All you need to know about choosing an e-bike and the main features you should consider before you buy

Thinking about starting to ride again?

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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?

With an e-bike you can ride at any age

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?

Batribike Gamma S step through e-bike

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

Watt Boston cross bar 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.

Carrera Subway cross over e-bike

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.

4 Suspension

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.

Panniers or rear carry basket

Basil Noir pannier bag

You will probably need something on the bike to carry stuff in, whether it be a blanket and a picnic if you are going off for the day or groceries if you are shopping. There are many options such as either a central bag that sits on the back, or pannier type baskets that go on either side.

Most panniers just sit there so if you go to the shops you have to have another bag with you to take into the shop, get your shopping and then come out and put the bag into a pannier.

One company, Basil, do slightly different types of pannier carriers that look like shoppers or handbags and can be easily taken off the bike.

I pondered for ages wondering whether to get a pair of panniers for the back or just one handbag style shopper. In the end I decided that I would prefer to be able to take the bag off the bike and take it with me so I bought myself a Basil Noir. You can put it on or off the bike in seconds and they do many other sorts of designs and flowery patterns, I just thought this looked like a nice large handbag! This one cost me £57 from Amazon although there are other on-line suppliers out there.


Kali Saha Cruise in Matt Moss

There is no law that you need to wear a helmet on a e-bike but I think you should wear a one to protect your head in case of accidents. I am not a fan of traditional cycling helmets that make you look like you have a pointy alien shaped head so had a look around for something a bit different. There are lots of other lovely styles out there and some great vintage ones too. I ended up plumping for a Kali Saha Cruise in Matt Moss. It's made from 100% recycled products and uses water based paints and organic inks and costs about £45. I love the mini visor too (which is detachable)! Try looking at CycleChic and Via-Moto for a great selection of alternative styled helmets.

Best security lock for an e-bike

You will also need a security lock for when you park your bike and leave it. Some bikes come with an internal 'cafe' lock. These are ok if you are literally within sight of your bike but would not be sufficient if you were out of sight inside a shop. You need to get a certain standard of e-bike lock to be acceptable to insurance companies and you should check with your retailer. It needs to be a 'gold standard'. I bought an Oxford Shackle 14 and it cost about £40. They are quite hefty so that is another good reason why you will probably need a pannier or rear bag of some kind to put it in whilst you are riding. The Oxford Shackle 14 also comes with an additional fitting and can be attached to the bike in different places, depending on the bike style.

What are the cons of having an e-bike?

  • The price. It can be quite a large outlay but I know people who have spent more on a normal road pedal bike, just make sure you are going to use it.

  • They are quite heavy. This is not an issue as long as you can pick one up off the floor (just in case you have to, most come with a click stand). Mine weighs about 25kg with the battery but this is also a good thing as it is solid on the road and when traffic is passing you don't get as much 'wobble'. The only time I could think that it would be an issue is if you ran out of battery and had to pedal home manually.

  • The battery - length of life. As far as I can see the e-bike will last a lot longer than the battery. You can get the best length of life from your battery by not letting it overcharge and keeping it inside in extremely cold weather but even then you will probably have to replace it at about 3 - 5 years depending on use. It may be that, as with most electronic goods, the price of batteries comes down as time goes on and they become more popular.

E-bike Insurance

Due to the cost of e-bikes it is a good idea to get some insurance. It may be that your household insurance already covers you at home and you can add the bike on for cover away from home. You can get separate stand alone cycle insurance policies that will cover you at home and away, but study the policy carefully before you buy it. Many of the cycle policies I looked at had conditions that had to be met for a successful claim that were nearly impossible to meet. For example, if the bike is kept at home in a locked garage or outbuilding the building has to have a certain type of lock. The bike must also be locked inside the building with a gold standard lock to an immovable object as well. If you look at the definition of an 'immovable object' in the policy, this is not as easy as you think.

When out and about you have to use a gold standard lock and attach the bike to an immovable object (such as a bike rack). As I have found locally there are hardly any cycle racks or suitable objects to which I can attach my bike if I want to park up and leave it. This will probably not be a problem if you live in a more built up area but it certainly is an issue as you get more rural. Just something to think about before you set off out on your own to go shopping!

What's it like riding an e-bike?

Batribike Penta S step through e-bike in white

I ended up going for a Batribike Penta S, which is a step through style. These bikes are now also branded as Batribike Gamma (one was for the UK market and one was for the EU market but they are the same bike) and you can get them with different battery sizes.

Due to covid restrictions the bike retailer was not doing test rides, but I did sit on it and wheel up and down a bit to get the feel of it. I had not actually ridden a bike for years but within minutes of getting it home I was off. The controls were really easy to use. Normal bike gears, you just have to get used to going up and down as the terrain changes but it didn't take long to re-learn which gear was best for the steepness of the road I was on.

The brakes were quite 'keen' because they are disc brakes so the first few times I applied them I stopped rather quickly but once I got used to my braking distance I was fine.

The new Selle Royal Scientia saddle that I had been fitted for looked horrendous when I picked the bike up, I would never have chosen anything that shape, it looked really thin and pointy! However once I got on and started riding it was the most comfortable saddle I have ever had and I managed 11 miles in the first two days and had no after effects at all which I call a great result. I still look at the saddle and think how thin and narrow it looks but your saddle needs to support your sitting bones and I think it was definitely worth getting measured for this.

Actually riding the bike with some electrical assistance is great fun! I started off just using it as a normal bike without the electric assistance just to get the feel of it. I then came to a hill and it was soon apparent that I needed some help. I pressed a button and it felt as if a very strong wind was pushing me up the hill - you still have to pedal but it's fairly effortless.

I love the freedom an e-bike gives me to get out and about whilst getting more exercise. I like the confidence in knowing that no matter what steep hills a journey throws at me, I can deal with them easily and I am already planning trips much further afield then I would ever have done on my old bike. I think my husband is going to have to get one too if he wants to keep up with me.

If you are upping your exercise then check out the article on the benefits of Forest Walking along with some wonderful outdoor nature ideas for kids!

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