The benefits of ebikes are being discovered by more and more people. This growth in demand has delivered greater consumer choice. From budget brands at Canadian Tire, to electric mountain bikes with power to spare, a wide range of price points and features are available.
But for non-cyclists, and many current pedal-power-only cyclists, the multiplicity of options is confusing.
Here are some basics to understand and a few questions to ask when you go shopping. I have written this post with Canadians, and particularly British Columbians as the audience with regard to a few specifics, but the generalities apply to most locales.
We begin by removing e-motorbikes and e-scooters from our consideration. All the bikes discussed hereafter have some variation on the traditional pedal-powered bicycle’s chain drive and derailleur (or gear hub) setup and require pedaling.
Ebikes can be characterized by the location of the drive unit, their intended function, and their legal status. The last point is important. Although standards are gradually moving to a global homologation, there are differing rules in many jurisdictions concerning power output and where one can ride. Check your local regulations and ask the salesperson explicitly if the model you are looking at is street-legal without a license in your area. I’ve included a link to BC’s rules at the bottom of the post.
This has emerged as the preferred design for most uses and is now the de facto standard for name brand ebikes. The battery and motor are located underneath the rider providing a low center of gravity and good stability. Mid-drive has the least impact on suspension performance and also allows for the use of traditional rear wheels and chain/derailleur drive systems, upgraded to withstand the higher loads of electric assist.
For the mechanically-inclined there are some aftermarket mid-drive kits that mount at the bottom bracket. This one way to electrify an existing dual-suspension mountain bike.
Rear Drive/Front Drive
Common at lower price points and in D-I-Y ebikes. Some people do not like the feel of being ‘pulled’ by front drive systems and the weight impacts steering a little , but it is one of the cheapest approaches for adding power assist to an existing bicycle. Rear drive feels more ‘natural’ and does not impact steering, but aftermarket rear wheels, with their attendant gear cluster are more expensive. While rear drive does add some weight to the rear wheel of the bicycle, it is still suitable IMO for light off-road use on trails and gravel paths.
As with regular bicycles, there are skinny tire road ebikes, offroad-specific ebikes (eMTBs), and all flavours in between, including a number of highly-functional utility/cargo/delivery ebikes and trikes (see image at top of post). As with regular pure-pedal-power bicycles, my advice is to be realistic about your intended use. I would add that there’s no harm in buying a bit more bike than you need at the outset (to go with a light trail model instead of pure commuter ebike for example) and finding out if electric assist widens your horizons. When you have a better sense of your actual use patterns you can consider an upgrade or a replacement.
Be aware that many eMTBs are, strictly speaking, not road-legal in many places, usually due to the motor’s power (measured in watts). That is starting to change. Trek’s latest eMTB (as one example) does meet British Columbia’s specifications for legal road use (300 watt motor). Aging and jaded mountain bike journalist Cam McRae of North Van’s famed nsmb.com even gives it a positive review.
If you shuttle your mountain bike to the trailhead, road-legality is an issue in theory only. In reality, the actual likelihood of being stopped and ticketed for an overpowered ebike is pretty low, barring extenuating circumstances. I won’t opine on the irony of shuttling a powered bicycle to the mountain… and I am not a lawyer, so neither will I offer any advice on the legal risks of hitting someone or something while riding an ebike that doesn’t meet regulations.
A quick look on Craigslist Vancouver shows used ebikes for as little as $1000 or less. Caveat emptor. I would suggest spending at least $2000 on a new ebike for occasional to regular use on paved roads and gravel paths. That was the rough price of a few bikes I looked at on Canadian Tire’s website and it’s pretty indicative of the low-price ebike market. After that it’s all about your budget and how willing you are to blow it with power, range, bells, and whistles. You could spend as much as $20,000 on a top of the line eMTB, but I understand most people are not looking for that kind of a bike.
Realistically, anything in the $3k to $6k range will probably do the job for most people who want to use an ebike as a vehicle replacement when time and weather permit. All the major name brands now offer an ebike or two in their model line-up and they can be found at most bike shops, major outdoor retailers, department stores, and through online channels. There are plenty of low-cost alternatives available to be sure, but quality and durability will be factors to consider. Spending a bit more for better components will always be a decision worth considering, for ebikes and pedal-powered bikes alike.
Ebikes don’t quite reach the zero-cents-a-litre pedal purity of the traditional bicycle, but when they replace a car for as many trips as practical, they can put a real dent (pun intended) in your transportation costs. Leave a comment below and let me know what is at the top of your list when thinking about an ebike purchase.
Next time — The DIY Discussion – What you need to know before attempting an ebike upgrade to your existing bicycle.