Should I buy an electric bicycle? Here's everything you need to know to get started!
A few months ago, Graham Hill (the founder of the site you're reading this on) asked me for some help in choosing an electric bike. I wanted to help, but I knew that my knowledge was limited - there are so many models, with progress being made all the time in battery tech and power electronics - so I pointed him to someone who I knew was a real expert: Court Rye, the e-bike demigod behind ElectricBikeReview.com. But Graham's question also made me realize that he certainly wasn't the only one trying to figure out if an electric bicycle was right for him, what were the pros and cons, and if it did make sense, where to begin and which models to have a look at first.
This led to the interview below, where Court generously shares the e-bike wisdom that comes from having reviewed 300+ models since he started covering the space in 2012 (prolific guy!). My questions are in bold:
Why would anyone want an electric bike?
Well, electric bicycles offer the same great benefits as traditional bicycles including cost savings (no licensing or insurance required), improved health and connection with community.
The real advantage to ebikes in my view is efficiency in climbing hills or fighting the wind combined with better range. If you experience knee pain or exercise induced asthma for example, electric bikes can breath new life into the sport of cycling. They might convince your friend or significant other to join you on the trails more often or they might enable you to commute to work in extreme heat without perspiring so much. I've owned cars and mopeds before and neither felt as safe or refreshing as cycling along community paths, away from traffic.
Electric bikes remove many of the roadblocks and challenges that people face with traditional pedal-powered cycles but they aren't perfect. They can be expensive, complex and heavy which is a real pain if the battery runs out half way.
What types of riding are e-bikes best for? What are they bad for?
Since the early days of electric bikes in the United States (starting in 1999 with the EV Global Motors Ebike from Lee Iacocca) frame styles and drive characteristics have really proliferated.
© Court Rye
In addition to simple DIY kits there are also systems like the Ridekick Power Trailer now which add ebike performance in addition to storage utility! This system in particular is even easier than installing a kit and can be easily shared between family members and friends using regular bikes or recumbents as a platform.
© Court Rye
Today it is possible to dive head first into electric bikes or dip your toe in for a little taste. In some towns you can even rent electric bike to get a better feel for them… Rocket Electrics in Austin Texas for example, offers foodie tours and also has a multi-day SXSW and F1 race week package for people who want to dodge traffic and get an up close view of the city. For the purest experience, purpose built ebikes are the way to go (bikes that were designed and sold as being electric, not converted later). They are lighter, tougher and more capable than ever. Whether you need a folding bike to stow in your loft or take on a plane, a tandem to rent and ride with your friend on vacation or a downhill bomber for free riding on mountain trails (no need for a chairlift!) there is definitely an ebike out there that's fully capable.
© Court Rye
Obviously I'm a huge fan of the technology and it's true that the breadth of products has grown thanks in large part to widespread acceptance in Asia and Europe but there are some things ebikes still struggle with.
If you're a purist mountain biker who is barely accepted on hiking paths to begin with, ebikes may seem like a threat. In much the same way that snowboards used to be outlawed at ski resorts like Vail Colorado in the 80's ebikes are still in their early days. Eventually snowboarding became mainstream and Burton helped to gain mass acceptance by launching a viral initiative challenging holdout resorts. These days, Deer Valley Utah remains a "ski-only" resort but you can snowboard pretty much everywhere else and I feel like that will become the case with ebikes as well. Once the technology becomes better understood and appreciated it won't feel so threatening to some. I think traditional bikes are awesome frankly and I still own one for silent, light weight cruising.
To be honest, I mostly use it on wet and snowy days or when parking overnight in high-crime areas where theft or vandalism could be a risk. That said, I recently picked up bicycle insurance (Spoke Insurance and Velosurance offer it in almost every state and it covers electric bikes) and am feeling a lot more comfortable from a theft and liability standpoint. To sum up the cons of electric bikes: they tend to be heavier, louder and almost always more expensive than traditional bicycles.
© Court Rye
What are the different kinds of electric bikes and their price ranges?
Having reviewed over 300 electric bikes to date, taking photos and shooting video for each and posting back at my site ElectricBikeReview.com these are the primary "use cases" I've identified to help people navigate the space: Cargo Hauling, Relaxed Cruising, Trail Riding, Mountain Biking, Downhill, Neighborhood Use, Kid Hauling and Grocery Getting, Road Bike, Sand and Snow (Fat Tire), Tandem, Touring or Trekking, Traveling (Folding) and Urban Commuting.
