It’s no longer crazy to say that the electric bike revolution is here, and it’s here to stay. Whether it’s because they’re eco-friendly, easier on the joints, or just a lot of fun to ride, the popularity of electric bikes continues to steadily grow year after year.
But what is an electric bike?
Even though they continue to gain in popularity, the image that comes to a lot of people’s minds when they hear electric bike is some type of moped or motorcycle. However, they’re actually very different. Both in how they look and operate.
In this guide, we not only answer the question of what is an electric bike, but discuss how an electric bike works, if you need a license and insurance to operate one, why you can’t go wrong by choosing an electric bike, and much more.
Table of Contents
What is an Electric Bike?
An electric bike, or e-bike, is a bicycle that’s equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 horsepower). Although laws vary around the world on how much the motor can help and at what speed it has to cut out, in the U.S., electric bikes are broken into three classes:
- Class 1: The motor provides assistance up to 20 mph, but only when the rider is pedaling.
- Class 2: In addition to the pedal-assisted mode, the motor can propel the bike up to 20 mph without pedaling.
- Class 3: Similar to Class 1, the motor provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling but cuts out at 28 mph.
Class 1 electric bikes are the most common. This is because they provide a more natural riding experience that’s similar to traditional bikes. Additionally, electric bikes give you the ability to ride faster than the pedal-assisted caps, but only under your own power. Above the speed cap, the motor is no longer allowed to help.
What Types of Electric Bikes Are There?
The better question is, “What types of bikes don’t have an electric version?”
Regardless of your preferred style of riding, finding an electric bike that meets your needs is easier now than ever. Whether you’re looking for a high-performance road bike, a mountain bike that can handle the toughest terrain, or a simple commuter to get you to and from work, there’s an electric version of almost every type of bike. You can even convert a non-assisted bike to an electric bike with the help of a conversion kit.
In general, electric bikes are more expensive than their non-electric counterparts. Price can vary based on factors such as the motor, weight of the bike, battery capacity, and so on.
How Does an Electric Bike Work?
Electric bikes work in a similar fashion to regular bikes. Although they have a motor, they still require you to pedal to move forward. Once you start pedaling, a sensor triggers the motor to provide assistance. The level of assistance is based on the mode selected on the controller.
The motor is most commonly found between the cranks or positioned in the hub of the rear wheel. Electric bike motors can range from 200 watts all the way up to the legal limit of 750 watts. The more watts, the more power. Making it easier to pull weight and handle steeper inclines. But there is a downside. The higher the watts, the faster the motor will drain the bike’s battery.
Rechargeable lithium-ion is generally the battery of choice due to its weight, range, and life span. Although some batteries may be contained inside the frame, the majority are mounted on the downtube and are removable for convenient charging. However, some batteries, because of how and where they’re attached, require the bike to be near an outlet to be charged.
The controller is what lets you operate your electric bike and is normally found on the handlebar. There are two main styles of controllers: pedal-activated and throttle-based. Pedal-activated lets you adjust how much assistance you receive when you pedal. The level of assistance can range from none to a lot. Throttle-based allows you to ride without pedaling. The throttle mechanism will either be a twist-grip or a thumb-press type.
How Do You Ride an Electric Bike?
How you ride an electric bike is really not any different from how you ride a regular bike. The only difference with an electric bike is you get a little extra help when pedaling. But only if you want it.
Using the controller on the handlebar, you turn the motor on and select the desired level of assistance. Once set, you just start pedaling. The motor will help with your initial acceleration and then make it easier to maintain speed throughout your ride.
You also have the ability to change assistance levels as you ride. This can be especially helpful when tackling hills or rougher terrain. Most electric bikes provide the option to switch the motor off and ride under your own power as well. This can be helpful if the battery is running low and you want to preserve it for specific times during your ride.
Some electric bikes even have a ‘boost’ feature, which can be used to provide short bursts of additional power. Most bikes also provide a walk-assist mode that makes it easier to push when you’re not riding.
What Range Does an Electric Bike Have?
The biggest factor affecting an electric bike’s range is the level of assistance used when riding. Most electric bikes can provide 20 to 50 miles of relaxed pedaling on a single charge. However, there are some that can travel upwards of 100 miles.
In addition to the level of assistance, another factor that impacts an electric bike’s range is battery capacity. The higher the capacity (watts), the better the range. Some electric bikes even let you plug in a second battery to increase your range. However, batteries are expensive. As a general rule, the larger the range, the more it’s going to cost you.
Additional factors that can impact range are hills, wind, and the rider’s weight and size. Fortunately, most electric bikes pedal as easily and smoothly as regular bikes. This means you can extend your bike’s range by using little or no power when riding downhill or on flat surfaces.
Are Electric Bikes Heavy?
On average, electric bikes are twice as heavy as their non-electric counterparts. As you probably guessed, this added weight comes primarily from the motor and batteries. The weight can also be affected by the additional components and frame reinforcement required on an electric bike.
