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 self-study guide is for you.
This presentation is developed by one of our members, Oliver from the EASME Cycling Group (intranet), as a result of several iterations of the training “How to buy an e-bike”.
The content of the guide represents his personal experience, and are not the official views of EUCG. The file here is the latest update of the guide.
“I often get the same questions during the workshops. Instead of making the presentation very long, I go into detail here.”
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
1. It might sound stupid, but…
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.
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? Give it a try, who knows.
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”. 🙂
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:
Height above 190 cm: Dutch manufacturers offer XL or XXL/2XL versions of their frames. Examples:
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.
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.
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.
10. Shall I buy an S-pedelec?
No. It can assist you up to 45 km/h, but there is a list of constraints: driving license compulsory, helmet mandatory, cycling lanes and paths cannot be used (except in Switzerland), the bicycle components are not allowed to be altered compared to the factory version.
In city traffic, I can ride anyway only at 10-15 km/h. The studies comparing the use of speed pedelecs have shown a real life gain of about 3-8 minutes over a 15-25 km commute with an S-pedelec (max. 45 km/h) vs. normal e-bike (25 km/h). This is because also outside of a city you can rarely speed up to 45 km/h, mostly you will ride anyway with 20-25 km/h. Only on long straight sections, you can go with 45 km/h; in curves, rough surfaces, intersections, close to other vehicles, you will need to vary your speed up and down.
And then, do you want to ride among cars? 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.
11. Shall I buy a second hand e-bike?
No. The battery will be used, the technology outdated, and the new battery costs 3-800€.
I would only buy a second hand e-bike if it is “not really second hand” – i.e. a relatively new bike 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 old bikes.
12. I only want to spend 1000€ at maximum… any options?
As of May 2018, I suggest to consider:
- Decathlon B’Twin sell decent price-quality ratio e-bikes,
- Xiaomi QiCycle is a high quality, modern e-bike (see below), but be ready to experiment,
- www.bikeexchange.be offers a lot of good deals of last years’ bikes, and
- Velo Goffeau (Brussels) specializes in e-bikes near the 1000€ range.
Although for more than 1000€, you can often find some good deals here:
13. Is it compulsory to wear a helmet for an e-bike (max. 25 km/h) in Belgium?
14. Does it charge the battery while I pedal?
15. 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.
2. Questions about e-bike technology
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, 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.
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.
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. 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.
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 opera, you can do it literally 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
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 much you use them, and how is your style of braking. A set of brake pads cost 10-20€.
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 – I rather recommend to read cyclingabout.com, which is my favourite website about bicycle touring.
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 1-300€ price difference is important for you, don’t buy it.
However, it also depends on the motor: if you have a motor with high 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 during freewheeling (ex. Shimano Steps E6000), and if you switch off the motor (like I do), the range can be 2-3x more compared to the other motors.
5. How can I extend the range of the e-bike?
The most cost effective way to increase 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 are offered by Schwalbe Marathon Almotion, but my shop didn’t manage to mount them properly, and I had no luck either mounting them myself properly. We 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, but they are only available in narrow (1.50 inch) size, so I don’t recommend them. 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).
Then, buy an e-bike with a low resistance engine, like the Shimano Steps, or Brose. Also, the gears can be a source of higher resistance, like the 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.
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.
Please note: 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. Examples of direct drives: Heizmann, Pendix, Copenhagen Wheel, Go Swiss Drive. Examples of geared drives: Bosch, Shimano, Yamaha, Panasonic. Here’s an article comparing them in detail.
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.