Are you interested to buy an e-bike for commuting, but don’t know which model to choose, how much to spend, and actually how to buy it? Then this training course, and self-study guide developed by one of our members, Oliver Kozak, currently also president of EUCG, is for you.
The content is personal experience, and are not official views of EUCG. The file here is the latest update of the guide.
It has been almost completely updated for this year. If you have any older version, please discard it.
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Last updated: 17 May 2021
Please tell me how much die you like it, and give suggestions.
I use it to improve the training.
- Mon 19 Apr 2021, 16:00-17:30 EC Fit@Work, Zoom (sign up: search for “e-bike”in EU Learn)
- Mon 17 May 2021, 12:30-14:00 EC Fit@Work, Zoom (sign up: search for “e-bike”in EU Learn
All occasions are open to all EU institutions’ staff.
For face-to-face training sessions, visitors who are non-EU staff are also welcome, just make sure there is a colleague who takes you as a “guest” at the reception, or forwards you the call details.
These presentations are all in Brussels. If you want to use the slides to make a presentation in your institution, let me know.
Also, if you would like to invite the training to be made in your organisation, please contact us.
Frequently Asked Questions
[FAQ last updated: 13 May 2020]
I often get the same questions during the workshops. Instead of making the presentation very long, I go into detail here.
For some reason, I didn’t find the answers to many of these in magazines, blogs, or books, so it is quite a unique on the web!
This article is not about e-bikes for long-distance cycling, for mountain biking, cargo bikes, road trips and climbing mountains as a sport, this is about for using an e-bike to commute day by day.
Maybe it takes 30 minutes to read, but you save a lot of time, worries, and hesitation.
1. It might sound stupid, but…
1.1 Do I have to pedal on an e-bike?
Yes. If you don’t pedal, the motor stops. There are some models with “throttle” button, i.e. they work without pedalling, but in Europe they are not street legal.
1.2 Is riding an e-bike cheating?
No. In fact, I ride 4-5 times more, since I have an e-bike. In the end, I do much more exercise with the e-bike vs. when I had only a mechanical bike. Most “average bikers” report the same benefits. If you are a bike messenger, an amateur or pro athlete, or a bike evangelist who rides the bike regardless of snow, heavy traffic, rain, or natural disasters, for you riding an e-bike would be cheating. Or maybe it would be not? Give it a try, who knows.
1.4 What is a “pedelec”?
Pedelec is the official-legal name of e-bikes that nobody seems to use.
No. Actually, in DG Move, they do call it “pedelec”. 🙂
1.6 I’m fairly small / fairly big (height) – what shall I do?
E-bikes with 20″ (inch) wheels: compact and folding bikes are great for heights below 170 cm, as the frame is compact by design, and handlebars and the saddle can be adjusted in a wide range. Examples:
- Dahon (folding),
- Tern P7i (folding),
- Decathlon B’Twin (folding),
- Velo De Ville KES (folding).
- Hartje I:SY (fixed),
- Velo De Ville KEB (fixed)
- Orbea Katu-E (fixed).
A folding 20″ bike (vs. fixed frame) has the added benefit of better theft prevention. You can store it in your office or appartment, instead of leaving it on the street or garage.
The Brompton has 16″ inch wheels, which is considerably smaller than 20″. Many people like it, but equally a lot of people complain that it is too small for the bumps and potholes of Brussels.
Height above 190 cm: Dutch manufacturers offer XL or XXL/2XL versions of their frames. Examples:
1.7 I want a custom-frame, hand-made e-bike!
Good luck… you can only try the bike when it is ready, it costs tons of money, lots of time, and there is no return or exchange if you don’t like the finished product. Still, some people love it, and swear this is the best next thing in the World after pop-corn and puncture proof tires. Have a look at Santos, Tout Terrain, IDWorx, Jongerius.
1.8 Do I need a liability insurance for using an e-bike?
No. Currently no insurance needed for damage, responsibility, collisions, or other purposes. However, buying a theft-insurance is a good idea. See the presentation for more details.
1.9 Do I need a driving license?
No. However, if you buy a speed pedelec (or “s-pedelec”), which assists up to 45 km/h, you will need a driving license, and a number plate on the bike.
1.10 Shall I buy an S-pedelec?
No. It can assist you up to 45 km/h, but there is a list of constraints:
- separated cycling lanes and paths cannot be used in Europe (except in Switzerland),
- driving license compulsory,
- cycling helmet mandatory,
- main bicycle components are not allowed to be altered compared to the factory version.
