You’re not alone if you’ve never heard of an e-bike, or electric bicycle, but they’re quickly becoming a new trend in transportation not only for their ease of use, but also for their practicality.
What are the differences between a manual (regular) bike and an e-bike?
The main difference between an e-bike and a regular old manual bike is the fact the e-bikes don’t solely rely on the power of your body to remain in motion. On a regular bike, if you don’t petal eventually, you’ll fall over. E-bikes, on the other hand, offer petal assist and some even function much like mopeds, being fully controlled by the throttle and powered by their battery and motor.
An e-bike requires a little more maintenance than a regular bike in that they’re all battery powered, so you’ll have to keep them charged if you want to use the electric assist or electric only features. (Without battery power, the e-bike functions just like a standard bike.) The battery will also have to eventually be replaced, but high-quality batteries will last for up to 1000 full charge cycles, and when you factor in a lot of the great e-bikes out there can go for up to 60 miles on a single charge, you do get a lot of life out of the battery.
Besides the battery, motor and controller (typically a throttle), there isn’t really much difference between a regular bike an e-bike, so learning to ride an e-bike won’t really require much of a learning curve.
How do e-bikes work?
E-bikes consist of three main components that separate them from a regular bicycle: a battery, a motor and a controller.
The battery is the power source for the bike. You charge the battery by simply plugging it into an outlet. Unlike electric cars that require special power stations, electric bikes can be charged on any standard wall outlet, so juicing up the battery is a very simple process.
The motor is what supplies pedal assist to the e-bike to make pedaling easier, particularly uphill. Many e-bikes also feature an option to use electric power only. Doing so will drain your battery quicker, but it’s a nice feature to have if you have a long way to travel or if you get worn out easily while pedaling.
The controller operates the electric aspect of the bike. Typically, controllers are throttle-based, which is very easy to use, though some controllers are pedal-operated.
Pedal assist is arguably the most popular reason people choose to go with e-bikes. Pedal assist allows you to pedal as you normally would, but it makes the process easier, which adds a lot of benefits going over hilly terrain or biking long distances. A lot of popular e-bikes feature different pedal assist modes, so you can choose the mode that works best for you: low, medium, or high pedal assist. For instance, if you want to get a workout in, but want to reduce impact on your knees, you might choose low assistance mode. Conversely, if you’re trying to conserve your energy levels and prevent fatigue, you might choose a higher mode. And those can be easily changed, so you can shake it up each day, depending on what you feel like.
What are the different motor types on an e-bike?
Since motors are such an important aspect of e-bikes, it’s important to know what types of motors there are on e-bikes, and the pros and cons of each kind. This will help you decide which e-bike style you might prefer.
The most common motor types are hub motors, and there are two types: rear hub and front hub. A front hub motor is generally considered less favorable simply because it makes you feel like you’re being pulled when pedal assist or full electric modes are activated. Rear hub, conversely, gives you more of a push sensation, which is closer to what a standard bike feels like.
The newer motor design is the mid-drive motor. Because mid-drive motors directly send power to the drivetrain, it feels more like you’re pedaling a traditional bicycle. Many cyclists like this more natural feeling, which is why it’s rising so quickly in popularity. It also provides a more stable feeling, because it’s a sensation you’re likely used to if you’ve ridden regular bikes before.
Mid Drive Motor image courtesy of Electric Bike Report
A note about batteries
Your cheap to midrange e-bike will likely have a Sealed Lead Acid (SLA) battery. SLA batteries are what you would commonly find in an electric moped, for instance. This battery type isn’t very efficient both in terms of holding a charge and in its overall lifespan, but it’s the cheaper option, which is why it’s still on a lot of entry-grade e-bikes.
A midrange to premium range e-bike will have a lithium battery type. There are different types of lithium batteries, so which kind specifically can vary. The benefit of this type of battery is they last so much longer and they’re better at power management. The downside is this type of battery is expensive, so it can raise the overall price of the e-bike. If you’re a serious e-biker, or plan to be, this is the type of battery that will best suit your needs.
Lithium battery image courtesy of the Treehugger Blog
Other important things to know about e-bikes
E-bike regulations vary from state-to-state. Some states may treat them as regular bikes, others may view them in the same manner of an electric scooter no matter how fast they go when in electric-only mode. Because of this, your state may very well have restrictions on e-bikes, such as which lanes they’re allowed to travel in as well as age restrictions. Some states allow e-bikes to be operated by minors as young as 14 whereas others may regular a legal age of 18. California is one state that has specific e-bike laws. For instance, in California, you may ride your e-bike in the bike lane as long as it doesn’t exceed 20MPH. It’s important to learn what laws, if any, govern e-bike usage in your state to avoid being ticketed.
To end on a lighter note, did you know that e-bike riding can be beneficial to your cardiovascular health (as long as you’re not in electric-only mode)? You can count it as exercise as long as you’re pedaling, and pedal assist will relieve stress on aching knees.