Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained.
Major revision and additions January 2019
This is now a fairly full article covering quite a few aspects to do with e-bikes generally, and also everyday e-biking, with particular reference to e-bike and cycling resources in the hilly Sheffield area, where, like the trams, a more powerful than average motor system is needed.
Hopefully it is informative both for the increasing number of people who are in the early stages of considering e-biking as an alternative means of transport, be that for utility or for leisure, and also for those well down the decision path and looking for more details to inform a purchase.
I have tried to present it in a way that enables you to pick out particular info you need, rather than wade through everything, and/or be able to delve further into specific aspects if you want to.
Whilst this article gives an overview of e-bikes generally, it majors on the sort of bike I and my partner use for everyday urban duties and just getting around Sheffield quickly and conveniently – journeys we used to make by car or public transport…
After 6 yrs on a few different e-bikes in Sheffield, we have 2 Bottom Line recommendations:
– Buy an e-bike that is powerful,efficient, reliable and pleasant to ride. You will enjoy and want to ride such a bike, and will find yourself putting it to good and maybe everyday use.
– I recommend you consider buying locally if possible so you have expert advice and good after sales backup and servicing on your doorstep.
We have found that for an e-bike that ticks the above boxes in and around hilly Sheffield you will need to spend £1500 – £2000+
Yes – that sounds a lot for ‘a bicycle’, but don’t switch off here – we really need now to be thinking of e-bikes in the same ‘transportation costings’ bracket as cars, buses, taxis etc, rather than relative to ‘normal’ (unassisted) bikes. An e-bike replaces a car, not a bicycle.
This is because you will find yourself using a good one to do many of the journeys you are currently spending a lot of money on in terms of fuel and running costs, parking charges, or bus, tram and train fares etc.
Think of e-bikes like this and they stack up very well – and even as you are recouping the initial outlay, your quality of life will be greatly enhanced!
If needs be, take up a dealer finance offer (sometimes 0%), use one of the Cycle to Work type schemes, or use your own finance options to fund a good quality purchase.
Why might I think of buying an e-bike?
Convenience: e-biking is a great Active Travel option in hilly, traffic choked cities like Sheffield. Here they achieve good average speeds as you are not slowed down by hills. On such journeys, e-bikes can be quicker overall than other transport options, speedily delivering you door to door.
Confidence: We feel more confident on the road than we do on unassisted bikes, having the power and presence to be more part of the traffic flow, and we find that on e-bikes even the odd bout of ‘weather’ doesn’t seem as discouraging.
Better Route Choices: e-bike power flattens hills and shrinks distances, giving you wider route choices, so you can choose to avoid busy polluted main routes and streets whenever you wish, regardless of distance and terrain. You will be pleasantly surprised at how much of your journey in and around your area and the city can be completed on dedicated cycle routes and lanes, through parks and on quiet back roads you may currently be unaware of, minimising the time you spend in or near traffic choked main roads and rat runs.
Use your local council cycle map to discover these alternative routes, ask a friend who cycles regularly to show you some, book a session with a local cycle trainer ie to show you a good commuter route to your workplace, or ask if any members of your local local cycle campaign and interest group can recommend or show you local routes. Longer local routes can be found via the local Cycling UK group.
Health: Statistically you will live longer and better due to gentle cardiac exercise, research even shows that you are breathing in less pollution when cycling in traffic than when sat in a vehicle.
Fun: Often those who would not normally cycle any significant distance on an unassisted bike, if at all, now choose e-bikes for recreational rides up to 50 miles or more and love the feeling of easily getting out and exploring their local roads, cycle trails and bridleways.
Economy: After the initial outlay, the mile for mile cost of e-biking is favourable compared to other means of getting about, carrying you and any amount of shopping or stuff up to fifty (and sometimes more) miles, door to door, for just a few pence.
You don’t need to look like a ‘cyclist’: Because of the assistance helping you along, you can wear everyday clothing and arrive at your destination in a relaxed, non-sweaty state.
