If you’ve noticed a surge in popularity in regards to electric bike as of late, you’re not alone.
What was once considered a sort of fringe bike type has now become widespread in its use, with more classifications and categories than ever before.
Quite a few reasons, actually.
Electric bikes are catching on as more people are realizing their many uses, utilizing the various benefits they offer. There are now hundreds of models available as well, giving consumers more choices.
We realize that many out there are still new to the concept of electric bikes, so we’ve compiled a beginner's guide that will explain to you all the things you need to know about these bikes, including how they work, essential components, different types, and much more.
By the end of this article you should be up to speed on what electric bikes can offer you and your personal riding needs and preferences, and then move forward with deciding the exact model you may need.
Let’s start by defining what an electric bike is -- and what it isn’t.
What is the first thing that pops into your head when you hear the term “electric bike?” If you are picturing ultra-fast bicycles with big engines on them zipping around like motorcycles, you are just a little off base.
An electric bike, sometimes referred to as an ebike or booster bike, is any bike that has an electric-powered engine that can be used to either assist the bike with propelling forwards, or do it all on its own.
That’s pretty much it. While there are obviously some variances among models, the core characteristics involve an engine, and the bike still being a bike -- as in, having a pedal-powered drivetrain. Steering and braking are the same too.
As the name suggests, the engines are electric-powered, as opposed to being combustion engines that require some sort of fuel. Rechargeable batteries are used to give the engine its power, and the batteries may be recharged any number of ways.
In some cases, the bike may not look all that different from other bikes, save maybe a small compartment on a cargo rack, or an oversized frame portion that hides the engine inside. The engines themselves are very simple, and do not take up a lot of space.
Likewise, the other components that help propel the bike are often very discreet. Depending on the type, you may not even see any other noticeable components aside from the and battery. We’ll touch on that later.
The other thing to take note of is that electric bikes are still very much ordinary bikes. They can still be pedaled, shifted, and steered like you would any other bike, only with the added benefit of having a small engine to help you out. Should the battery lose power, or if you simply don’t need the engine at the time, you can still pedal the bike as you would any other and be just fine.
Electric bikes are also not relegated to just one classification. You can find electric mountain bikes, electric road bikes, electric folding bikes, electric dirt bikes for kids and etc.
Common Components Exclusive To Electric Bikes
Electric bikes have a few parts and components that you are not going to find on an ordinary bike. All of these center around the actual engine, and how it’s used to power the bike.
The motor is obviously the core component with an electric bike. These motors are available in a variety of choices and builds, which we’ll go over more in detail further down.
The motor is what propels the bike, or offers assistance to your pedaling. They can be mounted in various locations on the bike, including the front and rear wheel hubs, or intertwined with the drivetrain itself.
Depending on the type of electric bike you have, the motor can do anything from assisting your pedaling while being manually shifted, to powering the bike all on its own, to being fully independent from your drivetrain, enabling you to shift as you normally would, without worrying about interrupting the motor.
Motors are available in different powers, but the majority will only support speeds of up to 20 mph in most cases.
Electric bikes are essentially powered by rechargeable batteries and battery packs that enable the motor to run. These batteries include a number of different types, including SLA, NiCd, NiMH, and Li-ion.
The batteries can vary depending on voltage, charge capacity/amp hours, weight, charge load handling, and total charge cycles. The battery’s lifespan depends on usage and maintenance, along with the actual type as well.
An electric bike battery is usually very easily accessible, allowing the rider to charge the battery away from the bike, rather than having to move the bike to a power source like you would an electric car.
When electric bikes were first developed, there weren’t all that many choices for batteries, but many major companies have no entered the fray, giving consumers lots of models to choose from, especially when looking for an upgrade in terms of power or charge capacity.
Controllers are actually a bit scientifically complicated, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll define them as a device that controls the speed of an electric motor, while also acting as a dynamic brake. A controller uses power from the battery pack, and then forwards it drives it to the motor. Different types of motors require different controllers.
Here’s how they work: The controller sends signals to the bike's motor using different voltages. The signals then detect the direction of a rotor, along with the speed. From there, the controller appropriately regulates the motor for seamless operation.
Once you get a good feel for the controller’s operation, you can switch back and forth between powering the motor on and off when needed, creating a more fluid ride that is also easier on the engine’s system.
Electric bikes that can run on their own without pedal assistance require a throttle, like you’d see on a motorcycle, scooter, or moped. The throttle can be an actual switch, or the more common twist shift version that feels similar to a gear shifter on an ordinary bike.
