If you are like everyone else, just starting to do research on electric assist bikes, or e-Bikes as they are often called, the first thing you are likely to notice is the very wide price range. There are e-Bikes that you can find new for as low as $600, ranging all the way up to more than $10,000. Even regular bikes that have no motor assist can get fairly pricey, so maybe that's not news to you. However, what you will find when you get into determining what budget actually makes sense, there are a quite a few bikes priced between say $1500 and $3000, that appear to be virtually the same.
The wide range in price poses a real challenge, because many of the e-bikes most critical components - the battery, the DC motor, the controller, and battery management system, are not all created equal, and just looking at them from an appearance standpoint, will not enable you to determine any real difference. Even the specifications can be quite confusing.
Fortunately, you've come to the right place to make sense of the various components, and what to really look for as a bare minimum, as I've researched most of the e-Bikes on the market, read hundreds of reviews, over the past 3 years. My background as a mechanical engineer, and about 30 years in the energy technology business working with new and emerging technology, and my years of experience repairing or building things, provides a good base of knowledge to allow for an assessment of what to look for in terms of quality, good design, and operation. I'm not going to say I'm an 'expert' on e-Bikes, but I will say I'm very experienced in breaking down what's important and looking for fundamental aspects that I hope will help you in your search to find an e-Bike that you will be happy with.
Rather than digging into all of the spec's, that will bore you to death, I'm going to provide some 'rules of thumb' that will hopefully help you avoid the mistake of buying what you perceive to be a 'good value' in an e-Bike, but then end up regretting the purchase in a matter of weeks or months, and found that you were throwing away good money after bad.
So here is what I have observed with electric bike buying, that I think will be most helpful to you in getting started:
• Rule #1 - "You get what you pay for" - in the world of e-bikes, there are certain areas a manufacturer is just not going to get around, and make cheaper without the bike turning out to be a cheap piece of crap. The first is the battery, and not just the amount of energy it stores, but in the battery management system that appropriately charges the commonly used Lithium Ion battery. That component alone, for a quality one with a decent amount of Amphours, and Voltage, is going to need to be a minimum of $300 to $600. Similarly, the DC motor, that is efficient, and most importantly how it is integrated into the drive train, will need to be in the range of again at least $400, and likely up to as much as $1000 when you get into mid-drive systems that are of any quality. SO the bare minimum for two of the components to be of decent quality is at least $700.
• Rule #2 - "Emphasize Comfortable Ride and Balance" - Many of the e-bikes, are a bike that is simply "accessorized" with the battery mounted as an afterthought, usually over the rear tire, where a motor can also be integrated into the rear hub. This adds considerable weight to the rear, and can also make the bike very "tippy." The e-Bikes are going to be heavy in the first place, usually at least around 45 to 50 lbs, and often up to 75 lbs. Compared to regular e-Bikes, this is a lot of weight to be moving around while you are getting off and on, and you need to consider that when deciding what e-bike really makes sense from a strength standpoint in regular use. You're likely going to find, it is worth it to spend the money to get an e-Bike that a) has the battery mounted within the frame of the lower cross bar that goes from the stem to the A-pillar, or b) has the battery mounted vertically behind the A-pillar. By sticking with this, you'll find that the manufacturer has put thought into the weight and size of the battery, and is wanting to make sure you have an e-Bike that is safer to ride with a lower center of gravity.
• Rule #3 - "Starting Price" - By sticking with the basics of Rules #1 and Rules #2, you are going to find that you need to start with an e-Bike that has a sell price of at least $1400. Anything lower than that, with current battery technology and motors, and management systems, you will either end up with an e-bike that has very low quality of multiple components, and will be in the shop so often for repair, that you won't end up pleased, or you'll have an e-Bike that is likely to be very uncomfortable to ride, move around while loading and unloading from your vehicle or trying to navigate various landscape and road obstacles.
• Rule #4 - "Always Ride Before you Buy" - due to the extra weight of e-Bikes, and the wide variance in power and range, you simply are taking a significant risk if you don't first test ride an e-Bike. This more than likely means buying local, or at least working with an e-Bike firm who will have an 'ambassador' locally who will allow you to ride his or her e-bike. Cheaper prices on-line, do not mean getting value, because what will you do if you got that "great deal" that was "$1000 off list" but ends up being a very hard to navigate e-Bike, or worse, one that you get hurt on while riding or when you try to get off, but its top heavy and your leg got caught on the cross bar, and you end up with a broken arm, wrist, or hip even ? I've seen it happen, and its not pretty.
• Rule #5 - "Think about how you will use the e-Bike" - this may seem obvious, but really thinking about how you plan to use an e-bike, is extremely important for making sure you don't OVER-PAY for technology you'll rarely use or need. Are you going to be riding it for recreation & occasional exercise ? Will you be traveling in an RV, and taking it as a touring and errand running aid when camping ? Or are you planning to use it in place of a car, during the warmer months, to commute to work while getting more exercise ? Or are you looking for a replacement off road bike, and motor assist for mountain biking ? Here in the Midwest we are fairly flat, but there are enough smaller hills, where if you are 50 or older, maybe it makes great sense to purchase an e-bike. Once you know how you will really use it, that will help you determine things like what tires you need to have (thicker, puncture resistant, road or off-road), and also the amount of range you wish. Most e-Bikes that start at $1400, should be able to get you about 30 to 40 miles before needing a re-charge if you are doing a decent amount of peddling. If you use the motor only, and aren't peddling much, you could get around 15 to 20 miles. Depending upon the weight of the e-Bike, you will want to have one that has at least a 10 amp-hour battery at 36 volts, provided your weight is below 175 lbs. Increasing the Amp-hours to say 13 to 15 amp-hours, will increase the price several hundred dollars, but allow you to see ranges up to 50 to 60 miles before a re-charge is needed, or help you achieve 40 miles when your weight is above 225 lbs. Often when you have the option to go to a higher range battery, the price of the e-Bike will be in the $2000 range and up. Motors are usually at least 250 watts, but very often you will see 350 watt to 500 watt motors. All are usually powerful enough to drive any weight rider, and the battery Amp-Hour is going to be the determining factor for handling your weight and the type of riding you wish to do. My suggestion is to not get too caught up in wanting a higher wattage motor, because the only real impact that will have is draining your battery faster, or maybe if you are going to be off-road or in a hilly and mountainous area.
The above "Rules of Thumb" are just a starting point, and hope you find them helpful. There are many other nuances and considerations, that a dedicated local electric bike shop owner can help you with. Many regular bike shops have not yet really embraced this technology, are either scared to consider the extra time involved in learning about them, or could be 'purists' who somehow think electric bikes are 'cheating.' (will save that story for another blog post).
Suffice it to say though, you'll likely find the best help and guidance from either the Electric Bike OEM itself, by calling them if they are on-line and have a service number, or dealing with an all electric-bike shop who has invested time and training in e-bikes, knows how they really work, and is able to answer the hundreds of questions you are likely to have.
Have fun in your search, and don't hesitate to call me, remember to ride or rent before you buy... Mike the owner of MikesE-Bikes.com 630-388-8938, or email me at Mike@MikesE-bikes.com.