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How to Choose an Electric Bike – Complete Buying Guide

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Kids and adults in the United States got a new role model when newly-elected President Joe Biden chose former Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg as his Secretary of Transportation. Does Buttigieg summon a fancy limo to get to his office? No way. He bikes to work, using the capital’s RideShare system. ( Source )

Did the new Secretary enjoy anonymity? Not exactly. So many people captured the Secretary and his entourage pedaling to work, they recorded him and hit his Twitter feed, informing him that his seat was too low.

We’re assuming he took their advice to save his knees, but one thing’s for sure: e-bikes are hot commodities in the nation’s capital, and the former Mayor Pete is an official role model. If you’re thinking of emulating him, an e-bike should be on your wish list for any number of reasons!

Thinking about buying an electric bike?

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

A Brief History of Electric Bikes

To drive home the popularity of electric bikes, historians at Bicycle History called e-bikes “the only transportation device that managed in the last 20 years to take a significant part of the bicycle market share.” For those who can’t believe that this much time has passed since the debut of the earliest models in the late 19th century, the facts tell the story: In China alone, 120 million+ e-bikes are in use today, and that number is climbing. ( Source )

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

Several innovators are credited with adding power to bikes, and the U.S. Patent Office registered designs to two men who are considered fathers of the battery-powered bike. Ogden Bolton’s battery-powered model was the first. He secured a patent on his bicycle in 1895. Two years later, Hosea W. Libbey mounted a double electric motor on a frame and applied for his patent in 1897. The first motor engineered, especially for bikes powered by batteries, featured a roller wheel and was the brainchild of inventor John Schnepf.

The U.S. was by no means the only nation churning out electric bicycles. Innovators in France came up with a unique three-wheeled electric design that riders controlled via a hand-held lever system that didn’t rely upon pedals to provide the power – in fact, these French designs had no pedals.

A brief history of electric bikes

Throughout the mid-20th century, some manufacturers thrived, and some failed, the former usually because higher production levels and greater usage pushed the most successful makers to keep improving on an already great product. One collaboration regularly cited in e-bike histories was the one between Phillips and Simplex, introduced in 1932 as the Phillips Simplex Electric Bike, a product that enjoyed modest success.

Each prototype developed during this heyday of e-bike evolution slowed down for decades, thus it wasn’t until the late 1990s that this bike genre was resurrected. Improvements and upgrades included torque sensors and power controls, leading to the introduction of “the first commercially successful e-bike models” in 1997.

That year was pivotal because just one year later, there were 49 e-bikes on the market! Who were the leaders? Yamaha, Sanyo and Panasonic put e-bikes into mass production with worldwide distribution. The Japanese e-bike industry came to rule the market between 1975 and 1989. Their products used lead-acid and NiCad batteries, so the Japanese needed to make more changes by adding lower-weight batteries to compete with e-bikes being produced in the U.S. and Europe.

Read more: How Do Electric Bikes Work

In 1989, one of the most important technological advances to come along was the first “Pedelec” or Pedal Electric Cycle, now less formally known as pedal assist. Pedal-assist proved pivotal for the advancement of e-bikes because by employing this feature, motor power is “triggered as assistance when any pedaling action is registered by the bike,” say researchers at Rad Power Bikes. ( Source )

No longer using a throttle mechanism to control the motor, Michael Kutter’s genius invention of pedal-assist was adopted by the Velocity Company, and in 1992, the Dolphin Electric Bike was introduced to the market and to a growingly-enthusiastic market of folks who loved the pedal assist function for any number of reasons.

The history of the e-bike isn’t nearly as long as the product that triggered its conception (the bicycle), but despite that 100-year gap separating the work of the original inventors – Bolton and Libbey – e-bike production was literally been relegated to the fast lane during the ensuing decades. Worldwide production was on a meteoric rise until 2020 when the entire bicycle market began to slow down due to lack of components, reduced work staffs at companies due to Covid-19.

What even marketers didn’t expect was the unexpected turn of events that would up the demand for e-bikes in a world of sequestration and social distancing. Consumers, it seemed, craved the great outdoors because it was one of the few places quarantined people could go, properly distance and take off masks. Industry recovery is relying upon the return to normal of the supply chain, at which point habits acquired during the pandemic are likely to spur even more e-bike sales and innovations.

Electric Bike Motors

In general, e-bike motors “translate electrical energy into mechanical energy,” noted Dan Roe, writing for Bicycling.com. “E-bikes use brushless DC motors, or BLDC motors, meaning they don’t use brushes to alternate the direction of current flowing to the motor, as older electric motors did.” Let’s explore differences once brushes were removed from the equation. ( SOURCE )

Front hub motors

As you would expect, front hub motors are attached to the front fork. E-bikes featuring front hub motors enjoy good weight balance, so for many e-bike riders, front hub placement makes it easier to ride. Further, as soon as a rider starts moving and engages the motor, the bike immediately surges forward to deliver an efficient start.