The throttle grants you control over the full on/off function of the motor, allowing you to toggle between pedaling the bike, or simply riding it as it does all the work for you.
Electric bikes that only offer pedal assistance will not utilize a throttle.
Electric bikes are certainly not your average bike. Their design and features can appeal to anyone, but they do have some uses and advantages for certain types of riders, regardless of skill level or age.
Commuters that ride longer distances on their bikes often stand to benefit the most from electric bikes. If you are using a bike to get back and forth from work every day, you can get worn out from the commute depending on the distance and riding conditions.
Even if you are only riding a short distance, those who are riding in anything but cold weather may end up looking a bit disheveled by the time they get to work due to the physical strain they go through to get there. Others may simply want an efficient way to get to their workplace that’s still accessible via bike.
All of these issues can be solved with an electric bike.
If you are riding long distances to your workplace, an electric bike can assist your pedaling, giving you a sort of “wind at your back” feeling that does most of the work for you. You can easily keep a solid 15mph pace up without exerting yourself too much. For long rides, this can be a lifesaver.
Those who don’t want to roll into the office hot and sweaty from their ride benefit for the same reason. Those long uphill climbs and flat portions of your ride are a lot easier when you have an engine there to help, saving you from having to go into full-on workout mode while en route. You can essentially coast your way to work, barely breaking a sweat, if any.
If your main reason for biking during your commute is to avoid traffic, an electric bike provides an easy and seamless way to navigate through urban areas, but without having to do all the work yourself. This enables you to steer clear of traffic jams, without having to instantly become a fitness buff overnight, or go out and get a motorcycle/scooter instead.
Bicycle touring and travel is more popular than ever. While having ultra-light, expensive road and hybrid bikes are popular and useful for this sort of biking, you’re still having to pedal across every inch of road yourself. If you’re on a long trip, that can add up quick, and limit your distance and time.
Electric bikes give the rider some much-welcomed assistance that can basically double or triple your distances each day, while significantly cutting down your ride time. The engine takes on the brunt of the load, helping you keep pace for longer periods, without losing all of your energy.
Riders who are on extended tours stand to benefit the most. An electric touring bike can be a real game-changer in regards to where you can go, and how long it takes to get there.
Cycling is one of the best rehabilitation activities, especially for those who are recovering from leg and knee injuries. While the pedaling motion is very low-impact, it can still be a little too much for some.
Electric bikes offer an adjustable amount of assistance that can allow rehab patients to have a normal biking experience, without over-exerting themselves. In many cases, the engine provides the patient a way to ease into biking, without putting too much stress on the body from pedaling the old-fashioned way.
This ties in many of the previous things written above. The idea of an electric-powered bike may seem like the opposite of a workout, but that’s far from the truth. As we’ve said, you can toggle the engine on and off in most cases.
This gives riders the ability to get a great cardio exercise in, while experiencing the outdoors, using the engine when needed. The engine also gives riders who may not be able to do a standard fitness ride with others who are more conditioned a way to keep up instead of falling behind.
The possibilities really are endless in many ways. You don’t have to be in any of these specific categories to enjoy electric bike usage.
Electric bike history is actually very extensive, and goes back over 100 years, with much of the modern development and innovation coming within the last decade.
During the 1890s, there were several patents for these bikes. One of the first ones belonged to a man named Ogden Bolton Jr, who attainted a patent for the creation of a “6-pole brush-and-commutator direct current hub motor mounted in the rear wheel.” The bike had no gears, but could draw 100 amps from a 10-volt battery. Not too bad.
Just two years later, Hosea W. Libbey received a patent for an electric bike propelled by a “double electric motor.” The motor itself was placed in the hub of the crankset axle, which proved to be very efficient. The bike manufacturer Giant actually emulated this design in the late 1990s.
Matthew J. Steffens followed this with his own design in 1898. His version included a driving belt placed along the outside of the wheel, almost similar to an auxiliary chain drive like you see with a normal bike.
For the next several decades, not much happened with the furthering of electric bikes, as normal bikes themselves wanned in popularity. This all changed around the 1990s, however, following on the heels of the resurgence and popularity of road and mountain bikes.
Around this time, components such as torque sensors and power controls were implemented. Takada Yutky of Japan filed a patent in 1997 for them. Just a few years prior, Vector Services Limited manufactured an electric bike called the Zike. It included NiCd batteries that were built into the bike’s frame, and operated using an 850g permanent-magnet motor.
Electric bike production grew during a period ranging from 1993 to 2004 by an estimated 35%, despite standard bike production dropping slightly. The world was starting to catch wind of electric bikes as many realized their benefits.
