Electric bicycle buying guide: How to find the best bike for you
Compare e-bikes for commuting, road riding, mountain biking and more to boost your pedal power.
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Quick facts about electric bicycles:
- Electric-assisted bicycles, pedelecs, electric bikes or e-bikes – whatever you choose to call them – have experienced a surge in popularity in recent years.
- By adding an electric motor to the humble bicycle, they make it easier to ride up hills or into a headwind, help older riders stay mobile and ensure that commuters don't arrive at work a sweaty mess.
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What is an electric bicycle?
An electric bike is a bicycle with an integrated electric motor powered by a rechargeable battery. Its aim is to help you ride further and faster with less effort.
Most models work by providing assistance to each pedal stroke as you ride. This is known as a pedelec or pedal-assist system and ensures that, although you're still exerting yourself, the motor takes some of the effort out of pedalling. Though much rarer, throttle-based systems are also available.
Modern e-bikes are starting to look more and more like traditional bicycles. Aside from the obvious inclusion of a motor, the other key differences you may notice are the extra weight that e-bikes carry – most models are 20 kilograms and up – and the use of tough frames, reinforced forks and components designed to handle the extra bulk.
Pros and cons
There are several reasons why an electric bike could be a smart purchase:
- You want to go further and faster. The assistance of a motor helps you travel longer distances and at quicker speeds.
- You need help getting up hills. If you live in a hilly area, the thought of tackling those steep slopes using pedal power alone can be daunting. An electric bike can give you the assistance you need to climb hills and keep on riding.
- You want to commute to work in comfort. One of the downsides of riding an ordinary bicycle to work is arriving as a sweaty, smelly mess. An e-bike allows you to arrive at work in a more presentable state.
- You want to feel more comfortable riding in traffic. An e-bike can help you keep pace with traffic and take off more quickly from intersections, ensuring that you feel more comfortable on the road.
- You're not as mobile as you used to be. If you're recovering from an injury or simply getting on a bit, cycling with the assistance of a motor could give you the extra boost of power you need.
However, electric bicycles are expensive. With entry-level e-bikes starting at $1,500 and fancier models pushing up towards $5,000 and beyond, you'll want to be certain that this type of cycling is right for you.
If you're fit and healthy and you want to get the full workout that riding provides, you'd be better off saving your dough and sticking with a conventional bike.
What types are available?
There are several varieties of electric bike to choose from, with each designed to suit a different riding style or purpose:
- Commuter e-bikes. Also known as urban e-bikes, these are the most popular form of e-bike and are right at home on city streets and bike paths. They regularly include racks for carrying bags and other goods as well as features that allow you to ride them in everyday clothes (e.g. chain guards to stop your pants getting greasy and pedals that suit regular shoes). They are also easy to use and maintain.
- Road e-bikes. A fairly recent phenomenon, these combine motorised assistance with the sleek and aerodynamic design of a road bike. Frames are usually aluminium or carbon fibre and use hydraulic disc brakes to stop. The tyres are usually wider than those on an ordinary road bike for extra comfort and traction.
- Mountain e-bikes. Sometimes referred to as eMTBs, these rugged bikes are for those wanting to head off-road and hit the trails. Available in hardtail and dual-suspension models, they offer wide tyres and other beefed-up parts to cope with the rigours of off-road use.
- Cargo e-bikes. Usually fitted with large racks, baskets or cargo beds, these two-wheelers are the load-lugging workhorses of the e-bike world. You can use them to commute to work as well as carry a load of shopping, your pet or whatever else you need to move from A to B. Some are even available as three-wheeled trikes for extra stability.
- Foldable e-bikes. These bikes are for those with limited storage space or who may need to take their bike on public transport. They have smaller wheels and typically feature fewer gears than other models.
Like electric bikes, petrol-powered bikes have built-in motors, but unlike electric models, they run on petrol. Petrol-powered bikes are banned in several states around Australia including NSW and Queensland. If you're considering a petrol-powered bike, check the regulations in your state before making any purchases.
How to compare electric bicycles
There are plenty of factors to assess when comparing electric bicycles, so make sure you consider the following:
Motors are usually mounted to either the rear hub (more affordable) or bottom bracket (provides smoother acceleration and more stability) and are programmed with up to five different levels of assistance to determine how much help you get from the motor.
Most new models use lithium-ion batteries. Check the size and quality of the battery to work out how much runtime you can get on a single charge. Battery power ratings are displayed in either Watt-hours (Wh) or Amp-hours (Ah). Under normal commuting conditions, the battery range could be anywhere from 60-150 kilometres. Some models also run two battery packs for an increased range.
How long will it take to recharge the battery from empty to full? Most units take three to five hours.
All e-bikes have a control unit and this usually takes the form of a handlebar-mounted computer. However, you can control some units using a smartphone app.
Wide tyres provide additional traction, help absorb impacts and enhance stopping power. Check tyre width and make sure they're from a reputable tyre manufacturer.
Stopping power is important if you're going to be travelling at an increased speed and carrying the extra weight of an e-bike, so look for hydraulic disc brakes.
- Gears. There are single-speed and geared e-bikes available. Check the specs sheet to find out how many gears you'll be able to call on to suit different terrain and conditions.
- Frame size. Make sure you choose the right frame size for your height to maximise comfort and pedalling efficiency. Manufacturers supply size guides or you can get measured and fitted at your local bike shop.
- Weight. E-bikes aren't lightweight, with many tipping the scales at 25 kilograms and above. While the motor can obviously offset these extra kilos when you're riding, make sure you'll be able to comfortably manoeuvre your bike around the garage or shed at home – or if you happen to run out of battery a long way from home.
- Accessories. Bundling some essential accessories together with your e-bike purchase could help you get better value for money. You may want to consider adding a helmet, lights, pump, racks, panniers and a bike lock or check out our guide to where to buy the best cycling clothing and gear online.
- Warranty. Check the manufacturer's warranty to find out how long it lasts and what it covers. Remember, repairs are likely to be more complicated and expensive with an e-bike than with a regular bicycle.
- Price. Entry level e-bikes start at around $1,500, but high-tech models with all the bells and whistles can nudge and even exceed the $5,000 mark.
Electric bike riders must comply with the same road rules as ordinary bicycles, but they're also subject to power and speed limits.
In Australia, two power requirements apply:
- A pedal cycle with a throttle-based motor system must not have a combined power output of more than 200 watts.
- On a bicycle certified as a "Pedelec" (this means it must comply with European Standard EN 15194: 2009 or EN 15194:2009+A1:2009: "Cycles – Electrically power assisted cycles – EPAC Bicycles"), the motor's maximum continuous power output cannot exceed 250 watts. You'll need to pedal to start the motor and keep it running, but some models include a start-up mode where the motor powers the cycle up to 6 km/h.
Motors are also limited to 25 km/h and will cut out once you reach this limit. Regulations and requirements vary slightly around Australia, so it's worth checking the rules that apply in your state or territory.
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