Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained.
Electric bikes (e-bikes) explained.
(Including recommendations for use in hilly Sheffield!)
December 2019 edition. Note: As this field is developing so rapidly, I continually update this article, so always click on http://www.sheffieldcycleroutes.org/e-bikes before you read on for the most up to date version.
There is a lot of information here, so you might use this contents list to pick out particular areas you want to know more about.
- So what exactly is an ‘e-bike’?
- Why might I think of using an e-bike? What advantages do they have?
- Is it still a bicycle?
- So what isn’t a (legal) e-bike?
- What type of e-bike will suit my needs? (Incl recent lighter weight models)
- But what about the cost? – how much should I pay, and how might I finance it?
- Which type of electric drive system should I go for – Hub or Mid drive? And how powerful does it need to be for my needs?
- But will it run away with me?
- What sort of gears do I need for Sheffield, and how should I use them on an e-bike?
- What sort of batteries do e-bikes have? – How far will it take me?
- How do I Charge and take care of my Battery?
- What Accessories do I need?
- How do I keep it secure?
- How should I care for/maintain my e-bike?
- Will I need Insurance or Tax to use my e-bike?
- Do I have to wear special cycle gear?
- Should I arrange some training?
- Where can I go on my e-bike, and who with? (including using trains)
- Where would I find out more/see reviews about e-bikes?
- Where to see/hire/try/buy e-bikes in Sheffield and beyond.
- Recommended e-bikes for use in Sheffield.
- Servicing and repairs locally.
This article gives a general explanation and overview of e-bikes and their useage and describes the range of e-bikes available for different purposes, with particular reference to everyday e-biking and cycling resources generally in the hilly Sheffield area. Here, like the trams, a more powerful than average motor system will serve you best.
After 6 yrs of everyday ‘utility’ transportation on a few different e-bikes in Sheffield, my partner and I have two bottom Line recommendations:
– Buy an e-bike that is powerful, efficient, reliable and pleasant to ride. You will enjoy and really want to ride such a bike, and you will find yourself putting it to good and maybe everyday use. In practice such a Sheffield ready bike will have a Mid drive motor and a minimum of 50Nm torque. (Both terms explained further on!)
– Consider buying locally if at all possible, so you have expert advice and good after sales backup and servicing on your doorstep.
Experience suggests that for an e-bike that ticks the above boxes in and around hilly Sheffield you will need to spend either side of £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 another 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!
Of course the relatively high cost is an issue, and studies such as Shared Electric Bike Programme which has included a scheme in Rotherham offer possibilities for getting to use an e-bike without the cost of purchase.
If you decide to buy your own, consider taking up a dealer finance offer (sometimes 0%), use one of the Cycle to Work type schemes (see below), or use your own finance options to fund a good quality purchase, or get together with family, friends or neighbours and buy shares in a ‘multi-user’ one.
More details on purchasing in section 6 below.
E-bikes – ‘EAPC’s (Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles) or ‘Pedelecs’ come in as many variations as ordinary bikes, and you will find different types des ribed as you read. The type we use for utility and leisure duties around town are essentially just sturdy everyday upright sitting position bicycles built around an electric motor, battery and controller.
You still need to pedal, so it feels just like a ‘normal’ bike, 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, and on a good quality e-bike you have complete control over the amount of assistance and speed at all times. Normally you can choose from 3 or 4 levels of assistance, or indeed none if you like, eg if you are running low on battery, or just want a workout.
Under 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, accessories etc, at least in the case of the Utility focussed bikes, means you mostly find yourself happily bowling along at a nicely assisted 10-15mph, making e-bikes ideal for local/urban transport and commuting.
2. Why might I think of using an e-bike? What advantages do they have?
Convenience: e-biking is a great Active Travel option in hilly, traffic choked cities like Sheffield, where they achieve good average speeds as you are not slowed down by hills. Such journeys, on e-bikes, can be quicker door to door than other transport options.
Confidence: You feel more confident on the road than when riding unassisted bikes, having the power and presence to be more part of the traffic flow, and e-bike users notice that even the odd bout of ‘weather’ doesn’t feel as discouraging as it usually does.
