If you’re thinking about getting an eBike but you’re not sure about your options, this article is for you. We’ll explain everything you need to know about eBikes, to help you make the best decision.
What is an eBike? The legal definition
Firstly, what exactly do we mean when we talk about eBikes? On this site we’re mostly focused on pedal-powered bicycles that also feature an electric motor and battery to give you extra power. We don’t cover motorcycles that use electric motors instead of petrol engines. Technically, and legally, they are two very different things.
In the UK a road legal eBike must follow these rules:
- The motor can only assist you up to 15.5mph (you can easily go faster, but the motor will not help you over that speed).
- The motor must have a maximum power output of 250 watts.
- It must have pedals, and the motor can only provide power if the rider is pedalling.
If the eBike follows these rules, it is legally classified as a bicycle, which means you do not need a licence, tax or insurance to ride it, and you can use it in exactly the same way as a bicycle, including riding in designated cycle lanes. The technical name for a road legal eBike in the UK is an “electrically assisted pedal cycle” – but they’re more commonly referred to as pedalecs, or just eBikes.
For the most part on this website when we use the word “eBike” we are talking about an electric bicycle that meets these legal requirements. You can buy an eBikes that have more powerful motors capable of far higher speeds, and thumb or twist throttles that apply power without you having to pedal, but these are legally classified as motor vehicles, so to ride them on public roads you need a licence, and the bike has to be taxed and insured like any other vehicle, as well as requiring an MOT certificate and a number plate. You’ll also need to wear a crash helmet.
It’s also possible to modify a lot of road legal eBikes to deliver more power, or to fit throttles. But it’s important to understand that if you do this, you are now riding a motorcycle without tax, insurance, an MOT certificate, and probably a licence. If you’re involved in any kind of accident, things will go very badly for you – you can expect a fine, a driving ban, and possibly a prison sentence.
As with a standard bicycle, you are not legally required to wear a helmet or any particular safety gear on a road legal eBike, although this is of course a good idea. Equally, there is no specific alcohol limit for riding an eBike, and although there are offences relating to riding a bicycle dangerously, they are not classified as motoring offenses and will not affect your driver’s licence. Realistically, it’s a stupid idea to ride around on an eBike while you’re too drunk to ride safely, but if you’ve been drinking moderately and you ride home safely, you don’t have to worry about being over the limit.
What is riding an eBike like?
An eBike’s motor amplifies your own effort, so when you start pedalling the bike moves faster than you would expect for the level of effort you put in, and the harder you pedal, the faster the bike goes. That continues all the way up until you hit 15.5mph, and after that the motor stops helping, but it never feels like you suddenly lose power. If you’re pedalling hard enough, you will keep going faster until you reach the maximum speed you’re capable of, otherwise the bike will simply continue at 15.5mph until you pedal harder or slow down – it all feels very smooth and seamless.
In practice what this means is that eBikes accelerate away from a standing start much more quickly and easily than most pedal bikes, and this is great for stop-start urban riding. Also, it makes hills much easier because you can maintain a decent uphill speed without pedalling very hard.
Most eBikes have different power levels, so you can choose just how much your effort is amplified by. On maximum power, you won’t have to work very hard at all to get to 15.5mph and you could comfortably cruise at that speed with little effort for as long as your battery lasts. On minimum power, you’ll need to work harder to get up to speed but it will still be easier than a conventional bike and your battery will last much longer.
Who are eBikes good for?
Hardcore cycling enthusiasts often turn their nose up at eBikes, because it’s not “proper cycling” – but for the rest of us who don’t have Olympic aspirations, eBikes can be practical for a lot of different situations.
Commuting: cycling is a great way to get to work, but if you live more than 10 miles away it can be impractical and exhausting. An eBike will help you cover long distances more comfortably (even if you have to lug a laptop or other gear) and if you don’t have showers at work, you’ll be able to do the journey without getting sweaty.