Some of the earlier, less expensive models used heavy, bulky lead acid batteries. Newer and pricier models favored NiMH, NiCd, and Li-ion batteries, all of which provided longer battery life and less weight.
Around 2001, standardized terminology developed in reference to electric bikes. The terms e-bike, power bike, pedelec, s-pedelec, pedal-assist, and power-assisted bicycle all became frequently used by riders and manufactures to refer to specific characteristics of their bikes, or electric bikes as whole.
This period also saw the development of technology that converts human power into power for the motor, with the battery providing additional power as needed. Conversion kits that allowed riders to turn their ordinary bike into an electric bike became more widespread as well.
By the year 2007, electric bikes were being used en masse by commuters in densely populated areas, especially in Asia. These bikes comprised around 10 to 20 percent of all bikes in larger Chinese cities by this point.
Today, electric bikes have become a major industry within the bike world, as many traditional bike riders are purchasing electric bikes to complement their personal bike inventory, or even as a replacement for their commuter and fitness bikes in some cases.
While electric bikes were first primarily designed as low-impact, casual use bikes for getting around town or a neighborhood, they are now available in every major bike category, which includes everything from folding bikes, to full-suspension mountain bikes, and everything in between.
Further technological developments and innovation has resulted in lower weights, more powerful batteries that hold charges longer, more efficient motors, and less-imposing, discreet designs that cleverly hide the fact that the bike even has a motor system in the first place.
Electric bikes offer a wide array of advantages that span everything from increased comfort, to saving money. Here are 6 of the most noteworthy benefits these bikes provide their owners.
One of the more underrated benefits of an electric bike is the low environmental impact it has, so we’ll actually start with that. While everyone knows that bicycles are already a minimal impact mode of transportation, electric bikes offer some advantages that go beyond that in some ways.
Although you are still using a battery that requires a charge, the added capabilities of an electric bike makes the bike more adept for serious transportation use in the place of a car or motorcycle.
You may have seen or know some who are in great shape, and able to bike to and from work each day like it’s no big deal. For those who are intimidated by that prospect, or lack the strength and conditioning for doing so, an electric bike’s motor is a game-changer.
The added pedaling assistance (or outright throttle abilities) gives the bike an increased spectrum of use. You can ride both further and longer, without the effort you’d give on a normal bike. Thus, the bike becomes more of a commuting tool, or for errands and casual travel as well.
This means those who would normally not ride a bike to work, or for errands/leisure purposes due to the significant physical effort aspect now have a viable option. An electric bike is a great way to consistently avoid using automobiles and even public transit that puts out harmful Co2 into the atmosphere.
In terms of recharging the battery, yes, it does require electricity, but not much. Those who want to avoid using conventional electric outlets can utilize wind and solar power instead if they are able, further decreasing the bike’s carbon footprint to near-zero.
Electric bikes possess a much higher level of efficiency when compared to conventional bikes.
The reasons are obvious after all; you have a motor helping you out. An electric bike is still a bike however, as it utilizes pedaling regardless. When using a pedal-assisting model, your pedal efficiency is increased significantly, saving you a lot of effort and energy in the process.
This means that the power you put into pedaling on a conventional bike gets a higher return on an electric version. Steep hills are easier to tackle, long distances don’t take a much out of you, and maintaining a fast rate of speed doesn’t require you giving it your all for minutes on end.
The efficiency gained from an electric bike can instantly transform your riding capabilities, allowing you to do everything from riding longer distances, to keeping up with fellow riders and friends who may be far above your fitness or skill level.
In other instances, this may simply mean getting to and from work without worrying about showing up drenched in sweat and out of breath.
EASY TO USE
Electric bikes may initially sound very complicated to those who are unfamiliar, and it’s easy to understand. There is an engine involved, and some extra moving parts.
However, the bike is still a bike. It has the same pedals, handlebars, saddle, and tires you find on other bikes, and a drivetrain as well. You could even theoretically own an electric bike and never use the engine part of it. The bike can function on its own without a motor powering it.
That said, the engine aspect is easy to use. In some cases, it does all the work itself as you ride, calculating how much power to supply towards your pedaling. In other cases, it’s operated by a simple on/off switch. Electric bikes with throttles have a pretty self-explanatory operation.
In the vast majority of jurisdictions, you don’t need any kind of license or permit to ride an electric bike. There’s no classes required, no training, nothing like that. Just the ability to ride a bike, and at most the ability to use an on/off switch. Doesn’t get much easier than that.