Better Route Choices: e-bike power flattens hills and shrinks distances, giving you wider route choices. 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 done on dedicated cycle routes/lanes, via parks and quiet back roads you may currently be unaware of, minimising the time you spend in or near traffic choked roads and rat runs.
Health: Statistically you live longer in better health due to cardiac exercise. Research says you breathe in less pollution cycling in traffic than when sitting in a vehicle.
Note: You have full control over the amount of assistance you want as you pedal, from none, if you want a good workout, through various levels right up to the sometimes very welcome ‘ just get me home its been a long day’ setting! Its up to you.
You can carry lots of stuff – and even your kids to school! We are starting to see UK parents get the continental habit of cycling to school with their children, knowing that they both gain the health benefits, and are one less polluting car queuing up to park near the school. They will either cycle with them, or increasingly seat them on or in their purpose built Cargo type bike that they also use as general urban transport for a big shop or stuff that would previously have needed a car boot. (eg Tern GSD , Riese + Muller Multicharger, Urban Arrow or similar ‘box in front’ style cargo bikes such as these at the Dutch Cargo Bike shop or by Cube which safely and legally carry two young children).
Equality: e-bikes give everyone the legs, lungs and confidence to get around their neighbourhood under their own steam, whether previously bike users or not, and lend regular cyclists a bit of assistance to help deal with the challenges arising with age or injury. They can still do that cycle tour or keep up with mates on the Derbyshire day ride. For some people, having assistance might simply mean the difference between being able to use a bike or not. I have a previously non cycling friend with a chronic back condition and asthma who recently achieved a 100 mile e-bike ride on his local lanes and trails! Cyclists, journalists, and even normal people have a tendency to get a bit polarised around ‘e-bike v proper bike’ debates – in fact it’s just Horses for Courses – use an unassisted bike when it suits your purpose/ability, and then an e-bike when it is better suited to your journey or needs.
Fun: Often those who would not or cannot 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, maybe even keeping up with their children and grandchildren!
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 miles or more, door to door, for just a few pence.
E-bikes are Green! : Should you wish to, you could use an e-bike to assist you on your journey from Lands End to John O groats and use just £1.50’s worth of mains electricity in the process!
Did you know only 50% of Electric car (EV) pollution comes out of the exhaust pipe, the other 50% is in fact the particles that come off the brakes, clutch, tyres and the road surface itself? This is then wafted back up for you to inhale as the next vehicle passes.
E-bikes produce only a fraction of these, and use only a fraction of the earth’s resources for their relatively tiny batteries – 2 or 3kg in weight compared to 4 – 500kg for an EV.
You don’t need to look like a ‘cyclist’: With electric assistance, you wear everyday clothing, plus waterproofs if needed, and arrive at your destination in a relaxed, non-sweaty state.
3. 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 in the UK, rather it is a choice if the cycle lane is convenient, safe to use and suits your needs, 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.
4. So what isn’t a (legal) e-bike?
The UK legal rated ‘nominal’ or ‘continuous power for one hour’ 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 check that they meet legal requirements.
Speed or ‘S’ Pedelec e-bikes like this look the same as legal ones, but top out at 28mph due to more powerful motors and different gearing. You can buy one in the UK, but it needs to be registered/insured/taxed etc etc just like moped. Good article on this from e-bike tips here
5. What type of e-bike will suit my needs? (Incl recent lighter weight models)
Buy an e-bike that is powerful, efficient, reliable, feels manageable and pleasant to ride and is equipped for your purposes. Utility 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.
Consider the best frame type for your purposes. The ‘trapeze’ (see Cube bikes recommended below) or deeper ‘step through’ frame types are a great Unisex option for hopping on and off around town and tend to offer more adjustability of saddle height than the more usual ‘crossbar’ style frame, so better able to be adjusted for multiple users with different rider/saddle heights.
The deeper ‘Dutch style’ step through models (sometimes archaically marketed as Womens’ ) tend to have higher set handlebars and a more upright sitting position giving good control and visibility – ideal for urban duties, whatever your gender!
Our own small wheel ‘Butchers bike’ style Orbea ‘Katu’ is proving ideal for shared use by differing height riders who want 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!
