Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained. (Edition 20, October 2018)
So what is an ‘e-bike’? e-bikes (‘Pedelecs’ – Pedal assisted Electric cycles) come in as many variations as ordinary bikes, but the type we use for utility and leisure duties around town are essentially sturdy upright sitting position bicycles built around an electric motor and a battery. Sensors know when you push on the pedal and the level of electrical motor power you have selected is automatically added to your efforts, that assistance being cut off above 15.5mph. You can then pedal faster than that under your own power as on a normal bike, but in practice the 30% or so extra weight, and in some applications ‘off power’ motor drag compared to an unpowered bike means mostly you find yourself happy bowling along at a nicely assisted 10-15mph, making them ideal for local/urban transport. Despite the 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 and bus lanes to speed up your commute or shopping run, avoiding busy polluted streets and parking hassles. Use your local Council cycle map to discover these routes.
The UK and EU legal rated power for an e-bike motor (for public road use) is 250watts, any more and it legally ceases to be classed as a bicycle and becomes a moped, requiring a licence, helmet, insurance etc, and any illegal acts committed on the bike then apply to your vehicle licence! In practice, all mainstream retailers sell UK compliant 250W bikes. ‘Twist and Go’ e-bikes made post Jan 2016, with a throttle that works above 4mph, are a boon but also a grey area legally. Being classed as a bicycle, helmet wearing is not a legal requirement on e-bikes, so this is a matter of choice and a judgement I make based on conditions, I do however prioritise bright clothing and having bright lights switched on both day and night, a la Volvo. Insurance is not required, but inexpensive membership of Cycling UK is strongly recommended for 3rd party liability insurance, and for cycle specific legal advice and support.
Why might I think of buying an e-bike?
E-biking is a great Active Travel option and in hilly, traffic choked cities like Sheffield, where they achieve high average speeds, e-bikes are often quicker than the car, speedily delivering you door to door in normal clothing and a relaxed physical state. e-biking is fun, healthy, chic and cheap, carrying you and any amount of shopping up to fifty miles for just a few pence, compared to the thirty pence you pay for every mile you travel in a small car! You feel more confident on the road than on unpowered bikes, having the power and presence to be more part of the traffic, and on e-bikes even the ‘weather’ doesn’t discourage. Statistically you will live longer and better due to gentle cardiac exercise, research even showing that you are in fact breathing in less pollution when cycling in traffic than when sat in a vehicle. E-bike power is particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff with ‘Cargo’ bikes. Our small wheel ‘Butchers bike’ style Orbea ‘Katu’ is proving ideal for differing height riders who want to share a nimble, versatile ‘do it all’ urban e-bike that in most respects replaces that small car!
Others, often those who would not normally cycle any significant distance, if at all, choose e-bikes for longer and less loaded recreational rides of 50 miles or more and love the feeling of easily getting out along their local roads, and exploring on such as Sustrans trails. For cycle journey planning see Cycle Streets and, locally, Sheffield Cycle Routes .
Where would I find out more 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 eBikeTips to keep up to the minute. Take a look at forums and publications like Pedelecs and A to B for general discussions and reviews. Dealer’s websites like E-Bikes Direct and Electric Bike Sales offer further helpful discussions about e-bikes and also for ideas on makes and prices.
What should I consider when choosing an e-bike?
Consider what you want it for and where. There are 2 main types of e-bike, those powered by 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 (aka Centre, Chain or Mid) drive. Our e-bikes are this latter type, and we use them as everyday transport for short, often well-loaded utility journeys in hilly Sheffield. In hilly areas a Crank drive type is more effective, as the electric motor drives through the bikes gears as it helps you pedal, and with the right gear selected the motor is kept running at its optimum torque and speed, so less likely to strain on steep/long climbs. (Torque = pulling/climbing power, expressed in Nm. All 250w e-bike motors can give varying levels of torque, set by the manufacturer. 50Nm is really the minimum needed for hilly areas.)
Buy a bike that is as well mechanically specified as you can afford. Most e-bikes weigh 18 – 25 kg, pricier ones have a better quality frame and cycle parts, so are easier and more pleasant to ride with the power off when you choose, or if you run out of juice! Bear in mind where you are going to use and keep the bike, not everyone will be able to lift an e-bike plus accessories up steps/on to trains etc! On the folding front, Tern and Brompton are now producing lightish folding e-bikes, and Nanoelectric convert existing Bromptons.
