Electric Bike Buying Guide

May 26, 2021 • Transportation

Electric Bike Buying Guide

If you’re thinking about buying an electric bike, you’re certainly not alone. Although e-bikes have been on the rise for roughly a decade, the pandemic seriously accelerated adoption: U.S. e-bike retail sales — so just new bikes, not gear or services — were up +145% in 2020, compared to 2019, according to the NPD Group.

What’s more, people who buy e-bikes ride them often. One study found that people who buy an e-bike more than double their use of a bicycle for transport. It also found that e-bike owners were riding to work, to run errands, and visit friends instead of driving their cars.

So what do you need to know before you buy an e-bike? Check out our companion Bike Buying Guide for the basics, then answer the questions below to hone in on the right e-bike for you.

What kind of riding do you intend to do?

Similar to buying a regular bike, the first question you should ask yourself is, “what am I really going to use this thing for?” For instance, are you into hauling stuff or kids on your bike? Or are you aiming more for relaxed cruising? Mountain biking (yes, e-mountain bikes exist!)? Urban commuting? Or do you have creaky knees and just want to expend less energy pedaling than you would on a regular bike? The kind of riding you intend to do on your e-bike will correspond to a bike style. For instance, if you answered “hauling stuff” above, an electric cargo bike is probably the right bike for you.

How do you want to be powered?

E-bikes come in two main types. The first and most common is referred to as a “pedelec.” These bikes gauge the rider’s pedaling and automatically add an appropriate amount of assistance from the motor. Generally, the motor will shut off once the rider reaches 20 or 28mph, depending on if it is a class 1 or 3 e-bike respectively.

Class 2 e-bikes have a throttle on the handlebars that can be twisted to engage the motor. In this case, the rider directly controls the amount of motorized power being delivered, but is limited to a maximum assisted speed of 20mph.

Where should the motor go on your bike?

Motor placement matters more than you may think, because it impacts everything from range to weight distribution. Hub-drive motors are positioned in the front or rear wheel, with the motor built into the wheel hub. The motor provides propulsion by spinning the tire where it’s mounted. Hub motors are simpler and cheaper, but less efficient and can be harder to lift and maneuver due to weighting one end more than the other.

Mid-drive motors are placed between the pedals at the bike’s bottom bracket, centering its weight on the bike. This placement makes the bike feel more balanced to the rider. Mid-drive motors can be more expensive, but they have a unique advantage: They put the power through the bike’s drivetrain. When you shift gears, you’re also keeping the motor in its most efficient range, so the motor can be smaller and lighter.

What should I look for in batteries?

There are differences between batteries, but the one thing you really should check is the warranty. Less than a year is not a great sign; two years (or more) is preferred, and usually the sign of a quality piece of machinery. Note that bikes often have separate warranties for the frame vs the motor and battery (since they’re made by different manufacturers).

But what about range? Range — the distance an e-bike will cover on a single charge — is important when choosing an e-bike. For instance, if you’re selecting an e-bike for your 30 mile one-way commute, you need a bike that can do that on a single charge. But ranges for particular batteries/bikes will vary depending on:

  • Terrain

  • Level of assist

  • Level of rider input

  • Weight/cargo

  • Weather

Brands do provide range estimates, but remember that these tend to be best case. Bosch provides a really good e-bike range calculator if you’d like to estimate how much range you’ll need for your riding.

How much should I spend?

Before you think about cost, test ride some bikes. That will give you a feel of what lower-end and higher-end bikes feel like to ride. Keep in mind that the low-end e-bikes retail for between $1,000 - $2,000. And higher-end bikes tend to be in the $5,000 - $10,000 range. And as with anything, you get what you pay for.

I’m ready to test ride some bikes! What should I look for?

Many of the same rules apply to test riding e-bikes as they do to regular bikes. But for e-bikes, check for:

  • Fit.

  • How does it handle leaving a stop?

  • How does it feel when the power cuts off?

  • How does it feel decelerating? (regenerative braking vs brake cut-off)

  • When you change your input to the bike, how does it respond?

So where do I go to test ride bikes?

First, call your local bike shop and ask if they have e-bikes. Stock will vary, especially since we’re in the midst of a global bicycle shortage. We also recommend The New Wheel, a Bay Area-based shop with multiple locations that sells just e-bikes.

I heard there are e-bike subsidies. Is that true?

None yet, buuut there’s a proposed federal bill that would offer Americans of all income levels a refundable 30-percent tax credit for purchasing a pedal-assist bicycle. Then there’s a state-level e-bike bill affordability bill proposed in California that would incentivize the purchase of electric bicycles as a means of reducing vehicle miles traveled.

Need more help? Email us!

Email anna@bikesmakelifebetter.com a note with your answers to the following questions:

  • What kind of riding would you like to do?

  • Roughly how many miles one-way?

  • Do you currently own a bike, or have you in the past? If so, what kind? What do/did you like/dislike about this bike?

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