It feels like theres a bike out there for any occasion, some have very small wheels and are designed to be easy to pick up and carry onto trains and busses (or even airplanes if the battery is under 300 watt hours) while other models are almost like mopeds or motorcycles with 100+ mile range capability and regenerative braking.
© Court Rye
There are so many types of light electric vehicles now that I actually started a second website called ElectricRideReview.com to cover electric motorcycles, skateboards and kick scooters. As far as traditional ebikes, prices really vary and can be shocking at first… so brace for impact! The low end starts around $1,000 but a recent crowd funding campaign generated a lot of attention by offering a bare bones $700 model (it was sold as $500 + ~$200 shipping).
My feeling is that $1,500 is the lowest level worth exploring right now. I've seen too many unhappy customers who purchased online and are now struggling to fix a throttle mechanism or find a replacement battery pack because the cells they got were of very low quality. There have even been some fires when cheap batteries were damaged and didn't have an electronic management system in place to prevent overload. At the upper echelons of the ebike world there are products selling for $50k+ but those are almost like art.
For ~$4,000 you can get a high quality, Euro-proven, German engineered product with two years of comprehensive warranty support. Bikes like this offer intuitive controls, integrated dynamo lights, fenders and racks and an overall beautiful aesthetic.
© Court Rye
Bikes in this premium class range up to $7,000 for pro-level components and while that may shock some people, it's actually not far off from pro-level pedal-powered bicycles.
© Court Rye
Now let's go back to the middle-range and dig a bit deeper into costs. The first electric bike I purchased was $2,500 and it saved me $2,000 in parking alone over the first year (I was working downtown Austin, TX where parking is very expensive).
In YouTube comments I regularly see people upset by the perceived high price of electric bikes, claiming that a used car would be cheaper… I think they often fail to recognize the high price of car repairs, preventative maintenance like oil changes, insurance, licensing and parking. Cars and ebikes are not investments, they are tools or toys that depreciate with use, their true value is highly dependent on the environment and task at hand or entertainment preferences of the owner.
So for example, if you live on a highway and commute 20 miles to work each day an ebike might not be a great tool. To that I say, consider renting an apartment near your job and buying an ebike!
Life changes aside, let's do a quick hypothetical costing example, if you took all of the car maintenance stuff away for a moment and just looked at a $3k brand new car vs. a $3k brand new ebike and left gas at $2 per gallon… an average electric bike gets ~20 miles per charge and cost less than $0.15 to fill (even using Hawaii's scale-tipping $0.37 per kilowatt-hour rates). So let's say that your car gets 30 miles per gallon and a gallon is $2 and your bike gets 20 miles per charge and a charge is $0.15, the bike is way cheaper right? But that's not the whole story. A premium electric bike battery costs anywhere from $500 to $800 to replace and lasts 1,000+ charges so let's treat this like a fuel cost and divide $500/1,000 charges… we get $0.50. So we add the $0.15 charge cost to the $0.50 battery use cost and get $0.65.
Basically, electric bikes are about three times less expensive to operate than cars from a current fuel cost perspective. Beyond user operating expense they also cost less in terms of negative externalities because they don't create localized pollution which contributes to health issues and spoiled views of the mountains. Ebikes are awesome but so are cars and even when self driving electric cars replace the costs of ownership and reduce pollution, there will still be enormous health and social value to cycling… and why not have an assisted cycle?
It's like comparing a mechanical typewriter where you forcefully push the keys down to modern laptop that can be operated much easier, faster, in more environments and it will save your work digitally! Maybe some people would claim that the sheer muscular joy of old fashioned typewriting and the ever present danger of a misspelling will always hold a place in their hearts… and good for them, it's not really an issue and with ebikes or traditional bikes we can still ride together and have fun!
How far can you typically go on a charge?
A good rule of thumb here is to divide watt hours by 20. So electric bike batteries have voltage and amp hours and a typical pack right now in the US is 36 volts of power with 10 amp hours of capacity for 360 watt hours total. If we divide 360 by 20 we get 18 miles. Given variation between throttle only electric bikes and pedal assist that 18 is really a floor that can go up as riders contribute pedal-power to the system or different drive systems are leveraged.