So what exactly is an ‘e-bike’?
e-bikes – ‘EAPC’s (Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles) or ‘Pedelecs’ come in as many variations as ordinary bikes, but the type we use for utility and leisure duties around town are essentially just sturdy upright sitting position bicycles built around an electric motor and a battery.
You still need to pedal, but on e-bike systems, inbuilt sensors detect when and how much you push on the pedal and then the level of electrical motor power you have pre-selected is automatically added to your efforts. (normally you can choose from 3 or 4 levels of assistance, or indeed none if the mood takes you, you are running low on juice or want a workout.)
By UK law that assistance has to electronically cut out above 15.5mph, but you can then pedal faster than that under your own power, just as on a normal unassisted bike.
In practice the 30% or so extra weight of the motor, battery etc, and in some applications the small degree of ‘off power’ motor drag compared to an unassisted bike, means you mostly find yourself happily bowling along at a nicely assisted 10-15mph, making e-bikes ideal for local/urban transport and commuting.
Is it still a bicycle?
Yes. Despite the welcome benefit of this assistance to waft you along, e-bikes are legally classed as bicycles, so you can use the many cycle-only cut throughs, cycle lanes, bus lanes and ‘shared use’ pavements to speed up your commute or shopping run, avoiding traffic queues and busy roads, and all with no parking hassles on arrival.
NB: The use of Cycle lanes is not mandatory, rather it is a choice if the cycle lane is convenient and safe, but do remember that you are a road user just like any other, so as long as it is safe to do so, cycle within the law and in accordance with the specific rules for cyclists in the Highway code .This will keep you and other road users safer and better tempered.
And what isn’t a (legal) e-bike?
The UK legal rated ‘nominal’ or continuous power limit for a standard e-bike system (for public highway use) is 250 watts (peak power can be twice this or more – as much as a pro cyclist in fact!), and the maximum assisted speed allowed is 15.5mph. More than 250 watts nominal power or 15.5mph assisted speed and it ceases to be legally classed as a bicycle and effectively becomes a moped, requiring a relevant licence, vehicle registration, helmet wear, insurance etc, and penalties for illegal acts committed on such a bike would then apply to your vehicle licence.
In practice, all e-bikes sold by mainstream UK retailers for use on the public highway are legal, just be careful to check there has been no power or speed modifications if buying a used bike, or if buying a bike or a DIY system via the internet that they meet legal requirements.
Will I need Insurance to use my e-bike?
No, it is not a legal requirement, but 3rd party liability insurance isn’t a bad idea for any road user. This may be a feature of any cycle Insurance you take out, and/or is a perk of the inexpensive membership of Cycling UK which is also strongly recommended for excellent cycling specific legal advice and support in the event of an accident, tips/reviews re bikes and gear etc and significant discounts at major retailers such as Halfords. (So for example at the time of writing that could be £160 off a Carrera Crossfuse so well worth the £3.88 a month subscription.).
For insuring the bike cover itself, we have added cover via our house contents insurance at no additional cost, but this varies from company to company.
Separate dedicated and comprehensive e-bike cover is now available from lots of insurers, such as ETA which gives reassurance both when parked and also offering ‘rescue’ out on the road.
Do I have to wear special cycle gear?
No. Everyday clothing is fine, although a good cycle jacket will help on those occasions when you need weather protection, and they tend to be brightly coloured and reflective. We do however prioritise reasonably bright clothing and choose to have the inbuilt bright bike mounted lights switched on both day and night, a la Volvo. Hi-Viz wear is optional, but a good idea at night.
Being classed as a bicycle, helmet wearing is not mandatory on e-bikes. It is a matter of choice and is a judgement we personally make based on road and weather conditions.
Should I arrange some training?
Whilst not a legal requirement, a session or a course with a professional trainer will certainly help you to feel more confident and keep safe on the road, particularly if you have been away from cycling for a while. They will show you the correct positioning, signalling etc. Whether you just want to travel to the shop on a quiet backstreet or make a long commute along busy roads and junctions, there are straightforward techniques you can use to minimise the risks when cycling.
