How to choose your electric bicycle: an e-bike buying guide

Electric bicycles are the fastest growing segment of the bicycle industry. Regular pedal bike sales is flat and falling but electric bicycles continue to see growth at  breakneck pace. In fact during the COVID-19 Pandemic crisis and lockdown in many countries, people prefer to travel by bike instead public transport. The result: retailers can’t coop with demand, low stock with long delivery times.

E-bikes are drawing more and more first riders especially because the ease of use and outstanding performance. By eliminating many of the obstacles that keep people from cycling—obstacles such as headwinds, steep hills, and bike commutes that leave riders tired, messy, and sweaty—electric bikes help make the freedom, exhilaration, and satisfaction of cycling available and accessible to a wide range of potential cyclists. If you’ve been considering getting your own electric bicycle but don’t know where to begin, then this guide is for you!

How to choose an electric bicycle?

Searching on Google for an e-bike can make you overwhelmed as there are a fast growing number of electric bicycles and brands out there.

It all started with a few early companies who launched their initial models and types, most of them were not very attractive or they lacked the power in performance. So there wasn’t really a big choice or at least not all of them were compelling anyway.  Now there are thousands of different models and many vendors to choose from. The big question is: Where to begin?

There are basically three important differentiators choosing an electric bicycle. Providing answers to these three questions can help you narrow down: Type, Purpose and Price. Evaluating these factors will help you scope your search better and find the right e-bike for your specific needs.

Which type of electric bike do I need?

Pedal Assist – Pedal assist electric bikes, also commonly referred to as “pedelecs,” are equipped with electric motors that only work while the bike is being pedaled, and that are activated by some sort of pedal action sensor designed to detect when the bike is being used. In the United States, pedelecs are limited to 20 mph and cannot use motors that exceed 750 watts.

Most pedal assist electrical bikes allow to select the degree of power to assist to fit your specific needs during a ride especially with climbs up a hill, and then back onto flat ground again.

These type of assisted bikes are suitable for all-around use, It provides the convenience and still the experience of a “regular” bicycle.

Power on Demand – The key difference between power on demand electric bikes and pedal assist electric bikes is that power on demand bikes allow activating and controlling a motor, regardless of whether or not you’re actually cycling. Most power on demand electric bikes provide full control of the motor by using a throttle, button, or trigger located on the handlebars. Bare in mind that power on demand bikes are also limited to 20 mph and 750 watt motors.

These power assisted bikes tend to offer a broad range of riding options since you can choose precisely if and when the motor kicks in, how much power it will provide when it is in use. You can go anywhere from fully self-powered pedaling to fully motor-powered riding. For this reason, power on demand bikes provide more control over your riding experience than any other type of electric bike.

Power on demand bikes are an ideal option for those who want the best of both worlds. They are very often the electric bike of choice if you’re  looking for an easy way of cycling. They are also great if you’re more an all-around generalist, making it possible to go on a physically strenuous bike ride one day and then a quick and easy commute the next, all on a single bike.

Speed Pedelecs – Sometimes called “S-pedelecs,” are very similar to normal pedelecs in terms of their basic operation, with the important distinction that speed pedelecs make it possible for riders to combine the power of their legs with the power of the motor to achieve speeds greater than 28 mph. S-pedelecs lack a throttle but can be equipped with a motor rated at up to 750 watts for pedal assist purposes only.

If you’re looking to achieve higher speeds, these type of e-bikes are the option to go for. However, it’s a good idea to double check the law in your specific region before buying a speed pedelec. Some jurisdictions view the faster-traveling s-pedelecs as a regular motorcycle that requires specific registration and a driver’s license. Also some places restrict s-pedelecs from bike lanes and paths, while regular pedelecs and power on demand bikes are not. Anyway make sure to check this upfront if you want to avoid expensive fines or even get banned from the road.

it’s important to think about just what it is you’re trying to get out of your cycling experience

What’s the main purpose of your next electric bicycle?

