WHICH TYPE OF E-BIKE SHOULD YOU BUY?
You have so many choices
Buying your first e-bike is only a little different than buying your next one. It can take the place of your car on many trips, it can help you relax in nature, and it can help you get to work faster when there’s gridlock. Our goal with this buyer’s guide is to help you decide on the type of bike you’ll likely want to buy. There is no shortage of options out there, and if you make a good choice, you’ll have more fun on it than you thought possible. In many cases, an e-bike will pay for itself if you let it leave your car in the garage. Most important, it will also get you outdoors more often and
THE ONE (BIG) CAVEAT
From a Tesla to an e-scooter, if there is one all-encompassing question that pertains to every electric vehicle made, it’s this: “How long does the battery last?” As you peruse through the following pages of new bikes, you will see the word “range” listed in all the spec charts. These numbers were provided by the manufacturers, and we can guarantee that they are all on the over-promise side of things. Not to sound cynical, but as the industry joke goes, range figures are all based on the battery’s duration on a bike ridden by the lightest rider, on a downhill, with a tailwind! In others words, before you get too adventurous on your new bike, play it safe on your first-time outings to get an accurate gauge of how far you can ride until the battery goes out.
These are the bikes we most often see and with their flat bars and upright riding position, commuter bikes are designed to maximize rider comfort for short-to-medium length rides. To maximize their utilitarian roots, many are outfitted with at least a rear cargo rack and integrated lighting. Suspension seatposts are another common feature.
City and commuter bikes can come in one of three different classifications. Class 1 bikes are pedal assist only, meaning the system only adds power when the rider is pedaling. It will go a maximum of 20 mph in the U.S. or 15.5 mph in Europe.
A Class 2 bike is the same as Class 1, except Class 2 bikes have a throttle, which means you can control the power and speed using the throttle and don’t have to pedal if you don’t want to. People with knee problems often like these, because the throttle can help you get started from a complete stop. Class 2 bikes are also limited to offering power assist up to 20 mph.
Class 3 (known as “speed pedelecs” in Europe) bikes provide power to 28 mph and are pedal assist only. Because of this, they’re only allowed on-road and bike lanes. These are outstanding for commuter bikes, because you can often go the same speed as traffic or even faster in some cases.
If you’re old enough, you may remember mini-bike kits listed in the back of some magazines that you could buy one for under $100, but you had to put a lawnmower engine in it, meaning you had to buy one. This vintage style has really caught on with both the older nostalgic set and the younger generation of the modern age. They all have pedals to make them a “bicycle,” but we don’t know of anyone who actually pedals one. They’re almost universally ridden and powered using the throttle.
Recumbent bikes have the rider sitting much lower and with back support. They come in a couple of different flavors. The first is a trike, which can be either two wheels in the back and one up front, or two wheels in front and one in the back. The latter is referred to as a “tadpole,” and we find these to be the most stable version. There are also two-wheeled recumbent bikes. Generally, recumbent bikes have a mid-drive motor mounted up in front where the pedals are, or it can come with a hub motor.
E-scooters come in a variety of forms—from the OneWheel that has, well, one wheel that you stand on either side of to two-wheeled kick scooters that you have to kick to get started to larger ones with seats. The nice thing about these as a last-mile transportation is how small and light they are. Very easy to carry onto a train, up the stairs to your apartment, etc. Just because they come in a small, easy-to-transport package doesn’t necessarily mean they are inexpensive.
We refer to these as “drop-bar” bikes, since it’s the classic road bike handlebar that is their most obvious common trait. Though both road and gravel bikes look similar, where the former is intended specifically for paved roads, gravel bikes have exploded in popularity due to their “dual-purpose” ability of being capable over both road and off-road terrain. Gravel bikes are also defined by frame designs that allow for bigger tires to handle dirt sections.
Important to note if you’re a traditional road cyclist is that the Class 1 e-road bikes, while fully capable for recreational riding, will have a hard time keeping up with non-assist bikes in a more performance-oriented group ride. For that reason alone, we would opt for a bike with a Class 3 motor.
Cargo bikes are just that; they’re made for hauling cargo. There are several varieties, from slightly elongated frames to allow for cargo to be carried in the front or the back. There are also really long bikes with wheelbases up to 8 feet that have a bucket up front to carry loads of groceries, multiple kids, your dog, etc. Some of those have two wheels and some have three.
The three-wheeled versions are very stable and easy to load, but if you’re used to riding on two wheels, a bike with two wheels in front can take a while to get used to. Instead of counter-steering and leaning into a corner, you instead directly steer, and generally have to lean even harder into the corner, especially if the bike isn’t carrying anything.
If you have any aspiration to get adventurous and see what adventure lies over the next hill, an electric mountain bikes is the ticket! Depending on how technical the terrain is, you can select a hardtail (front suspension only) or a full-suspension mountain bike. Full-suspension bikes are heavier and more expensive, as there is a rear shock and rear linkage that make the bike more complex.
Fat bikes have been popular for the last couple of years, and they’re called fat bikes because they have voluminous tires of 3-5 inches in diameter. Even without suspension, they offer a fairly comfortable ride on or off-road because of the volume of air in the tires. With full suspension, they’re like a monster truck, able to go over almost anything. If you live in a place with lots of loose dirt or you like to be able to ride in the snow, fat bikes excel here because the big tires offer so much grip. There are some two-wheel-drive versions that make riding in snow or dry sand as easy as on pavement.
Folding bikes are useful for those who lack the space for storing a traditional bike at home or who need to use one as a last-mile transportation (they can be folded up when getting on a train, for example), or for those with a boat or RV and want a very portable solution for riding around their destination. Generally, they feature 20-inch wheels and fold down to a fraction of their unfolded size. These usually are very light, useful if you have to lug it up stairs to an apartment, but they also have small batteries with limited range and smaller motors that offer less power than full-sized bikes.
We have a soft spot for these bikes simply because they’re so wild to ride. Most of them are not street-legal or legal on many trails (unless those are motorcycle/jeep trails), because they have way more power than a legal e-bike, which can only have a motor that’s nominally rated at 750 watts or less. These bikes often weigh over 100 pounds, have full suspension, motors that range from 3000-16,000 watts, and have massive batteries. They also have wallet-melting prices in the range of $10,000-$20,000.
Electric motorcycles look very similar to their ICE-powered siblings, but instead of filling the tank with gas, you fill the battery with electrons. These are big, heavy, and relatively expensive. We love them, but they get mixed reactions from motorcycle enthusiasts. Traditional motorcyclists don’t care for the lack of noise and the range and charging times, not to mention the price.
For beginners, however, they’re easier to master than a traditional gas bike, because there are no gears and no clutch, making it simpler. They also can be set to Eco mode, which increases range and makes the bike more tame to ride. E-motos have ridiculous torque and acceleration, while also being silent enough not do draw the attention of Johnny Law.