E-Bike 101

A guest article by James Thomas of BicycleDesign.

If you visit cycling websites on a regular basis, you have probably noticed at least a few references to electric bikes lately. New e-bike designs have been popping up in greater numbers at the various bike tradeshows, and electric bikes from companies like Lexus and Volkswagen have been getting a lot of attention from the mainstream press.   As the category continues to grow here in the US, I expect that we will to hear a lot more about e-bikes. Holland, a country that is already known for high rates of transportational cycling, has experienced an e-bike boom in recent years. In 2009, Dutch bike shops made more money from e-bike sales than city bike sales and today, e-bikes account for a quarter of all bicycle sales in Holland by some estimates.

For the most part, the e-bikes that are currently on the market can be divided into three basic categories; throttle assist, pedal assist (pedelec), and throttle only. I’ll go ahead and make it four categories to include the various add-on systems that allow for the conversion of any bike into an electric one. In this post, I will briefly discuss the different categories of e-bikes that you have probably been hearing a lot about lately.

Throttle powered assist e-bikes

The simplest, most straightforward ones on the market. These bikes can come as singlespeeds or with multiple gears. Basically, the rider pedals and shifts as he or she would on a regular bike, but there is a hand operated throttle to provide power from the electric motor when necessary. These bikes are versatile because they can be propelled by the rider only, the motor only, or any combination of the two. The majority of throttle-operated e-bikes have a flat battery pack that is located in a specially designed rear rack and a motor in the rear hub. When you reach your destination, the battery pack can be easily removed from the bike for charging.   Pedego is a good example of a company that makes throttle assist e-bikes in a range of styles.

Pedelec, or pedal electrics

Also referred to as “pedal assist” bikes. With a pedal assist bike, the motor starts contributing to the bike’s motion as soon as the rider starts pedaling. As the rider pedals faster, the power from the motor also increases (until it reaches a preset max speed) effectively amplifying the human power. On a pedelec, the rider has to pedal in order to propel the bike, but the motor provides assistance to allow him or her to cover more ground at a faster pace. The Sanyo Eneloop is one electric assist bike that has been getting a lot of attention lately. That bike features -loop charging’ which means that the battery recharges as the bike is ridden. I had the opportunity to ride an early version of the Eneloop at Interbike last year, and you can read my impressions of the bike here. It is worth mentioning that there is overlap between the throttle operated and pedal assist categories. Some of the iZip bikes from Currie Technologies for example, allow the user to easily switch between throttle and pedal assist modes.

Throttle Only

The third category that I mentioned is “throttle only” for lack of a better term. These are the “e-bikes” on the market that are not really bicycles at all (the YikeBike and the Volkswagen bike that I mentioned earlier are examples that have received a lot of press attention). These e-bikes don’t even have pedals, so they would be better classified as electric scooters. So, you might wonder” why are they referred to as e-bikes? A lot of it has to do with marketing and legal definitions of the term. In many countries, e-bikes can be operated without a license or helmet (unlike an electric scooter or moped), so manufacturers would rather have their vehicles classified that way. As the e-bike category matures and groups representing manufacturers and users debate regulations, hopefully the definitions will become clearer. For now though, don’t be surprised to see mentions of e-bikes that are really just electric scooters in disguise.

E-Bike Conversion Kits

Retrofit e-bike conversion kits come in a variety of types. Systems like the ones available from BionX, with motors that range from 250 to 500 watts, can turn almost any bicycle into a powerful, long-range e-bike. Other kits, like those from Cytronex, and Freedom E-bikes use smaller and lighter batteries to provide just a boost of electric assistance when needed. As battery technology improves, I expect that we will see a greater variety of e-bike conversion kits that are easily to install and remove when not in use.

This post has just scratched the surface regarding the different types of e-bikes, but there is a lot of good information available on the web. The GOOD blog recently posted a helpful article titled “Choosing the Right Electric Bicycle” and forums like Endless Sphere and sites like ElectricCyclist.com are consistently good sources for electric bike information. Of course, as e-bikes continue to grow in popularity, you will also see them mentioned more often at my blog, Bicycle Design, and here at Commute by Bike. Even if you don’t feel like an e-bike is in your future, it is definitely an interesting category to keep an eye on.

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0 thoughts on “E-Bike 101”

  1. john in pdx says:


  2. ttrbikes says:

    If I think about an e-bikes as a bike, I’m not compelled. If I think of an e-bike as a replacement for a car, things start to click.