An electric bike offers more versatility than you find on an ordinary bike in any number of scenarios. Most conventional bikes are already versatile enough, but an an engine to one, and it provides even more uses.
This can be advantageous in various situations, depending on the bike type.
Backcountry mountain bikers and sightseers who may only be able to access certain areas on a mountain bike can find their range instantly expanded with an ebike. Road bikers and hybrid owners can swap their short-length commuter bike for an electric version, turning their commuter into a viable “daily driver.”
Even with a motor onboard, an electric bike can still be used for leisure and fitness just as easy by turning the motor off. This gives you numerous options for matching your riding needs in a particular moment.
Electric bikes require just a little more maintenance than a conventional bike. Yes, you still need to deal with tune ups, rim replacements, brake pad replacement, and things of that nature, but the additional engine maintenance isn’t all that extensive -- and definitely much more simple than car or motorcycle maintenance.
Most of the time, you need only be mindful of the battery, and when it may need replacing. Controllers and motors can last for thousands of miles, and any advanced service can be taken care of by most local bike shops in a matter of hours.
For those who intend on using their electric bike for commuting and more, the financial savings can certainly add up rather quickly.
For instance, if you live in an urban area, and own an electric bike to do most of your getting around, you can save hundred of dollars a month by avoiding the need for car payments, car insurance, gas, and maintenance.
Even if you use the bike in addition to a car, you can still cut back on you gas expenditures, and save your car from wear and tear. If you rely on public transit, you can save money by avoiding tolls and ticket fares.
No matter what your situation is, if you're using an electric bike to avoid other common modes of transportation, you save money regardless.
Electric bikes have three main classifications that are widely considered to be the standard.
Pedelec refers to pedal-electric, which is another way of saying pedal-assisted. Using EU standards, this includes electric bikes that offer pedal assistance up to 25 km/h.
Pedelecs still provide a very noticeable amount of assistance when riding, but are the least powerful of electric bikes. They still ride and feel very much like an ordinary bike, with more of a “wind at your back” feeling.
An s-pedelec is a more powerful version of a pedelec that doesn't have a cap on speed when assisting the rider with pedaling. This means that you can ride above 25 km/h, and the motor will keep assisting your speed instead of capping out.
S-pedelec bikes can help you attain higher speeds without using near as much of the effort. This is especially beneficial on longer rides when you have more leeway to ride faster.
Electric bikes that utilize a throttle are often called twist-n-go bikes. These operate like any other electric bike, with the added feature of being able to just sit back and ride while the throttle engages the engine, propelling the bike forwards without any pedaling needed.
In most cases, these bikes still offer pedal assistance if desired, or you can just let the bike do all of the work. These offer the most versatility of all electric bikes.
Electric Bike Styles
Electric bikes are available in numerous styles, which includes most of the main conventional bike styles found around the world.
ELECTRIC MOUNTAIN BIKE
The electronic version of mountain bikes have come a long way from the early days. The thought of an engine on an actual trail-ready mountain bike once seemed a bit far-fetched, but now they are a reality.
Electric mountain bikes can be taken on most of the same single-track and backcountry trails ordinary mountain bikes can be taken on, with the added bonus of tackling steep climbs much easier, and plenty of added speed as well.
These are available in both front and full-suspension versions, with the latter usually involving an internal motor and battery assembly that is built into the inside of the frame for protection.
Hybrid bikes offer the best of both worlds, as you get a bike that can be used on the road and off. Electric hybrid bikes provide even more versatility, perfectly complementing the build and design with additional pedal power and speed when making your way around town.
Fat bikes are built to handle winter weather, sand, and other riding surfaces that ordinary bikes would have a very hard time with.
The wide-set tires and strategic tread designs make fat bikes ideal for traversing around in conditions that mountain bikes can’t handle. Add a motor to the mix, and you have yourself a formidable bike that can be used to get around numerous areas with ease.
Cruiser bikes are already intended to capture that leisurely, care-free vibe of areas like the boardwalk next to a beach. Designed more for comfort and casual riding, electric cruiser bikes offer an even easier riding experience, as you barely have to pedal to maintain a good coasting speed.
In terms of the most laid-back form of electric bikes, an electric cruiser bike wins easily.
Folding bikes and electric motors are a perfect match. Designed to be as compact as possible when not in use, folding bikes provide the ability to fold up to 1/3rd of their normal size, making them ideal for commuting, or storing the bike away.
Folding bikes with engines ensure the most efficient and versatile form of a commuter bike, combining the compact advantages and portability of a conventional folding bike with the added pedal power and speed from an engine.
