Understanding E-Bikes | What You Need To Know Before Buying One

by | Sep 13, 2023 | Buyer's Guide, Bike, E-Bikes, Featured, Sports

E-bikes have revolutionised the world of cycling by seamlessly blending the joy of traditional biking with the convenience and power of cutting-edge electric technology.

E-bikes are a whole lot of fun to ride! They can bridge a skill and ability gap that would otherwise prevent certain people from being able to ride together and if you are an experienced bike rider, they unlock the ability to maximise your time out on the bike, climbing higher and covering more ground in your typical ride time than ever before!

With the boom of these pedal-assist bikes persisting and bringing more people into the sport, we are putting together a series of articles aimed at helping you understand the important features and characteristics of E-bikes better as well as sharing some of our advice on which bikes are the best buys in their categories.

Read on as we take a broad look at the key features of E-bikes, what you need to know in finding the right one for you, and eventually purchasing it. In the rest of the series, we will hone in on the different categories and dig into each of their nuances from road bikes through the gravel specialists to mountain bikes. Let’s jump right in.

What You Need To Know About E-Bikes And Buying One
E-Bike systems are made up of a motor (in the rear hub or bottom bracket area), a battery, and typically a display and small controller for mode selection. (c) Specialized

What are the different classes of E-Bikes?

E-Bikes across both the road and off-road world are split up (in a legal sense) into 3 categories depending on their speed limit and whether or not they have a throttle that works independently of the pedal assist. This article series will be focussed on E-Bikes that do not have a throttle, Categories 1 and 3. These bikes are speed-limited to only provide motor support up to 32 and 45 kph respectively, thereafter you’re on your own steam! Mountain bikes are typically limited to 32 kph and the road or gravel models have a higher 45 kph limit.

Applications for E-Bikes

What should one be using an E-Bike for? Are they just for people not fit enough to ride with their friends? Are they the right tool for commuting? Will they replace normal bikes? 

For some, E-biking will be their only or preferred type of cycling to do. For others, it will complement the time they spend on a traditional bike or just be used as their commuting method. There is an E-Bike application for everyone’s needs and preferences and we’ll list a few below as examples.

  • To make riding your bike even more fun (they are an absolute blast to ride!)
  • A tool to bridge the fitness gap between friends or loved ones
  • A fun recovery tool for gentle rides and skills sessions in your  training schedule
  • A fun and time-efficient way to practise mountain bike descending skills
  • A tool for time-poor individuals to get out into nature quicker and easier
  • A speedy mode of transport for commuting
Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1 E-Bike First Look
E-bikes are truly phenomenal to ride. If they don’t put a smile on your face and get you out the door easier, you’re not human!

In the coming articles we will discuss the applications across road, gravel, and mountain in more detail and which bikes are best suited to the respective jobs.

Benefits of E-Bikes

We all ride bikes to enjoy ourselves and have a bit of fun and E-Bikes really turn that up to 11! The sensation of having Tom Pidcock’s legs on the climbs and a capable and stable platform on the descents makes even the most serious rider feel giddy. For us, this really is the number 1 benefit of E-Bike riding.

Because E-Bikes are so much fun and so easy to ride many people who own them end up riding more than they typically would on a normal bike. Thus, they are a way to rejuvenate your riding experience and get you outside more often for a break from the day-to-day hustle and bustle.

Beyond that, we noted in the introduction how E-Bikes can help bridge an ability gap between people who want to ride together and really make it a fun experience for the rider who may not be as experienced or fit. 

E-Bikes can be a super helpful tool in developing one’s technical mountain biking skills for 2 reasons. More time spent descending during your normal ride time (as you can climb faster) and also increased strength on the bike from manoeuvring the heavier chassis.

Additionally, with the use of a bungee cord you can tow your friends or children up strenuous hills with ease and make the ride more fun for everyone (I can confirm this is a huge win).

What You Need To Know About E-Bikes And Buying One
A n E-bike and a solid bungee cord can be the gateway to awesome adventures with young kids!

Drawbacks of E-Bikes

So E-Bikes sound pretty darn splendid at this point! If they could just have an integrated espresso machine they would be all you’d ever need, right? Well, they do have a few drawbacks worth considering before you dive in.

They are notably more complex than traditional mountain bikes to maintain and operate. While they have come a long way in recent years, motors and batteries still have malfunctions from time to time that require specialists to fix. They need to be charged regularly and are trickier to wash and use in extreme weather due to the electronics.

Travelling by air is difficult due to many airlines’ restrictions around battery transport so you may have to source a battery at your destination or ship it separately when travelling.

