How to choose the best electric bike.
Electric bicycles, or “e-bikes” are all the rage today! Why? Battery and electric motor tech has advanced to the point where you can travel up to 22 miles per hour for 40-60 miles. In some places, folks have sold their cars! I’m thinking about it too.
First and foremost, an e-bike is a bicycle. You can pedal – if you want. And you should. That gives you exercise. Keeps your muscles moving and your blood pumping. Plus, you’re in the sun, not hidden in a car. Sunlight on your skin produces natural Vitamin D, a necessary vitamin most couch jockeys or vampires don’t have enough of. And you’re helping slow the spread of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Yes, there’s CO2 produced when making electricity. But riding an e-bike produces nowhere near the amount of CO2 a single car will make.
Electric bikes: The 2022 buying guide for adults 40+
Most e-bikes fall into one of 3 categories that are known as “classes.” Most US states have agreed on a common system of three classes: Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3. But, states will be states, and these classes differ slightly across states and manufacturers' websites. Check your state and local laws if you're concerned. You don’t want to get pulled over for doing 20 in a school zone on your e-bike. Now that would be embarrassing.
Class 1 e-bikes are limited to a top speed of 20 miles per hour, and the electric motor works only when the rider is pedaling.
Class 2 e-bikes are also limited to a top speed of 20-22 miles per hour, but they have throttles that work when you're not pedaling, as well as an optional pedal assist, like Class 1.
A throttle is what you’ll find on a motorcycle or gas scooter – you twist the handle to apply power. The more you twist, the more power you get. The most popular seems to be the half-twist, meaning it only requires minimal hand movement for full throttle. Full throttle is also available but requires more turning for more power. And the thumb throttle is typically a half twist with a fancy attachment for your thumb to control it. Personally, I like the half twist.
In most places, you can legally ride a Class 1 or Class 2 anywhere a non e-bike can ride, including bike trails and most sidewalks in Florida. But – again, check your local ordinances. Remember – ignorance is not a valid defense in traffic court.
Now here’s where it gets murky. Class 3 e-bikes can go up to 28 miles per hour and must have a speedometer, but may or may not have a throttle. Some states won’t allow Class 3 e-bikes to have throttles because they’re too fast. And in some other states, throttles are allowed as long as they only get up to 20 miles per hour. This limit can be set by the manufacturer, and easily overridden by a savvy Googler. Some states will let you take Class 3 e-bikes on bike paths or on multiuse trails shared with pedestrians, and other states or municipalities say no way.
Most of the popular e-bikes you’ll see are either Class 2 or 3. I owned a Class 1, and now that I’ve been spoiled by a throttle, to be honest, it’s hard to go back to Class 1. I might give it to my 20 year-old and not tell him it’s an e-bike. SHHHH!
Before buying an e-bike, you've got some decisions to make. Like, where are you going to ride?
Be real. Not many of us have ridden a mountain bike on an actual mountain. If you’re 60-70 years old and live in Florida, where there um aren’t any mountains, you probably don’t need a e-mountain bike. The more capabilities, the more you’re going to pay. So identify where you want to ride this beast, and what you’ll primarily use it for. Will you ride to work and back? To the local floozy’s apartment? To the quaint little park to feed the alligators (yes, that’s actually a thing here). Around the neighborhood? Up crazy steep hills? On soft dirt trails? Figuring out where you intend to use this electric bicycle will help you determine what class of e-bike and the power you’ll need to make you happy. Then, you’re going to ride off into the sunset. Actually, that’s important too. You’ll need lights if you’re going to ride at night.
So how far is this place you’re typically going to ride your electric bicycle to? Don’t forget – it’s a round trip, so multiply the distance by 2. I always forget to do that. And add a reasonable buffer in there in case you change your mind and want to venture a little further when you’re comfortable on your e-bike.
This will give you the estimated range you should look for in an e-bike. The range is calculated by multiplying the Volts of the battery, typically 36 or 48, by the Amp Hours of the battery, which can vary widely. This will give you WATT-HOURS. With a little math, you can guesstimate that riding full throttle, with no pedaling, at the maximum e-bike power, will give you an hour of riding, per watt-hour. It’s a little confusing, and there are other variables that can affect range, like temperature, tire pressure, your weight, wind, how much you pedal, inclines of any hills, et cetera. You can see how range can become a tricky word problem.
Most manufacturers will guess on the total estimated range. Many e-bikes will roll somewhere between 25-50 miles between battery charges. They tend to over-estimate, so keep that in mind. It sounds like a lot, but once you hit that Class 3 throttle and hack your controller to 28 miles per hour, you’ll have travelled 28 miles. In an hour. And if your bike runs out of battery, you’ll be pedaling home for six miles at about 10 miles per hour, which will now feel like you’re crawling. Obviously, that’s oversimplified, but I think you get my gist. You’ve got some homework to do.
Look for a non-proprietary battery that uses cells made by a well-known company like LG or Samsung. This way you’ll know the cells are made correctly and are less likely to catch on fire. Lithium ion technology is safe, powerful and has no memory effect, so most newer e-bikes are
using these batteries.