And then, do you want to ride among cars? I don’t. For example, if you commute from Halle to Brussels, my choice is to ride along the canal. There are many long sections, where I can speed up to 45 km/h (and sporting people on road bikes do), however, legally it’s not allowed to ride a s-pedelec on a cycling path. Probably the police won’t charge you, but it is disrespectful to ride 40-45 km/h next to the other people cycling/walking there at “normal” speed.
S-Pedelecs are also more expensive, although the “bike is the same”. The 25 km/h limitation is a voluntary software constraint, which is removed in an S-Pedelec. However, the bike needs to be validated, the components list is fixed (officially you cannot alter it), it needs registration (a number plate), and so on.
So, all in all, I think S-Pedelecs are not the best choice for most people. If you are not most people, and you have a special case riding long distances on low traffic country roads, of course, it might be a good choice for you. The number of people who use and S-Pedelec is around 1-3% in EU countries, and is slowly increasing.
To go fast on long distances, I would rather buy an electric road-bike, which will help me to go uphill faster, and keep me in the sporty-areo body position for long speedy sections.
1.11 Shall I buy a second hand e-bike?
If it is many years old, or was heavily in use, no. The battery will be used, the technology outdated, and the new battery costs 300-800€.
I would only buy a second hand e-bike if it is “not really second hand” – i.e. a relatively new bike from last year that has been used little, or discounted models from the past year.
I would avoid bicycles made before 2014, as e-bikes that came out in 2014 are significantly better than before. This is different from “mechanical” normal bikes, where a 30-year-old ancient rusty bike can still ride well.
If you are into old technology, Teun Timmermans in Nijmegen makes some cool electric upgrades and fresh-up of ooooold bikes. One of his models even delivered the EU Cycling Strategy to the hands of Cmr Bulc, being old and new, re-cycling, renewable. Plus the dark blue paint was also spot on (these EUCG guys are creative, aren’t they!?)
1.12 I only want to spend 1000€ at maximum… any options?
As of May 2020, I suggest to consider:
- Decathlon B’Twin sell decent price-quality ratio e-bikes,
- www.bikeexchange.be offers a lot of good deals of last years’ bikes.
Although for more than 1000€, you can often find good deals here:
1.14 Is it compulsory to wear a helmet for an e-bike (max. 25 km/h) in Belgium?
1.15 Does it charge the battery while I pedal?
1.16 Will I sweat when riding an e-bike?
If you don’t sweat when riding at a comfortable 15 km/h on flat, probably you won’t sweat.
As for myself, although I sweat less, I still sweat to some extent. Most e-bikers are not in need of a shower after their commute which saves lots of time. If you want to avoid any sweat, probably you would need to sit still, and then you would need to go by car.
Then, if you believe more in scientific proof, this study by Shimano found that people riding an e-bike sweat about three times less compared to a regular bike.
1.17 Will the e-bike help with my new year’s exercise resolution? I am worried that it will be too easy to pedal and I remain a couchpotato.
So you want to sweat, or you don’t want to sweat. Gimme-a-break…
Yes, it will help with exercise. The motor usually expects that you pedal with an effort about 80 Watts. Which is about 15 km/h on a flat terrain without assist.
The motor dynamically will add on top of this 0-250 Watts of help. So when you go uphill behind Botanique, and you would need to pedal with about 300 Watts, the motor puts in the rest.
As a comparison, sustained 500+ Watts is the range of Tour de France and downhill olympics stars, like Froome.
As for myself, I noticed that I bike 4-5 times more often and longer with an e-bike, and I also bike when I am tired, or when it rains, or when it is uphill, and altogether I do more exercise and more consistently with my e-bike vs. I did on my non-e-bike.
1.18 Can I add a child-seat to an e-bike?
Yes. But it depends mostly on the frame and the rack. The best is to try the seat on the bike before you buy the bike and/or the bike-seat. The more “special” is the frame, the more difficulty you might have.
In general, my experience is that Dutch made e-bikes are the most compatible with child-seats – somehow it is part of cycling life in The Netherlands. German, French, Italian, English, etc. manufacturers seem to be always surprised and confused when I ask them [before buying the bike] if they can confirm that it can hold a child-seat well.
If you mount a child-seat on the back, probably you need a front rack or front basket to carry luggage.
If you want to use a front-child seat, choose a bike with an upright body position.
I have tried many-many child seats, here are my preferences:
- I prefer a front child seat if possible, as we can talk. These work usually until 15kg. People who have used a front-child seat seem to be OK with it. People who never used one, are concerned by safety, and are afraid to use it. In the Netherlands, everybody seems to use it. Without helmet!
