Electric bicycles (e-bikes) explained. September 2016

Thanks to Richard Attwood for taking the time to write this!

Judging by how often I am asked about e-bikes lately, people are catching on to their potential to offer a viable, green and fun option for folk of all persuasions to be less vehicle dependent for appropriate journeys. As cyclists, Chris and I have for years pedalled journeys long and short on ‘normal’ bikes, and initially I bought an e-bike simply out of a gadgety curiosity, but we very quickly realized how much fun, how convenient and sensible they are as an everyday utilitarian transport option, especially in hilly and traffic choked Sheffield, often being quicker than the car! But 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 pedal faster under your own power as on a normal bike.) The UK and EU legal rated power for an e-bike motor (for public road use) is 250watts, more and it legally ceases to be 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. 350W or ‘S-pedelecs’ are illegal here. ‘Twist and Go’ e-bikes made post Jan 2016, with a (connected) throttle working above 4mph, without you needing to pedal, are a no-no. Being classed as a bicycle, helmet wearing is not a legal requirement. For me this is a matter of choice and a judgement I make based on conditions. I do however prioritise bright clothing and having bright lights switched on both day and night.

Why might I think of buying an e-bike? Everyday e-biking is fun, quick, convenient, cheap and can help fitness. We have noticed we feel more confident than we have at times on unpowered bikes, 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 queue/parking hassles of using a vehicle, or hanging around for public transport, are now undertaken with ease and convenience. e-bike power is particularly suitable for shifting heavy or bulky stuff with ‘Cargo’ bikes. See http://s-cargo.co.uk/ . On e-bikes, even the ‘weather’ is less discouraging, and statistically we know we will live longer and better due to cardiac exercise and breathing less pollution than sat in traffic in a vehicle!

Where would I find out more about e-bikes? If you are curious about or considering buying an e-bike, see David Henshaw’s comprehensive and wide ranging book http://www.atob.org.uk/store/products/electric-bicycles/ , and the following article is very informative, interviewing people who know e-bikes well: http://www.electricbikesexperts.co.uk/electric-bikes-experts-interviews.html   Take a look at forums and publications like http://www.pedelecs.co.uk/electric-bike-guides/  and http://www.atob.org.uk/  for general discussions and reviews, See dealers websites like http://www.e-bikesdirect.co.uk/  and https://www.electricbikesales.co.uk/yorkstore  for 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 and also exploring on such as Sustrans trails – see: http://www.sustrans.org.uk/change-your-travel/get-cycling/planning-your-cycle-routes and, for cycle journey planning, https://www.cyclestreets.net/journey/to/ls19+7xy/

If you live in a hilly area you are better with a Crank drive, as the electric motor drives through the bikes gears as you pedal, so with the right gear selected the motor is kept running at its optimum speed, and less likely to strain on steep/long climbs. Some lighter folk may along OK with Hub drives on hills on e-bikes fitted with especially high torque hub motors and/or a good low gear range, but try before buying.

Torque = pulling or climbing power, given in Nm. All 250w e-bike motors can be set to give varying levels of torque by the manufacturer. 50Nm or more is best in hilly areas.

Buy as well mechanically specified a bike as you can afford. Most e-bikes weigh 18 – 24 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 lighter folding e-bikes soon). e-bikes with batteries mounted between the seat post and the back wheel are a bit longer than normal bikes, so storage or using dedicated train spaces, lifts etc can be an issue.

Best electric motor? The strong and reliable Bosch and Yamaha Crank motors seem to be excellent for heavy duty/hilly use and are found in premium models with high quality, reliable kit. The Bosch is super smooth/intuitive in use, the Yamaha has the advantage of more power starting off and a greater range of gearing options with its double front chainset (most crank drive bikes only have just the one front chainring, on the motor) Reputable makes using newer but less powerful Crank motor systems such as ‘TranzX’ and Shimano ‘STEPS’ are 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, eg: https://www.electricbikesales.co.uk/sunstar-ibike-so3-kit or see Whoosh bikes. Hub motor kits are available, but need to be high torque if hilly.

