According to Arleigh Greenwald, product marketing manager at Tern Bicycles and former bike shop owner, there’s a direct link between the coronavirus and the e-bike boom. Even if you’re “stuck in your bubble,” an e-bike ride is an outdoor activity you can share with friends and family, regardless of your fitness level, while maintaining social distance. Plus, canceled vacations have freed up funds to finance the purchase.
E-biking can also give your mood a boost, something most of us could use. According to a recent Gallup poll, Americans’ self-reported mental health is worse than it has been in the past two decades. Exercise, even at lower intensities, can reduce anxiety and enhance your sense of belonging. Research shows exercising outdoors enhances those benefits.
E-bikes are for anyone who wants the benefits of low-impact outdoor exercise without the demands of traditional biking. According to Steve Appleton, owner of online retailer Really Good Ebikes and author of “The Beginner’s Guide to Ebikes,” “an electric bike gives you so much more freedom to travel further distances, explore places you haven’t been able to go, where maybe there’s head winds or hills that you otherwise would be worried about.” Many of Appleton’s customers are baby boomers recovering from injuries or trying to stay healthy.
E-bike enthusiasts of all ages enjoy riding to work or a restaurant (in normal times, anyway) without breaking a sweat.
Sold on the idea of e-bike ownership but intimidated by the buying process? Here are some factors to keep in mind.
According to Greenwald, all e-bikes (or “pedelec” bikes) offer pedal assistance while you’re pedaling. You control the degree of assistance by pressing a button.
Some e-bikes also have a throttle, which essentially does all the work for you, even if you’re not pedaling. For some, it makes riding more fun. For others, it’s a necessity, says Chuck Ankeny, founder and owner of Freedom Folding Bikes in Boulder, Colo., whose customers include individuals with heart and lung conditions. “If they’re out riding somewhere and they get into trouble, they can just hit that throttle and get home.” (Note: Throttle use drains the battery relatively quickly.)
E-bikes fall into one of three classifications:
●Class 1 bikes can go up to 20 miles per hour.
●Class 2 bikes can go up to 20 miles per hour and have throttle assistance.
●Class 3 bikes can go up to 28 miles per hour.
“Think about what you’re going to use the bike 80 percent of the time for,” Greenwald says. For toting kids and groceries, you’ll want a cargo bike. If you want to hit the trails, a mountain bike makes sense. A couple wishing to take their bikes on road trips might consider folding bikes. If you’re primarily commuting long distances, a lightweight frame and an aerodynamic position will maximize battery life.
Once you have a clear idea of how, where and when you’ll use it, Greenwald says to ask yourself: “What are the things that would make that easier?” For example, if you live in a wet climate, fenders will keep you dry. For long trips, you might spring for a heavier-duty battery, or even double batteries. If, like me, you’re sharing a bike with someone who is much taller than you, you’ll need a bike with more seatpost adjustability.
How it feels
“If you were going to buy a lifetime supply of ice cream, you would definitely want to try it before you got it, right?” asks Charlie McCormick, owner and founder of D.C.’s ElectriCityBikes. Like ice cream flavors, e-bikes offer a plethora of features and combinations. “There’s a flavor you might think is good,” he says, “but when you try it, it tastes disgusting — or it’s a pleasant surprise.” Like your feelings on ice cream, e-bike preference is subjective.
You can spend hours researching, as I did for this article. But as I discovered firsthand, there’s nothing like a test ride to help you decide.
After trying a bike with a 250-watt motor, I tested one with a 500-watt motor. The latter was more powerful, yet I didn’t notice a difference. As Ankeny, the Boulder bike shop owner, explained, this was because of the motor’s location; a mid-drive motor, which sits at the bottom bracket, is generally much more efficient than a rear hub motor. Some people love a throttle’s “va-voom” to help them glide effortlessly up hills. After trying it, I realized I’m not one of them.
If you don’t live near an e-bike retailer and are buying online, Appleton suggests test-riding as many regular bikes as possible, to at least get a feel for the frame style you prefer.
Where you'll park it
Think about where you’re going to store your e-bike before you whip out your wallet. If you don’t have a garage or outdoor space, a 65-pound beauty might look more like a beast once you imagine carrying it up the stairs to a second-floor apartment and storing it (and its muddy tires) in an already cramped living space. This type of scenario might limit your options to lighter and/or foldable bikes.
If you’re storing your bike in your garage or backyard, try removing the battery before you commit. Greenwald says most batteries are removable; however, some pop in and out more easily than others. Because they aren’t designed to be charged in extreme temperatures, easy removal makes indoor charging convenient. Plus, charging and storing your battery at room temperature will prolong its life.
Your bike shop experience
When you buy an e-bike, you’re also “buying a bike shop,” Greenwald says. Ask yourself: “Are they outfitting you with the right bike, or are they outfitting you with a bike that they haven’t been able to move and happens to fit you? Are they asking good questions, instead of just telling you everything that you should know?” She suggests finding a shop you’re comfortable with — that’s also nearby — to minimize hassles when parts break or you need routine software updates.
E-bikes can cost anywhere from $600 to nearly $15,000. Although there’s no universal equation to determine how much to spend on a bike you’ll be happy with, most of the professionals we spoke with suggested spending at least $2,000 for a decent-quality bike. According to McCormick, a good bike will last five to 10 years, even with frequent use.
The biggest price variables are the battery and motor. Battery capacity is measured in amp hours (ah) and typically ranges from about 10 ah to 21 ah, Appleton says. “That’s sort of like the fuel tank.” A battery with fewer amp hours doesn’t necessarily have a shorter range, however. The distance you can travel on a battery charge, or the watt hours, also depends on battery voltage. Other variables, such as terrain, wind conditions, how much weight you’re carrying and degree of motor assistance you use, also factor in.
High-end parts may be worth the investment. Many experts spoke highly of Bosch motors, in particular. E-Bike of Colorado, which has the largest inventory in the state, carries bikes with a variety of brands of motors. Describing the Bosch motors, sales associate Andi Morin says: “We never see them come back” for service.
Other factors affecting cost include the quality of the components, the type of drivetrain (a chainring vs. a costlier but more durable belt drive) and whether the motor adjusts the assistance level via cadence sensor, offering more assistance when your revolutions per minute drop, or via a pricier but more sensitive torque sensor, which adds assistance as you exert more pressure on the pedals.
Although the financial commitment might be intimidating, enthusiasts say you can’t put a price on the experience. As McCormick says: E-bikes make cycling fun — even up Arlington’s treacherous hills. “Finally, it’s not a chore. It’s a joy.”
Pam Moore is a Boulder, Colo.-based freelance writer, speaker, marathoner, Ironman triathlete and certified personal trainer. Visit her at pam-moore.com.