Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are becoming more and more popular, both for recreation and transportation. If you’ve considered purchasing an EV but aren’t quite sure, some say
an e-bike is a nice, entry-level option to the e-vehicle market.
e-bike basics: Electric bicycles don’t look much different than traditional bikes at quick glance, but look closer to see a small electric motor, battery, and control panel on the frame. They can be as much as 20 pounds heavier than regular bicycles. However, weights continue to drop as the market matures (along with entry-level prices, which still hover at $1,000 and up).
Power plants, batteries, riding ranges, and features vary among the brands and models, but the industry has developed three standard classes of e-bikes: Class 1 has a motor that you can set to gently assist you as you pedal, and it maxes out at 20 miles per hour (this is the most common e-bike available for rent or bike-sharing); Class 2 also reaches 20 mph but has a throttle-powered mode that does not require pedaling; Class 3 bikes are pedal-assist only, but they can reach 28 mph.
Larry Theberge, Dunn Energy Cooperative member and owner of Recycle Bike Shop, LLC, offers advice on e-bike purchases. First off, he says, don’t just order a bike online. Instead, visit a local bike shop. “Sit on one live. It’s going to change your whole opinion. It’s not what you think it’s going to be. It’s going to be a thousand times more.” Plus, by working with a local shop, a buyer can later resolve problems with the bike with an actual person, said Theberge.
Consider your skill level: Be honest about your ability and the type of riding you’re planning (road or trail, hills or flat ground, short or long commutes); outfitters will use that information to determine which size and style of e-bike to recommend, and how much power assist you’ll need.
“You get to choose how much power that you want, how much assist you want,” said Theberge. “They all feel different. One bike can be very gentle to take off. Or the next, ‘Oh wait, I want to squeal tires like I got a new Mustang and take off.’”
“You need to match the personality of the bike to the personality of the person,” he added.
E-bikes really can accommodate all skill levels.
“That’s what’s nice about an electric bike. You don’t have to be a jock to ride it,” said Theberge. “My prized customer is Mike. He’s 84 years old, has a pacemaker, and compromised lungs, and he loves being outside. On a fabulous day, he would go for a 5-mile ride [on a conventional bike]. He’s riding an e-bike now. He’s going on 40-mile rides.”
Find out where you can ride safely and legally: You should follow the same bicycle safety precautions as with a traditional bicycle (see the accompanying sidebar). Be considerate while riding on trails with others; riding by at 20 mph can startle a pedestrian. You’ll need to research where you’re allowed to ride an e-bike. If you’re renting, check to see if the outfitter has restrictions (for example, whether you can take the bike into sand) and ask about areas such as parks that don’t allow motorized bicycles. Resources such as People For Bikes’ Ride Spot app and local bike shops include information on where to ride.
Know battery and charging safety: The lithium-ion batteries that power devices like e-bikes and scooters must be used properly to avoid overheating—when the batteries are poorly made or charged too long, they can cause fires. The New York City Fire Department issued a bulletin addressing the issue, providing this advice:
- Only buy or rent e-bikes certified by a nationally recognized testing laboratory (look for symbols such as UL, ETL, and CSA).
- Use the original battery, power adapter, and power cord supplied with the device, or a manufacturer-recommended and/or a testing laboratory-certified replacement.
- Plug the e-bike directly into a wall outlet when charging (not an extension cord), and charge in a safe area, like a garage. Make sure there are no other nearby combustibles, and consider adding a smoke detector where the e-bike will be charged.
- Monitor the e-bike or e-bike battery when it is being charged.
When asked about recommendations for the best place to ride, Theberge replied, “Outside your door.” He urges riders to go where it’s convenient and safe.
“Wisconsin is fortunate to have some of the best bike riding, and the bicycle trails are always fabulous. The views are just unbelievable,” he said.
Theberge’s advice for someone considering getting into e-biking? “Don’t wait. Do it now. What are you waiting for?”—Dana Kelroy with MeLinda Schnyder, a freelance journalist based in Wichita, Kansas.