Electric Bicycle Buying Guide
Bicycles are changing into one of the best commuting vehicles money can buy these days. Specifically, electric bicycles are making those big changes happen thanks to advances in motor and battery technology.
These bikes provide the most comfortable way to ride (compared to other electric personal transport devices), the best range, and the lowest learning curve. That is, if you can already ride a bicycle.
So if you’re ready for a two-wheeled revolution, read on as I go through the most important aspects you need to consider when buying an electric bicycle.
The Price is Right
You’ll notice that electric bicycles are pretty expensive. The thing is that bicycles are actually pretty expensive whether electric or not, so prepare yourself for a significant outlay. The very best electric bicycles can be $2000 or more in price, which puts them squarely in used car or motorcycle territory.
However, if you take things like fuel costs, maintenance, and insurance into account I think you’ll find that an electric bicycle can pay for itself quite quickly.
As far as I can see there are no electric bikes that do not make use of lithium ion batteries. This is a good thing since these batteries are light and have a high energy density. But poor quality lithium batteries can pose a serious threat as they have a higher risk of flaming out or exploding.
Something about the battery that you should keep in mind is whether it is easily removable and whether it must be removed for recharging purposes. A battery that is easily removed is also easily swapped for a fully charged one, making long charging times irrelevant. You can also carry an extra battery with you for increased range. Also, if a battery is easily removable it makes it easier to upgrade it at a later stage as battery technology improves.
Wheel and Frame Sizing
I’m not going to go into too much detail here since there are many frame and wheel sizing guides for non-electric bikes on the internet. All I’ll say is make sure the bike you are ordering will accommodate your height, and that it has the wheel size you want or allows you to change wheels. For some bicycles the attachment system for the motor on the drive wheel can be a real pain to get around. There is no such thing as a correct wheel size for a bicycle, but they do change the feel of steering and going over rough terrain. You’ll find plenty of forum flame wars on the internet where bicycle enthusiasts argue the merits of 26E 27E and 29Ewheels.
Don’t worry too much about this, but pay attention to what the manufacturer says the intended use of the bike is. Look out for so-called at bikes that have big oversized tires. These are super versatile and can traverse all sorts of terrain with support for low pressure inflation. You can of course also use them on the road, but they won’t be quite as good as a bike designed for the blacktop.
Unlike most other personal electric vehicles we have on this site, bicycles pose much less of an issue when it comes to rider weight. Most good bikes have high-grade aluminum frames and can easily accommodate a 300-pound rider, but check the specific rating. The designed safety factor for bicycles is also high, so if you are a few pounds heavier than the rating it shouldn’t pose a problem, but don’t expect to make it the company’s problem if something does go wrong. Just bear in mind that the heavier you are, the shorter the range and the slower the speed.
Thank goodness for the almost universal use of aluminum in all good bicycles these days. It’s strong and light, albeit expensive. The heavier the bike the harder you and the motor need to work. Things like suspension systems, offroad tires, heavy duty wheels, and so on add to the weight of the bike. This is in addition to all the electric components, so if you intend to use a bicycle carrier rack, make sure it can take the weight of your bike!
You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘m
Foldable electric bikes are awesome last-mile vehicles. Stick them in your trunk and you can use them to get around a large complex or college campus (if allowed!). They are also great to get to a bus terminal or train station. You can take them on board and then get to your destination at the other end without having to walk from the drop-off point.
Unfortunately, they come with quite a few compromises. The frames can’t take as much weight, the wheels are quite small, they may not have suspension, and the motor and battery won’t usually be as good compared to a full-size, non-folding e-bike. So my advice is only go for a foldable if it fits the needs I just described.
Brakes and Suspension
One of the reasons e-bikes cost quite a bit more than your average regular bicycle is the fact that they almost universally use disc brakes like you find on a car. Owing to the speed and power of e-bikes, the old wheel-hub gripping, clamp-style brake just won’t cut it.
Suspension may also be an important consideration, although it adds to the cost of the bike. For off road or dual-purpose motorcycles it’s a non-negotiable must. At the very least get front fork suspension, but full suspension is always better for rough terrain. You may also want to investigate the possibility of a spring-cushioned seat, especially for road bikes without rear suspension.
If you are only going to ride on smooth bike paths and city sidewalks and roads, then skip the suspension if you must. It all depends on your intended route.
Many e-bikes come with an LED headlight and flashing safety light on the rear. For obvious reasons these are great additions. Even during daytime a headlight can improve your chances of being seen. Cyclists are notoriously invisible to motorists, so this is quite important.
Some bikes also allow USB charging of smartphones and other devices. A pretty handy feature. Don’t worry about it putting a dent in your range, devices like smartphones and tablets only need a tiny fraction of the large-capacity batteries e-bikes use.
Finally, you may like it if there’s an LCD screen to show you your speed, range, and distance traveled. This is pretty useful if your particular bike is capable of breaking inner-city speed limits, which might be as low as 15 miles per hour in some places.
E-bikes may use a motorcycle-like twist throttle, an ATV-like thumb throttle, or no throttle at all. Bikes designed for EU regulations may have no throttle and require some pedaling to control speed. Make sure the bike you are considering has the type of throttle assembly you prefer.
I’ve already mentioned foldable bike frames, but there are different frame styles to think about as well. Mainly, there are bicycles that need you to mount them by swinging your leg over, and those that have a scooter-type, step-through frame. A step-through frame is very useful if you wear a dress or restrictive work clothes. Step-through bikes are only for on-road use though, and may have a lower weight limit.
There’s not much to say about bicycle safety that’s specific to e-bikes. So whatever safety regulations apply to bicycles are applicable to e-bikes as well. Just keep in mind that your e-bike is faster than you may think. Get used to its acceleration, speed control, and braking distances.
Into the Sunset
The right e-bike can change how you think about mobility, and definitely change your outlook on things like car ownership. Keep the things I mentioned in mind and you’re almost certain to get the bike that’s best for you. Remember, what matters the most is that you feel good while riding; no specification can tell you that! Pay attention to what other buyers have said and, if possible, take a test ride on your intended model.
Safe travels my friends.