Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained

Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained. (Edition 12, July 2017) Judging by how often I am asked about e-bikes lately, folk are catching on to their potential as a viable, green and fun option for people of all persuasions to be less vehicle dependent for appropriate journeys. For years, Chris and I have pedalled journeys long and short on ‘normal’ bikes, initially trying e-bikes simply out of curiosity, but quickly realizing how much fun, how convenient and how sensible they are as an everyday utilitarian transport option. In hilly, traffic choked Sheffield, where they achieve high average speeds, e-bikes are often quicker than the car in city/urban conditions! However, if you find yourself considering one, e-bike terminology and the range available is bewildering!

So what is an ‘e-bike’? An e-bike is effectively a normal sturdy bicycle with an electric motor and a battery. Nowadays nearly all are ‘Pedelecs’, only kicking in when you pedal, and cutting off assistance above 15.5mph. (You can then pedal faster than 15.5mph under your own power as on a normal bike, though of course you have the extra 6-8Kg of e-bike kit to haul along, plus a bit of motor drag on some models, so mostly you find yourself bowling along at 12-16mph in practice!)

The UK and EU legal rated power for an e-bike motor (for public road use) is 250watts, any more and it legally ceases to be classed as a bicycle and becomes a moped, requiring a licence, helmet, insurance etc., and any illegal acts committed on the bike then apply to your vehicle licence! In practice, all mainstream retailers sell UK compliant 250W bikes. ‘Twist and Go’ e-bikes made post Jan 2016; with a throttle that works above 4mph are a boon but also a grey area. Being classed as a bicycle, helmet wearing is not a legal requirement on e-bikes, so this is a matter of choice and a judgement I make based on conditions. We do however prioritise bright clothing and having bright lights switched on both day and night, a la Volvo.

Why might I think of buying an e-bike? Everyday e-biking is fun, quick, convenient, cheap (50 miles for a few pence!) and can help fitness. We have noticed feeling more confident than on unpowered bikes at times, with the power and presence to be more part of the traffic. Everyday journeys for work, heavy shopping and pubbing etc. that would have involved the queues/parking hassles of using a vehicle, or hanging around for public transport, are now undertaken with ease and convenience. On e-bikes, even the ‘weather’ doesn’t  discourage, and statistically we will live longer and better due to cardiac exercise, and research even shows we are breathing less pollution than when sat in traffic in a vehicle!  E-bike power is particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff with ‘Cargo’ bikes. Our small wheel ‘Butchers bike’ style Orbea ‘Katu’ is proving ideal for differing height riders who want to share a nimble, versatile ‘do it all’ urban e-bike that in most respects supersedes a small car!

Where would I find out more about e-bikes? The e-bike market is opening up fast lately, and if you are curious about or considering buying an e-bike check out try eBikeTips  to keep up to the minute. Take a look at forums and publications like Pedelecs  and A to B for general discussions and reviews. Dealer’s websites like E-Bikes Direct  and Electric Bike Sales offer further helpful discussions about e-bikes and also for ideas on makes and prices.

What should I consider when choosing an e-bike? Consider what you want it for and where. There are 2 main types of e-bike, those powered by electric motors in the front or the rear wheels (Hub drive) and those with the motor positioned down in the frame and working upon the pedal axle – Crank (aka Centre, Chain or Mid) drive. Our e-bikes are this latter type, and we use them as everyday transport for short, often well-loaded utility journeys in hilly Sheffield. Others, often those who would not normally cycle any significant distance, if at all, choose e-bikes for longer and less loaded recreational rides of 50 miles or more and love the feeling of easily getting out along their local roads. Also exploring on such as Sustrans trails and, for cycle journey planning, Cycle Streets   and locally, Sheffield Cycle Routes of course.

In hilly areas a Crank drive is more effective, as the electric motor drives through the bikes gears as it helps you pedal, and with the right gear selected the motor is kept running at its optimum torque and speed, so less likely to strain on steep/long climbs. (Torque = pulling/climbing power, expressed in Nm. All 250w e-bike motors can give varying levels of torque, set by the manufacturer. 50Nm is the minimum needed for hilly areas.)

Buy a bike that is as well mechanically specified as you can afford. Most e-bikes weigh 18 – 25 kg, pricier ones have a better quality frame and cycle parts, so are easier and more pleasant to ride with the power off when you choose, or if you run out of juice! Bear in mind where you are going to use and keep the bike, not everyone will be able to lift an e-bike plus accessories up steps/on to trains etc! The innovative Nano-Brompton folder aside, weight is why folding e-bikes may be problematic for some use, being too heavy to lift easily. (Tern, and Brompton itself, are promising lightish folding e-bikes coming soon). Note, e-bikes with batteries mounted between the seat post and the back wheel are a bit longer, so storage or using dedicated train spaces, lifts etc can be an issue. Consider the best frame type for your purposes too – we favour the unisex ‘step through’ type, great for hopping on and off and adjusting for different rider heights.