I use my eBike for a 15 mile journey from my home in the outskirts of London into the city centre, with a few big hills along the way. It takes about the same time as my conventional road-bike (between 70 and 80 minutes, depending on how hard I push) but it means I can cycle every day without feeling completely wiped out by mid-week. On days where I don’t feel like making much of an effort I still make it to work in good time.
Low fitness: if you’re not in good shape, an eBike can help you get into cycling without the fear of tackling tough hills or running out of steam halfway through your journey. You can put in as much or as little effort as you feel capable of, and change the assistance level to suit your needs.
Long-distance riding: as the technology of eBikes improves, they’re capable of offering ever more impressive ranges. Right now you can buy eBikes that can easily travel for 80 or more miles on a single battery charge.
What is the range of an eBike?
How far you can go on a single charge depends on a number of factors, and will vary between different riders and their situations, but the range of eBikes is getting better every year. The things which will affect an eBike’s range include:
Battery: A large battery which can hold a lot of charge will obviously help you go further than a smaller capacity battery. Typically, eBike battery power is measured in Watt-Hours (Wh). At the high end you can expect to find 500Wh batteries on more expensive bikes, which could easily give you a range of 100 miles or more. A 300Wh battery would be cheaper, but all other things being equal you could expect a range of 60 miles. There are even cheaper, lower capacity batteries available – so always check the Watt-Hours capacity of an eBike to understand whether it’s good value for money.
Motor: A motor’s power is measured in Watts (W) and almost all eBikes in the UK use 250W motors, as this is the maximum allowed on the road. However, there are different types of motor, and more modern designs are more efficient. Older and lower cost eBikes often use “hub motors” built into the wheel hubs, whereas more modern (and usually more expensive) models feature mid-drive motors built into the crank (the bit between the pedals that turns the front gear). The type of motor, the manufacture, and how recent the design is, will all have some effect on the overall range of an eBike.
Weight: The combined weight of the rider, the bike, and any luggage will affect range. Simply, it takes more energy to move a heavy object than a light object, so the less you carry and the less you weigh, the further the bike will go.
Hills: Another fairly obvious one but, as any cyclist already knows, going uphill takes more energy, so a lot of climbing will drain the battery more quickly than riding on flats.
Tyres: A lot of people don’t consider this, but knobly mountain bike tyres are not very efficient on tarmac roads – they’re designed to bite into mud off-road. A proper road-tyre, with little or no tread, will roll a lot more freely on tarmac and this will need less energy. It also means you’ll be able to accelerate more quickly and, when the motor stops helping you at 15.5mph, it will be easier for you to pedal at higher speeds. Putting the right tyres on an eBike (and inflating them properly) has a lot of benefits, including better range.
Can you ride an eBike with a flat battery?
It’s usually possible to ride an eBike after the battery has run out of juice, but it’s hard work because they weigh a lot more than conventional bicycles, and hub motors in particular create a lot of resistance which makes it harder to pedal.
Some of the more modern crank motors have lower resistance if you want to pedal without power, but it’s still going to be hard work compared to a non-electric bike. All the same, technically it is possible, so you can always get your bike home if you run out of charge, but it’ll feel like you’re cycling uphill most of the way.
How long does it take to charge an eBike battery?
This depends on the capacity of the battery and the type of charger you use. Typically you can expect a 500Wh battery with a standard charger to take 4 or 5 hours to fully recharge, or less than 3 hours for a 300Wh battery.
What kind of eBike motor should I get?
There are two types of eBike motor; hub drive motors are clever little things that sit inside the wheel hub (the bit at the centre of the spokes) on either the front or rear wheel, while crank/mid drive motors sit between the pedals and deliver power to the chain through the front gear rather than directly to the wheel like a hub motor.