- A rear child-seat usually works until 22kg.
- I prefer a seat-tube mounted seat, vs. a rack mounted seat. This is because when mounted on the seat-tube, there is more “spring effect”, while on the rack mounted seat all the bumps are transferred directly to the child seat. Try for yourself riding by sitting on the rack of a bike, and you immediately understand the difference. I find this is one of the main downsides of long-tail cargo bikes, like Tern GSD, Yuba, Bike43, and this is why I have not bought one yet.
Potential problems – I would avoid buying such these e-bikes for child-transport:
- If the battery is mounted behind the seat-post, you can only mount the child-seat on the rack.
- If the seat-post has a special form, or the space between the upper fork and lower tube is small, it can prevent from adding a child-seat.
- If the battery is on the rear-rack, probably you need to add an adaptor to mount the child-seat on the rack. I would avoid buying an e-bike with the battery on the rack for child transport.
- If the rear-rack is minimal-stylish design, probably it is not strong enough, or has not enough space to mount a child-seat.
- If the rear-upper fork has not bosses to mount a new rack, it can cause problems if you want to add a stronger rack to add a child-seat. In this case, you can only use the seat-post.
This bike has all sorts of problems in one.
It is much more common than you think.
1. the rear rack is small and non-standard, there is no way of mounting a bike seat
2. there are no bosses on the upper-rear fork to change it to a stronger rack, which could hold a bike seat
3. the seat-tube has an ellipsoid shape, it might cause problems to mount the seat-adaptor to it
4. the upper-tube cuts the seat-post in half, I don’t see where an adaptor could fit
5. the headset leaves no space for a front-child seat
6. the front-fork has no bosses to add a front rack or basket
My favourite child-seats:
- Thule Yepp Mini front child-seat
- Thule Yepp Maxi seat-post mounted rear child-seat
- [Thule Yepp Maxi rack-mounted rear child-seat – common on long-tail bikes]
2. Questions about e-bike technology
2.1 Is it a good idea to retrofit my current bike?
“Retrofit” means adding a motor to an existing bicycle. Purely for cost reasons, I would not recommend to put an engine on a used bicycle.
I would only do it, if you have a special bike that is your favourite companion and is dear to your heart, or if it has a special size or feature; or if you like experimenting with specially strong motors or something new-special, or when you like DIY. I know a few such people, but they are all EUCG board members, ex-Tour-de-France mechanics, or they literally have a bicycle shop.
In case you decide to retrofit, the cost saving will not be significant in the end, and there will some other complications to consider: some other parts will need to be changed on the bike, or the vibration or handling of the bike will be strange, or it can easily become a time and money sucker project. But, sometimes, it works well, and you suddenly find yourself in e-bike nirvana.
There are several options: I find the best middle motors are offered by Bafang, then Pendix is also nice; front wheel and back wheel options exist from Zehus+, Copenhagen Wheel; and there are always some new motors on Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
Some shops offer new bikes retrofitted with a new engine – these models are usually tested to work well, and offer either a cost advantage, or some special features (like a 1000W motor, or a folding bike) and are recommended. An example is a new Brompton Bike fitted with a Pendix engine and battery.
Seriously, I would rather by a new e-bike that is ready to go as it is.
2.2 What is “Shimano”?
Shimano is a Japanese bicycle component manufacturer. They make excellent quality components, and my overall conclusion of my 30 years of repairing my own bikes (I started at the age of 10) is that the more Shimano components I have on my bike, the easier my life is.
2.3 Are hydraulic disc brakes any good? Those bikes seem expensive.
I love hydraulic disc brakes, now all our bikes have hydraulic disc brakes. Hydraulic means the brake lever and the brake pistons are connected by a tube filled with mineral oil, instead of a metal cable. Do you remember the concept of incompressibility of fluids from the physics class in high school? The hydraulics make the brakes fast, easy, and precise to operate, you can literally stop the bike with one finger. These used to be expensive, but now they became mainstream. Disc means the brake has a disc, similarly to cars and motor bikes, and honestly, I don’t get it why it took so long for the bike industry to start using them.
On the left are cable operated rim-brakes, on the right are hydraulic disc brakes (image from cyclingweekly).
The brakes themselves are not expensive, the simplest hydraulic disc brake set from Shimano, the BR-M315 costs 50€-100€, and works well; for a bit more you can get the Shimano Deore BR-M8000 for around 100-150€ for a set. There are at least 10-15 different brands making disc brakes, from cheap to very expensive. However, brakes are used for price segmentation, i.e. manufacturers put an otherwise low to medium cost hydraulic disc brake on a bike, and sell it as an expensive upgrade.
