With hundreds of models and better and lighter batteries, electric bikes have pushed their way onto the centre stage of the world’s bike market in a surprising short period of time. My first encounter with e-bikes was in 2011. However, I recently read that in 2017 the numbers of electric bikes (or e-bikes) was greater than the number of standard bikes. Interestingly, Chinese consumers are now purchasing a huge share of the products. And to put some numbers to it, the total number of e-bikes sold worldwide in 2015 was about 35 million1.
Our first encounter with electric bikes was on the Danube cycle route. They were being ridden largely by older men and women. At a hotel one night I had a chance to question some of these people about why they were using them. They explained that they really enjoyed the rides but would have been unable to pedal the distances, nor surmount the small hills, without the aid of the motorization. They could utilize them on a trip such as the Danube bike track because they were staying in hotels and hostels each night, with the facilities enabling them to recharge their bike’s battery.
Viewed from that vantage point, i.e. allowing someone to do something they would not otherwise been able to enjoy, electric bikes made perfect sense.
On a more practical basis, was the rational of some of our Nelson neighbours who now use e-bikes. The community of Nelson is set in a valley, with many of the homes in the surrounding hills. Each trip to those houses entails climbing a grade of some degree. The e-bikes certainly help when returning home with panniers full of groceries. Having that assistance also discourages the use of the car, with the associated hassles for finding, and the cost of, parking places when in the town for shopping or other activities.
Another friend lives about ten kilometres north of the central town. She has purchased an electric bike to get to work; having given up her car. This allows her to get some exercise, minus the annoyance of arriving at her job all sweaty. At the end of the day, the bike also aides in battling the typical strong northerly breezes blowing against her for the return trip.
On the cycle paths, like the older cyclists on the Danube track, I have observed many people out for a ride who would never have considered bike riding for their exercise.
E-bikes now come in almost every model imaginable: standard touring, commuter, fold-ups, mountain, hybrids, tricycles, etc. There are literally hundreds of brands and models. To me, the e-bikes built for commuting, the tricycles for people who have difficulty with their balance, and the work-bike models – those with a big basket in front (from which I have seen loafs of bread or carpenter’s tools sticking out), or a long rack in back (where I have often seen two or three small children perched) – are the most practical. The others – mountain bikes, fat-tyred bikes, and fold-ups - seem to defeat the purpose for which those styles were intended.
A big factor separating the various models is how the power assist varies; i.e. whether it is necessary to pedal along with the motor or not. The two major types are Pedal Assist (Pedelec) and Power on Demand (Throttle Based).
The Pedal Assist provides power only when you pedal. Therefore, there is no additional help when you stop pedalling or hit the brakes.
The alternative, Power on Demand, requires no pedalling. These bikes are more like motorized scoters. One can pedal or cruise along with pure motor power; the pedals and the motor have been designed to be independent of each other. In some countries, these equate to mopeds, and are regulated accordingly2. Be sure to check with the bike shop where you purchase yours as to its classification.
In addition, look for models for which the batteries have been located as low as possible. This design keeps the bike’s centre of gravity nearer the ground; an attribute that adds to the bike’s stability. And as the E-bikes tend to be heavier, take that factor into account if you will have to lift the bike upstairs into an apartment or on to a bike rack, or if on a ride you run out of battery power and have to push or pedal it up hills.
Naturally, with more components, e-bikes are not inexpensive. So, it is important to decide on how you want to utilize them and do some preliminary research on the web before heading off the bike shops. Also, test ride as many makes and models as you can. If possible, take a course in riding them as they have some differences from regular bikes. Such a course may also help in the decision-making process for a make and model.
Be sure the shop where you purchase a bike is also able to fix it should anything go wrong. They are more complicated machines. What with a motor, battery and all the associated electronics, it behoves one to purchase one from a quality manufacturer, not the cheapest one available.
Other items to check out are the time for charging the battery and its range; the clarity and simplicity of the display; the comfort of the bike in general; and what bells (literally) and whistles it comes with. For instance, the Kalkhoff bikes have a generator in the front wheel to power a front and rear light. This negates the necessity for batteries and adds a safety factor by keeping the lights on for all your riding; especially important when you are zipping along faster than people often expect bikes to travel. As with other bikes, there are now options for disc or hydraulic centre-pull brakes, external or internal (rear hub) gear systems, and of course how many gears and their range. (This later is important if you expect to cycle in hilly terrane.)
With the better ones starting in the US$2000 to $3000 range, they are ripe for thieves. Be sure to include the purchase a D-lock or heavy chain your bike. As the battery is the most expensive part, when possible, take the battery with you when you need to leave the bike locked up.
The recent proliferation of brands and models means that invariably some will not survive long in the market place. If your brand or model are discontinued, the repercussions are two-fold: first you may encounter difficulty in getting the bike repaired, and/or obtaining spare parts. Secondly, the resale value may be diminished.