Hub Motors: the main advantage of bikes with hub motors is that they are the cheapest option. You can get an entry level eBike with a hub motor and a small capacity battery for as little as £500 these days. Because the motor lives in the wheel, it’s relatively easy to convert almost any conventional bike into a hub-drive eBike, and there are plenty of kits available to buy online if you’re happy to DIY.
There are several disadvantages to hub motor bikes. They don’t have as much torque as crank drives (the force with which the motor turns) and that means they’re not as good as pushing you uphill as a mid-drive motor. Also, because they apply power directly to the wheel, they can take a bit of getting used to, and the fact that they add extra weight to one of the wheels means the handling can feel a bit odd.
Finally, having the motor in the wheel can make changing a flat tyre a more complicated process, especially with rear wheel drives. All that said, hub motors provide an affordable way to get into eBikes, and plenty of people find them perfectly serviceable for their daily rides.
Crank/Mid Drive Motors: once the bicycle industry started taking eBikes seriously, it became clear that mid drive motors are the way forward. Because the weight of the motor is low and centered, and the power is delivered through the front gear to the chain, the experience of riding a mid-drive eBike feels much more like riding a normal bike, but with super-powers.
Mid drive motors from manufacturers such a Bosch, Shimano and Yamaha, feel a lot more modern than hub drives, and this is really where all the innovation is happening. These motors offer more torque, and will have no problems getting you up big hills. Fixing punctures is easy, because the wheels drop in and out exactly the same as they would on any conventional bike.
In almost all respects, eBikes with mid drive motors are superior to hub drive bikes, and provide a much better experience. The only downside is they are more expensive, and you can currently expect to pay at least £1,600 to get your hands on one.
There are some mid drive conversion kits available for conventional bikes, but they are quite basic and the more modern mid drive motors need to be fitted to eBike frames that are specifically designed to accommodate them. This means that if you want the best eBike experience available, a DIY project isn’t the best option – you should be looking at an off-the-shelf model.
What are the disadvantages of eBikes?
There are a few downsides to owning an eBike. For a start, they are attractive targets for thieves, because they can easily be stolen and sold for a quick profit, due to the fact that they don’t have all the registration paperwork that motor vehicles do, making them harder to trace. So you need to spend more on security, and in many cases it’s also worth taking out a cycle theft insurance policy.
If you use your eBike frequently, you need to constantly remember to recharge the battery, which can take up to 8 hours for some of the larger capacity models. If you were planning to ride to work but forgot to charge the battery, you’ll have to come up with an alternative plan because you’re not going to want to ride without any juice, which brings us onto the third disadvantage…
eBikes are heavy. It’s not just the battery and the motor, but the frame and wheels need to be chunkier to cope with them, so the whole bike is much heavier. Obviously it varies depending on specific models, but a run of the mill hybrid commuter bike typically weighs around 15Kg, while an eBike of a similar style would add another 10kg to that.
The extra weight doesn’t matter so much when you’re riding with help from the motor, but trying to ride an eBike without the power on is hard work. And it’s also worth bearing in mind if you need to lift your bike up and down stairs or onto a bike-rack.
The weight will also affect your realistic maximum speed, because once the motor stops assisting at 15.5mph, you’ll need to put the work in if you want to go faster. It doesn’t take much effort to go a few mph faster (on the flats I can often get up to 20mph without trying too hard) but fit riders on lightweight racing style bikes will have no trouble whizzing past you.
Can you get fit riding an eBike?
Yes! Riding an eBike requires you to pedal, so you’re doing cardio exercise, just like a conventional bike. The only difference is that the bike helps you travel further and faster for a given level of effort – so even if you only want to do a very gentle level of exercise, you can still travel at a reasonable speed. If you want to make riding an eBike more physically challenging, you can reduce the level of motor assistance (which will increase your battery range) and/or pedal harder to go faster than the 15.5mph assistance limit.
Various academic studies have shown that riding an eBike regularly improves fitness, so claims that they are somehow cheating or don’t count as real exercise are provably false.