Electric bikes have a motor that kicks in when you need some extra power, making it easier to cycle over long distances or hilly terrains.
So what should you consider if you're thinking of buying an electric bike?
Why would I want an electric bicycle?
There are many reasons you may prefer an electric bicycle to a pedal-powered model.
- 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 switch from a car to a bike (to avoid traffic jams and enjoy easier parking, reduced emissions and lower costs), without being limited to only short or flat rides.
- You don't want to get all sweaty – particularly if your workplace doesn't have shower facilities.
- You want to avoid using public transport.
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 mountain bike), that's available too.
The motors range from 200 to 250 watts (W) – anything more powerful isn't allowed to be ridden on Australian roads unless it's registered and you have a licence.
Good bike stores will be fine with you borrowing the bike for a trial ride
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. Some care about the aesthetics, so what your electric bicycle looks like will be important, while for others it might not matter.
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. Some may let you hire them for a week or so, to get a good feel for whatever ends up taking your fancy.
How do you ride an electric bike?
Electric bikes work by assisting your pedal movement as you're riding. For the most part, riding an electric bike is the same as riding a normal bike – you'll still need to steer, brake and pedal.
The difference is, with an electric bike you'll be able to ride faster and longer without as much effort, as the motor adds extra power to your pedal. You can choose from a number of settings to adjust the amount of assistance you're getting from the motor based on your needs and the conditions.
Electric bikes are heavier and can reach higher speeds than normal bikes, meaning that correct braking technique, good hazard perception and safe cornering are particularly important.
Electric bikes aren't cheap. They range from $800 for a basic bike and battery to more than $12,000 for a high-end version with all the trimmings such as lights, racks and panniers.
A reasonably priced median of $1500–3000 will generally come with a decent battery and guards for wheels and the chain, making bike commuting a cleaner prospect.
How much do they 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 – with some ready-made bicycles exceeding 30kg. If you want to transport your electric bike by car, you might need to invest in a bike rack that can take the extra weight.
While electric bikes are gaining traction in the cycle market, there are some height limitations. Taller riders may find their choices limited as the majority of electric bikes are designed for riders of average height and there isn't yet a large selection of bikes designed especially for taller people. Taller or heavier riders will need to look for stronger, larger frames and tires.
How long does the battery last and how far will it get me?
Most electric bikes have lithium-ion battery packs with 8Ah–28Ah capacity, and voltage from 24V–48V.
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, although be aware that manufacturer's estimates are likely to be generous. Most give a broad claim because it depends on a number of variables including the rider's weight, how fast you pedal, whether you're carrying a heavy load, wind strength and direction, temperature, incline and surface type, as well as the way you're using the motor.
Electric bikes come with a battery charger and most have a removable battery pack. To charge your electric bike, you need to remove the battery pack from the bike, if it's removable, plug the battery charger into a mains outlet then connect the battery pack to the charger.
You can expect the batteries to last for about 500 charges, and replacements cost between $350 and $1000 depending on their size. 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.
Taking charge: it typically takes four to six hours to recharge an electric bike.
According to federal law an electric bike must be able to function by pedalling alone, but it also has a motor attached which can assist the rider. (Tip: if it doesn't have pedals, it's a moped or a motorbike and a whole different set of laws apply.)
In 2012 the federal government adopted the European standard (EN 15194: 2009 or EN 15194:2009+A1:2011), making 'Pedalec' electric bikes legal in Australia. This is now the most common type of electric bike used in Australia.
A Pedalec electric bike must be labelled as complying with EN 15194 and it must have an electric motor that requires the rider to pedal in order to activate (Pedalecs equipped with a throttle that starts the motor without pedaling up to 6km/hour are also allowed).
What is the maximum power output?
Pedalecs can have a maximum power output of 250W, while other electric bikes are capped at 200W.
What is the speed limit for electric bikes?
Pedalec motors must cut out once the bike reaches a speed of 25km/hour. If you're riding without the motor, you can go faster, but you still need to observe speed limits for roads and shared paths, just like other cyclists.
Other electric bikes don't have a speed cut-out but they also have less powerful motors (maximum 200W) and the same speed limits for roads and shared paths apply.
The limits on electric bike motors mean that they are unlikely to be able to keep up with city traffic, so keep this in mind if you're considering buying one for this reason.
Do I need a license or registration to ride an electric bike?
No. Just like regular bikes, electric bikes don't require a license or registration, but riders are legally required to wear a helmet and follow road rules.
Can I ride an electric bike on the footpath?
It depends on which state you're in. Electric bikes have to follow the same rules as normal bikes, so check your state's bicycle laws. For example, in WA anyone can ride their bike on the footpath, but in NSW only children under 16 and those supervising them can ride on the footpath.
While 200W electric bikes and 250W Pedalecs are legal nation-wide, it's a good idea to check your state or territory's transport website for any important information on the rules and regulations regarding electric bikes before you hit the road.
Can I convert my existing bike into an electric bike?
Yes, it's possible to buy an electric bike conversion kit and have it fitted onto your existing bike, but it may not always be the best option. Some things to consider if you are thinking about converting your bike into an electric bike include:
- Is your bike suitable for conversion? Your bike should be in good condition with sturdy wheels and good brakes, or it may be unsafe to ride with an electric motor.
- Will it end up costing you more? While conversion kits are cheaper than buying a new electric bike, your existing bike may require a number of upgrades in order to function safely with a motor. It may be cheaper to simply sell your existing bike and put the money towards a new electric bike.
- Consider that your bike will be much heavier once the electric motor is fitted and may not be as comfortable to ride as a purpose built electric bike.
- Converting your existing bike might be a good idea for those with special requirements (such as requiring an extra tall bike) or if you've snagged a really great bargain on a good quality bike that is appropriate for conversion.
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 to 250W for legal reasons, but a 350W motor limited to 250W will give greater torque than a 250W motor.
While generally electric bikes require you to pedal in order to activate the motor, some come with a throttle which can start the motor without pedalling. The throttle can legally power your bike up to 6km/hr, so it can be useful if you need help taking off from a standing start. However, using the throttle will drain your battery faster.
Electric bikes are heavy – some are over 30kg because of that battery. Remember to take this into account if you might need to lift it, for example to carry up stairs or mount on a roof rack.
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.
Look for hydraulic disc brakes, they'll be more expensive but require less maintenance than mechanical disc brakes or V brakes.
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 your e-bike yourself is completely doable, but if you don't have the time or expertise, budget for around $150 every year 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.