All you need to know about choosing an e-bike and the main features you should consider before you buy
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Tempted to get back in the saddle but not sure about your fitness? Like to save money on travelling? Like cycling but hate getting hot and sweaty? Then an e-bike could be just what you need!
Cycling has become a lot more popular recently and for good reason. It helps you with your fitness, it's an exciting way to get out and go further afield than just walking and it's also a clean way to travel. I have an old bike which I used a lot when my kids were younger but as I got older I got fed up with getting hot and sweaty every time I went anywhere. Just 'nipping to the shops' or 'popping out to meet a friend for coffee' was never going to be an option for me if I arrived at my destination smelly, sweaty and with flat hair. I also found the bike seat uncomfortable despite trying a few different designs and adding a padded seat cover and my bike has been lying sadly neglected in the garage for years.
We have some fantastic cycle routes locally so with a 'big birthday' coming up I decided to research e-bikes. The trouble is when I started looking at what was available it was like going down a rabbit hole - there were literally so many different types of bike and they ranged in price from about £700 to over £6,000.
An e-bike is basically a normal bike with gears that you can pedal but it also has an electric battery which you can use to give you a bit of 'assistance' if you feel the going is getting a bit tough for you (think steep hills or long distances). In the UK e-bikes are limited on the road to a maximum of 15.5 mph (but you can go faster if you are peddling as well) and are legal to use for anyone over the age of 14.
Why get an e-bike?
An e-bike is a great idea if you want to get out and about with friends who cycle, or would like to spend more time exercising but are not confident of how fit you are and worry (like me), that you will cycle off somewhere and then not have the energy to get back home!
They give you a confidence that wherever you cycle to (depending on battery size, usage and terrain) you will be able to get home and manage even the steepest hills with ease if you need to.
They would also be a good choice for someone who has a health condition such as asthma who would like to up their exercise a little but with the back-up of some power assistance if required. Since I started cycling on my e-bike I have spoken with other women on e-bikes who, like me, would not have not been out on a normal pedal bike.
The bike battery just plugs in to a normal 3 pin socket at home and you will also be doing your bit for the environment if you can use your e-bike on some occasions instead of your car.
What different types of e-bikes are there?
So many! You can get folding bikes and off road mountain bikes but I won't be covering these in this article. I was just interested in a bike for long bikes rides, maybe slightly off the beaten path (think canal towpaths and tracks) and for going out shopping and to meet up with friends. I created some basic categories for consideration so that I could narrow the bikes down to a short-list before I went off to look at them.
1 Getting on and off an e-bike
The first one was just a basic design feature, how do you want to get on and off your bike?
Some bikes have a bar that goes from the handlebar post across to the seat. These are called 'cross-bar' bikes.
Some have the same bar going from the handlebar post to the seat but at a much lower level so you don't have to lift your leg as high to get on an off. These are called 'cross-overs'.
The third type is called a 'step through' where you can literally just hold the bike at your side and 'step' your leg through the frame to the other side (see Batribike Gamma S photo above).
I definitely did not want a cross bar and started out with a cross over style. I didn't have a problem getting my leg up and over, but the more I considered what I wanted to use my bike for the more I decided that a step through would be better for me. I would actually like to go and see friends for lunch and a step through frame would mean that wearing a dress or a skirt on the bike would be a doddle. It wouldn't be impossible with a cross over, but nowhere near as easy.
2 Where do you want your battery to be placed?
The next part is where you want your battery to be. They are mostly based either under the rear rack of the bike (where you might put a basket), on the down post from the handlebars or integrated in to the frame on the down post. After much research I decided that having the battery at the front gave a better sense of gravity and handling for the bike. A rear rack placed battery would be fine for a light battery with gentle riding and not much load. An integrated battery can give the battery slightly more protection and can give a cleaner look to the bike.
3 What size of battery do you want?
Most batteries are capable of the same power in that they will let you go up to 15.5 mph in full assistance mode. The capacity of a battery is measured in Watt hours (Wh) and although there are some smaller batteries such as 180 - 300 Wh for light and folding bikes, most seem to be around the 300 - 500 Wh.
