In the runup to Christmas, a number of friends reached out to me to ask my advice on buying an e-bike. One of my jobs (doesn’t everyone have more than one now?) is to ride, evaluate and review e-bikes for Electric Bike Report. In every case the folks seeking my input are not otherwise cyclists, and so really had no idea about what e-bikes cost or what to look for. They were also people who were looking to e-bikes as an opportunity to park the car and get some accidental exercise.
This piece is a distillation of a discussion on e-bikes we had on the Paceline. Here I’ve boiled my advice down into something pretty easily repeatable.
I’ve spent nearly a year now, deeply embedded in e-bikes. My work is read by people who, generally, aren’t cyclists and have never paid more than $1000 for a bike of any sort, so the pricing on e-bikes is a shock. At this stage, I’ve ridden a bunch of bikes, and I’ve digested the spec sheets on hundreds more.
The first thing I’ll say about buying an e-bike is not to hope to spend less than $1000. There are a few—actually, more like two—e-bikes that go for less than $1000 that aren’t sketchy, and both are by Lectric Bikes. Yes, that’s electric without the “e.”
The bulk of the market is focused between $1000 and $2000, with serious concentration in the $1500-$2000 range. These are bikes being sold by direct-to-consumer companies. With one or two exceptions, they all have hub motors and use cadence sensors to govern the motor. It’s possible to make these e-bikes go without actually pedaling hard enough to make the chain catch. This is called ghost pedaling, and to me, is the single biggest strike against e-bikes in this price range.
The majority of these e-bikes have 7-speed Shimano drivetrains that feature a 14-28 freewheel, which means they have a gear range of only 200 percent, which isn’t much, but certainly enough if you live in Miami. I’d say the majority have hydraulic disc brakes, but mechanical disc brakes are absolutely plentiful in this range as well.
Many of these e-bikes come with lights, fenders and a rear rack. From what I see, that usually comes with a sacrifice in some other component or components. Many of these e-bikes are one-size fits all, and the sizing recommendations these companies give cannot be trusted for anyone less than 5 feet 6 inches tall or taller than 6 feet. In other words, they are gross generalizations that become less helpful the further you are from average height.
Aventon and Denago are two brands that work in this price range that offer multiple sizes and frame designs. Also, while many companies will offer a traditional diamond frame version and another frame with a step-thru design, very often the dimensions of these bikes, in terms of top tube length, or reach and seat tube length (similar, but not the same as stack), are identical. The two bikes are not different sizes.
For people confined to this price range, my advice is this: start with your height and inseam. If the bike doesn’t fit, you won’t ride it for more than a half hour at a time. There are enough bikes in the very competitive $1500-$2000 price range that even someone who is 5 feet 3 inches tall tall can find an e-bike that will fit, but this may not be the case if they are 5 feet tall.
My next recommendation is that because e-bikes in this price range rarely feature a mid-drive motor, the thing to look for is a torque sensor. What a torque sensor does is pick up on the level of effort the rider is making. They are integrated in mid-drive motors, which is what makes that riding experience so compelling. I’ll go into that more another time.
So, my reduction sauce for anyone who needs to stick to a budget:
- Try to allocate $1500-$2000; that is where someone’s dollar goes farthest
- Look for models that offer multiple sizes and prioritize size over all else
- Look for a torque sensor if one of the very few models with mid-drive motors won’t fit you
- Watch for hydraulic disc brakes and a drivetrain with freewheel with a range greater than 14-28
If you’re just trying to find out if an e-bike will be useful to you, this is good place to start. Bikes in this price range will give you a good feeling for the e-bike experience and should retain some resale value if you discover it’s not your thing. I will, in another post, take on e-bikes at the higher end of the market, which is to say, north of $3000.
Yep, there is more tech in an e-bike than a purely human powered one, as well as that big, expensive lithium-ion battery. You get what you pay for. But as Padraig says, some of the stuff they do to cut costs, such as the limited gear range, makes me scratch my head. Pedaling home on a dead battery with a 200% gear range may not be much fun if Mr. Hill is in the way.
Folks might also want to look at local or state laws. Some locations treat Class III e-bikes differently than Class I or II as they can putt along almost as fast as a moped. Also, whether one’s e-bike is legal on bike paths, i.e., paths set aside exclusively for bikes and peds. People for Bikes has a really good web page covering various place’s laws.
Great info. Some in-laws recently asked me for help regarding the purchase of a pair of e-bikes. As some one who had never even considered one for myself I struggled to give them practical advice. Although happy with their Aventon purchase, sizing is a little bit of a problem for the smaller of the two relatives. Cheers!