Complete Beginners Guide to eBikes

If the term eBike or e-Bike has passed you by, then you need to read this complete beginners guide to eBikes.

By the end of this guide hopefully you will have a much clearer idea of what an eBike is, whether you want to buy one or even whether to convert your regular bike to an eBike.

An eBike which is short for electric bicycle is essentially a bicycle that gets extra power with the use of a battery and a motor.

Classes of eBikes

There are three types or classes of electric bikes.
 
Class 1 
The pedal assist or pedelec (short for pedal electric cycle) is the most common. As the rider pedals, assistance is given by a small motor powered by a battery.
 
The amount of assistance is controlled by settings on the handlebars. The top speed cannot exceed 25km per hour (15.5 mph) within the UK. In the USA the top speed for this class is 32km per hour (20mph)
 
The motor output cannot exceed more than 250 watts within the UK and not more than 500 watts within the USA.
 
In the UK riders can start using e bikes at the age of 14 whereas in America they can start as young as 12 .
 
In neither country is it obligatory to wear cycle helmets
 
Class 2 
The throttle eBike. As the name suggests a throttle similar to that found on a moped moves the eBike forward without any pedalling from the rider. The throttle which is situated on the handlebar uses either a twist and go action or a button or paddle operated by your thumb.
 
Throttle eBikes are more common in the USA and very rarely found in the UK because the law states that eBikes must have the pedals moving while getting power from the battery.
 
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Class 3 
Speed pedelec or S-pedelec is similar to the Class 1 pedelecs in that the power kicks in with the pedalling, but the top speed is a whopping 45 kph (28 mph).
 

As such they are treated for legal purposes as mopeds in most of the USA and the whole of the UK. That means you must

  • register it with the driving authorities and have a licence plate,
  • you have to wear a moped/motorbike helmet,
  • you have to be insured and
  • you have to have an MOT.
  • It also means you cannot ride in the cycle lanes and
  • you have to observe the speed limit. Unsurprisingly at this time of writing there aren’t many S-pedelecs in the UK.
 
A special note about Northern Ireland (NI). Despite NI being part of the UK, the law regarding eBikes is the same as the law relating to Class 3 eBikes. In other words, all classes of eBike ridden in Northern Ireland are treated as motor vehicles.

So is an eBike really a proper bike or a type of moped?

Yes a pedelec is a proper bike. More specifically a Class 1 pedelec is. It has two wheels, saddle and handlebars and you have to pedal the majority of the time to ride it.
 
In fact, you could ride it without ever engaging the motor if you wanted to but it will feel much heavier than riding a regular bike.
 
You don’t need a licence, tax or insurance to ride it on the road. You don’t even have to wear a helmet if you don’t want to.  If you choose to wear one you might be interested in the helmets for eBikes review.
 
However because eBikes come with a battery and motor, they can assist you – give you some extra grunt power – to go up hills and ride for longer periods.
 
They are extremely useful for people who aren’t fit enough or young enough to ride regular bikes especially for longer distances.

Some cycle purists argue that eBikes are not proper bikes and will look down their nose at them. They claim that it’s cheating because you’re using a battery to help you to ride. But who cares what they think? As long as you are getting enjoyment from riding your eBike responsibly, it’s nobody’s business. 

The only time the word “cheating” can be used is if you sneak your eBike into an unassisted bike race – then,  that’s a different story. 

The comparisons to a moped can only be made with the Class 2 throttle eBikes. Mainly because it’s possible to ride a throttle eBike without pedalling as long as you have juice in the battery.

Increasingly you can also find eBikes with both pedal assist and throttle assist. These are very popular outside of the EU.

Prior to 1995 eBikes in the UK/EU were seen as motorised vehicles and needed to be taxed and insured. This was changed and an exemption was made that meant eBikes are now seen as bicycles. Possibly this is one reason why some people still think of eBikes as moped type vehicles.

What are the basic components that make an eBike an eBike?

There are two basic components that make a bicycle an eBike. The battery and the motor.
 
The battery gives power to the motor and is one of the most expensive components, if not the most, on an eBike. The battery is measured in either Watt Hours (Wh) or Amp Hours (Ah) and Volts.
rack mounted battery
Rack-based battery
As this is a beginners guide to eBikes this article will not be covering the technical aspects of batteries and motors. However, with these figures you can determine roughly what range your ebike can travel ie how many miles you can ride or how long your battery will last before needing to be recharged.
 
