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How Do Electric Bikes Work

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It’s human nature to want to understand how things work, and that curiosity doesn’t end with childhood, where every new topic is ripe for an explanation. Why learn more about how electric bikes work? The answer is simple: What you know gives you not just confidence but control, and who couldn’t use more of that these days?

But let’s start with the basics.

What is an electric bike?

For folks who like their explanations clear and concise, electric bikes (eBikes) are simply bicycles fitted with electric motors that help propel the bike forward. The source of the power is found within the bike’s rechargeable battery.

To be classified as an e-bike, the motor must engage, whether one pedals or doesn’t do so. In the U.S., the maximum legal speed allowable on specific terrain types is 20 mph. Allowable speeds abroad are less. If you want to go faster, you must rely upon manual pedaling that could get you into legal trouble due to the bike’s classification as an electrically powered product.


Thinking about buying an electric bike?

If you’re thinking about buying an e-bike, take a look at our latest electric bike reviews:


What are the 3 main parts of an eBike?

1. The Motor

Motor position is the key to function when riding an e-bike. Motors may be mounted to the front hub, rear hub, or mid-drive. Each offers the rider benefits.

Front hub mounts impact steering, so cyclists enjoy an experience similar to that of a front wheel drive auto.

Rear hub installs are more sophisticated because the motor interacts with the gears more efficiently and delivers better traction when encountering rougher terrain.

Central drive motors assist the pedals by pushing energy through the drive system, so one enjoys the “feel” of a non-motorized biking experience if the motor is placed in this position.

Read more: How to Choose an Electric Bike – Complete Buying Guide

2. The Battery

Usually installed in the luggage rack area or placed strategically on the eBike’s lower frame (contributing to better weight distribution), battery charges are determined by motor wattage, and given the inroads made by battery designers, today’s batteries may give riders up to 6 hours of power before they run out of juice. *( Source )

Fairly easy to replace, the type of battery you choose can make a major difference in performance and satisfaction. There are 3 types of Lithium-Ion batteries (lithium polymer, lithium manganese, and lithium iron phosphate), considered the Cadillac of batteries.

They tend to be the most expensive choices. Cheaper alternatives but equally capable of powering eBikes include nickel metal, nickel-cadmium, and lead-acid battery types.

3. The Sensor

eBikes are usually equipped with one of two types of sensors: Pedal assist cadence sensor and pedal-assist torque sensor. A pedal-assist cadence sensor kicks on as soon as the rider begins to pedal, at which point the motor is activated. This sensor serves as the mediator between the cyclist and the motor, delivering power in response to the pedaling speed. As pedaling increases, motor output lessens.* ( Source )

Cadence type sensors tend to deliver a more comfortable ride and require less pressure. Torque sensors behave differently because they are more intuitive, thus they contribute less assistance when, for example, an eBike moves through slower traffic.

Read more: Electric Bike vs. Car – Can an E-Bike Replace Your Car?

Put the pedal to the metal, and torque sensors recognize that they’re asked to do more, thus power is enhanced, so speed, maneuvering, and cornering are smarter, and cyclists equate the riding experience to that of a non-powered bicycle.

The reason? Less strain on the chain and/or belt. Can one bike support both types? The answer is yes, but the technology behind double sensors remains at elementary stages at present.

Does a rider still have to pedal an electric bike?

In the U.S., some products are designed to operate by triggering the throttle, so no pedaling is necessary. In Europe, there are more restrictions. Regardless of your eBike choice, if you hope to ascend steep, long hills, you will have an easier climb if you pedal, and you’ll also help extend the life of your battery and motor.

Do electric bikes charge when a rider pedals?

While most won’t, a few new models offer “regenerative capabilities,” but they don’t completely recharge your battery. In some cases, that charge could be less than 10-percent of capacity. It’s always better to recharge using a wall outlet. In theory, one would have to pedal 10 miles to generate enough juice to travel one mile.

Read more: Is It Possible to Get in Shape with an E-bike

10 disadvantages of electric bikes

1. They are expensive to acquire
2. U.S. legalities associated with eBikes can be confusing
3. Riding range on a charge is less than optimal
4. Repairs and maintenance are expensive
5. eBikes don’t benefit the environment
6. They tend to be very heavy
7. Resale value tends to be low
8. Charging time remains problematic
9. Limited insurance coverage due to higher risk factors
10. Electric bikes don’t have long lifespans.

About Alek Asaduryan

Alek Asaduryan is the founder of YesCycling and has been riding bikes and in the cycling industry since 1991. Since then, his mission is to make cycling more accessible to everyone. And each year, he continues to help more people to achieve that. When he's not out riding his beloved fitness bike, Alek reports on news, gear, guides, and all things cycling related.

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