As you can imagine there are dozens sorts of bikes. But it’s likely that if you’re buying your first e-bike, you’re probably not a road e-bike hipster. To make it simple we’ve divided bicycles and there purpose in these groups:

  • Electric Commuter bikes
  • Electric Cargo Bikes
  • Electric Folding bikes
  • Electric Mountain Bikes
  • Electric Cruiser Bikes
  • Electric Fat bikes
  • Other specialty Electric Bikes
Electric road/commuter bikes

Obviously Electric road and commuter bikes is a very broad category and includes a wide range of different types. Is cycling your hobby and do you ride mostly on streets than the electric road bike is a perfect choice. These bikes are designed for the most efficient pedaling. They can be ridden easily without any e-assist at all, which is great for cyclists that only want motor assistance on some hills. Bicycles like the Trek Domane are really the next road e bike for going fast and sporty.

If you’re after an e-bike as a commuter bike and not only for pleasure riding, you’ll likely want to look at hybrid bikes like the Raleigh Array.

Electric cargo bikes

Electric cargo bikes are the minivans of the e-bike world and an excellent choice in the city. For many years the cargo bike is the perfect choice for young parents in Amsterdam who need to pick up their kids and groceries in a very crowed and car unfriendly environment. They’re not sporty but sure are very useful!

Electric cargo bikes are designed for hauling as much crap as possible. To do that, they use a few different methods. Front loaders like the Riese and Muller Load 75 have large front buckets or covered pods. They have some of the best hauling capacity, but the extra-stretched bikes can be a bit unwieldy, especially at slow speeds.

Electric folding bikes

Electric folding bikes are one of the most popular categories due to their extreme portability. Most e-folding bikes have a folding point in the middle of the bike and on the handlebars. This collapses the bike into a package usually no larger than a box.

If you plan to put your e-bike in a car trunk or you plan to carry it onto the bus or train, then a folding e-bike is likely in your future.

The downside to many folding bikes is that they are often heavier than comparably sized e-bikes and sometimes suffer from lower quality parts. Designing a bike to fold means you have to make compromises to prevent the price from rising too much – and those compromises often come in the form of bicycle component quality.

However, there are some great folders out there. One of my favourites is the Samebike, a super compact folding bike

Electric mountain bikes

Electric mountain bikes are absolutely great for riding trails and off-road exploration. But don’t count them out on the street either. Electric mountain bikes on the lower end of the price range can make excellent commuter e-bikes. Such bikes are usually hard-tails, meaning without rear suspension. They often have just a front suspension fork and the suspension might not be a good fit for hardcore trail riding. Most of the time it’s just sufficient for hitting a few pot holes on the way to work.

However if you’re more into adventure and want to jump around with your e-bike seriously consider a downhill electric mountain bike. These robust bikes are built with high standards in mind and are designed to survive years of “pain”. Things like dropping off furniture and reliably hitting jump after jump are par for the course with electric downhill bikes. Companies like Haibike and Cube make these types of electric bikes, but expect to spend a much larger amount of hard earned dimes.

Electric cruiser bikes

Electric cruiser bikes all about comfort and style, literally made for cruising.

They typically have comfortable seats and high handlebars that are swept back towards the rider. The pedals are most of the time mounted further forward, which allows you to rest both feet flat on the ground at stops.

Cruisers like beach bikes often have bigger tires, though the tires are not as large as those on dedicated fat bikes.

Pedego is one of the best known electric cruiser bike manufacturers in the US, while Rayvolt makes what I consider to be the most beautiful electric cruiser in existence.

Cruisers are a lot fun for a more relaxed spin. They are larger and heavier than most other type of e-bikes. That can make them a bit harder to steer at lower speeds. If your goal is cruising along the local beach paths though, a cruiser will fit in perfectly.

Electric fat bikes

Electric fat bikes are maybe one of the most fun categories of e-bikes.  They excel in off-road conditions with loose soil, sand or snow. Their large tires help you ride over nearly any surface.

