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First Timers’ guide – What is an electric bike?

Essentially, an electric bike is a normal bicycle that has been adapted to include an electric motor and battery. The key parts to an electric bike are: the motor, battery and controller.

The motor and battery pack provide added power to your own pedalling and the battery is simply recharged by plugging it into the mains; compact electric motors are built into the hub of either the back or front wheel or into the crank (‘mid drive’). The handlebar display allows the rider to control the level of assistance from the motor.

Electric bikes have been around for a long time, but recent advances in technology have enabled a new generation of sporty, lightweight electric bicycles which have revolutionized the idea of environmentally-friendly transportation while retaining the simple economy of traditional bikes for short and medium-distance journeys. The added benefit of being able use an electric bike on cycle paths, short cuts and countryside routes away from the congestion is proving to be an attractive alternative for many daily commutes.

How does an electric bike work?

Most electric bikes (with the exception of those fitted with an independent throttle) require the rider to pedal. The motor’s assistance kicks in automatically when the pedals are turned – and at the level chosen by the rider for that point of their journey.

So the assistance can be increased for arduous hill climbs or to enable the rider to tackle a longer journey than the rider’s leg power alone would normally manage.

The varying levels of assistance available means you can gradually reduce the power from the motor as you get fitter, if you are returning to the saddle after a long break from cycling or are recovering from illness or injury.

Although e-bikes are usually heavier than pushbikes, they can still be ridden unassisted, so you won’t come to a grinding halt at the side of the road if you forget to charge your battery.

The range you’ll achieve from a new, fully-charged battery will depend on many factors – from the capacity of the battery (larger batteries of course weigh more too, so you’ll need to decide how far you’re likely to cycle in between charges ahead of purchase) – plus challenging terrains, strong wind resistance and higher levels of assistance will also run the battery down faster than leisurely cycling with minimum assistance on flat roads.

So, generally speaking, a battery’s range will typically allow you to cycle anything between 10 and 50 miles before you need to recharge it, which is usually enough for most journeys and commutes, with batteries generally recharging in around 3 hours or more.

Which model is right for me?

The market has evolved markedly over recent years. Frame style choices, carbon frames, folding e-bikes, e-MTBs, electric cargo bikes and trikes, battery options, motor positions, integrated power and multiple brands – a wide array of choices now exists to suit most people. It’s also worth considering the bike’s overall ‘ready to ride’ weight if you’ll need to carry it at any point.

Aside from aesthetic preferences – and the days of bulky frames are long gone – thinking through how and where you intend to use your electric bike should help to make the most of your investment.

That checklist could include the distances you’re likely to want – or need – to travel, the terrain, how much you would realistically enjoy in terms of journey time. If you live in a hilly area, then many of us know what it feels like to have to get off half way up and walk to the top! Being defeated by a hill stops the day you get an electric bike.

Furthermore, if some assistance is going to make the journey more enjoyable – and mean you’re more likely to stick to cycling than get back in the car having given up after a week – then an electric bike might be the perfect solution.

There are some very knowledgeable and friendly people willing to share their experiences on the forum. Just tell them where you’re at in your research and what sort of journeys you’ll need your e-bike for if you think other peoples’ experiences will assist you in producing a shortlist of possible purchases.

Some things to consider:

  • Check the specs between e-bikes you’re comparing; you might want to spend extra upgrading tyres to Schwalbe or another brand for instance. Does the bike come with extras as part of the price? Lights, mud guards?
  • Battery replacement costs – find out what the expected lifespan of your bike’s battery is (in years/number of charges) as well a where you’ll be able to source a replacement battery from at that time and what it is likely to cost.
  • Warranty – what sort of protection from future upkeep costs does the bike’s warranty provide?
  • Stockists will sometimes have clearance deals on at the end of each year (to clear the way for the following year’s new stock).

Try before you buy

Once you have that shortlist, there is nothing better than test riding those e-bikes at your local e-bike retailer to see if your thoughts on paper work out in reality. The NEC Cycle Show in Birmingham is a yearly event where you can see and test a multitude of electric bike brands on the e-bike test track to whittle the list of possibles down. You’ll also find manufacturers and dealers on our forum who will be more than happy to help.

Ideally you should aim to try several models – and ultimately on the sort of terrain you want to ride the bike on – before parting with your hard earned cash. Particularly if you live near steep hills, you’ll want to know how well your bike can cope with those ascents, as well as how confident its brakes make you feel coming down the other side.