Hydraulic disc brakes can be added afterwards, but you need a compatible frame, and the wheel hubs and so the spokes need to be changed, so in practice either you buy a bike with hydraulic disc brakes, or not.
There are also hydraulic rim brakes who work with a conventional rubber pad from Magura. There are very powerful too and low maintenance; you can replace the rubber pads easily yourself in 20 seconds.
You can also buy bikes with the classical cable operated disc brakes (so not hydraulic), however the cable tension needs to be adjusted frequently the same way as for rim-brakes, so personally I don’t like them. There is also a combined version, which has a cable to pull, and oil for the pistons, and my friend Andrei believes this is the holy grail of brake technology.
Some models are better than others. We had zero issues with our Shimano Deore brakes (medium range), and a lot of trouble with our Magura MT5 brakes (high-end) as needs maintenance two-three times a year to function properly. The Shimano Deore is my choice for the best bang for the buck for city commuting – they just work and I rarely ever need to adjust or maintain them.
The pads need to be changed every 1000-3000 km, depending on how hilly your area is and your style of braking. A set of brake pads cost 5-20€. They are different for every brand and model, if they happen to be interchangeable, it is more an exception.
Otherwise, mounting points on the frame and disc size have been standardised in the past years, so beside the pads, the rest are more or less compatible between brands.
A common concern I hear about hydraulic disc brakes is that they can be difficult to repair when travelling in developing countries, or in remote places like in Arizona or Alaska. However, if this is your concern, you are at the wrong place here (this site is about commuting) – I rather recommend to read cyclingabout.com, which is my favourite website about bicycle touring.
2.4 Is it a good idea to buy a bigger battery?
Maybe. In normal city use, I don’t see much benefit… charging my bike every three days, or every four days is not much of a difference to me. If price is no objection, get it; if the 100-300€ price difference is important for you, don’t buy it.
However, it also depends on the motor: if you have a motor with high(er) resistance (like Bosch, or a direct drive), you probably will keep the motor always on, so you need more battery.
If you buy a motor with low resistance, especially during freewheeling (ex. Shimano Steps E6000 or newer), and if you switch off the motor often (like I do), the range can be 2-3x more compared to the other motors, and you need less battery.
So, if I would buy an e-bike with a Bosch motor, probably I would buy the bigger battery, because I would keep the motor always on, and then the extra 20% capacity helps.
Most batteries can do 30 km with the “highest” setting of the motor, which is enough for most daily commutes. However, I only use the “highest” setting when going uphill behind Botanique, or when going up from Grand Place to Arts-Loi, otherwise, I use the lowest setting.
2.5 How can I extend the range of the e-bike?
First, pump your tyres. If the tyre pressure is below the recommended range (indicated on the tyre), the rolling resistance will be very high, and your battery range suffers. Usually it is a minimum of 3.5 bars, or 2-2.5 for a few special tyres. The recommendation from tyre manufacturers is to check the pressure every 30 days. When did you check the tyre pressure last time? Did you ever check it in your life?
Second, the most cost effective way to increase [theoretical] range is changing the tyres to low rolling resistance tyres. New tyres cost about 25-50 Euro per tyre, this can add 5-10% range (or 1-2 km/h) depending on what you had before. You can change tyres after purchase any time.
If you decide to change your tyres, I had good experiences with Schwalbe Marathon. These are also puncture proof tyres, and are available in 2.00″ width (two inch), and are a good balance between puncture resistance, rolling resistance, and overall quality. The best rolling resistance tyre for city and touring bikes is the Schwalbe Marathon Almotion, but my shop didn’t manage to mount them properly, and I had no luck either mounting them myself properly, but I didn’t give up yet. I also had the Schwalbe Marathon Plus on many of our bikes, I bought the very first generation back in 2003, and that set lasted 15+ years (I sold the bike in 2018), but I prefer it less, as it is “hard” and can slip more easily. One of the best rolling resistance tyres are the Schwalbe G-One Speed. If you are interested in the numbers, CyclingAbout has covered it all. So all in all, I would buy Schwalbe Marathon tyres (and not “plus”).
Also, the gears can be a source of higher resistance, like the Enviolo (NuVinci) hubs triggered me to switch on the motors at all times. The Shimano internal gear hubs like the Alfine and Nexus, or well maintained dérailleur gears have low resistance. Again, CyclingAbout has a great article on comparing resistance of gear systems. The Rohloff internal gear hub has also low resistance, but I would not consider it for e-bikes, as it has “too many gear” (you will need to change gears very often, or always change 2-3-4 gears at once).
