The Motorized Bicycle: A Beginners Guide to E-Bikes

When this site was first started back in the early 2000s, the idea of using an e-bike or a gas bike would have been borderline absurd for many of our readers. They were certainly available; however, most people did not use them, and so they weren’t very common. But we are now embarking on 2018 and e-bikes, like many other electronic methods of transportation, are growing more popular.

Still, you may not know much about them (or anything at all really), and so we thought it was time to shed some light on this form of transportation. We, of course, cannot possibly hope to predict everything you may want to ask about, but we hope to at least be able to give you a thorough grounding and answer many common questions. If you have any other ones, please make sure to ask and we will do our best to answer.

What should you know about motorbikes, other than that they should not be confused with motorcycles?

What are E-Bikes?

An e-bike is hardly anything mysterious. It’s just like a regular bicycle, except that it has an electric motor to help people pedal more efficiently and get more power when it’s needed. You can pedal normally, and then use the motor to do things like help you get up steep or long hills, deal with a headwind, get more power when you are too tired to pedal anymore or to help you bike with friends and family if you would normally struggle with pedaling. It’s not the same as using a scooter or a motorcycle because it’s not as fast and you can still manually power it.

E-bikes either come with their motor, or you can convert a regular bicycle to an e-bike by using a kit or e-wheels. They range in price, but the average is affordable, especially compared to a car. They are also cheaper to maintain than a car, more environmentally friendly, and healthier to operate. All in all, it’s no wonder that now that e-bikes look very similar to a regular bike, they are becoming more popular.

How Does an Electric Bike Work?

As we said before, an electric bike isn’t anything too weird and it doesn’t work much differently from a regular one. A motorized bicycle has pedals, steering handlebars, and regular wheels, but it also has a small motor which allows you to get extra help when you need it to go against a headwind, up a hill or when you’re tired. Motorized bicycles represent something of a hybrid between the old-fashioned bike and a motorcycle. It doesn’t go as quickly, but the rider is smoother and quieter, with the motor working to supplement what the rider is doing rather than replace it.

The motor obviously represents the bulk of the differences between an e-bike and a bike. The addition of the motor and the battery it needs adds between twenty and forty pounds of weight, making it generally harder and more unwieldy to carry around. However, this weight doesn’t make a difference to your ride with or without the motor helping you because the extra weight doesn’t mean much against the weight of the rider anyway and of course, if you have the motor running, it can manage a much heavier load. The average motorized bicycle uses about 400 watts of power (.5 horsepower), letting it run upwards of 40km/hour, which isn’t bad at all. And while you can recharge your bicycle by pedaling, you must pedal at a faster speed than the motor can speed you, which isn’t practical. Instead, you’re better off simply plugging your battery into a wall outlet and leaving it at that. It generally takes around two hours to recharge, but that time will vary.

There are two broad ways to get an electric bike. The first way is to simply purchase one. This has the advantage that you have a road ready bike with a warranty, support, and a full system (bike, battery, charger and motor), that is meant to be together and thus will be properly integrated. The disadvantage of this is that while there are more on the market all the time, you may still not find the exact one you want. The other disadvantage is that you can’t really upgrade or change your bike because that integration means that the parts may not necessarily play well with other parts.

The other way you can get an e-bike is to use conversion kits to create your own, based on your original pedal bike. The advantage of this is that you will have a much broader range of styles, colors, and things to choose from, and furthermore, you can choose the customizations that you want. The disadvantage of this is that you will have to build it yourself and that may not be easy, or it may seem intimidating. We’re going to talk more about these kits later in this article; for now, it’s enough to say that they exist, and they allow you to create a custom ride.

So, there you have it! An e-bike functions basically the same way as any other bicycle, but the motor means you can get a higher speed and some help when it comes to moving up hills, traveling when you’re tired or in pain, or working against a headwind. And they are slowly getting more popular because you can get higher speeds with less effort.