Brompton Electric comes with a front hub motor

The downsides of this motor are that the rider experiences limited traction on loose gravel roads or when riding at high power. Further, these motors have been described as “not entirely” discrete, which likely refers to the motor’s imposing presence. Front hub motors are quiet and perform effortlessly once the motor is switched off, a feature e-bikes fitted with motors mounted elsewhere don’t enjoy. You’ll be able to shift gears while cycling and also while the bike is at a stand-still.

Read more: How Fast Does an Electric Bike Go

This type of motor requires very little maintenance because it is classified as a “direct-drive” model, which means that gears aren’t necessary to engage the motor. That stated those who don’t like front hub motors complain that steering tends to be a “heavier” experience compared to hub motors mounted elsewhere. ( SOURCE )

Front hub motors Pros/Cons

+ They’re light and easy to install on most existing models
+ Very compatible with gear use, so you don’t have to push
+ Cheaper to buy and easier to replace or repair
+ Can be used with hub gears, derailleur gears, and belt-driven bikes
+ Can be mounted on adult tricycles
+ Won’t require as much drive train maintenance
+ Fitting costs tend to be cheaper

Older front hub motors can weigh down the bike
Don’t expect decent traction on dirt roads; wheels could spin uncontrollably
Lighter model front hub motors deliver less torque at low speeds
You may not be able to tow anything
Tire changing could be problematic
Expect a higher degree of front brake pad wear
Tends to use more battery power

Rear hub motors

Rear hub motors are mounted to the rear wheels of e-bikes. Quieter than mid-drive motors, they begin to work the moment you start to cycle, so you get off to a decent start. The objective of the rear hub motor is to deliver the pushing power required to move forward consistently. According to one Ebikes.ca expert, “There is a TON of misinformation on the internet and endless-sphere in particular which says you should always choose a rear hub motor and that front hub motors are dangerous/unstable/ill-advised.” ( SOURCE )

RadMission 1 is equipped with a rear hub motor

For rear installations, the motor is more discretely buried within cogs and pannier bags thus, riders may find it possible to run at very high power levels without losing traction, but that benefit could be negated if the rear mount motor isn’t tied into the drive chain. Downsides to a rear hub also include no opportunities to use internal gear hubs, and then there are those drive chain compatibility concerns, but it’s the installation and versatility factors that are most likely to turn you off if you choose to go the rear hub motor route.

On the other hand, some riders prefer a rear mount because they like the fact that there are fewer compatibility issues due to using cassette freehubs and properly aligning disks. Further, you may have a compelling reason to choose a product that has the motor in the rear, and that reason could be your weight. Rider weight tends to impact the rear wheel more than the front one, so traction could come into play. Bottom line is that no matter what expert you’re listening to, rear hub motors almost always wind up as the least favorable option.

Most cheaper electric bike models today use a rear hub motor.

Rear hub motors Pros/Cons

+ The technology has been around forever
+ Fit standard frames and are compatible with derailleur gears
+ Can be used to retrofit most bikes
+ Outperforms front hub motors on dirt roads
+ Cheaper to purchase than mid-drive motors
+ Compatible when retro-fitting carbon fiber bikes
+ Maintenance costs are comparable to front hub motors

You may have more spoke breakages due to back-of-the-bike weight
It can be harder to change tires
Expect slightly more rear brake pad wear
This motor requires more battery power so it’s not as efficient

Central drive systems

Your tutorial on central drive systems requires us to state the obvious: Central motors are decidedly more complex than their hub motor equivalents because these systems are geared into the e-bike’s chain drive system, and the built-in freewheel requires custom framing around the housing to encapsulate the workings.

Trek Allant+ 8 comes with Bosch central drive system motor

Within the casing, a torque sensor built into the crank kicks in and even gentle pedaling won’t turn the motor on. Press harder and the system powers up as the motor acts as a “force-multiplier.” The more you pedal, the more the power increases. Due to their sophistication, central drive systems are pricier yet the market appears to be heading in this direction and away from hub motors.

Central motors shine when it comes to extended range, and while they require little torque input on the highest setting, folks who understand the psychology of e-bike riders insist that this operation tends to encourage a rider to expend more effort as they’re rewarded by nimble response. If market trends continue, central drive systems could making finding high-quality, hub-driven bikes difficult to find in the future.