The motors of electric bikes can be broken down into several different sub-types and categories, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll cover the two main types: hub and mid-drive.
Hub motors are any electric bike motor that propels or assists the bike from the hub area of the wheel. They can be mounted in either the front or back, but the back is the most common version.
With hub motors, the battery powers the motor that is attached to its own hub, which is attached to the wheel. The motor then turns the wheel to propel it.
Direct drive hub motors use the entire hub shell as the motor. They are the most quiet of all the engines, and are always engaged when the bike’s wheels are turning. This provides a bit of regenerative braking power when you aren’t actively pedaling.
Geared hub motors are smaller and lighter, and often look similar to an ordinary wheel hub. They have a free-wheel, so there is no resistance when the motor is not being used. These have a few more moving parts, and may be a little louder than direct drive motors.
Mid-drive motors are connected to the actual crankset of the bike, and propel the bike by turning the crank wheel, as opposed to the front or rear wheel hubs. These are more complicated than hub motors, but they offer a more “natural” pedaling feel.
Mid-drive motors also help give the bike a more lower center of gravity, as the motor weight is virtually in the middle of the bike instead of one particular end. The setup of a mid-drive motor allows for normal shifting, even when taking on steep inclines and faster speeds.
Electric mountain bikes almost always use mid-drives now, or at least the ones more apt for rougher trails. The absence of a hub motor setup also makes it easier to do things like change a flat tire, or replace a rim.
Many foresee mid-drive motors as becoming the primary motor setup in the coming years.
Maintaining your electric bike is not all that different from a normal bike. The extra care centers around the batteries mainly, and a little motor maintenance as well, depending on the type.
Your first priority would be to properly store and care for your battery unit. If you have a lithium battery set up, it’s wise to always recharge your batteries back to 100%, even if you’ve only used a little of the available power. This preserves the unused battery cells at lower percentages.
Keeping the battery compartment free of corrosion moisture is a priority as well. Should you notice any, allow the compartment to air out completely, and use a brush and carbonated water to get rid of any corrosion. Make sure the battery is unplugged first.
Motors generally require little maintenance, but be sure to routinely examine it for any damage, and to make sure everything is operating normally. Mid-drive motors may require some professional service from time to time, as they are more complicated than hub motors.
As always, keep the drivetrain free of dirt and grime, and make it a habit to check your tires, brakes and pads, and tubes as well.
Top Ebike Brands
The following five electric bike brands are among the most popular and best-selling in the world, with great reputations for consistently putting out quality electric bikes of all types.
Sondors began in 2015 with one of the most successful crowdfunding projects in history, raising $3.8 million dollars during their first phase. The company’s initial goal was to create highly-affordable, high-quality electric bikes that looked and rode great.
In just two short years, the company has manufactured tens of thousands of bikes, and expanded their lineup from the initial prototype fat electric bike, to an expansive lineup that includes everything from hybrids to folding bikes, all using the same motor system and overall design.
Located in California, Wave is another upstart electric bike company that got their start with a very successful crowdfunding campaign. Wave specializes in offering cruiser-style electric bikes that focus on comfort and efficiency.
Wave recently added a folding bike to their lineup, and continues to put out some of the most respected electric bikes on the market.
Trek is already one of the most recognized and established bike brands in the world, so it makes sense that they are also now a strong player in the electric bike business as well.
The company applies the same renown commitment to craftsmanship and quality components to their electric bike lineup, which include a number of full-suspension mountain bikes and hybrids. Their electric bikes are on the more expensive side of the spectrum, but the top-tier quality is impossible to ignore.
Like Trek, Specialized is a world-class bike manufacturer that made their name in the road and mountain bike world long ago.
Specialized electric bikes fall under their “Turbo” line, and include a number of hardtail and full-suspension mountain bikes that offer the same performance as their conventional mountain bikes - but with a mid-drive motor system for added speed and efficiency.
Headquartered in Irvine, California, Pedego is the USA’s largest electric bike manufacturer. Established in 2009, Pedego has quickly become a name that is synonymous with electric bikes.
This is likely due to the fact that they offer not only high-level electric bikes, but the most diverse lineup as well. Pedego makes everything from mountain bikes, to tricycles, to tandem bicycles.
By now you should have a much better idea of electric bikes, how they work, and the benefits they offer riders on all levels. These bikes continue to improve year in and year out, furthering their use as more people worldwide get familiar with all they have to offer, and how easy they are to ride.
Interested in purchasing an electric bike of your own?
Check out our electric bike buying guide, which contains all of our favorite picks across various electric bike types, and covers a wide range of budgets as well.
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