Types of Electric Bikes

Electric bikes are simply motorized versions of regular bikes and that means you can see the same times of motorbikes that you would see on regular bikes. These include:

  • Street/Road bikes. Street/Road bikes with a motor are meant for moving around cities and towns. They don’t tend to have as much power as an electronic motorbike, but they can still move at a good speed, they brake well, and they have good acceleration so that you can manage traffic lights. Street bikes may or may not be legal to use on bike paths, bike lanes, and streets. It really depends on the municipality.
  • Mountain bikes. Some people might consider this cheating, but others have found that the electronic version gives them the ability to go places they couldn’t go to ordinarily. They have more power on average and a good battery so that you can go mountain biking for a while. They have been made more popular in places like Switzerland where people use them to bike the Alps.
  • Tricycles and pedicabs: Pedicabs and three-wheel bikes are popular tourist traps with people being driven around in them by their driver. Many pedicabs are still pedal powered, but this is considered more of a novelty. Instead, by using a small motor, people can still get around using this charming mode, but with more speed.
  • Folding: folding e-bikes are almost always just street bikes, but they fold up, meaning that they are much easier to transport around, easier to carry and easier to store. One disadvantage of them is that they are heavier.

The most common ones you will see are street, mountain, and folding. The pedicabs are far more expensive and tricycle ones are often marketed as scooters.

How Fast Can an Electric Bike Go?

e-bike speedMost people don’t think e-bikes are very fast and so opt for a car. True, an e-bike can’t move you along as quickly as a car on the highway, but in an urban setting, they can be evenly matched. The average speed of a car in an urban setting is 18 mph (consider all the starts, stops, and slow-downs you must do). The average speed of an e-bike? 15 mph. Slower, yes, but not much slower and since you are on a bike, you may be able to take advantage of green routes and paths that don’t take you through as much traffic.

You also may say that you cannot go as far on an e-bike as you can in a car. Also, true, but considering the battery size, you can go far. A car goes about 280-300 miles on a tank of gas (depending on fuel efficiency, road conditions, etc.). That certainly does beat out the humble e-bike. However, a tank of gas also costs a lot of money, plus you’re paying for wear and tear, tires, oil, and more. The electric bike goes between eighteen and sixty miles (sometimes up to a hundred miles or more, depending on your model and how much pedaling you do between using the motor).

This may seem like a yawning chasm of a difference, but we’re comparing apples to carrots here. If we look at e-bikes and e-cars, we can see something more even. Some e-bikes can beat out electric cars, depending on the terrain and how efficient the bike is.

Advantages and Disadvantages of a Motor Bike

There are some neat advantages to using an electric bike! They include:

  • Load hauling. The Extracycles’ Bosch Electric Assist system lets you stay riding at 15mph, but can haul a load of up to 400 pounds of gear and rider. Neat!
  • E-bikes are cheaper to run than a car. The annual cost (on average) of maintaining a car is $9,283; whereas, the average cost of maintaining an e-bike is $390. And the fuel is cheaper too: 12 gallons to fill the tank of a small car compared to a 480 watt/hr battery that you can charge just about anywhere. Much cheaper and more environmentally friendly too.
  • The usual advantages of bikes: free parking, zero emissions, no gridlock, and exercise. But they also eliminate the problem of a lack of power because the batteries have grown stronger and you can still use your own pedal power to get your bike going.
  • Electric bikes have also seen a surge in popularity among seniors and the disabled, or people with chronic pain. This is because they can alleviate a lot of the issues that people with lower mobility ordinarily have with a regular bike and level the playing field between people of different fitness levels and abilities. 18% of disabled cyclists own a bike with e-assist that helps users move away from traffic lights faster or help people with pain and fatigue keep going. (2017 poll by Wheels for Wellbeing).
  • By switching to an e-bike from the car, bus, subway or train, commuters could save an average of around $10,519 over the course of five years (this was according to a poll conducted by an e-bike company, so take that with a grain of salt). Even if you are very conservative in your estimates though, it is true that an e-bike would save you money in gas, insurance, and general maintenance.

