commuting bikes or mountain bikes.
Electric Hybrid and Commuting Bikes
In Europe the electric hybrid and commuting market is massive. They are particularly popular with older people who have cycled all of their life but now need some help getting up hills and covering larger distances. As a result there are lots of nice electric hybrid bikes on the market with mudguards and pannier racks which are perfect for getting around town. This is the type of electric bike that TFL and others are trying to encourage in the UK as they are seen as a good way to get non-cyclists commuting.
Commuting and hybrid electric bikes tend to come with motors like the Bosch Active Line or the Shimano STEPS city. These motors have less torque than the mountain bike ones and give you smoother and more gradual acceleration.
Electric Mountain Bikes
In the UK it has been the electric mountain bikes that have really caught people’s imagination. Electric mountain bikes take the work out of climbs and can be used on the UK’s often rough cycle paths and tracks as well as for out and out off-road riding. Most of the big bike brands are now making electric mountain bikes and are using them as a proving ground for the latest electric bikes and motors. Electric mountain bikes tend to use motors like the Bosch Performance CX or the Shimano STEPS E-MTB. These motors have a lot more torque than the ones used on hybrid and commuting bikes so you can get over obstacles and up steep hills more easily.
Within electric mountain bikes there is a full range of hardtail and full suspension bikes available plus long travel all mountain bikes and shorter travel trail bikes. So you need to decide what type of mountain biking you are going to want electric assistance with.