For example, mid-drive electric bikes can benefit from driving the rear cassette and gears to empower the motor for improved efficiency. In the same way that you would want to shift down when climbing (instead of standing up and working extra hard), so too does the motor and these mid-drive systems offer that flexibility because they pull the bicycle chain along with you. I've seen some electric bikes with that same "360 watt hour" battery capacity reach 50+ miles per charge on a low level of assistance (equivalent to half of the rider's pedal power output). That's pretty amazing to me.
© Court Rye
Are e-bikes much faster than regular bikes?
Not really, most low-speed electric bikes won't go over 20 miles per hour under motor power alone. You can always pedal faster than that or drop a steep hill but federal regulation limits this top speed in exchange for classification as a "bicycle". Some recent compromises have been made whereby pedal-assist electric bikes may reach ~28 miles per hour assisted but only if the rider is pedaling rigorously. A similar class of electric bikes called "speed pedelecs" exists in Europe and have become popular for commuters.
Take note however that efficiency drops off significantly as riders gain speed as a result of drag. That is "forces acting opposite to the relative motion of any object moving with respect to a surrounding fluid" or in this case air. The power needed to push an object through a fluid increases as the cube of its velocity while "air drag" is approximately proportional to the square of velocity.
In short, as you go beyond 15 mph on an ebike, drag really starts to cut into the range you can achieve so speed comes at a high price!
Can I still do DIY maintenance on my bike even if it's electric, or do I need to see an expert?
This is a great question! When it comes to electric bikes I usually recommend that people buy locally if possible. This is because the bike will be assembled properly, following specific torque ratings on screws and such, and will be fit to the rider for improved comfort.
In the bike industry, many shops that sell both traditional and electric will tell me that ebikes see 10 times the use. This is based on customer feedback and tuneups that they provide. People just ride electric bicycles more, and further, and faster! Some of that wear can be serviced by the end user but when it comes to throttles, batteries and computer systems things can get tricky.
Electric bikes marry mechanical systems with software and electrical complexities. There is a reason that Apple calls their tech support "Geniuses", right? Advanced knowledge and a specific toolset are required to truly maintain electric bikes as well, in my opinion. The most basic bikes that do not offer torque sensing pedal assist, LCD display readouts or frame-routed cables may be self-serviceable or simply disposable given their lower price point but the more purpose-built offerings really benefit from that professional touch and often times have locked computers with special diagnostic tools much like automobiles.
Do you have any favorite models of e-bikes that you would recommend e-bike newbies check out first?
I spend a lot of time answering one-off questions back in the "Compare" section of the Electric Bike Review Community Forums where people share their budget, height, weight, intended use and style preference. Feel free to jump on over and ask for yourself! Alternatively, I've put together a "Top 10" list here that has actually grown to 26 models for 2014-2015 as I now recommend a value and performance model in 13 categories ranging from Cruisers to Kits. Bikes that I've actually purchased for myself over the years include the Pedego City Commuter, Easy Motion Neo Jumper (now replaced by the Evo Jumper) and the Haibike XDURO FS RX 27.5 but I've been eyeing the new Specialized Turbo X and Felt Outfitter which are remarkable because both companies are long standing purists that focus on performance and racing specs. Seeing them put out electric bikes is a real vote of confidence for the space.
© Court Rye
Any closing thoughts?
I think electric bikes are remarkable because they compliment the human body and mind while connecting us with others.
If you'd like to learn more on the topic feel free to download my ebook called "A Practical Guide to Electric Bikes" on Amazon Kindle. I'm making it FREE for the next five days [starting tomorrow, April 8th, 2015] as a part of this article/interview with Treehugger… because Treehugger is awesome [Thanks Court! You're awesome! -MGR]. The book includes photos, videos and a deeper look into topics like motor design so you can better understand the trade offs between hub motors like I had on my Pedego or mid drives like I had on my Haibike. Feel free to drop me a line anytime and ride safe out there! Oh, and if you or a friend never learned how to ride a bicycle then check out this extra video, I shot it with my 30-something friend who had never learned and felt like he was missing out.
Thanks so much, Court! Everyone, make sure you check out ElectricBikeReview.com!