What do you need to know when choosing an electric bicycle?
Sales of pedal-powered bicycles and electric bikes were on the rise even before the coronavirus pandemic left many consumers spending more time at home, with less need for a car. Since then, bicycles and their electric-motor-powered cousins have been in high demand all over the U.S. as people search for new ways to get around.
Sales for all types of bicycles rose 57 percent between April 2020 and April 2021, according to the NPD Group, a market research company. Sales of e-bikes rose 139 percent during the same period, continuing a sharp upward trend from a year earlier.
If you’re thinking about buying an electric bike, commonly known as an e-bike, first consider how you intend to use it. There are almost as many types of e-bikes as there are pedal-powered bicycles, and many of them do specific things very well. A big factor in your decision will be where you live—because climate, the presence (or lack) of bike lanes, how far you want to ride on a regular basis, and how your locale classifies and regulates e-bikes will affect how you can use it.
A few states treat e-bikes like other motorized vehicles and require riders to have an operator’s license to use one on public roads. More than half of the states recognize e-bikes as a type of bicycle, depending on how fast they go and how power is applied (for example, through the pedals or a hand control).
Currently, there are three general e-bike classifications, and some gray areas.
Class 1 covers pedal-assist bikes, which power the electric motor as your foot applies pressure to the pedal. There’s no throttle to get the bike going; the electric part works only when the rider is pedaling, and the e-assist cuts off at speeds above 20 mph. (It’s possible to get even conventional bicycles moving faster than that on a steep enough hill.)
Class 2 bikes also have an electric motor that works up to 20 mph, either while the rider is pedaling (pedal assist) or with electric propulsion alone via a throttle control.
Class 3 limits an e-bike’s pedal assist to 28 mph and requires a speedometer.
Why Buy an E-Bike?
Electric road bikes prioritize speed, aerodynamics, and lightweight construction. They're the type used by city and gravel cyclists.
There are many reasons people buy e-bikes, but we found after talking to experts and riders that the main ones are for commuting, recreation, and hauling light cargo. Amid the pandemic, health concerns have been another driver of increased bicycle sales. If consumer demand tells the story, bicycles have been a good transportation alternative for urban and suburban commuters wishing to avoid using public transportation. They can also be a good form of socially distanced recreation.
“There’s no one demographic that rides an e-bike,” says Sarah Smith, a cycling advocate in Austin, TX. “It’s young people who don’t want a car; it’s older people who want a little help so they can still ride a bike; it’s commuters who don’t want to get all sweaty on the way to work.”
Electric bicycles come in a variety of styles to serve different needs.
Prices for e-bikes range from less than $1500 to thousands of dollars. For most consumers, the higher end of the scale will be about $6,000 to $7,000. According to the NCSL, the average price for an electric commuter bike is $2,500 to $4,000, compared with $2,000 for a conventional midrange commuter bicycle.
“The $2,500 range is the sweet spot right now,” he says. “Manufacturers are making good-quality bikes but aren’t using top-shelf components. It’s a good balance for people who don’t want to spend a fortune but also don’t want the bike to fall apart after a year or two.”
Full Suspension Mountain Bikes are designed for rough terrain and downhill runs.
As with conventional bicycles, there are several types of e-bikes, each with a special purpose, whether it’s riding mountain or forest trails, taking long rides on the open road, or cruising around at a leisurely pace near home. Some conventional cycling purists knock e-bikes because of the greater ease of pedaling, but some converts have told us they love them.
The extra boost from a battery and electric motor has also opened up cycling to people who might not otherwise have been able to ride. Sarah Johnson, the Omaha cycling advocate, says she faced having to give up cycling when medical problems made it difficult for her to pedal a conventional bicycle.
Road & Trail Bikes
Like their pedal-powered counterparts, electric road bikes feature slimmer, lighter components and require an aerodynamic riding position—both meant to increase efficiency over long distances. The assistance offered by an electric motor makes it possible to cover longer distances and handle steep grades with less of the fatigue associated with conventional bicycles.
Hardtail mountain bikes offer a combination of road bike efficiency and the more upright riding position preferred by mountain bikers and commuters. They usually have straight handlebars. This type of bicycle can be a good all-around setup for those who seek the best of both worlds. The addition of an electric motor makes it possible to use a thicker frame and wider tires to soak up bumps in the road. This type of e-bike can be ridden on light off-road trails and paved roads with ease.
With beefier frames, bigger tires, and—sometimes—long-travel suspension components, mountain bikes are built to handle trails, large rocks, logs, and other rough terrain and obstacles. A spin through mountain bike racing videos on the internet reveals that their riders sometimes expect the bikes to handle much more than that—big air jumps and rough terrain, among other demands.
Of course the fun part is the faster, more effortless downhill portion. Getting there usually involves a demanding pedal up steep grades on loose terrain. Adding an electric motor to a mountain bike makes a lot of sense for someone who wants to experience the thrill of downhill riding but may not have the fitness to handle the grueling uphill slog. The e-bike segment makes bikes with larger tires—which are more difficult to pedal using leg power alone because of the increased weight and rolling resistance that comes with their beefy wheels and tires—more appealing, and also makes it possible to do more riding in a day thanks to reduced fatigue. Electric mountain bikes aren’t permitted on some trails, so be sure to check state and local regulations.