My love for bikes is no secret. At any possible moment, I’ve got one of my three bikes out and I’m off on two wheels to work out, commute to my job, run an errand, or just cruise around and explore somewhere new. The health benefits for both my mind and body are scientifically and anecdotal-ly inarguable! I love the burning feeling in my legs as I push my body and brain to new limits, and sweating it out is the best therapy there is.
However, for millions of people across the world, bikes are not only a fun mode of transportation, they are sometimes the only, or at least the most practical, mode. For them, the daily commute to work through traffic is stressful on their bodies, and finding an economical, environmentally friendly way to combat fatigue and make commuting by bike attainable is incredibly important.
Thankfully, there are electronic assist bikes, or e-bikes, for short. E-bikes are bicycles that operate both by pedaling as well as through small motors that provide assistance with hills and relief over long distances. There are many different kinds of e-bikes, and yet the field is just starting to really expand.
Luckily, my fiance works for a company developing a special type of e-bike, so I took the time to sit with him to learn more. After a lot of engi-nerd speak I had to have him translate, I came away with a good understanding of what an e-bike is, how they work, and what benefits they provide to riders. I have to say- it’d make my 44 mile round-trip commute to and from work a lot easier to do every day instead of twice a week if I had one!
What Is an E-Bike?
As defined here, an electric bike is different than an electric motorcycle or a scooter. They operate with many of the same parts and geometry as a regular bicycle. The electric power is meant to supplement human power, not completely replace it, allowing a rider to still get exercise without getting as tired over longer distances, or because of hills or headwind. While this would certainly not be legal for racing, it’s easy to see how one would benefit from having an e-bike for fun rides or commuting! You pedal the entire time as you would with a bicycle – it is not self-propelled.
How Do They Work?
Evelo has an awesome animated chart that simply and cleanly explains the basics of how they work- check it out!
What Types are Available and What do They Cost?
The market for e-bikes is not yet as expansive as standard bicycles, but there are still several options out there. Unfortunately, because of the batteries and electronic components, they are not cheap. However, if you think of it as an investment of an alternative to your vehicle, rather than just a fun purchase, the cost makes a lot more sense.
BikeRadar points out a few key differences in what is available as far as features. According to their buyer’s guide:
There are two mains types of electric bike. The most common is what has come to be termed a ‘pedelec’. This type of system monitors the rider pedaling and automatically adds a certain amount of motor assistance – usually depending upon pedaling rate, pedaling force and bike speed (so it knows if you’re struggling and helps as much as possible for instance). The other kind is a ‘twist-n-go’. This is where a switch is used by the rider to trigger the assistance from the motor. They can either be simple on/off affairs or a variable twist grip setup. Current regulations only permit the twist-n-go assistance to be delivered if the system detects the rider is pedaling.
Motor choice falls into two main types. Either it’s mounted in one of the wheels (hub motor assist) or it’s mounted at the crank and pedal area (crank motor assist) at the bottom of the frame. Typically, crank assist bikes have a reputation for dealing well with steep hills, but can be a little on the noisy side depending upon the brand and type. Hub motors tend to be very quiet, but often don’t handle hills as well as crank assist systems.
The difference between the two is now much narrower than it was even just a year ago. As technology moves on, and the bicycle industry’s application of existing technology from other markets evolves, we’re seeing hub motor systems which cope well with hills, and crank assist systems which are almost silent (apart from the normal noises of a bike).”
There is a lot of useful information on other features to consider at the link! With that, let’s take a look at a few options available on the market.
Evelo, the company that made the chart above, also makes e-bikes. They offer several different models for men, women, commuters, and even more off-road specific models. Starting from $2,000-$2,500, they are an investment, but they come with front suspension, commuter friendly features such as luggage racks, and even feature the product developed by the company my fiance works for, an optional NuVinci drive train! This drive train features planetary bearings that eliminate the need for gears, allowing essentially infinite shifting possibilities rather than a set gear ratio. I’ve ridden a lot of regular bikes with NuVinci hubs- they’re super cool! If you forget to shift at a stop light, for example, you just roll the shifter while stopped and the bike automatically changes ratios so you’re not struggling to get going when it goes green. This allows you to focus more on traffic around you and less on what gear you’re in.
Cynergy E-Bikes offers a wide variety of models as well. Many big brands, such as Scott, Felt, and Yuba offer e-bike models, as well and many e-bike specific companies. Here is an example of their Hybrid/Sport models you can find on the website :
Click to enlarge- from Cynergyebikes.com
What’s on the Horizon?
Continental & NuVinci Future offerings – Of course, I wouldn’t be able to do this article without mentioning the really cool project my fiance is working on. Earlier in this article, I mentioned the NuVinci hub being offered on Evelo and other e-bikes currently. This involves the motor housing within the frame near the crank, as well as the hub (which replaces the traditional gear cassette) on the rear wheel. He and his team at Fallbrook Technologies are working with Continental on a project that would integrate these two mechanisms to one location within the bottom bracket area of the frame. This will offer many advantages. It will make weight distribution more even to add balance to the bike. The bike will be easier to maintain because of lack of cassette or large hub on the rear wheel, so there are fewer areas to experience wear. It will also reduce the shifters and engine controls down to one module. Finally, the really cool part is the riding experience will be completely customizable. For example, say you want to pedal at a cadence of 80 for your whole ride. You can set the bike to do just that, and it will shift automatically for you, so all you have to do is keep moving your legs and enjoy the scenery!
What are the Benefits?
- Environmental – E-Bikes are great for the environment, period. They do not take fuel, they get people out of cars and reduce pollution. An interesting statstic from treehugger.com states:
E-bikes turn people into daily riders. 55 percent of e-bikers rode their standard bike weekly or daily before the purchase. After the purchase, weekly or daily biking rose to 93 percent. Even the few (6%) who had never ridden bikes as an adult were now riding weekly or daily.
- Physical & Mental – Fewer cars on the road reduces traffic, and there’s no denying the mental benefits of not being stuck in gridlock! Riding a bike has been shown to improve brain functionality, as well as cardio-vascular fitness. It’s good for your brain, your heart, your legs, and your spirits, so why not milk benefits out of your commute and errands?
- Financial – Although e-bikes are not cheap, they do save you money over time! You not only save on gas week to week, but also on wear-and-tear on your car, auto insurance premiums since your annual mileage goes down (or is perhaps eliminated entirely!, parking costs, and other auto maintenance expenses. Since a quality e-bike will last for years and years, over time you see significant savings!
So, what do you think? I know just from working on this article, I’ve convinced myself an e-bike would be a pretty cool thing to have! Their many benefits are undeniable, and really, any time spent on any kind of bike is time that is valuable. The more people on bikes, the better! While an e-bike is not necessary for those who ride just for fitness or for racing, they are certainly something to consider for leisure, commute, or errand running, especially as our major cities become more and more bike friendly.
Jenny is a Moxie Cycling Ambassador and blog contributor. Check out her bio here!