What sort of gears do I need? Our e-bikes have enclosed ‘Hub’ type gears in the back wheel, but after hard daily e-bike use I’ve had problems with 2 different makes so I’m going for more repairable open derailleur gears now. Of these, cheaper bikes have 7 speeds, up to 11 on more expensive models. Both gear types are fine for moderate use if properly serviced, but either way a decent range of gears (5 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 (30) as some unassisted bikes are the well-established Cytronex models – very normal light e-bikes with a more ‘periodic boost facility’ facility than always on. http://www.cytronex.com/  and a Kudos model with a triple front chainset and 10 speed rear gears. http://www.kudoscycles.com/product_info.php?cPath=1&products_id=347  so it will have very low gear capability. Whilst a Hub drive, it may prove a good and efficient hill climber, appears to be good value given the high quality parts, and 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 in heavy use on a loaded e-bike in Sheffield, the brake blocks and the wheel rim braking surface can wear down rather quickly, so we prefer either the Disc, Roller or Drum brake types 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 if you want to keep the bike! Go for a ‘Sold secure Gold’ rated lock eg: http://www.halfords.com/cycling/bike-lights-locks/bike-locks/master-lock-street-fortum-gold-sold-secure-d-lock-with-cable  is a versatile/good value one.

Batteries and Range: In terms of how far you can go on a battery charge, 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 what power level you choose, and how willing you are to cycle with the power off 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 about 10 – 20 of those 400 watts every mile you are cycling with power, depending on conditions. You can often specify larger capacity batteries at purchase. (Larger batts = longer range, not more power!) Incidentally – in real life there seems to be little to be gained in practice, range wise, by the few models that ‘regenerate’ electric as you freewheel, all of which are Hub drive. Note: Lithium batteries really do last better if used regularly rather than occasionally, ideally kept charged between 20 and 80% (not fully recharged after every use as often advised) and never flattened completely.

Where would I try/buy/service one?  Hire one, eg at a local trail centre: http://www.monsaltrail.co.uk/. I recommend that you really try to buy one from a localish dealer, and/or one who is a BEBA (British Electric Bike Assocation) 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, eg: http://www.recyclebikes.co.uk/shop/e-bike-service-repairs/  or http://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/ here in Sheffield.

In Sheffield we have a few e-bike retailers: Giant store, Halfords, Fosters of Rotherham, and J E James. Mid-price choices locally could be something like the well regarded Raleigh Captus: http://www.fosterscycles.co.uk/m20b0s129p5653/RALEIGH-Captus-2015  The Cube bikes available via J E James look like an especially high value way into Bosch or Yamaha powered e-bike action! Or just go mad and buy yourself one of Raleigh’s premium ‘Haibike‘ range: https://www.jejamescycles.co.uk/haibike-sduro-trekking-rc-hybrid-bike-id151528.html  it may prove to be worth every penny in the long run, especially if like us it’s going to be used as everyday transport. Then in York there is the Smarta: https://www.electricbikesales.co.uk/hill-climbers/Smarta-LX7-Electric-Bike  which has always looked like an interesting option, well reviewed and apparently a good climber even if it is hub drive, and with an amazing 4 yr battery warranty. Or check out a reputable but less expensive make online, eg Kudos or Woosh bikes, both offer basic but good value well equipped bikes and reasonably priced (£300 ish) replacement batteries – I’m getting on well with a new inexpensive Woosh ‘Bali’ model currently, although I would not want to pedal it far unpowered!

Guarantee: On a mid to higher price bike look for a minimum 2 year guarantee on the battery and the electric motor, and do check the price of a second or replacement battery for the bike you are considering, as Lithium batteries can pack up after a year or two at worst, and rarely last more than three or four..

Secondhand? Buying e-bikes secondhand can be risky because of battery/electrical issues and higher general wear and tear. Unless you are very confident around ebikes, 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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