With models like the Tern GSD , Riese + Muller Multicharger and Urban Arrow you can even ferry the kids to school in comfort, or legally carry a passenger, besides a boot full of stuff or a Christmas tree…
e-bike power is particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff in the guise of ‘Cargo’ bikes like the s-cargo that you can hire from Recycle bikes here in Sheffield, and delivery/hire schemes are sprouting up. Bosch have even produced an extra beefy motor for cargo bike duties.
My new Cargo style bike carries 60kg of stuff, or a passenger!
Do e-bikes have to be big and heavy?
No, not everyone needs or wants an e-bike just to do everyday utility duties, and an increasing number of manufacturers are offering much lighter weight Road (‘racing’) and Gravel (road+off road capable) bikes with Drop handlebars, or more upright seated Urban and fast commute bikes with flat handlebars.
These bikes are based on broadly similar frames, weigh around 11 – 16kg or so in total, rather than the 20 – 25kg of full fat e-bikes, and are kitted out with differing contact points (saddles/handlebars etc) and different gears, wheels and tyres to suit their purpose – be that fast road use, exploring tracks and bridleways or urban/commuter use respectively.
These lighter models offer you the possibility of choosing to cycle with low levels of assistance or just ‘as and when needed’ rather than dialling in frequent and/or meatier assistance as you are likely to do on a heavier e-bike, so achieving greater assisted range than you might expect from their smaller, lighter batteries. All presently use either the innovative and strong (60Nm) Fazua removable ‘mid drive’ motor and battery system, or slightly less powerful (40Nm) Ebikemotion X35 fixed rear wheel ‘hub drive’ system.
Examples employing the Mid drive Fazua system include the Boardman bikes range – great value and only 15.5 kg all up – so only 12kg ish if you opt to use it without the removeable motor and battery – models like the hybrid has fittings for mudguards, a luggage rack, has sturdy tyres, a good gear range and a removable battery for easy charging or using a second one to extend your range.
Examples employing the Ebikemotion X35 drive system include the Orbea Gain range, and the very high value ribblecycles range, offered in both Road and ? touring suitable Gravel bike and hybrid versions. Note however that on the ebikemotion system the main battery is not removable The charger is small and compact so good to take with you, but on the other hand you’ll need to be somewhere where you can plug the whole bike in as you can’t remove the battery and take it inside to charge.
Either way, with their smaller, lighter motors and batteries and absence of motor ‘drag’ present on mid motors when the motor is off, these systems can more easily be ridden without power, or with lower levels of assistance, extending the range per charge. Such bikes will suit moderate riders looking to extend their mileage/time out on the bike, and may also better suit older experienced cyclists looking for less overall weight and a judicious level of assistance as and when required, or even those who prefer to be a little covert about thei fact they are using an electrically assisted bike!
On the Fazua system you can take a (1.38kg) spare battery along.
Longer rides, even Touring?
On the Fazua system you can take a (1.38kg) spare battery along to swap out when needed. On the X35 system, an additional range-extender-battery pack which tops up the fixed main battery may be for a taken along onger ride.
It is worth considering whether these bikes may be a good ‘e’ choice for touring, given that it will be more portable when using narrow cubicle style ‘hang up on a hook that won’t take larger tyres or wide handlebars’ train spaces, heaving it into B+B’s etc…..or even to carry/store at home if your storage solution is a tricky one….
(For a good example of a longer ride on this type of e-bike see Laura’s e-bike LeJog , incl a 120 mile day in 45mph headwinds!)
Hub drive models like the locally produced Juicy Roller offer a lighter and less expensive means of personal and leisure transport for less demanding duties and routes, but users can report that they do not feel as integrated/natural to ride.
Alternatively add a lightweight assistance system like the excellent Cytronex system added to your own favourite bike. The Cytronex system also features a more on demand ‘power-boost’ facility, rather than full time power, but with a ‘Hub drive’, this time in the front wheel.
Other bike types:
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’.
Electrical assist is also well suited to Tandems, to Recumbents, and to those cycles adapted for users who have particular needs over a usual bike.
NB: Be aware that the few remaining older style 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.
6. But what about that (high) cost? – how much should I pay, and how might I finance it?
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.