If you plan to ride beyond the bike’s recommended range, you can purchase a second battery that you can swap out when necessary, so ake sure the battery is removable. And, if you plan to keep your bike for more than two years, it’s good to have the capability to replace the battery when necessary. Most batteries are rated at well over 500 full charges, but this can vary based on usage, storage, temperature, and a number of other factors. The bigger the battery, the higher the cost. Don’t buy more than you really need.
The other factor in range is, yes, the size of your motor. And gentlemen, here’s where size does matter. Or it could be argued it depends how you use it, but again, I digress. And don’t ever make the mistake of calling a motor and “engine.” Man, some mechanic let me have it when I did that. It’s kind of like calling a cruise ship a boat. But, I do that on purpose.
So, motors. You’ll see motors from 250 Watt all the way up to a ridiculous 1500 Watts. The bigger the motor, the more torque you’ll have, and faster your bike can travel. But there are tradeoffs to bigger motors: bigger battery requirements, a lot more weight to the e-bike, and bigger motors are more expensive. If you’re cruising the neighborhood and local parks, and your area is pretty flat, like mine, a 500 Watt motor Class 2 e-bike will comfortably take you up to about 22 miles per hour for a really good range. If you’re serious about really riding a bike on mountains, which is kind of nuts, or if you have very steep inclines in your hood, like some of the neighborhoods outside of Las Vegas, you might need the additional torque a 750 or 1000 Watt motor will give you to make it up those hills. And remember, what goes up, must come down. Make sure you’ve got good disc brakes. These come standard on most newer e-bikes.
When you’re pedaling an e-bike, and you turn on the pedal assist feature, there are two ways your e-bike’s computer guesses how much power to provide to help you along. Cadence sensing uses magnets to track how fast you’re pedaling, and provides power based on that speed. Torque sensing, found on some $3000+ bikes, is more expensive because it tries to track how hard you are pedaling. The harder you pedal, the more motor help it gives you. Most newer sub $2000 bikes use cadence sensing, and manually offset the amount of help it gives you by asking you what pedal assist level you’d like to use. Many bikes have PAS settings from 0-3 or 0-5. A lower PAS setting means it’ll help you get to a certain speed based on how fast you’re pedaling, and then stop providing motor power until you pedal like crazy again.
Many manufacturers don’t disclose if you have cadence or torque sensing. Assume it’s cadence if it’s not clear. There’s nothing wrong with cadence. All my bikes have cadence sensors. But, you’ll run into some e-bike snobs at e-bike meetups who will thumb their torquey noses at you for having a cadence sensor. You can laugh to yourself knowing these snobs probably have tiny d--- disc brakes. Again, I digress. Are my digressions getting worse the further we go into this thing? Never mind.
Many e-bikes come standard with front fork suspension, which helps avoid scrambling your brains when you run over something lumpy. But a short moment later, when your rear wheel hits lumpy, your brains will end up getting scrambled anyway. Fortunately, I don’t have many brains left to scramble, so that. So front and rear suspension is nice, and especially when you get into our age category. Some e-bikes will offer rear suspension in the form of actual shock absorbers on the rear wheel, others integrate it into the seat post. I have bikes with one or the other, and both work pretty well.
Your e-bike will probably come with a standard hard seat. Fortunately, my Himiway and KBO bikes came with something a little more cushy with a little gel in it. But you’ll find most people
upgrade their seats to one of those cushy Cloud 9 seats. They’re very nice, and not too pricey either. I’ll include a link in the comments somewheres.
For balance and aerodynamic reasons, mountain e-bikes and racing e-bikes tend to have handlebars that are at about the same height as the seat, which can be super uncomfortable on
longer rides. There are some models made specifically for cruising where the handlebars are adjustable or at a better height. There are extensions and third-party add-ons that can remedy that situation as well.
Some of mountain e-bike models are quite big, so people under 6 foot may have a problem riding some of these comfortably. Fortunately, there are several sizes to choose from, from 20” wheels all the way up to 29” wheels. The most common sizes are 20 and 27. If you’re less than 5’9”, a 20” e-bike is probably your best bet. Make sure the seat height is adjustable – some of the smaller cargo or mountain bikes have fixed seat heights that might end up being a twitch too high. Take a test ride at a local dealer if that’s an option.
And then there’s the step thru vs non step through option. Step-thrus lose that annoying bar you have to step over. They used to call step-thrus ‘girl bikes” because women used to have to wear dresses when riding bicycles in the old world. True story. Today, it doesn’t really matter. People who do deliveries and older folks like me who just don’t wanna kick our legs up that high anymore ride step thrus. There’s no difference functionally between a step through or a bike with a ball buster bar.
Most e=bikes are heavy! Two of mine with 750 Watt motors are over 80 pounds each! Sooner or later, you’ll probably need to lift that thing somewheres. If you want to hang your bike on a wall rack or on the back of a car or truck, standard bike racks are probably too weak to hold an e-bike safely. Check the weight limits of your rack. Most Class 2 and Class 3 e-bikes weigh somewhere between 50-70 pounds. There are some Class 1 models with smaller motors and batteries that weigh in at 35 pounds that will fit on most bike racks, and are easier to carry up stairs if you ever need to do that. I have a 35 pound Class 1 e-bike I keep in a closet just because I can.
