There are lots of electric bikes in the UK to choose from. Deciding which one is the right bike for you can be a bit of a minefield, so we've created a simple guide to help you.
Before we even get onto the subject of electric power, you need to decide the style of bike that will best suit your needs. Is the bike for commuting or maybe it's for weekends cycling with the family? Is it mainly for road use, tracks, trails or off-road? Getting it wrong at this stage, may mean that the bike won't be as comfortable or practical as you're hoping.
There are a number of styles of bikes to choose from, each designed for a specific purpose. We'll take you through the styles of bike that are available and explain what they're designed for. Then we'll look at the electric power options to find out what suits you best. Marry the best style of bike for your needs with the best electric power option and you'll have the ideal bike for you.
Choosing the style of bike
- Mountain Bikes - typified by chunky tyres, suspension forks are essential, good frame ground clearance and either 26 inch, 27.5 inch or 29 inch wheels. This style of bike is ideal for off-road use with excellent traction on loose surfaces from the tyres. On a standard mountain bike the gearing is set up for climbing steep hills, although with an electric mountain bike, more often than not, the gearing is altered to allow the motor to do the work instead.
- Hybrid Bikes - this type of bike is a cross between a road bike and a mountain bike. Typified by larger wheels (either 700c or 28 inch), flat handlebars and on some bikes suspension forks. It's the ideal bike to take on road for the commute but is equally at home on tracks and canal towpaths. The tyres, although thinner than mountain bike tyres, will give good levels of grip whilst not creating much road resistance during cycling.
- Folding Bikes - folding bikes come in different shapes and sizes and are ideal if storage is an issue or you need to regularly transport the bike in a car. Folding bikes are generally slightly heavier than their non-folding equivalents and riding a folding bike with 20 inch wheels isn't quite as relaxing as riding a bike with larger wheels. In our opinion, only buy a folding bike if you definitely need it to fold - otherwise you're better off with a non-folding bike.
- Step Though Bikes - if getting on and off a bike is a problem then a step through bike is ideal. The frame is designed to allow the bike to be mounted and dismounted easily. Some bikes have a really low step-through which is well-suited to those with restricted mobility.
Electric Power Options
Before explaining the options we'll try to clarify some of the electrical terms that you'll find when researching electric bikes. You'll find references to Watts (w), Amp Hours (AH) and Volts on the specifications of electric bikes. In layman terms:
- Watts refers to the amount of power that the motor will give you;
- Volts (v) refers to the quality of the power that the motor is getting
- Amp Hours equates to the number of miles that you'll get from a single charge of the battery.
Bear in mind when choosing a bike, UK law stipulates that the maximum power allowed on the road without the need for a licence is 250w. For example, a bike with a 250w motor, 36v system and a 15AH battery will give you about 60 miles from a single battery charge, will be road legal and will give a good level of acceleration. On the other hand, a 1000w motor with a 48v system and a 15AH battery will give about 25 miles between battery charges, will not be road legal and will probably be able to accelerate faster than you can pedal.
So which motor and battery suits your needs? Batteries are probably easier to deal with because you really just need to choose a battery with enough Ah to give you the miles between charges that you require. Don't forget that the miles between charges are the number of assisted miles - these are miles where the motor is working as you pedal. So, if you're freewheeling, the motor won't be running and therefore won't use the battery. If you're cycling in a hilly area you'll use the battery when cycling uphill but won't need any power when cycling downhill - therefore the total duration of your ride is invariably longer than the number of miles that you'll require motor and battery assistance.
Before taking you through the motor choices, it's worth remembering that the law in UK stipulates that to be road legal the motor must not be more than 250w and must stop assisting you at approximately 15mph.
Deciding which motor suits you best is slightly more tricky, but ultimately, any motor power is better than none at all, so try not to overthink the choice. Motors will either be located in the front wheel, the rear wheel or the crank. There are pros and cons of each which we'll now try to explain:
- Front Drive motors. One of the most common questions that we're asked is what's the difference between front wheel and rear wheel motors. The answer depends on the type of terrain that you're likely to be cycling. If it's a dry road then there really isn't a lot of difference between front and rear drive and to the vast majority of cyclists it will feel exactly the same. If the terrain is greasy, gravelly or generally a surface with loose material then you're more likely to lose traction with a front wheel motor; there's not a lot of weight on the front of the bike and with the power through the front wheel it's more likely that the wheel will lose grip. It's also more likely that the front wheel will lose grip on steep hill climbs. If you think about how you would naturally cycle up a hill your weight transfers to the rear of the bike and you use the handlebars as leverage to generate power for pedalling. This combination lifts the front of the bike slightly which can cause wheel spin. The advantage of front wheel motors is that the additional weight created by the electrical components is distributed across the bike. On some front wheel powered bikes you will also have the option of hub gears which isn't possible with a rear motor.
Rear Drive Motors. Rear wheel motors are best suited to terrain where there's a possibility to lose traction. In fact the pros and cons of rear wheel motors are the opposite of what we've already described for front wheel motors.
- Mid Drive (Crank Drive) motors. Mid drive motors are connected directly to the bike chain and are generally more efficient in the way that the power is delivered than either front or rear hub motors. This is particularly relevant if you're tackling lots of really steep hills because you'll get more usable power assistance from a crank drive electric bike. There's also a convincing argument that says that mid drive electric bikes look more like a conventional bike than hub drive bikes. The downside is that crank drive electric bikes are generally more expensive than their hub powered counterparts.
The main point of an electric bike is that it assists you whilst you pedal to make cycling easier. Therefore the pedal assistance system is a vital part of every electric bike. There are two types of pedal assistance system, namely, variable power pedal assistance and torque sensing pedal assistance.
Variable Power Pedal Assistance - With this system you'll have a controller mounted on the handlebar that allows you to pick a level of power for the motor - some have numbered power levels where the higher the number the more power the motor will give you; others have different modes like Economy, Normal and Boost; others will simply have Low, Medium and High settings. Whichever system the bike has they all work in exactly the same way in that you get to choose how much assistance the motor is giving you at any point in time and to change the level of power you press a button on the handlebar mounted controller. The great thing about this type of system is that you know you'll be getting a constant level of power from the motor which can be easily boosted when you reach an incline - just press the button to choose the next level of power and you'll immediately feel the difference.
- Torque Sensing Pedal Assistance - this system works on the basis that the harder you pedal the more power you'll get from the motor. This can give a more natural cycling experience but isn't always ideal if you're tiring when cycling uphill - the effort that you put in will naturally drop away and at the same time so does the power from the motor. Our advice is, unless you're a cycling purist, go for the variable power system because you'll have a more usable electric bike that will result in a more enjoyable cycling experience.
We hope that this mini guide helps you to choose an electric bike that suits your needs. First and foremost, choose a style of bike that suits you and then consider the electric options available - consider the terrain that you'll be riding on and the number of miles that you need the bike to give assistance. With this information you should be able to draw up a shortlist and then it's all down to aesthetics - choose a bike that you like the look of and look forward to many hours of electrically powered cycling!