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How to buy the best electric bicycles

We look at how e-bikes work, how much they cost and how far they'll take you.

electric bike
Last updated: 11 September 2019
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There are many reasons you may prefer an electric bicycle to a pedal-powered model.

Why would I want an electric bicycle?

  • You live in a hilly area.
  • You're not all that fit or you have limited mobility.
  • You want to be able to take off more easily from an intersection.
  • You want to keep up with traffic and other cyclists.
  • You don't want to get all sweaty – particularly if your workplace doesn't have shower facilities.

What type of electric bike should I get?

What style of riding do you do? If you need to carry out errands like reasonably sized shopping or carrying passengers, you'll want a cargo bike. If you want to get to and from work, you'll look for a commuter bike. If you want to just use it for mountain biking (a gravel bike), that's available too. Have a conversation with your local store and they should ask you what kind of things you want the electric bike for. For some it could replace their car, or public transport, while for others they'll only be using it on weekends for play. For yet others the aesthetics of what your electric bicycle looks like will be important where for some it matters not at all. Don't try just one – it's a large chunk of change you are parting with, and all bike stores know this. Good bike stores will be fine with you borrowing the bike for a trial ride, and most will let you hire them for a week or so, so you can get a good feel for whatever ends up taking your fancy.

How do electric bikes work?

Most electric bikes work by assisting your pedal movement as you're riding – so you still have to do at least some of the grunt work. The motor cuts in when your speed drops below a certain level, giving you that little extra push. You won't get pedal-assist beyond about 27.5km/h.

Some electric bikes have a throttle, so you don't have to pedal at all, and some have both throttle and pedal assist.

How much do electric bikes cost?

Electric bikes aren't cheap. They range from $800 for a basic bike and battery to more than $15,000 for a ready-made cargo bike with all the trimmings such as lights, racks and panniers. A reasonably priced median of $3,000 will generally come with guards for wheels and the chain, making bike commuting a cleaner prospect.

How much do electric bicycles weigh?

Whether you use a conversion kit to turn your current bike into an electric version or buy an electric bike ready-made, you're going to end up with a heavier-than-average set of wheels – up to 27kg for a ready-made bicycle.

How long does the battery last and how far will they get me?

Most electric bikes have lithium-ion battery packs with 8Ah-14Ah capacity, and voltage from 24V-36V. They range from 200W-250W – you need a licence for anything more powerful.

Electric bikes only get you so far before needing a recharge. Some claim a limit of 30km, while others claim up to a more impressive 100km between charges. Most give a broad claim because it depends on a number of variables.

As a general guide:

  • A 36V 10Ah battery (360Wh), which is a very common capacity for an electric bike, will take you 50km using the highest level of assistance or 100km using the lowest level of assistance.
  • A 36V 9Ah battery (324Wh) will provide about 40-80km.
  • A 36V 14Ah battery (504Wh) should take you 55-120km.

Hills, headwinds and carrying a lot of weight drain the battery further, and using a throttle drains the battery more quickly than a pedal-assist system does.

You can expect the batteries to last for about 500 charges, and replacements cost between $395 and $550. Budget for a replacement every three years.

Typical recharge time is four to six hours. If you charge only partially, this does not count as a full recharge but a fraction of a full charge. Check the manual for proper battery charge maintenance. Many shops will recommend not charging to full but to operate the bike on a mid-charge, and to not run it down completely.

Size

While electric bikes are gaining traction in the cycle market, there are some height limitations. Taller riders may find their choices limited.

What to look for in an electric bike

If you're thinking of buying an electric bike, most of the tips in our bicycle buying guide will still be useful to you. It's also worth taking the following features into consideration:

Front hub motor

This means easier maintenance if you need to remove the wheel for a puncture. Rear hub motors can be quite complex for maintenance.

Higher watt motor

This means more torque or take-off potential from a standing start. All will be set from 200-250W for legal reasons, but a 350W motor limited to 250W will give greater torque than a 250W motor.

Throttle

A throttle is useful if you want to take a break from pedalling or need help taking off from a standing start. However, this drains the battery faster than just pedal-assist. A combination of throttle capability and pedal-assist may be best.

Weight

Electric bikes are heavy – up to 27kg because of that battery. Remember to take this into account, because if you need to push it after a puncture or you run out of charge on a big hill – you'll be pushing a lot of weight.

Tyres

Puncture-resistant tyres will save you from having to change as many flats – a particular hassle if you have a rear hub motor or if you struggle with the weight of the bike.

Brakes

Look for hydraulic disc brakes, they'll be more expensive but last longer than mechanical disc brakes or V brakes.

Accessories

A helmet is a legal requirement when riding a bicycle of any kind. Lights, hi-visibility clothing, locks, a pump, mudguards, a chain guard, racks and panniers are extras worth considering, although remember they all add weight.

Servicing

Servicing yourself is completely doable, but if you don't have time or the expertise, then budget for around $150 every 6 months for servicing if you want your hub, brakes, chain, cassette and gears to last and prepare to add to that for any parts needed. The cheaper your purchase, the more likely you're going to need to add a lot of spare parts in the near future.

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