If you want to tote your e-bike down the highway or across the causeway, you’ll need to lift that big boy into the back of your car or truck. Again, they’re heavy. Lift with your legs, and all that fun stuff. Use a ramp if you have one.
Some e-bikes are foldable, with a heavy duty steel hinge. That is super helpful for traveling with or storing your e-bike in smaller spaces. Most foldables are smaller ebikes, but there are full-size 27” ebikes that are foldable too.
And e-bikes are expensive, and there’s a high theft rate. So keep in mind you’ll need to store your e-bikes somewhere dry and secure. Chaining it up to your front gate won’t keep a dude with bolt cutters or a cordless drill from quickly popping your thousand dollar investment into his crappy old pickup. It happens. Keep it in a garage, or indoors if you have an apartment. I have two chains AND a stupid-loud motion sensor alarm on one of my e-bikes just for laughs.
Here’s the thing. E-bikes are still kind of a new thing. But all it takes is one idiot 20-something with a 1500 watt e-bike going wayyyy too fast on bike path who mows down a second grader and everything hits the fan. E-bikes are faster, so they’re harder to stop. There’s more chance of injury to you, and potentially someone else. Insurance underwriters won’t spend the time to look at something until they have to, and you really don’t want to be a guinea pig in a room filled with lawyers working against you, know what I’m saying?
An e-bike travelling 20-28 miles per hour assumes many of the same risks as motorcycles. We’re talking loose gravel. Potholes. Deer. So you’re probably going to need two types of insurance.
I pulled out my homeowners policy - under contents coverage… property not covered includes “any engine or motor propelled vehicle or machine, including the parts, designed for movement on land”. Coverage only extends if the vehicle or machine is used solely to service the property or assist the handicapped. So any motorized vehicle that’s not a wheelchair or lawnmower is not covered, and may be considered a moped or motorcycle. So if it’s stolen or damaged, sorry, it’s not covered.
In some states and in some policies, a Class 1 E-Bike with pedal assist only (like the KBO Hurricane) is still considered “just a bike” and is covered, even though the motor has a max of 20 mph like the Class 2. Remember, the difference is there’s no throttle.
Then there’s that big fat ugly liability monster.
If a kid or dog runs out in front of my throttle bike, I probably have zero liability insurance coverage under my homeowners or auto policies and could be liable for damages of tens of thousands or even more.
Since e-bikes are still so new, the current catch-all solution is to purchase motorcycle coverage for liability. If you want to be covered for theft, damage, medical, uninsured motorist or underinsured motorist, that would probably be additional.
Rules do vary widely from state-to-state and even carrier-to-carrier, so check with your state and agent, and protect yourself - don’t ever accept a vague answer. Make him earn his commission.
Check the warranty period before you buy. Things happen no matter what company you choose, and yes, even the “American e-bike companies” that are really front-ends to Chinese manufacturing. Most reputable companies offer a two-year warranty on parts only. Labor is typically on you simply because of logistics. It’s a little hard to get a bike to a service center in China and back. E-bikes typically make a permanent one-way trip. That’s the advantage of spending a little more and working with a local brick and mortar store.
If you’re handy and can replace parts yourself, you won’t have to worry about local service. Some of these parts including the motor can be very intricate and may need to be completely disassembled. Oh yeah, I’ve heard some stories. So make sure there’s a qualified or authorized local e-bike service center or person in your area. For a myriad of reasons, many old-school bicycle shops won’t work on e-bikes they don’t sell, so don’t assume they will.
If you end up ordering online, that’s cool too. There are some really good deals online. But do your homework, and find one of these resellers who has been around a few years, a good reputation, and proven customer service. A few companies have phone numbers that ring in China, and there’s a huge language barrier. Look for someone who has North American support just in case something goes wrong. There are a ton of horror stories on social media, yes, even from the supposed “American” e-bike companies, so join some of the groups and do your homework.
I’ve seen e-bikes on Amazon for as little as $500, and ads show up in my socials for a Jeep- or Mercedes branded bike for as high as $10,000. Your budget will be a large part of your deciding factor. But I can tell you there are some very good Class 2 and Class 3 e-bikes in the sub - $2000 range. If it’s your first e-bike, it’s probably a good idea to start with a less expensive brand or model to see if it’s for you. If not, return shipping is very expensive, but it’ll be easier to locally sell a lower priced e-bike. And again, check your local ads for slightly used bikes.
OK! That’s my thesis. What did you think? I’m sure you have more questions now than you did when we started, and that’s good. You’re thinking. Information is power!
You can't beat Amazon's financing and return policies, plus the convenience of having the bike delivered to your front door. As you've probably seen in our popular YouTube videos, assembly is very easy, since most of these bikes (especially the foldables) are 90-95% assembled out of the box. Take a look at our Amazon Electric Bicycle idea list here, and read the description and the reviews. It's a great way to buy and electric bike!
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