“E-bikes” — bicycles with battery-powered motors that can assist a rider’s pedaling — have grown in popularity around the world. In Europe, e-bikes account for 50 percent of all bicycle sales. The Seattle metro area is following the trend: As bike lanes proliferate, fitness resolutions escalate, the hills intimidate, and environmental concerns simmer, commuters are turning to two-wheeled solutions to get around, often making an e-bike their go-to mode of transit.
“E-bikes make a great commuter solution, because you can travel at low resistance to work and arrive fresh enough for the day, then pedal harder for a workout on the way home,” says Nate Pitts of Gregg’s Greenlake Cycle, a family-owned store which has carried e-bikes for a decade. “They’re great for regular urban riding, too.”
These bikes cost more than their motorless counterparts, typically $2,500 to $5,000 for the Faraday, Cannondale, Trek, or Specialized brands sold at Gregg’s. That’s why those in the market for an e-bike need to consider how they’ll use these newfangled bicycles and weigh factors like motor style and how many watt hours the bike can run before a recharge, Pitts notes.
How do e-bikes function?
Every e-bike uses its motor’s power to assist the bicyclist’s pedaling motions. Most e-bikes come with multiple gear settings — for instance, economy mode, touring mode, sport mode, or turbo mode — depending on the degree of “pedal assistance” the rider desires from the motor. Bicyclists can adjust these modes depending on their terrain, headwinds, or other considerations — like arriving at work sweat-free.
E-bikes function without the motor, too. Switching an e-bike to “economy” mode to conserve battery power or riding motorless when the battery needs charging are common occurrences. However, because e-bikes can weigh anywhere from 40 pounds (road bike) to 55 pounds (mountain bike) and are much heavier than non-motorized bicycles, they provide a different riding experience: In motorless mode, you won’t be sluicing through traffic like a nimble bike messenger.
Where’s the motor?
Every e-bike has a motor. Bike motors are typically located “mid-drive” (inside the crank that turns the pedals) or in a wheel’s hub. Motors located at mid-drive tend to be higher-end, offer a smoother ride, and because of their location don’t interfere with tire changes. However, mid-drive motors are more expensive — so any bike featuring them will cost more than its hub counterpart.
Motors located on wheel hubs are cheaper and lighter weight, but also less responsive to gear adjustments, give the rider a “different” feel when pedaling. Hub motors’ presence calls for extra steps when it’s time for tire replacement or repair, since their wheel hub location and design impacts how wheels are connected to the bike.
Battery life on an e-bike varies based on the battery itself, the motor, and the rider’s choice of gears. Batteries are classified by “watt hours” — for example, a 400 watt-hour battery — and motors by their watts. So a 400 watt-hour battery on a bike with a 200 watt motor would run for about 2 hours in maximum power mode (400 divided by 2) before needing a recharge. Highest-capacity batteries provide about 2.5 to 6 hours of riding time, while smaller batteries last 1 to 2 hours.
Some bikes plug directly into outlets, while others have detachable battery packs which can plug directly into outlets — the latter as a convenient commuter option.
E-bikes use lithium-ion batteries, which will regain the first 80 percent of their charge quickly and then charge the remaining 20 percent slowly.
E-bike frame sizes cater to adult riders, with 26-inch wheels the smallest available, notes Pitts. (Children’s bicycles have 16-inch to 24-inch wheels.) Because these bicycles don’t require special licenses, teenagers may also be able to use them.
If you’re in the market for an e-bike for off-road biking, note that Washington state is currently hammering out an e-bike bill restricting some types of e-bikes from trails. As in other states, Washington is considering how to treat “turbo”-boosted e-bikes, which can travel at up to 28 miles per hour, in off-road situations.