You can ride them easily on streets, sidewalks or bike lanes, but also offer the ability to hop a curb and right straight down the middle of a park. Most won’t have suspension, though some have suspension forks. But with such large tires, suspension isn’t quite as important as the fat tires absorb many bumps.

Electric fat bikes used to be a small niche, but now there are dozens of companies offering competing models. Bintelli is an excellent example that offers good performance.

Other specialty electric bikes

Besides the mentioned categories in this article there are off course plenty of different types for specific needs. Maybe a minority of e-bikes but surely a growing amount of types and models that are absolutely a fun way to drive.

Electric tandem bicycles with two seats and two sets of pedals are perfect for couples that want to put less effort into cycling and more effort into sightseeing and relax conversations in close proximity.

Electric tricycles are better in case of disabilities or lack strength to support yourself during stops. Delta trikes have two wheels in the back and are much more common. Tadpole trikes have two wheels in the front and more stable during higher speed turns.

Electric recumbent bikes put you in a more laid back position and usually use a chair instead of a standard bicycle seat. Electric recumbent bicycles can be a lot of fun and give you more of a skelter feeling. However, it is recommended to use a safety flag so that other drivers can see the low profile of a recumbent.

Electric bicycle price ranges

Here comes the crucial part. Deciding the type and purpose is one thing, how much can or are you willing to spend on a bike, is part two.

Like anything, e-bikes also come in everything from the low-budget level to the ultra-premium level.

Keep in mind that one of the biggest differences in e-bike quality isn’t the electric components but rather the bike components used. Most e-bikes use similar electrical components until you reach the mid-range price level, at which point the bikes begin to feature nicer quality electrical components. On the lower end of the spectrum, more affordable prices are usually achievable by reducing the quality of the bike components used on a bike itself, not the electronics!

Let’s check out some examples.

Ultra-budget electric bikes ($300-$500)
On the extreme low-end of the price range are ultra-affordable e-bikes. These can start as low as $300-$400 and are exclusively Chinese imported bikes.

ultra-budget e-bikes
Xiaomi is a big name that has recently gotten into the e-bike game. They have produced two models that cost $261 and $375 in their domestic market, but get closer to $400-$500 locally.

Amazon also has a number of scooter-style e-bikes that lack functional pedals yet retain the shape of a bicycle. These can normally be found for around $399.

Many people will refer to this level of e-bike as disposable, as in you just toss it out and get a new one when it inevitably breaks. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but these definitely aren’t quality options. They have no-name bike parts and often super cheap battery cells that offer limited range. You pretty much get what you pay for.

If you are looking for a good deal and can spend a bit more, I’d recommend moving to the next category of budget e-bikes.

Budget electric bikes ($500-$1,000)

Once you move into the budget-level e-bike category, you see an increase in component quality and range. One of my favorites in this category is the Swagtron EB-5. At only $499, this e-bike is nearly in the ultra-budget category. However, I’ve been riding one for the last 8 months and it has held up incredibly well. For that reason I’m classifying it in the budget category instead of ultra-budget.

The EB-5 has decent power and range for its low-cost, but has only one pedaling gear. So if you like to shift, this isn’t the bike for you. It’s geared very low though so you can easily pedal on hills. Above 10 mph or so, you’ll want to use the throttle since the pedaling cadence gets quite high without gears.

Ancheer is another common brand that sits squarely in the budget-bike category. We’ve reviewed a few of them and found them to be basically fine. For a $600 or $700 e-bike, you can’t expect too much. But they get you where you need to go and perform pretty well for as long as they hold up. The frames don’t inspire a lot of confidence and the bike parts are low-end, but they’re pretty good for the price.

Don’t expect these bikes to last for years of abuse. But if you take care of them and use them within their limits, budget e-bikes can be a solid way to get your feet wet in the world of e-bikes.

