Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained.
Judging by how often I am asked about e-bikes lately, people are catching on to their potential to offer a viable, green and fun option for folk of all persuasions to be less vehicle dependent for appropriate journeys. (And in some cases even managing to get over their old fashioned British prejudices about ‘cheating’!) As cyclists, Chris and I have for years pedalled journeys long and short on ‘normal’ bikes, and initially I bought an e-bike simply out of a nerdish gadgety curiosity, but we very quickly realized how convenient and sensible they are as an everyday utilitarian transport option, especially in hilly Sheffield! However if you find yourself considering one, e-bike terminology and the range available is bewildering!
So what is an ‘e-bike’? An e-bike is a normal sturdy bicycle with an electric motor and a battery. Nowadays all are ‘Pedelecs’, only kicking in when you pedal, but to great effect! The UK legal rated max continuous (nominal) power an e-bike motor can have (for road use) is 250watts, any more and it legally ceases to be a bicycle and becomes a moped, requiring a licence /insurance etc, and any illegal acts committed on the bike then apply to your vehicle licence! In practice all retailers sell UK compliant 250W bikes, 350W or ‘S-pedelecs’ sometimes seen are illegal here.
Being classed as a bicycle, helmet wearing is not a legal requirement. Personally I believe this is a matter of choice and a judgement I make based on conditions each time I ride. I do however prioritise bright clothing and having bright lights switched on both day and night.
Why might I think of buying an e-bike? Everyday e-biking is fun, quick, convenient, cheap and can help fitness. We have noticed we feel more confident than we have at times on unpowered bikes, with the power and presence to be more part of the traffic. Everyday journeys for work, heavy shopping and pubbing etc that would have involved the queue/parking hassles of using a vehicle, or hanging around for public transport, are now undertaken with ease and convenience. e-bike power is particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff with ‘Cargo’ bikes. See http://s-cargo.co.uk/ On e-bikes, even the ‘weather’ is less discouraging, and statistically we know we will live longer and better due to cardiac exercise and breathing less pollution than sat in traffic in a vehicle!
Where would I find out more about e-bikes? If you are curious about or considering buying an e-bike, the following article is very informative, interviewing people who know e-bikes well: http://www.electricbikesexperts.co.uk/electric-bikes-experts-interviews.html Take a look at forums and publications like http://www.pedelecs.co.uk/electric-bike-guides/ and http://www.atob.org.uk/ for general discussions and reviews. See dealers websites like http://www.e-bikesdirect.co.uk/ and https://www.electricbikesales.co.uk/yorkstore for 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 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. 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 also exploring on such as Sustrans trails – see: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/change-your-travel/get-cycling/planning-your-cycle-routes
In general the type most suited for use in hilly areas is the Crank (Centre or Mid) drive, as the electric motor drives with and through the bikes gears. With the right gear selected the motor is kept running at its optimum speed, and so less likely to strain on steep/long climbs. But then some folk do seem to get along OK with Hub drives hereabouts, most likely on e-bikes fitted with especially high torque hub motors and/or a good low gear range.
(Torque = pulling or climbing power, counted in Nm. E-bike motors can be set up to give varying levels of torque, incl those all rated at 250watts). More is best in hilly Sheffield.
Go for as light and well mechanically specified a bike as you can afford. e-bikes weigh 20 – 24 kg, lighter 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 have to 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 a 24kg e-bike plus accessories up steps/on to trains etc! The innovative Nano-Brompton folder aside, weight is why folding e-bikes may be problematic for some use, being too heavy to lift easily. e-bikes with batteries mounted between the seat post and the back wheel are a bit longer than normal bikes, so storage or using dedicated train spaces, lifts etc can be an issue.
Best electric motor? Currently both Bosch and Yamaha crank drive motors seem to be excellent and are to be found in all sorts of premium bike brands. The Yamaha has the advantage of more power when starting off, and a greater range of gearing options with its double front chainset (most crank drive bikes only have just the one front chainring on the motor) and it is typically a cheaper option than the Bosch on a given model! Less expensive crank drives are available, both in whole bike form, or as a kit to convert your own bike. Hub power conversion kits are available, but would need to be high torque.