Disadvantages:

  • Pay very, very, very close attention to laws and regulations surrounding the use of e-bikes. They are still new enough that local laws haven’t caught up with them and so some places treat them like normal bikes and others treat them like cars. In some states and provinces, you can use the bike lanes, bike paths, trails and off-street bikeways. In other places, you need a license and cannot use the bike paths. Make sure to check in with your municipal law to see where you stand.
  • You must be a minimum age to operate an e-bike in at least forty states and provinces, usually 14-16 years of age or older. However, in Quebec, you must be 18.
  • Electric bikes do have more parts than the normal bike and more parts means more opportunity for problems to arise.
  • E-bikes are heavier than regular bikes. Most of the time, you won’t notice, but if you run out of juice going up a hill, you may start to notice that battery pack and motor!
  • On the note of running out of juice, don’t forget to charge your battery after each ride and don’t let your electric bike sit unused for too long! Lithium-Ion batteries last two to five years and an SLA battery last 1-2 years, so keep that lifespan in mind as well.

For most enthusiasts, the advantages greatly outweigh the disadvantages, but it is still important to keep everything in mind so that you are not caught by surprise.

A Short History of the E-Bike

Electronic bikes may seem cutting edge and certainly, some companies will pitch them as being revolutionary, but they have been around for a very long time. Patents for the electric bike began cropping up in the late 19th century with many rather wacky ones a few that look normal, by our standards.

  • In 1881, the Trouve Tricycle was patented by Gustave Trouve who wanted to experiment with electric drives. He used a British tricycle to do it. It was a lever-drive originally, but by 1881, the factory had upgraded the models to a rotary pedal drive.
  • In 1895, the direct-drive rear hub-motor was patented. It uses a permanent-magnet direct-current and while it’s old, it still looks modern. We still use something like the DD hubs because they can be powered a high watt level.
  • Hubmotors opened the doors for more patents. In 1896, a patent from Charles Theryc was filed which used a brushed planetary-geared hub-motor (the 1895 version was brushless). In the same year, James O’Brien built an obscure electronic bike that looks rather similar to the modern one, but with the motor under the seat and a woven silk belt driving the hub of the rear wheel.

There were so many more patents for all kinds of whacky e-bikes into the 20th century, but those are the earliest ones. The first true electric bike was invented in 1897 by Hossea W. Libbey. It was propelled by a double electric motor and the model was reinvented and reworked for the next bunch of years.

Electronic bikes, in one form or another, floated around through the early to mid-twentieth century, but they didn’t gain a lot of traction as most people were perfectly happy driving. Over the 1973 oil crisis, environmental movements grew and there was more interest in bikes, including electric ones. But even that wasn’t enough to push it to the forefront of human consciousness. It’s only in the last handful of years that electric bikes are pushing themselves (ha) forward: they are lighter, they are faster, and they are far more affordable than electronic cars. They are also ecologically sound! All that put together means that these bikes are growing in popularity.

Where are Electric Bikes Popular?

e-bikes-around-worldElectric bikes seem like they would be very useful to have. They are faster than the average pedal bike, they can help you get up hills easier or fight a headwind, and they are more environmentally friendly. However, they are far from universal. Many countries are still trying to figure out how they should be treated: as a bike or as a car, and many people don’t think to ride an electronic bike, or they don’t see the point of them, either because they don’t think the electric bike will be true exercise, or because the bike doesn’t seem fast enough. But there are also places where they are immensely popular, and even in places where they haven’t yet seen a surge of use, they are beginning to grow. So, where you can find many electric bikes purring on the streets?