Locally Pedal Ready offer a range of free Road Confidence courses or one to one sessions specifically tailored to the use of e-bikes.
Where can I go on my e-bike?
For local journeys and commuting, try Sheffield Cycle Routes , the local knowledge amongst Local cycle campaign and interest group members, and the local council cycle map mentioned previously. For longer routes and rides locally see the local Cycling UK group.
The Trans Pennine Trail has adopted a policy that welcomes e-bikes and is encouraging businesses alongside the trail to offer charging facilities.
I recently met a 70 yr old who had just cycled from Lands End to John o’ Groats in less than 2 weeks using an everyday e-bike with no problem.
What sort of e-bike should I consider?
Buy an e-bike that is powerful, efficient, reliable, feels manageable and pleasant to ride and is equipped for your purposes. Most e-bikes are relatively heavy at 18 – 25 kg, but pricier ones have a better quality frame and cycle parts, and so are easier and more pleasant to ride with the assistance switched off or using lower levels of assistance when you choose to.
Bear in mind where you are planning to use and keep the bike, as not everyone will be able to lift a heavier e-bike model plus accessories up steps/on to trains etc.
Be aware that full size e-bikes with batteries mounted between the seat post and the back wheel are a bit longer overall, so storage or using dedicated train spaces, lifts etc can be an issue.
Consider the best frame type for your purposes too. The unisex ‘step through’ type is great for hopping on and off and usually more adjustable to suit multiple users and different rider heights.
e-bike power can be particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff using ‘Cargo’ bikes.
Our own small wheel ‘Butchers bike’ style Orbea ‘Katu’ is proving ideal for shared use by differing height riders who want to a nimble, versatile ‘do it all’ urban e-bike that in most respects replaces a small car, including carrying a small car boot sized pile of shopping!
Electrically assisted Mountain bikes (e-mtb’s) are also now popular, and whilst most retail models are road legal (ie 250watt motors) more powerful machines can be used off road on ‘private land’.
Which type of electric drive system should I go for – Hub or Crank?
Consider what you want it for and where. There are 2 main types of e-bike, those powered by small electric motors in the front or the rear wheels (Hub drive) and those with the motor positioned down in the frame and working upon the pedal axle (Crank drive) – this type of drive is also called Chain, Centre or Mid drive.
Our e-bikes are this latter type, and we use them as everyday transport for short, often well-loaded utility journeys to work, the shops, the allotment and for social visits in hilly Sheffield.
In hilly areas a Crank drive type is much the best choice, as the electric motor drives through the bikes gears as you pedal, and with the right gear selected the motor is kept running at its optimum speed and ‘torque’ (see following para) so is using the power more effectively and efficiently, especially on hills. Hub motors themselves are essentially ‘single geared’ and as your speed drops on hills so does the power. Good article on this here
(torque = pulling/climbing power, expressed in ‘Nm’. Legal 250w e-bike Hub and Crank drive motors can produce varying levels of torque, from around 30 to 80 or even a 100Nm, similar to a ford fiesta! These levels are set by the manufacturer when the motor is built. In our experience in hilly Sheffield, a rider using an e-bike for relatively light duties like commuting and is not too heavy will manage most gradients with a crank drive system delivering a minimum of 40 Nm of assistance, but a heavier rider using the bike’s potential to carry loads will need a minimum of around 50 Nm, and even more for a relaxed ride.