2.6 I’ve seen some e-bikes can charge the battery downhill – is this any good (regenerative braking)?
My experience is that in practical daily life this charging effect is negligible, on forums people measured a 5-10% gain in range. Then, instead of being automatically activated with the brake lever, the bikes I tried needed a couple of button presses on the console to switch from assist to breaking; in a city, I was already at the end of the slope when finally I managed to engage it. All in all, this sounds great in theory, but I wouldn’t consider this as a buying decision. To extend the range of the e-bike, I would rather simply buy a second battery, or buy a second charger for at the office.
Motors with regenerative breaking are usually “direct drives“.
It means that the motor has only two options: either it assists when the electricity is switched on, or it is actively breaking (even if it is little) the bicycle when the motor is off. There is no in-between. (The other motors have some internal gearing inside the motor, which allows engaging or disengaging the motor.) For this reason, I would only buy such bikes if you are happy to have the electricity switched on all the time – typical uses are pizza delivery, or postal delivery bikes.
If you plan to use the motor only sometimes, like going uphill, or when it is windy, and otherwise switch it off, a typical scenario when touring, then I would look elsewhere. In fact, each time I tried bikes with these motors in the end I didn’t like them in everyday city use compared to other motors. But this is my personal taste.
Here’s an article comparing them in detail.
2.7 I want an e-bike for a commute from Leuven to Brussels… why S-pedelecs are so expensive?
Because people pay for it.
S-pedelecs (speed pedelcs) mostly have the same motors as the regular e-bikes, only the 25 km/h limit to stop giving assistance is changed in the software to 45 km/h.
For many regular e-bike models there are so called speed boxes available that remove the 25 km/h speed limitation, but the bike will not be street legal anymore.
You can recognise official S-pedelecs from the number plate attached to the rear-rack.
Yes, there are, and if you like experimenting, want to support enthusiastic bike start-ups, can take the risk of delayed delivery or removed features, go for it!
But accept that these bikes can have some unpredicted features: high noise, weak brakes, braking components, weak motors, fast draining batteries, incompatible chargers. I was working in Research and Development as an engineer for long, and so I like these prototype things, but I also know these are on Kickstarter for a reason: because they are first batches of production.
3. “Every man is the architect of his own future“
Note: these were actual real conversations that I had. Life is so much fun!
3.1 Conversation #01
– Hey, I bought the bike with feature X / Y / Z, and I don’t like it! I am very disappointed!!! I have spent all my money, and the bike is not good!
– Did you read in the presentation my concern/warning about X / Y / Z?
– Yes, I did, but I thought to give it a try anyway.
3.2 Conversation #02
– Hey, I bought the bike, and I totally don’t like how it handles! It was very expensive, and now I am very sad… I don’t know what to do!!!
– Did you test-ride the bike before you bought it?
3.3 Conversation #03
– E-bikes are so expensive. These prices are a robbery!!! If it would be cheaper, maybe I would try it, but I don’t see if I can afford one. Why there isn’t something for €500?
– What car do you have?
– BMW X1. It’s great, it’s brand new! I love it!
– How much was it?
– €45000, but I got a good discount.
3.4 Conversation #04
– I would buy an e-bike, but I am so afraid that it will be stolen. My last bike was also stolen.
– Your bike was stolen!? What happened?
– I left the bike in front of the coffee shop, to grab a latte in the morning. When I came out, it was not there anymore.
– What do you mean… did you lock the bike?
– No, but I went in only for a minute.
3.5 Conversation #05
– I was thinking about buying an e-bike, but in the end, it would not work for me. I need my car to bring the children to the school.
– I see. Where do you live, and where is the school? It must be a long drive.
– Well, we live in Woluve[-St-Pierre], and they go to the European School in Ixelles. It’s at least 5 km.
3.6 Conversation #06
– Actually, I bought a second hand e-bike.
– And how it is?
– The motor is kind of weak, and the battery doesn’t last very long. But it’s fine for me.
3.7 Conversation #07
– I bought an e-bike in Lidl/Aldi/Chinese website for 700€! It is great!
[One year later…]
– Olllli, there is an issue with the motor and/or the battery. I can’t repair it, and the shops refuse to deal with it.
– Did you try shop A / B / C / D / E / F / G?
– I did, but they said they don’t repair bikes bought elsewhere, and especially this motor is not familiar to them.
– Did you try to buy a new battery + motor?
– I found a motor on-line that looks similar, the cost is 150+150 Euro. But I am not sure it will work, and it’s already half the price of the bike!
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