  • China. E-bikes are incredibly popular in China, with over 200 million people who commute to work, school, and anywhere else by bicycle. This means that major cities such as Fuzhou are incredibly quiet! E-bikes are also being pushed to deal with decreasing air pollution and they work very well at doing that. China is also a major exporter of e-bikes too, with the EU importing over 500,000 bikes from China, spreading through all 28-member states.
  • Asia, in general, enjoys a love of electric bikes. In 2016, the Asia Pacific region saw 32.8 million sales of e-bikes which is 30x Western Europe, the next largest sales area. (https://www.statista.com/statistics/255658/worldwide-sales-of-electric-bicycles-by-region/)
  • The UK. In the United Kingdom, e-bike riders enjoyed a small victory when their motor size could increase to 250W and the speed increased from 15mph to 15.5mph. Yay. This isn’t exciting, but at least it shows that the UK is striving towards making them more universally useful for riders.
  • Switzerland. In Switzerland, e-bikes are relatively free from tight regulations, making them more popular. Cyclists can have a 500W motor (Double that of the UK) and so the Swiss love their bikes. For examples, pedelecs alone are 20% of the e-bike range. The powerful motor too means that you can find e-bikes all over the place, including Alpine passes. Cool!

By far the most common place to see e-bikes is the Asia Pacific region with China being the leader, but they are growing in popularity. In many parts of the world, the main hurdle to more broadly used e-bikes is both social in nature (people don’t see them as very viable compared to cars for speed or bikes for health) and the law (laws haven’t caught up yet). Given enough time and push through, e-bikes will continue to grow in use.

Electric bikes and weight loss

Motorbikes and losing weight? Think the two don’t go together? Think again. A study done by the University of Colorado Boulder accredits e-bikes with health benefits; maybe not as extreme as the traditional cycling, but you can still enjoy improved cardiovascular health, fitness, and aerobic capacity. Electronic bikes are also a great way for people to get started in cycling since they don’t have to worry about being too slow to get from place to place.

One of the big advantages of gas bikes for people is that they level the playing field between people who aren’t very fit or have disabilities and those who are fit, allowing everyone to cycle together. You still must pedal your bike just like you would pedal a regular one, but when you are exhausted, you can get the motor to do some of the work for you so that you can rest a little and then get back to it. You will burn fewer calories than the traditional pedal bike, but it’s only about a 20% difference, so you will still lose some weight.

Another advantage is that using a motorized bicycle is lower impact than regular cycling, making it ideal for people who need to exercise, but cannot do high impact sports. It’s also fun to go whipping around on an electric bike, so you’re more likely to want to use yours and use it regularly.

People who have used electric bikes to lose weight and get fit have seen some great success, such as losing plenty of fat, getting more cardiovascular fitness, and becoming stronger. It’s especially popular among people with disabilities, chronic pain, or people who are obese because it’s lower impact, the motor can take some of the strain away when needed, and it’s fun! So, if you think that using an e-bike to lose weight is cheating, think again. It’s very effective.

Here’s another article worth checking out at the New York Times.

Purchasing an Electric Bike

Do we have you convinced or intrigued? What should you know about purchasing an electric bike of your very own?

There are some things you will want to consider before you buy your bike so that you can make sure you are shopping around in the right places and will end up with the bike you need and want.

  1. What do you need? What is important to you and what is not important? Comfort? Hill climbing? Long distance cycling? Light and foldable or heavier with more power? Write down or think hard about what you want to be able to accomplish with your e-bike.
  2. Who are you purchasing through? There are plenty of ‘brick and mortar’ places that sell e-bikes. A quick Google search should pull up results in your community. You can also shop online, either through a company or through something like Amazon. No matter where you do it though, the important thing is to keep in mind things like quality, what other customers had to say about their experience and the company’s commitment to giving you the best product possible. All of this means doing some research before you buy.
  3. How much money are you willing to spend? Remember that you get what you pay for and a high-quality e-bike will come with a correspondingly high price tag. On the other hand, e-bikes pay for themselves with consistent use by saving you money in fuel costs, insurance, maintenance costs, parking, and health, so think of it more as an investment
  4. What are your riding abilities? Are you new to cycling, been a long time away from cycling or are you looking for something to up your game? Do you need something that can run all day or just for an hour or so? Motorized bikes are great for helping you to get fit, lose weight, or stay in shape, but you still must consider your abilities and ensure you don’t get a bike that will be ‘too much to handle’.

