We look at how e-bikes work, how much they cost and how far they'll take you.
Need an extra push to get on a bike?
There are many reasons you may prefer an electric bicycle to a pedal-powered model.
- Why would I want an electric bike?
- How do electric bikes work?
- How much do electric bikes cost?
- How much do electric bicycles weigh?
- How long does the battery last and how far will an electric bike get me?
- What should I look for in an electric bike?
- 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.
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.
Electric bikes aren't cheap. They range from $995 for a conversion kit for your existing bike to more than $3000 for a ready-made cycle with all the trimmings such as lights, racks and panniers. They generally come with guards for wheels and the chain, making bike commuting a cleaner prospect.
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.
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.
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.
While electric bikes are gaining traction in the cycle market, there are some height limitations. Taller riders may find their choices limited.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.