Bear in mind that whetever the theoretical figure is, that in reality this figure will vary as it depends on your weight, height, any other load you add to the eBike, how you ride, how much you depend on the motor etc etc.
 
integrated battery with ebike frame
In-frame battery
Depending on the type or styling of the eBike, the battery can be mounted on the frame or built into the frame, mounted on the rear carrier or placed in front of the handlebars.
 
The motor will be found either in the hub of the rear or front wheel or increasingly common, a mid drive motor (or crank motor assist) will be found in the middle of the frame, between the pedals and crank system.
rear hub motor on ebike
Rear hub motor

Mid-drive motors which are more expensive and found on high-end eBikes including eMountain bikes have a reputation for excelling on steep hills.

With all the pedal assist motors, you determine what amount of assistance is required. This will range from usually 3 modes – eco , standard and turbo – to 5 levels of assistance. 1 or “eco mode” will be the least amount of assistance and require more effort from you as the rider and 5 or “turbo mode” will give you the most help eg when climbing hills. Riding constantly with turbo or level 5 assistance will naturally drain the battery faster.

mid drive motor closeup
Mid drive motor

What style of eBikes are available?

Just like with regular bikes, eBikes come in all shapes and sizes and are used for a variety of reasons. Here’s a small list which covers most styles

You get the

  • “step-through” frame ie without a crossbar which is very accessible for people with certain types of injuries or older people who might have difficulty throwing their leg over the bike to mount it
  • folding eBikes mainly with small wheels but some with full size wheels
  • mountain bikes commonly called e-MTBs for rough terrain or off-road riding
  • cargo eBikes designed for carrying or lugging big items around
  • fat tyre eBikes for riding snowy trails
  • electric road bikes which may have dropped handlebars
  • city eBikes which may use belt drives rather than chains so no risk of getting oil on your trouser leg
  • commuting or hybrid eBikes which are good for both riding to work in the week and off-road biking at the weekend

On top of that you also get electric trikes in all their glory.

Where can I buy an eBike?

Like most things nowadays you can buy them from a regular bricks and mortar store or you can buy them online. The obvious advantage to buying from a physical store is that you can get immediate advice from an expert and can examine and test ride the eBikes.
 
The disadvantage is that the store will tend to hold a limited range of eBikes and like most things in-store will be more expensive. 
The online direct-to-consumer market is thriving as people are much more comfortable nowadays spending large amounts of money online. The advantage to buying online is the huge range of eBikes that are available which ironically can also be overwhelming. The other advantage is that they tend to be significantly cheaper.
 
Prices can be reduced even further by using conversion kits to upgrade a regular bicycle to an eBike.
 
The disadvantage to buying online is that it is harder to test drive the eBike. However many online retailers do offer money back guarantees with some allowing you to pay online and test drive the eBike from a local store.

Why would I buy an eBike?

Here’s 10 reasons
  1. It’s great fun
  2. It’s brilliant for riding uphill
  3. You don’t puff and sweat as much therefore it’s great for commuting
  4. It provides gentle therapy for injured joints
  5. It’s an easier way to get and stay fit
  6. In the city you can travel on average faster than cars because of gridlocked roads
  7. They are significantly cheaper to run and maintain than cars
  8. You can ride longer distances so great for touring holidays
  9. It’s much easier to tackle headwinds as you ride
  10. You’re doing your bit in helping the environment
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How Electric Bikes Work Infographic

Summary

In this complete beginners guide to eBikes we’ve defined an eBike as simply a bicycle powered with a battery and motor which allows you to ride further and climb hills with less effort. They are either pedal or throttle-assisted or a combination of both.

They come in as many styles as regular bikes. Laws vary from country to country depending on the type, power and spec of the eBike.

They are great fun to ride, a good way of getting fit and play a part in helping the environment.

To learn how to avoid the pitfalls when buying an eBike online have a look at 8 Questions You Need To Ask Before Buying an eBike Online or you may prefer to learn about eBike Conversions for Beginners. Please see box below

eBike Conversions for Beginners series

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8 Questions You Need To Ask Before Buying an eBike Online

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