It’s important to spend some time doing your homework, considering your needs, and generally taking some time to figure out what you want out of your electric bike so that you can make the best possible decisions and purchases a bike that will be perfect for you.

If you’re not sure about buying a motorized bike, you can consider buying used electric bikes as well. If you decide to buy used, you must add another layer of care into your research: make sure you know how many miles or discharge/charge cycles the battery pack has on it. If the number is high, you’ll quickly have to buy a new battery pack and that is the expensive part! Used electric bikes can be purchased online through places like Craigslist and eBay or often through retailers who sell used ones. Retailers are generally more trustworthy as they will have checked the bike to ensure it’s road ready, but if you find a good seller, then you can save yourself money buying privately.

Do you want some more direction? There are some great electric bikes on sites such as Amazon. E-bikes online range hugely in price, from pedicabs (almost $10,000), to urban cycles ($4600) to folding bikes that only cost less than around $400. If we had to pick some that caught our eye on Amazon, then see below;

 

Admotor HITHOT Electric Mountain Bike: Coming in with thirty 5-star reviews, this electric mountain bike is sleek, gorgeous, and easy to put together. It’s sturdy, with a maximum speed of 25 mph, and a maximum load of 300lbs. A charge lasts 60 miles and it has a powerful battery and a 500W motor. Hills are not a problem for this bike!

Greenbike USA GB5 500: This bike looks a little strange, but you won’t be thinking about it for long. It can hit 20 miles per hour and go as far as 60 miles on a single charge (90 with pedal assist). It has a folding seat to make battery removal and placement simple, and it is convenient to use. It also has a USB port, so you can do things like charge your phone or your GPS as you go! This is a folding bike too, so storage and transportation is easy.

Pedego: Pedego is more expensive, but they make attractive e-bikes, and the Pedego City Commuter classic is no exception. It is light, has a long-lasting battery, USB charging, powerful braking, and is great for climbing hills and accelerating. This is one of our favorites for anyone looking for an urban e-bike.

You can find any of these bikes, and more, on Amazon.com. Delivery is normally free and no hassle returns make sure you are covered.

Electric Bicycle Conversion Kits

What an electric bike, but don’t want to give up your old pedal bike? You don’t have to! It is possible to turn a pedal bike into an e-bike using a wide variety of things. You can use a device like the Copenhagen wheel or you can use retrofit kits. Companies such as LEED, BionX, and E-rad produce kits that allow you to turn your pedal bike into an electric bike with a bit of work.

The first way to convert your pedal bike into an e-bike is rather sci-fi: bolt-on, fully contained systems called ‘e-wheels’. There are a few major players in this game: Superpedestrian, FlyKly, and EVELO (Omni wheel). They are similar in how they behave and what they do, but they have a few differences to consider when you’re shopping around.

Omni Wheels

Omni wheels came out from EVELO. They are the simpler out of many other e-wheels because it doesn’t come with everything you would want, and it connects to a computer rather than to a smartphone. It also requires a cadence sensor get everything it needs to provide the best ride possible. The Omni wheel is a front wheel connection, so it uses the sensor at the crankarms to judge when the rider is pedaling versus when the rider needs some help. The sensor is wired to the control unit and does not operate wirelessly, which is a bit silly considering that wireless sensors have been around for around twenty years.

The Copenhagen Wheel

The Copenhagen Wheel is the most famous of the e-wheels. It was the first of its kind and when it hit the market in 2009, excitement reigned supreme! Developed by MIT’s SenseAble Cities laboratory, the wheel was part of a long-term project where cities were treated as an open-network computer where everything is connected, and life is improved for everyone.

MIT has a reputation to maintain and as such, the Copenhagen Wheel has some cool attributes. These include things like embedded sensors that monitor traffic and pollution and the potential to do things like measure speed and potholes. However, the original wheel was just an experiment. It took Superpedestrian, a company founded by MIT professor Assaf Biderman, to bring it into the light of day. And the wheel was far from produced immediately; the company worked on doing things like dropping its weight and price. It took eight years after the initial announcement for the Copenhagen Wheel to be released: it only came out in in the last year!