Mid-range electric bikes ($1,000-$2,500)

This is the sweet spot, where both the electrical and bicycle components improve drastically. Whereas budget-level e-bikes are good for those that want to experiment with the concept of e-bikes, this mid-range category is for those that are committed and want a decent e-bike without paying used-car prices.

Once e-bikes surpass $1,000, components like brakes and shifters start transitioning into better models by companies like Shimano and Tektro. Tires start coming with recognizable names like Kenda, and frames start feeling like something you could ride down a set of stairs without braking in half. On the higher end of the spectrum you’ll even start to see hydraulic disc brakes and other high-end components.

Blix Aveny is an affordable Dutch-style bike that we tested

Companies like Rad Power Bikes and Blix Bikes specialize in this category, offering good quality bikes with proper components at prices that remain reasonable.

These bikes can actually last 3-5 years with good bike maintenance, though today’s lithium battery technology is unlikely to last much longer than that.

Premium electric bicycles ($2,500-$5,000)

This is a fairly wide price range and includes a number of factors. By the time you reach $2,500, you’re unlikely to find any junk components anymore. Parts like shifters, brakes, frames, and suspension start entering the mid-range level for various suppliers, as opposed to the entry-level brand name components found on e-bikes in the previous category.

priority embark review premium e-bike
Priority Embark with its Gates Carbon Belt Drive system

Another differentiator in this category is that you’ll start to see big name mid-drive motors like those from Bosch, Shimano, Brose, Yamaha, and Panasonic.

These mid-drives are a step up from hub motors found on most mid-range and lower e-bikes. They offer better performance, especially for those that enjoy using the electric power just for assist while actually pedaling.

It is important to point out though that just because an e-bike is priced in this range, doesn’t mean it is necessarily of premium quality. Some companies simply charge higher prices than their bikes warrant. Pedego is a good example of this. Their bikes can easily cost $4,000-$5,000, yet the quality isn’t comparable to other e-bikes in that price range. There’s nothing wrong with Pedego’s quality, it’s just that the price doesn’t only reflect the bike.

Ultra-premium electric bikes ($5,000-$10,000)

This is where things start to get a bit crazy. At this level, we’re talking about super high-end bike components. Interestingly though, a lot of the electrical components aren’t much better than you’d find on a $3,000 e-bike.

But bikes like the $10,000 Stromer ST5 include expensive electronic shifters and other parts that jack up the overall price of the bike. Other e-bikes offer belt drive or $1,000 internally geared Rohloff hubs.

Once you enter the ultra-premium realm, you’ll see e-bikes that are designed for serious enthusiasts.

Electric downhill bikes fall squarely in this category. However the difference between premium vs cheaper ones is night and day. A premium downhill bike feels like riding on a cloud while racing down steep mountain paths. A much cheaper bike in this category isn’t built to handle that kind of extreme riding. To perform at these levels, four-figure frames and suspension components are simply a must.

Like many hobbies and sports, e-bikes are a play-to-pay activity. But that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. By choosing the right type of bike at the right price level for you, anyone can have a great time on an e-bike!

Electric Bikes: PROS and CONS

Let’s wrap up this article about choosing  an electric bike. Hopefully this article will be helpful to you as you navigate the world of electric bicycles in search of the perfect bike.