You will mostly come across the strong and reliable bosch-ebike Crank drive motors in various iterations. The basic ‘Active Line’ offers modest power for lighter duties, the Active Line+ a bit more oomph for utility use, and the Performance Line for heavy duty use/super relaxed riding in and around Sheffield. Shimano, Yamaha/Giant and, less commonly, Brose,TranzX and Bafang Crank drive motors are all capable and reliable. . These are found in premium models, along with high quality, reliable cycle parts, and all of will generally be suitable for heavy duty/hilly use. Shimano even offer Di2 electronic gear operation as they try to woo a whole new cycle public. There are moderately strong crank drive kits to convert your own bike, e.g: Bafang motor powered kits from such as Woosh bikes , electric-bike-conversions Panda plus others. Hub motor kits like those from Cytronex and Urban-X are available, but being less powerful will require more work from you if it is hilly.
What sort of gears do I need?
Like normal bikes, e-bikes either have enclosed low maintenance ‘Hub’ type gears in the back wheel (handy because you can change gears at a standstill) or open derailleur gears. Cheaper bikes have 7 speeds, up to 11 on more expensive models. With the exception of the Yamaha motor, they all have just a single front chainwheel, as the assistance obviates the need for lots of gears. Both gear types are fine if properly serviced, but either way a decent range of gears (7 or more) with a reasonably low first gear is needed in really hilly areas.
Electrical assistance can now be found on normally geared ‘road’ bikes such as those from Orbea, or on the well-established Cytronex models – lightweight e-bikes based on normal bikes and with a more ‘periodic power-boost facility’ hub drive, rather than full time power. The Kudos Sonata/Rapide model has a triple front chainset and 10 speed rear gears, so it will have very low gears should have good hill climbing capability, and appears to be good value given the high quality parts, so maybe worth a look/try.
How do I use the gears on an e-bike?
It is important to use the gears sympathetically and change down to lower gears when loaded, on hills or cycling against a headwind, keeping your legs turning at a reasonable lick, just as you would on an unassisted bike when you are making life easier for your own leg/lung ‘motor’.
This makes the most of the power and maximises the mileage available from each battery charge.
Do brakes matter?
Well yes, and the traditional rim brakes will stop an e-bike adequately, but we have found that on a heavily loaded e-bike in Sheffield, the brake blocks and the wheel surface can wear down pretty quickly, so we prefer the powerful, weather proof disc brakes now found on many e-bikes.
What Accessories do I need?
Actually in our view these are essentials: Go for a bike all kitted out with a rear pannier rack, mudguards, a strong stand and with good fitted LED lights, the latter powered by either a front wheel dynamo or the main power battery. If these are absent on your chosen model get them fitted at purchase. Budget for a really good lock too, eg a ‘Sold secure Gold’ rated one, and a pannier or two for the rear rack to make carrying stuff convenient, and safer than in a backpack.
Batteries and Range – How far will it take me?
Factors like your own weight, the weight you are carrying, hills and wind direction can make a significant difference to the level of assistance you choose and therefore the amount of battery power to use. The ‘typical’ e-bike’s Lithium-Ion battery will provide you with power for around 20 to 50+ miles, depending on the assistance level chosen and how willing you are to cycle with the power off or on a low setting for the easier parts of the journey to eke the battery out.
A typical battery will be about 400Wh capacity, arrived at by multiplying the typical 36 volt electric motor x the typical mid-sized 11ah battery. You consume around 5 – 20 of those 400 watts every mile you are cycling with power, depending on the above factors. You might choose to specify a larger Wh battery if available when buying to improve range/time between charges.
Charging and Battery care:
Charging is straightforward and similar to a mobile phone. The time taken varies, depending on the power of the charger. These range from 4 – 6 hrs for a full charge, but the good news is these batteries take charge fastest from low, so are 80% charged quite quickly if you need a top up. Most batteries can be charged on or off the bike, but prefer to be in the warm when charging.
(Note that larger Wh batts only = longer range, not more power or speed!)
Lithium batteries like regular rather than occasional use and prefer being kept topped up rather than deep discharges. They should not be left completely flattened and not left on charge too long once full. If yours is going to be out of use for a good time most advice seems to be to store them somewhere cool at maximum 1/2 charge and top them up just a little up every few weeks.
Note that although often assumed, in real life there seems to be little to gain from the odd model that ‘regenerates’ electric as you freewheel, all of which are Hub drive anyway.