The Copenhagen Wheel boasts a built-in motor, battery (48-volt lithium ion), computer, and sensor array. It’s controlled by your smartphone and can be charged with a battery charger, with additional charging from regenerative braking (if you back-pedal, you charge the bike). The sensor reads topography and your pedaling to decide when you need some extra power. The battery has a range of up to 50 kilometers.

 

The Best Electric Bicycle Conversion Kits

You could buy a straight-up electric bicycle; however, there are a couple of flaws with that. First, they can be expensive and if you already have a bike, you are basically buying a bicycle twice. Secondly, an electric bike that you buy off the shelf (so to speak), is much harder to modify. If you want something that is more customizable, and you want to be able to keep your favorite pedal bike, then an electric bicycle conversion kit is the way to go.

There are many conversion kits out there; a quick search on Amazon will turn that up for you. Many of them are better rated than others and of course, the prices will vary wildly. So, what sort of kit should you be looking for?

Clean Republic: Electric Bike Kit 250-Watt 24 Volt Hill Topper

This is one of the highest rated conversion kits on Amazon.com, though it’s also a bit pricey and can run anywhere from $400.00 up to $700.00. (Check for latest price here)

This kit has many features which makes it very popular with users. First, it’s simple to use and includes everything you need (battery, charger, wheel, tire, and cable set), so all you need is a wrench to put it together. It’s also very light; one of the big drawbacks of electric bikes for many people is the weight, but this kit aims to destroy that stereotype by creating a light kit that doesn’t create drag when used. It’s also sturdy and weatherproof, which makes running around all over the place easier and it’s compatible with 95% of the bikes in the United States so you can really convert just about anything.

There are three battery options for this particular kit: 8 miles, 12 miles and 20 miles and three-wheel sizes (24” 26” and 700c). This means that you can really pick and choose what you want and can even build up from there.

Users have found this kit to be easy to put together, capable of handling decent loads and riders, and gives you the flexibility to pedal yourself or use the motor to help you along. It’s also popular because it’s affordable, works well, and simple to use. This kit is a great one, particularly for those who are getting started into modifying and creating their own e-bikes.

 

MegaBrand 8v 1000w 26 Inch Front Wheel Electric Bicycle Motor Conversion Kit

We chose this one as a second choice because it also has high ratings, but it’s cheaper. In fact, this kit is less than half the price of the other kit mentioned above. (Check current price at Amazon.com) This conversion kit can go up to 29mph, which is higher than is legal in some places, but certainly gives you the ability to hustle! The kit includes the whole wheel and tire, motor controller, speed throttle, power break lever and a wire harness. Aside from price, the other claim to fame for this kit is that it is easy to put together at less than an hour of installation time, and it’s quiet. Many reviews mirror this as well, remarking favorably on its price and power. The main problem with this kit is that for some people, it doesn’t carry enough of a load and it’s not compatible with as large a range of bikes as the other kit we looked at. If you’re just getting started on modding and you don’t want to spend a lot of money though, this kit is a good one to use.

Electric bikes are slowly, but surely starting to make traction over on the roadways, bike paths, trails, and garages! And it’s easy to see why. They allow people who may normally avoid cycling to join the ride, they make it easier to ride up hills and through headwinds, they are more environmentally friendly, there is a huge range to choose from and they are just fun to use. There are many different types of bikes to choose from and a wide price range to sort through. The advantages of using e-bikes generally outweigh the disadvantages and you can do things to mitigate some of the disadvantages through careful modifications.

In this piece, we went through a ton of information about electric bikes, from types to conversion kits, history to advantages and disadvantages. It’s important to keep reading and learning about them though and when you are ready to buy, take the time to purchase the one that’s right for you. That way, you can enjoy your electric bike for many years to come!