Best electric motor? The strong and reliable Bosch, Yamaha and lately Brose Crank motors are excellent for heavy duty/hilly use and are found in premium models with high quality, reliable kit. Reputable makes using newer but slightly less powerful but still adequate Crank systems such as ‘TranzX’ and Shimano ‘STEPS’ are now appearing, the latter even offering electronic/automatic gear operation as they try to woo a whole new cycle public. There are crank drive kits to convert your own bike, e.g.: Sunstar iBike SO3 kit or Bafang BBSO1 kits from Woosh bikes etc. Hub motor kits are available, but need to be high torque if it is hilly.

What sort of gears do I need? Ours have enclosed low maintenance ‘Hub’ type gears in the back wheel, but derailleur gears are common too. Of these, cheaper bikes have 7 speeds, up to 11 on more expensive models. Both gear types are fine if properly serviced, but either way a decent range of gears (7 or more) with a low first gear is needed in really hilly areas. The only e-bikes I’ve found with as full a range of gears as some unassisted bikes are the well-established Cytronex models – lightweight e-bikes based on normal bikes with a more ‘periodic power boost facility’ hub drive, rather than a full time power option and a Kudos model with a triple front chainset and 10 speed rear gears so it will have very low gear/hill climbing capability. Whilst a Hub drive, it may prove an efficient hill climber, and appears to be very good value given the high quality parts, so worth a look/try.

Do brakes matter? Well yes! But what sort? The traditional rim brakes will stop an e-bike just fine, but we have found that on a heavily loaded e-bike in Sheffield, the brake blocks and the wheel rim-braking surface can wear down pretty quickly, so we prefer the Disc brakes now found on many e-bikes.

Accessories: Actually in my view these are essentials: Go for a bike all kitted out with pannier rack, mudguards, a strong stand and with good fitted LED lights, the latter powered by either a front wheel dynamo or the main power battery. If absent on your chosen model get them fitted at purchase. Budget for a good lock too, go for a ‘Sold secure Gold’ rated lock e.g.: The ‘Master’ D locks are versatile and good value.

Batteries and Range: How far you can go on a battery charge? Well, things like weight (yours/the load you carry) hills, and headwinds mean the ‘typical’ Lithium-Ion battery on a modern e-bike will do between 15 and 50+ miles depending on the assistance level you dial in and how willing you are to cycle with the power off or low on the easy parts of the journey. This typical battery will be about 400Wh capacity, arrived at by multiplying the typical 36volt electric motor x the typical mid-sized 11ah battery. You consume around 5 – 20 of those 400 watts every mile you are cycling with power, depending on a range of factors. (You might specify a larger battery when buying – larger batts = longer range, not more power!) In real life there seems to be little range gain from the odd model that ‘regenerates’ electric as you freewheel, all of which are Hub drive. Note: Lithium batteries like regular rather than occasional use, to ideally be kept operating between 20 and 80% capacity (not fully recharged after every small use as often advised) and never left completely flattened and never left charging once full.

Where would I try/buy/service one?  If you live in Rotherham you can borrow an e-bike for a trial period through ‘the ‘Cycleboost’ scheme. Hire one! e.g. at a local trail centre  I recommend that you really try to buy one from a localish dealer, and/or one who is a BEBA (British Electric Bike Association) member. The ‘e’ part of e-bikes can be complex, and you benefit from advice, follow up, warranty repairs, service, and if necessary arbitration and redress. For service/repairs use a registered local service centre, e.g.:  Recycle Bikes or JE James.

In the Sheffield/Yorks area we have a few e-bike retailers: Evans, J E James, Halfords, Giant, and Fosters of Rotherham. Mid-price choices locally could be something like the well regarded Raleigh Captus or the EBCO UCL-60. Cube bikes have been an especially high value way into Bosch powered e-bike action.

Check out less expensive but reputable makes online, e.g. Kudos or Woosh bikes, both offer basic but good value well equipped bikes, and reasonably priced (£300 ish) replacement batteries. I have recently used a (£1029) Woosh ‘Bali’ for local/utility duties, bought online and which has performed well.

Guarantee: On a mid to higher price bike look for a minimum 2 year guarantee on the battery and the electric motor, and do take into account the price of a second or replacement battery for the bike you are considering, as Lithium batteries, particularly cheaper ones, can pack up after a year or two at worst, more expensive ones may last for 5 years or more if use regularly and carefully.

Second-hand? Buying e-bikes second-hand can be risky because of battery/electrical issues and higher general wear and tear. Unless you are very confident around e-bikes, go for one of the many good new bikes out there suitable for different pockets.

Note: The more general thoughts and recommendations here are a result of my direct experience; brands/models/dealers are mentioned here are because of familiarity whilst reading around the subject, or their locality. They are not a personal recommendation.

Always research well and then see/try bikes and dealers yourself.

Happy e-biking!

Richard Attwood. Sheffield.


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