Photo: Axel Brunst/Tandemstock

How To Choose the Right E-Bike

From mountain trails to city streets, e-bikes open up new possibilities for riding.

Electric bikes, or e-bikes, are a growing category of bikes that use built-in electric motors to add extra power to your pedaling (or, in some cases, propel the bike even if you’re not pedaling). Thanks to their added boost, e-bikes make cycling available to more people, and they help riders to travel farther and arrive at their destinations without being covered in sweat.

The variety of models and features has only grown as e-bikes have become more popular. Here’s how to find the right bike for you.

Ask Yourself These Questions

Before you buy, consider your riding style and what you’ll need an e-bike to do.

What kinds of e-bikes are allowed in my area? 

Different places have different rules and regulations governing e-bike use. Some places only allow a certain class of e-bike (more on that below), while others have banned them entirely. Be sure to check the regulations in your area, and for the specific trails or routes you plan to ride, before you purchase an e-bike.

How far do I ride?

Consider how far you typically ride or plan to ride on your new bike. Make sure that you choose an e-bike that has enough range to last as far as you want to ride. Conversely, don’t waste money on a bike with extended range if you know you’ll never use it.

What kind of riding will I do (or want to do)? 

Buy an e-bike that matches. Recreational riders don’t need lots of cargo storage, while road riders will be frustrated by the heavy weight of a fat tire e-bike.

Where will I store my e-bike? 

Because of the added motor, battery, and electrical components, e-bikes are generally heavier than regular bicycles. Before you buy, think about where you’ll store your new set of wheels. Make sure you can lift or carry your bike if you’ll need to store it upstairs. If you'll be storing it in a garage or outside, look for models with removable batteries, which will make it easy to charge your bike and also add a layer of security (you should also invest in a good bike lock or two).

How fast do I need to go?

The fastest e-bikes (Class 3 models, see below) can travel up to 28 mph, which can be helpful for keeping up with traffic. But if you mostly ride in bike lanes or on bike trails, you may not need that extra speed.

What is my budget?

E-bikes can be expensive. Know what features are important to you (long range or carrying capacity, for example) and what you’re willing to compromise on. That way, you can get the bike you want and one you can afford.

E-Bike Classifications

Electric bikes come in three main classifications. These classifications are based on how an e-bike applies electric pedaling assist and how fast it can go.

Class 1: These electric bikes are pedal-assist, meaning the electric boost aids you only while you’re actually pedaling the bike. The assisted speed tops out at 20 mph.

Class 2: These e-bikes also top out at 20 mph, but rather than being pedal-assist only, they have a throttle that can propel the bike even if you aren’t pedaling, similar to a moped. 

Class 3: These bikes are pedal-assist only, like Class 1 bikes, but they can reach assisted speeds up to 28 mph. 

Photo: studio4pic

Types of E-Bikes

E-bikes come in a variety of styles suited to different uses and kinds of riding.

Recreational

These bikes offer an upright riding position, comfortable seat, and cruiser-style frame geometry to keep you moving confidently for a leisurely ride.

Road

These bikes often have a more aggressive geometry with a riding position that will have you bent forward toward the bars. Road bikes will generally have better aerodynamics for maximum speed on the pavement, and the electric assistance will make hills much easier. Gravel bikes are a wider-tired, hardier variation of road bikes capable of off-road riding. 

Mountain

Electric mountain bikes have many of the same features as traditional MTBs, including shock absorbers and knobby tires, that allow you to ride over rough terrain. The addition of electric assistance means that you’ll have a much easier time pedaling up steep climbs.

Commuter

Commuter bikes are built for urban riding. Compared with road bikes, they’ll usually have a more upright riding position, and they’ll often include convenience features like integrated lights and fenders. Best part: The electric boost will keep you from arriving at the office dripping in sweat.

Cargo

These bikes will have cargo racks on the front or back or even large front buckets (like a wheelbarrow) to carry bulky loads. The electric motor makes it easier to carry extra payload that would be too much for a regular bike. To maximize an e-bike’s cargo potential, you may need to purchase separate accessories like cargo straps, baskets, panniers, or seats to carry items like groceries or ride with passengers.

Range

For many, range is one of the biggest concerns when buying an e-bike—no one wants to pedal a dead e-bike home. When shopping, you’ll likely see a wide range in estimated mileage. That’s because factors including rider weight, terrain, and assist modes have a big effect on how quickly a bike’s battery gets depleted.

Here are some factors to consider when assessing an e-bike’s range and overall performance. 

Battery

One of the first considerations for range is a bike’s battery capacity—usually measured in watt-hours (Wh), which gauge the amount of time a battery can sustain 1 watt of output. Some manufacturers list their battery performance in amp-hours. To convert to watt-hours, simply multiply the amp-hour figure by the voltage of the bike’s electrical system. Regardless of how it’s measured, a higher-capacity battery means more power, and often more range, but it will also add more weight.

Motor

Bigger motors will give you more power and faster acceleration, but they will also drain your battery more quickly. Motor power is measured in Watts. You may also see motor torque measurements in Newton-meters (Nm). Higher torque will help you move heavier loads, and power up hills.

Assist Modes

Many e-bikes have multiple electric assistance modes, from maximum assistance (which provides the most added power and acceleration) to low-power eco modes, which offer less boost but will preserve your battery’s charge. Riding in efficiency modes and limiting your use of an e-bike’s throttle (if equipped with one) will increase your range.

Additional Features

E-bikes come with a variety of integrated features and optional accessories. Here are a few to look out for, in addition to important warranty details and manufacturer maintenance perks for potential fixes on costly and technical components like the motor and battery.

Motor Location

Most e-bikes use one of two motor locations, mid-drive or hub-drive. Mid-drive motors are in the bottom bracket, where your pedals are. These motors are more efficient, lighter, and often offer greater range, but they can be more expensive. Hub-drive motors are mounted in the hub of the rear wheel and power that wheel directly. These are often cheaper, and slightly less efficient, but reliable. One caveat: Changing a flat tire with a hub-drive motor can be quite difficult.

Apps

Some e-bike brands offer apps that connect to your bike and allow you to view diagnostics, range, and battery life right on your phone. With some apps, you can even use your phone to change the bike’s assistance mode or keep tabs on your bike’s location.

Removable Battery

Removable batteries allow you to charge your e-bike without bringing the entire bike inside. This is an especially important concern if you live on the upper floors of an apartment building or if you don’t have power outlets in your garage or bike storage space.

Integrated Lights

Integrated front and rear lights will ensure you’re always visible and can see the road or trail in front of you. With integrated lights, you won’t have to worry about charging and carrying a separate set of lights when you ride.

Integrated Racks

Even if you don’t buy a cargo bike, many commuter and recreational e-bikes have racks to make carrying items much easier.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.