Central Drive Systems Pros/Cons

+ Motor is fully enclosed so the bike is more aesthetically pleasing
+ These systems are fairly quiet
+ Due to central positioning, balance and weight are optimal
+ Favored by experienced cyclists eager to use more leg power
+ Enables rider to tow a trailer
+ Better suits heavier riders
+ Changing front and rear tires is easier

May be priced out of your budgetary rang
Avid cyclists won’t get the best workout
E-bike’s single chainring prevents retrofits
Expect more wear and tear plus more frequent maintenance
Enclosed components could require a specialist to undertake repairs
Bikes with central-drive systems are often heavier

Understanding E-Bike Power Ratings

If you’ve run into the term “rated power” every time you visit a website evaluating e-bike products, welcome to one of the most often-used manufacturing designations. But advertised power ratings don’t have a thing to do with an e-bikes actual or maximum potential power output, according to professionals who are frustrated by makers who tend to color product descriptions.

A typical power rating might tell you how much energy you’re getting during a period of riding time, but since there is no standard, your 750-watt power peak may only last between one and two seconds, despite the fact that the manufacturer suggests that this power delivery tends to last longer.

A more accurate way to look at power ratings is to measure how quickly work is accomplished by the motor. Prove this to yourself by playing a bit with this awesome motor simulator to learn more about peak output power at cruising speeds based on terrain and e-bike type and you’ll have a clearer understanding of the subject.

Electric Bike Battery Technology Explained

How batteries work

For e-bike fans who like a little humor served with their tutorials, we start with a clever introduction served up by engineers at the Evelo Electric Bicycles website who deliver this pithy overview: “How much juice means how far you’ll go.” Ergo the capacity and output of your e-bike battery is at the heart of your riding experience. Getting down to basics, if you think of volts as energy — and amps as electricity — do the math: volts multiplied by amps equals watts. ( SOURCE )

Factor in terrain and rider energy contributions, and on an average e-bike ride, a typical model will cover around 40 miles if the cyclist contributes to the effort by pedaling, but she might only log half that distances if the battery does a majority of the work by generating power. Choose an e-bike with an extended range battery, and you’re looking at increasing mileage in both instances.

Older e-bikes were driven by lead-acid batteries similar to the units installed in automobiles but these products proved extremely burdensome due to their weight, not to mention the fact that while cheap to buy they were painfully slow to recharge. Today’s e-bikes rely upon lithium-ion batteries because they last longer, weigh less, and require less maintenance. The charging process is simple and fast: Plug the battery into a wall outlet and the power cell’s battery management system kicks in to deliver the needed watts of energy to juice it up.

About lithium batteries

Relatively new to the battery world given the time batteries were first invented to power a variety of vehicles, the lithium-ion battery didn’t appear on the market until the 1990s, at which point they quickly introduced a new era. This battery type’s weight, energy density, and storage capabilities revolutionized batteries, the reason Stanley Whittingham, Akira Yoshino, and John Goodenough were awarded Nobel Prizes for their genius.

At the epicenter of lithium batteries are electrochemical cells (galvanic elements) that are interconnected to boost the capacity of the unit, and this capacity plays a major role when it comes to the range and performance of electrically powered vehicles. While more cells add to the size and weight of the finished battery, those cells are more streamlined and have higher capacity, which is why lithium-ion technology contributes an important element: the ability to survive infinite charging cycles. ( SOURCE )

What’s the latest iteration of these marvels? Lithium cobalt dioxide batteries, the current favorite of e-bike makers. Although lithium makes up less than 2-percent of the material used to make these batteries, it is the most critical component of all.

E-Bike Range

Ask Michael Toll about how many miles he gets on a single charge from his e-bike and prepare yourself for a long explanation. The article he wrote for the Elektrec website takes you to the heart of the distance debate, and you can count on his experience to inform you. For Toll, it’s the variables one must take into account in order to come up with a decent range estimate. Rider weight, terrain, wind conditions, and tire choice all impact how many miles one gets on a single charge. ( SOURCE )

But there’s another factor not always included in calculations: The presence or absence of a handle throttle. These components can drain a battery more rapidly and reduce potential range simply because a rider has chosen to stay in pedal assist mode.

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

Want to know how to estimate the range of your ride? Use this formula: begin with battery capacity (Wh) and multiply volts by amp hours. A 48V and 10Ah battery performs like a 480-watt unit, so once you get that number, divide watt-hour capacity by an average efficiency number in miles, and if you’re a whiz at calculations, you are likely to come up with a decent result.

Prefer not to engage your brain this energetically? Assume that 500 to 750W throttle e-bikes ridden at a speed of 20 mph on terrain that’s slightly hilly should get you 25 miles. Add pedal assist, and you might get that distance total to 32 miles. One more step? If you’re a beefier guy, deduct a few miles. Ditto bigger hills. Look to the future, eager e-bike rider. The fairly new Turbo Vado SL e-bike comes with 80-mile ratings delivered by its 320W internal battery.