  3. James says:

    Great point, Nathaniel! The vast majority of e-bikes on the market are not geared toward current cyclists. They are for those people who currently do not ride a bike at all for whatever reason. If e-bikes can replace short car trips for even a few of those people…that is great news for all of us.

  4. Peter says:

    Great overview. Seems like the first new kind of cycling since the mountain bike was introduced, and provoking the same kind of strong opinions.

  5. Anton says:

    I’m intrigued at the venom the mention of ebikes can attract from the on-line biking community.

    I’m in my early 40’s, a fat, unhealthy diabetic who lives in a town with the steepest suburban streets In The World. My Wisper 905 se (its an English brand) gets me up the hills, and after 6 weeks my blood sugars are the best they have ever been. I love riding, and actually go the long way whenever I can. I’m even eyeing up some non ebikes as a weekend trail rider.

    I really don’t mind if people think they are ‘beginner’s bikes’, because, well, that’s true.

  6. Jeremy P says:

    Great article on electric bikes! E-bikes are definitely growing in popularity and the selection keeps getting better year-after-year. In the past, you could only choose from a cheap Chinese import, or a very expensive (and overpriced) e-bike. But these days, more companies are jumping onboard and it seems like there’s a electric bike designed for everyone – various prices, styles and features. Great rundown of the options!

  7. Cant Print says:

    I’m all for e-bikes. I think they have the potential to get more people out of their cars. They’re fun too. But I just can’t understand these so called (hardcore) cyclists, and why they’re shunning these… they’re probably the same ones that take PEDs.

  8. James says:

    Anton, thanks for sharing your experience as a new cyclist (e-bike or not). It is really great to hear that you are getting healthier and that you love riding your new bike…that is really what it is all about.

    As a long time cyclist, I have heard the same old feuds between roadies and mountain bikers, racers and club riders, commuters and recreational cyclists, etc. I fall into all of those categories at times, so I really just don’t get it when I hear one group of cyclists criticizing another. To me, e-bikes are just another category that has the potential to introduce a whole new group of people to the joys of cycling. I don’t see how anyone who loves cycling can view that as anything but a positive.

  9. tim says:

    I currently have an e-bike bought last year and will soon have over 2000mi on it. It is Great! I use it to commute daily(3 seasons). As many more come to market, more technologies should come into play. It’s an xciting time for bicycling. We need to welcome this additon to biking as it will interest more and older riders who may have given up riding, due to health reasons.

  10. JK says:

    Why so close minded, are you a bicycle Puritan?

  11. John e bikes says:

    These are a god send to commuters, if you live in the city or just outside. You can get some exercise without getting too sweaty and arrive on time for work.

  12. DuncanM says:

    I’m definitely noticing a lot more electric bikes these days. They seem pretty popular with the older generation and why not, it makes biking a lot easier.

  13. […] or Fad? is a Bike Shop Hub article exploring the bigger picture of e-bike popularity.  Obviously e-bikes have some implications when it comes to bicycle trailers as well.  An electric assist bike or or […]

  14. kite says:

    Riding a bike, even an electric one, is about waving to your neighbors, talking to people at crosswalks, enjoying your own power, coasting down the hill with a bit of wind in your hair, paying attention to the cracks in the road, sticking your tongue out to taste the spring rain, always being able to find a parking place, feeling like a kid.

  15. Julia says:

    I am reasonably fit, but have not really taken to cycling a lot for fear of big hills and “can I get back” anxiety. I have fallen in LOVE with e-bikes as an alternative transportation solution.

    When In china a couple months ago I was asked by a trusted friend their if I wanted to import e-bikes. After nearly 2,000 hours of due diligence to find out what an e-bike was…I wanted to be in the industry…but not by way of just distributing cheap imports. Next week I begin sales & marketing for a company in the US that I felt did what I wanted to do…give consumers the best quality & value….cut margins but not quality. This company builds the e-bikes in the US and uses great components and excellent battery technology….at about half the cost of comparable e-bikes. The battery is the most expensive component by far, and my new employer uses only LiFePO4 batteries (most expensive, but also most eco-friendly as disposal is not an issue as with other Li-Ion chemistry)…also they have 2,000 cycle recharge (most other are 200-800).

    Any help identifying who is selling e-bikes abroad is much appreciated. 🙂

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