The capacity of a battery is simply a means of estimating how far you can go on a full charge. This is quite hard to pin down because it varies depending on the amount of power assist used, the weight of the rider and the terrain covered. If you are commuting a long way then you would probably need to look at a large capacity battery. You need to decide how much of a range you need your battery to give you, and the larger the battery the greater the cost. Batteries normally take between 3 - 6 hours to charge from flat and you should query the battery life and the warranty on the battery with the bike retailer.
I suggest that you make sure you have some decent suspension in the front forks. That way if you hit a pothole or want to go down a canal towpath you won't have a problem. (If you want to go off-roading or mountain biking then there are bikes built specially for this type of activity, try looking at Kalkhoff). If you can get suspension in the seat post as well that would be great but this tends to come on the more expensive models. You can replace the seat and get a bit more suspension as I did (see details under 'Extras' below).
Other things to consider when buying an e-bike
That's the basics covered which should narrow your choice down on models and give you an idea on cost. There are some other points that you might like to consider:
What sort of tyres do you need? Think about whether you want slicks for mostly road riding or perhaps hybrid tyres if you will be going down cycle tracks or towpaths as well.
You might want integrated front and rear lights (not all bikes come with them as standard) which will be key if you will be riding in early morning, at dusk or at night. Make sure the light is bright enough so that you can see, and will be seen by others at night.
If you are riding in the dusk or dark you will also need some reflective clothing.
Make sure you have some decent brakes on the bike. If you are using electrical assistance you need to be able to stop quickly if you need to therefore you should be looking for disc brakes and not the standard 'V' brakes which you would get on a standard pedal bike, but which also come on some e-bikes.
I'd recommend that you have front and rear mudguards (unless you are off-roading). If the road is wet or you get caught in the rain there will be spray coming up the back of the bike (on your clothes) and off the front wheel, which could cause a problem with vision.
Nice to have: some models have a USB charging point which is great if you are travelling a distance and want to use your phone for navigating but a fully charged phone should be fine if this isn't an option on the bike that you like.
I would also recommend visiting a retailer to start your search for an e-bike. Someone told me about their fantastic bike and how much they loved it and it looked great on the photos they sent me. When I went and sat on one in a shop I just knew it wasn't for me.
I would advise against buying direct on-line unless you have already seen and sat on the physical bike. Your e-bike purchase is very personal, think about why you want one and what you want to use it for. Make yourself a draft specification using the points above before you visit a retailer so you have some basics to start off with. A knowledgeable retailer should be able to help you chose the best fit for your requirements and let you try the e-bike for size (some come with different frame sizes). They should also fit you for it (adjust seat and handlebars to right height and angle) if you buy one.
What is the maintenance on e-bikes like?
Much like a normal bike. After the initial check up (after about 100 miles on mine and included in the purchase price) you just have to clean it, check the tyres and brakes and oil the chain. The main thing is looking after the battery. The battery life varies according to the manufacturer but seems to range between 3 - 5 years depending on use. Check with your bike retailer about the expected battery life on the model that you are interested in and also ask how long the warranty is. This can vary from 1 to 3 years and is often different for the frame and different parts of the e-bike.
Extras for your e-bike
On top of the cost of your bike there are a few extras you may want to think about too.
A different saddle for your e-bike
I have never really had a comfortable bike saddle and mentioned this when I first went looking for e-bikes as it was putting me off getting one. The retailer that I bought from sold Selle Royal Scientia saddles for which you can get a custom fitting.
You sit on a bench with your feet flat on the floor and hold onto a handle on either side of the bench with your hands. You then pull up as hard as you can so that your bottom is pushed down onto the bench. You then jump off and there is an imprint on the bench of where your 'sitting bones' are. Using this, and your riding style (forward, slight tilt or upright) you get a recommendation for your perfect saddle from a range of 9 saddles sizes (3 shapes, 3 widths). There is also a sort of extra suspension bounce feature with the saddle where you get a bit of extra 'spring' which is useful if you have not got suspension in the seat post. My custom fit Selle Royal saddle cost me £64.99.