Although electric bikes are heavier, their weight can vary significantly based on the type of motor and batteries being used. This is generally influenced by the intended use of the bike. For example, an electric road bike typically requires less pedal assistance. This allows it to be lighter. On the hand, an electric mountain bike requires more power, making it heavier. Additionally, there’s an inverse correlation between price and weight. The more you’re willing to pay, the lighter your bike can be.
At times the extra weight of an electric bike can cause it to handle a little differently than a regular bike. However, it’s important to note that the weight of any bicycle (electric or regular) is felt most when climbing hills. The good news is the overall benefits of having a motor will easily outweigh the additional weight.
Do Electric Bikes Require Special Care?
Although electric bikes have both mechanical and electrical parts, they don’t require special care. The mechanical parts are the same as a regular bike. However, the brake pads, cogs, tires, and chain can wear a little faster on an electric bike. This is because of the extra weight and the fact that most people put more miles on electric bikes.
Routine maintenance is equally important for both electric and non-electric bikes. This can be performed at any local bike shop. A couple of simple things you can do on your own are to make sure to keep the tires properly inflated and the chain lubricated.
As for the electrical parts, they don’t require any maintenance. If you do run into an electrical issue, make sure to take your bike to a shop that has experience working on electric bikes.
Lastly, it’s important to not overcharge or consistently let your battery run to zero. Both extremes put extra stress on the battery and can shorten its lifespan. Additionally, avoid exposing your battery to extreme temperatures. This can also cause it to degrade faster.
Do Electric Bikes Require a License & Insurance?
Generally, no. Electric bikes don’t need a special registration, license, or insurance to operate if they fall within the three-class system mentioned above. However, traffic laws, bike helmet safety regulations, and where you can and can’t operate an electric bike will vary from state to state.
For example, in Alaska, you have to be at least 14 years of age and carry an operator’s license when riding an electric bike. Additionally, electric bikes are not allowed on sidewalks or bike paths. In California, you have to be at least 16 years of age and wear a helmet to ride a Class 3 electric bike. In my home state of Nebraska, there’s no minimum age for any class of electric bike and you’re allowed to ride on sidewalks and bike paths.
If you’re unsure of the electric bike laws where you live, check out Peopleforbikes.org. They provide a fantastic overview of electric bike regulations in each state.
Why Choose an Electric Bike?
The benefits of cycling are numerous and electric bikes are a fun and easy way to take advantage of those benefits. They make it easier to ride farther and faster, carry heavy loads with less effort, and replace your car for short trips and commutes. Not to mention, you can avoid arriving at your final destination all sweaty if need be.
And because I’m guessing you’re now wondering, the answer is absolutely! Riding an electric bike still counts as exercise. Since the motor only provides assistance when you’re pressing on the pedals, you’re still required to exert effort and energy to propel the bike forward.
Additionally, according to a survey of nearly 1,800 electric bike owners in North America, getting an electric bike can even dramatically increase how often you ride. They also make it easier for older riders and those with injuries or disabilities to take advantage of cycling.
Now that you understand what an electric bike is, how it works, and why you should choose one, it’s time to join the electric bike revolution. If you’re ready to find the perfect one for you and would like some help, check out our buying guides for electric bikes.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can I convert a traditional bike into an electric bike?
A traditional bike can be converted into an electric bike by using a conversion kit. These kits typically include a motor, battery, and controller that are added to the bike’s frame. However, it’s important to ensure that the bike’s frame is compatible with the conversion kit and that the installation is done correctly to prevent damage. It’s also essential to check local laws to ensure that converted bikes are legal to ride on public roads.
Can an electric bike be ridden in the rain?
Yes, most electric bikes are designed to be weather-resistant, which means they’re able to be ridden in the rain. If you’re unsure whether your electric bike has been tested for riding in the rain, make sure you consult with the manufacturer before proceeding.
When riding in the rain, it’s essential that the battery and electrical components are properly protected from moisture to prevent damage. Additionally, you should avoid riding through puddles or standing water, as this can damage the electronics on your electric bike as well.
How much does an electric bike cost?
Similar to traditional bikes, the cost of an electric bike can vary depending on the brand, model, and features. Electric bikes are typically more expensive than traditional bicycles, with prices ranging from just under $1,000 all the way up to $10,000 or more. High-end electric bikes often have more advanced features, such as longer battery life, better suspension, and advanced electronics.
Do electric bikes come in different motor sizes?
Electric bike motors can range from 200W to 750W (watts). Typically they come in one of three sizes, 250W, 500W, or 750W. The lower the watts, the less power the motor will provide. Motors on the lower end of the spectrum are a good option for commuters or individuals that don’t require a lot of assistance when riding. More powerful motors can be helpful when riding off-road and tackling more difficult climbs or terrain.