What sort of gears do I need? Our own centre drive e-bikes have enclosed hub type gears in the back wheel, which I like, but most have the more usual open derailleur type rear gears fitted – cheaper ones having 7 speeds, up to 11 on more expensive models. Both gear types are fine if properly serviced, but either way a decent range of gears with a low first gear is needed in really hilly areas. We have found that the 3 speed gears fitted to some e-bikes, although just about useable in Sheffield, really are hard work!
The only e-bike I’ve come across with as full a range of gears (30) as some unassisted bikes, with its triple front chainset and 10 speed derailleur back wheel gears, is a Kudos model http://www.kudoscycles.com/product_info.php?cPath=1&products_id=347 so it will have very low gear capability. Whilst it is a Hub drive, it may still prove a good and efficient hill climber, appears to be good value given the high quality parts, and 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 in heavy use on a loaded e-bike in Sheffield, the brake blocks and the wheel rim braking surface can wear down rather quickly, so we prefer either the Disc, Roller or Drum brake types now found on many e-bikes.
Accessories: 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 if you want to keep the bike! Go for a ‘Sold secure Gold’ rated lock eg: http://www.halfords.com/cycling/bike-lights-locks/bike-locks/master-lock-street-fortum-gold-sold-secure-d-lock-with-cable is a versatile/good value one.
Guarantee: Look for a minimum 2 year guarantee on the battery and the electric motor, and check the price of a second or replacement battery for the bike you are considering, as they can pack up after a year or two at worst, and rarely last more than three or four. (This does seem to be a ‘get what you pay for’ situation!)
How far will it take me? In terms of how far you can go on a battery charge, things like weight (yours/the load you carry) hills, and headwinds mean the ‘typical’ battery on a modern ebike will get you between 15 and 50++ miles depending on what power level you choose, and how willing you are to cycle with the power off on the easy parts of the journey. This ‘typical’ battery would be about 400Wh capacity, arrived at by multiplying the typical 36volt electric motor x the typical mid-sized 11ah battery. Note that you consume about 10 – 20 of those 400 watts every mile you are cycling with power, depending on conditions. You can often specify larger capacity batteries at purchase, but they add to the overall weight. Incidentally – in real life there seems to be little to be gained in practice, range wise, by the few models that ‘regenerate’ electric as you freewheel, all of which are Hub drive anyway.
Where would I try/buy/service one? Try one at a trail centre: http://www.monsaltrail.co.uk/. I recommend that you really try to buy one from a localish dealer, and/or one who is a BEBA (British Electric Bike Assocation) member. e-bikes are complex, and you benefit from advice, follow up, repairs, service, and if necessary arbitration and redress. Use a registered local service centre, eg: http://www.recyclebikes.co.uk/shop/e-bike-service-repairs/ or http://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/ .
In Sheffield we have a few retailers: Giant store, Halfords, Fosters of Rotherham, and J E James. Mid-price choices locally could be something like the well regarded Raleigh Captus: http://www.fosterscycles.co.uk/m20b0s129p5653/RALEIGH-Captus-2015 James’ has such as the versatile looking https://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/cube-cross-hybrid-race-allroad-e-bike-id113571.html#info and also the more urban friendly http://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/cube-touring-hybrid-400-e-bike-id113562.html both these Cube bikes look like an especially high value way into Bosch powered e-bike action! Then in York there is the Smarta: https://www.electricbikesales.co.uk/hill-climbers/Smarta-LX7-Electric-Bike which has always looked like an interesting option, well reviewed and apparently a good climber even if it is hub drive, and with an amazing 4 yr battery warranty. Or choose from an established but less expensive make online, eg Kudos (mentioned above) or Whoosh bikes, both offer good value bikes and reasonably priced (£300 or less) replacement batteries. Or just go mad and buy yourself one of Raleigh’s premium ‘Haibike’ range: https://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/haibike-sduro-trekking-rc-hybrid-bike-id151528.html It may prove to be worth every penny in the long run, especially if it’s going to be used as everyday transport….and e-bikes do like to be used regularly to optimise battery life.
Secondhand? Buying e-bikes secondhand can be risky because of battery/electrical issues and higher general wear and tear. Unless you are very confident around ebikes, go for one of the many good new bikes out there suitable for different pockets.
Note: Whilst the more general thoughts and recommendations here are a result of my direct experience, brands/models/dealers I’ve mentioned here are included because of familiarity whilst reading around the subject, or their locality. They are not a personal recommendation. Always research well and then see/try bikes and dealers yourself. Happy e-biking!
Richard Attwood. Sheffield. June 2016.