Where would I find out more/see reviews about e-bikes?
The e-bike market is opening up fast lately, and if you are curious about or considering buying an e-bike check out publications like eBikeTips , A to B magazine and forums like Pedelecs for general discussions about e-bikes, and for the latest news and reviews of e-bikes.
Where would I try/buy an e-bike locally?
Several bike shops in our area are now selling, hiring and servicing e-bikes. (See list below)
Just as with ordinary bikes, you should avoid cheaper ones as they tend to be underpowered, hard to ride and (usually the electrics) will let you down and it will end up abandoned in the shed.
Well made, reliable models like the hub drive EBCO UCR-20 start around £999. This will only be sufficiently powerful for the flatter routes around the city, but qualifyies for the standard Cycle to Work (C2W) scheme.
£1500-£2000 will buy you a more natural feeling and efficient Crank drive e-bike with high quality parts and equipment, and it will have more oomph for utility work around hilly Sheffield. This is particularly important if you are heavy yourself, and/or loading up with stuff.
Whilst day to day running costs are miniscule compared to a vehicle, this is quite an initial outlay, so maybe borrow an e-bike for a trial period through the Govt/Council funded Cycleboost scheme, or hire one from a local bike shop (see list below) to see if it meets your needs, or have a spin at a trail centre to see how an e-bike feels.
If you decide to buy and want to spread the costs so as to afford a good model, check out dealer’s payment schemes (sometimes 0%), or one of the Govt funded Cycle toWork schemes that have worked so well for unpowered bikes. This has an upper limit of £1000 but employers can raise that C2W threshold to enable better more powerful crank drive e-bike purchases by following this Dept for Transport guidance http://www.oft.gov.uk/shared_oft/business_leaflets/credit_licences/c2w-licence.pdf Similar specialist salary sacrifice finance schemes like the greencommuteinitiative are emerging to meet the need for higher finance limits.
Mid-price choices locally could be something like the Motus Tour or more powerful and better geared Motus Grand Tour models for heavier/hillier duties from the well regarded Raleigh range. The Halfords Crossfuse with similar capability to the Motus Tour looks excellent value. Cube bikes such as the Town Hybrid and Touring hybrid have been an especially high value way into Bosch powered e-bike action. Check out less expensive but reputable makes online, e.g. the Kudos or Woosh bikes mentioned above, both offer basic but good value well equipped bikes, and reasonably priced (£300 ish) replacement batteries. I have in the past used a Woosh e-bike for local/utility duties, bought online, and which has performed well enough, if not as refined as more expensive ones, and continues to give good service towing a friends trailer full of gardening tools around.
Generally I would recommend that you really try to buy one from a localish dealer, and/or one who is a BEBA (British Electric Bike Association) member. The ‘e’ part of e-bikes can be complex, and you benefit from advice, follow up, warranty repairs and specialist service.
On a mid to higher price bike look for a minimum 2 year guarantee on the battery and electric motor, and you might wish to take into account the price of a second or replacement battery if you are considering keeping the bike a long time. Lithium batteries, particularly cheaper ones, can pack up after a year or two at worst if misused (that includes not being used). More expensive ones should last for 5 years or longer if used reasonably frequently and carefully.
Buying e-bikes second-hand can be risky because of battery/electrical issues and potentially higher general wear and tear. Unless you are very confident around e-bikes, go for one of the many good new e-bikes out there suitable for different pockets and/or use a finance option.
General Note:. Unless otherwise stated, brands/models/dealers are mentioned here because of familiarity whilst reading around the subject, their locality, or their likely good value and suitability for use in our area, rather than a personal recommendation.
So go on – free your wallet and your spirit and give e-biking a go, but research well and then see/try bikes and dealers out for yourself.
Where to See, Hire, Try, and Buy e-bikes in Sheffield and beyond:
e-bike service/repairs locally:
Richard Attwood. Sheffield.