PROS
  • Cheap transportation – Especially when compared to other types of transportation, electric bikes are very clearly one of the cheapest ways to get around. With an electric bike, you don’t need to worry about paying for any sort of special license or registration, you don’t have to pay for parking, and the cost of recharging a battery is immensely cheaper than both public transit fares and a tank of gas.
  • Improved health – Using an electric bike as part of your regular travel is a great way to introduce some physical activity to your everyday routine, and can contribute significantly to improved overall health. By using an electric bike, you guarantee yourself time and space to exercise your muscles, lungs, and heart while enjoying a bit of fresh air.
  • Exercise that’s right for you – Electric bikes can be especially empowering for those who would like to exercise more, but who have a health condition that limits the amount of physical activity they can perform. By controlling the amount of assistance they receive from the motor, ebike riders can tailor the difficulty level of their rides to meet their unique health and fitness needs. This can be especially helpful to those with joint pain, exercise-induced asthma, heart or lung problems, or who are overweight.
  • Enjoy time with friends and family – For many people, electric bikes make it possible to spend more time having fun with friends and family members, allowing them to join in on recreational bike rides. If you’re new to cycling or struggle keeping up, an electric bike may be the key to getting out more often to enjoy leisure rides with those you love.
  • Travel further – The assistance provided by the electric motor enables ebike riders to go further than they might otherwise be able to. The amount of effort required to cover 10 miles on a conventional bike, for example, can carry riders closer to 20 miles when combined with the power generated by an ebike motor.
  • Sweat-free commutes – One of the biggest drawbacks to using a bicycle for your daily commutes is showing up at your destination hot, sweaty, and uncomfortable. By using an electric bike, however, you can complete the exact same rides while exerting only a portion of the physical effort. Electric bikes make two-wheeled commuting a much more viable possibility for many people, letting riders enjoy all the benefits of commuting by bicycle while eliminating many of its messiest drawbacks.
  • Tackle obstacles – The extra boost of power provided by an ebike’s motor make it possible to zip up hills, plow through headwinds, and tackle any other obstacle you might encounter on a bike ride without wearing yourself out or getting burned out. As a result, electric bikes provide a convenient, accessible, extremely enjoyable cycling experience to a wide and diverse range of riders.
CONS
  • Significant upfront investment – It’s not uncommon for people learning about electric bikes for the first time to be surprised by the cost of an ebike, which typically ranges anywhere from $1,000 to $10,000. And while there’s no getting around the fact that using an ebike requires a significant upfront investment, the good news is that once you’ve spent the money to purchase a high quality electric bike, there are relatively few expenses required to operate it. Similarly, the cost of purchasing an electric bike is actually not too bad when compared to what it costs to buy a car or even a high-end bicycle.

 

  • Heavier than conventional bikes – Even after dramatic improvements in ebike technologies and components, electric bikes remain noticeably heavier than conventional bicycles. This becomes a problem primarily when you’re trying to transport the bike or when you’re out on a ride and the battery dies.

 

  • More specialized, complex parts – While the majority of ebike parts are standard bicycle components that are easy to find, replace, and repair, there are also a handful of highly specialized components that are unique to ebikes. Because these parts tend to be a bit more complicated and can sometimes be harder to find, it can often be more difficult and more expensive to repair a specialized ebike component than a more conventional bicycle part.

 

  • Confusing legal status – Because electric bikes are still relatively new, there can be a bit of confusion when it comes to the way they’re viewed by the law. In general, electric bikes with a maximum speed of 20 mph and motors rated at less than 750 watts are treated the same as any other bicycle, which means they can be ridden on bike paths and in bike lanes and don’t require any special licensing or registration. There are some places, though, that have a different set of rules that may limit or change the way you’re allowed to use your electric bike. For this reason, it’s always a good idea to check the rules in your specific city and state when riding an electric bike.

The table below summarizes the primary advantages and disadvantages of using an electric bike, giving you a quick overview as you consider becoming an ebike owner:

Pros Cons
Cheap transportation Expensive initial investment
Improved health Heavier than conventional bicycles
Tailor exercise to your needs Specialized, complex parts
Time with family and friends Potentially confusing legal status
Increased range
Sweat-free commute
Tackle obstacles for easy ride

 

Final Thoughts

Electric bikes surely assist riders of all ages, skills and physical abilities but they are not perfect. Being aware of the ways that ebikes can be incredibly beneficial, as well as some of the challenges involved with buying and using an ebike. It will make you a well-informed consumer, ready to make the best decision when it comes time to select and purchase an ebike of your own.

Keep in mind that while there are certainly disadvantages using an electric bike, it seems that people have decided that the advantages of riding an ebike are much bigger. Perhaps this is the reason why ebikes are becoming one of the most popular and widely used forms of transportation in the world today.