How Long Do Electric Bikes Last

Chris Wilson, writing for the Electric Ride Lab website, didn’t miss a thing that contributes to the aging of e-bikes when he composed a list of factors that will have quite a bit to do with how long your ride will last.

Here are his major points:

  • As a general rule, owners can expect between 3 and 5 years of use
  • Since the motor doesn’t run constantly, that contributes to an e-bike’s longevity
  • Proper maintenance is the key to the number of years your e-bike will serve you
  • E-bikes with direct drive hubs can rust or overheat, leading to shorter lives
  • Depending upon battery quality, riders may get between 3,000 to 10,000 miles of use before replacement is needed
  • Battery life for lithium-ion batteries is estimated at 1,000 cycles
  • Battery life for nickel batteries is estimated at 500 cycles
  • Battery life for lead batteries is estimated at 300 cycles
  • Keeping your battery cool can sustain the life of your battery
  • Exposing your battery to extremely high temperatures (max. 90-degrees F) can cut short battery life
  • All batteries discharge slowly over time. If it drains, the unit could be irreparably damaged
  • Extend the life of your battery during storage by keeping the charging range between 40- and 80-percent
  • Keep your e-bike clean but don’t go to extremes. A power washer could force water into bearings
  • Removing mud is important, but heavy scrubbing could shorten the life of your drive train or suspension system
  • E-bikes enjoy longer lives when owners check bolts regularly since loose ones can lead to more wear and tear
  • Consistent lubrication of moving parts mediates friction that can prematurely threaten bike longevity
  • Storing your bike in constant sunlight and moist areas can shorten an e-bike’s life. ( SOURCE )

The Future of the E-bike Battery

What does the future hold for the next generation of e-bike battery technology? Inventions, ideas, and innovations that could make the invention of the lithium-ion battery look wimpy. Driven by the research and growing dynamism of companies like Tesla, expect futuristic changes that include:

  • Batteries with more energy density that last longer
  • Increased numbers of charging cells to generate more power on a single charge
  • Energy storage enhancements that could double or triple capacity
  • Removal of liquid electrolytes to develop a battery building process that emulates the way plastics are made
  • The creation of lithium metal anode-free cells capable of producing 200 cycles
  • Better, cheaper batteries are likely to drive higher e-bike sales down the road. ( SOURCE )

Are Electric Bikes Worth Buying

The answer is yes, and for all of these reasons:
Electric bikes are ideal for commuters eager to get rid of their cars or cut back on driving. They are getting so popular you can even race them (meets are held at Rocket Electrics in Austin, Texas).

They’re lighter, tougher, and more efficient than regular bikes. Insurance companies are now issuing policies on e-bikes covering theft and liability.

You can choose from cruisers, trail riders, mountain, downhill, and road bike styles. E-bike prices are dropping and more retailers and online resources are stocking them. No powered transportation works as hard to keep environmental emissions down.

Read more: Types of Bikes – The Ultimate Guide

Electric Bike Maintenance

How to maximize e-bike battery range

  1. Don’t stress out your throttle, or you’ll waste too much energy.
  2. Get into the habit of pedaling while accelerating, and you can extend your range.
  3. Stop riding at full throttle when you should be coasting to stops.
  4. Slow down if you don’t have to be traveling at top speed.
  5. Keep tire air pressure at maximum inflation to save battery power.
  6. Practice regenerative braking if your bike allows getting a 5-percent energy saving.
  7. Maintain a fully charged battery as often as possible.
  8. Add a small extra charger to your e-bike gear to power up during the day.

How to care for your e-bike tires

  1. Keep the amount of weight you carry down when you ride.
  2. Slow down to avoid road debris.
  3. Always ride with rim tape.
  4. Inspect tires regularly to catch problems early.
  5. Keep consistent tabs on tire pressure.
  6. Carry a Co2 cartridge and spare tube for emergencies.
  7. Check e-bike tire ratings and purchase the best ones you can afford.

How to care for your e-bike brakes

  1. Remember, the e-bike you ride is heavier and requires adequate stopping power.
  2. Regularly check and adjust brakes, look for loose parts, excessive rotor, and pad wear.
  3. If you’re not comfortable about sleuthing out problems, have a professional check your brakes.
  4. Replace rotors and pads promptly and follow the manufacturer’s wear level warnings.

How to care for your electric bike chain

  1. Clean and lubricate the chain regularly to minimize dirt and grime build-up.
  2. Don’t put so much elbow grease into this task that you remove all of the protective lubricants.
  3. Apply fresh lube sparingly. If you have a choice, apply a “dry” lubricant designed to repel new soil.
  4. Make it a practice to regularly inspect and/or replace your chain.
  5. Invest in a chain wear indicator tool and follow instructions to anticipate wear before the drive train is impacted.
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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