Be aware that e-bikes with batteries mounted between the seat post and the back wheel are a bit longer, so storage or using dedicated train spaces, lifts etc can be an issue. Consider the best frame type for your purposes too – we favour the unisex ‘step through’ type, great for hopping on and off and adjusting for different rider heights.
Best electric motor?
The strong and reliable bosch-ebike , Yamaha and lately Brose Crank motors are excellent for heavy duty/hilly use and are found in premium models with high quality, reliable kit. Reputable makes using newer but slightly less powerful but still adequate Crank systems such as ‘TranzX’ and Shimano ‘STEPS’ are available, the latter even offering electronic/automatic gear operation as they try to woo a whole new cycle public. There are crank drive kits to convert your own bike, e.g: Bafang motor powered kits from Woosh bikes , electric-bike-conversions Panda etc. Hub motor kits like the Urban-X are available, but being less powerful than mid motors 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, or derailleur gears. Of these, 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 low first gear is needed in really hilly areas. The only e-bikes I’ve found with as full a range of gears as some unassisted bikes are the well-established Cytronex models – lightweight e-bikes based on normal bikes with a more ‘periodic power boost facility’ hub drive, rather than full time power, and a Hub drive Kudos model with a triple front chainset and 10 speed rear gears, so it will have very low gears/hill climbing capability. Although a Hub drive, it may prove an efficient hill climber, and appears to be very good value given the high quality parts, so worth a look/try.
Do brakes matter?
Well yes! But what sort? The traditional rim brakes will stop an e-bike just fine, but we have found that on a heavily loaded e-bike in Sheffield, the brake blocks and the wheel rim-braking surface can wear down pretty quickly, so we prefer the Disc brakes now found on many e-bikes.
Actually in my view these are essentials: Go for a bike all kitted out with 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 absent on your chosen model get them fitted at purchase. Budget for a good lock too, go for a ‘Sold secure Gold’ rated lock.
Batteries and Range: How far will it take me?
Factors like weight, hills and wind direction mean 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. A typical battery will be about 400Wh capacity, arrived at by multiplying the typical 36volt 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 specify a larger battery when buying – note that larger batts = longer range, not more power!) In real life there seems to be little range gain from the odd model that ‘regenerates’ electric as you freewheel, all of which are Hub drive anyway. Note: Lithium batteries like regular rather than occasional use, never left completely flattened and not left on charge once full.
Where would I try/buy/service one, and how much should I spend?
Several bike shops in our area are now selling and servicing e-bikes. (See list below) Well made, reliable models start at around £1000, and £1500-£2000 will buy you a lighter and more natural feeling e-bike with high quality parts and equipment. Whilst 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 or trail centre. If you decide to buy, check out dealer’s interest free payment schemes. Sadly the Govt funded ‘Cycle to work’ scheme still has an upper limit of £1000, but similar specialist e-bike finance schemes like the greencommuteinitiative are emerging to help reduce and spread the costs. In the Sheffield/Yorks area we have a few e-bike retailers: Evans, J E James, Halfords, Giant and Langsett cycles. Mid-price choices locally could be something like the Motus model from the well regarded Raleigh range or Halfords Crossfuse 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. However I 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, service, and if necessary arbitration and redress. For service/repairs use a registered local service centre, e.g.: Recycle Bikes or JE James or Tonybutterworths
Guarantee: On a mid to higher price bike look for a minimum 2 year guarantee on the battery and the electric motor, and do take into account the price of a second or replacement battery for the bike you are considering, as Lithium batteries, particularly cheaper ones, can pack up after a year or two at worst. More expensive ones may last for 5 years or more if used regularly and carefully.
Second-hand? Buying e-bikes second-hand can be risky because of battery/electrical issues and higher general wear and tear. Unless you are very confident around e-bikes, go for one of the many good new bikes out there suitable for different pockets.
The more general thoughts and recommendations here are a result of my direct experience; brands/models/dealers are mentioned here are because of familiarity whilst reading around the subject, or their locality. They are not 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, Try, and Buy e-bikes in Sheffield+.
Richard Attwood. Sheffield.