On the handling side, they are heavier to manoeuvre (will discuss this in more detail in a bit) which can have some drawbacks on tight and technical riding that requires a lot of input from the rider, especially for less strong individuals. This could also be seen in a positive light as mentioned earlier, helping develop solid skills and strength.

They can also be rather noisy (less so for newer models and motors) which can detract from the riding experience for you and those around you.

They are also more expensive than traditional bicycles of the same relative spec and thus if you are on a budget, they might be out of reach for now.

Ride characteristics of E-Bikes

E-Bikes are naturally heavier than normal mountain bikes due to the additional hardware. As they often have fairly similar geometry and component spec to normal bikes of the same intention, their weight is the biggest differentiating factor in ride feel, but that isn’t only in a negative sense.

Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1 E-Bike First Look
Just because E-Bikes are heavier doesn’t make them less fun ride, and with a bit of coaxing you can get them to move just how you want!

Yeah sure, the big heavy E-Bike isn’t quite as easy to chop and change direction on but where that weight does come to benefit is in offering a sturdy and confidence-inspiring ride. This can be of particular benefit to those new to the sport or riders lacking confidence in technical terrain.

The sensation of riding an E-Bike, particularly an E-mountain bike, is somewhat like that of a motorbike in handling. The bike sits comfortably in its suspension and offers up oodles of traction and the momentum of the system will carry you through rough trail sections with ease.

These bikes are a little harder to slow down than normal bikes due to their weight and this is something that newcomers to cycling should be aware of. We discuss the principles of good braking techniques here if you’re looking for some tips.

In the event that you run out of battery, you’ll be glad to know that most E-Bikes are still very rideable without the motor’s assistance. You’ll notice the extra weight the most on steep climbs and when trying to accelerate the bike. Steady pedalling will be manageable enough to get you home in most scenarios.

Not all motors are created equal.

Talking about those pedal-assist motors, here’s the key info you need to know about them.

The motors on Class 1 and 3 E-bikes deliver an amount of power into the drivetrain that is relative to the effort you put in yourself, typically expressed in a % of your power input. Popular motors are made by Shimano, Bosch, TQ, Yamaha, Specialized and several others. They range in power output depending on the model so take note when making a purchase that you’re getting the level of assistance that you are looking for.

What You Need To Know About E-Bikes And Buying One
The Shimano EP8, seen here on Orbea’s Rise, is a popular E-Bike motor.

Less powerful motors tend to be quieter and more efficient and are typically paired with a smaller battery to create a lightweight package that feels more like a traditional bicycle to ride. These will be able to assist with about 200 W of power and 35-60 Nm of torque. That is roughly the threshold power of an average adult rider and likewise for the torque. Lighter riders will often experience a greater benefit due to the better power-to-weight ratio of the system.

Full-power motors deliver up to 250 W of constant power (most peaking around 500 W) and 70 – 105 Nm of torque. Roughly doubling the power and torque of the average adult.

The stronger you are, the less significant the pedal assist will be to you as the motor will max out at a smaller percentage of your personal power threshold. Thus, smaller motored E-bikes can be particularly underwhelming for strong riders but still plenty powerful for lighter bodies and those whose legs don’t pack a huge punch.

Battery size and range

Let’s talk about range. This is one of the most frequently asked questions of any E-bike, ‘how far can it go on a single charge?’ Well, that really depends on a bunch of variables including the weight of the bike and rider, tire choice, terrain, climbing, power output and of course the battery capacity. 

A 400 Wh battery should, in theory, last 2 hours at an average output of 200 W by the motor. So you can thus calculate your bike’s range as such. It is hard to give an estimated range for a variety of bikes due to all the variables affecting it.

What is worth noting is that some bikes do not have removable batteries and thus the bike itself needs to be plugged into a socket to charge. This also limits your ability to tackle longer rides and stage races where you may want to have an extra battery as backup (because 70 km in full support mode is a blast of note!).

What You Need To Know About E-Bikes And Buying One
A removable battery can open up the doors to stage races and big 5+ hour rides with motor support! (c) Trek

Keep an eye out for range extenders compatible with your bike of choice. These can typically add around 100-250 Wh of capacity to your system and mount securely onto the bicycle.

User interfaces

One of the variables dictating an E-Bike’s range is, of course, the user and their preferences of support. Just about every E-Bike system has an app that one can use to tune the motor to your preferences and manage your range.

This app could be generic from the motor’s manufacturer such as Bosch or Shimano, or it may be developed by the bike manufacturer such as Specialized, Giant, or Trek. There are varying levels of usability across the apps but most will allow you to set the amount of support the motor delivers along with other variables such as launch support, peak torque, etc

Many E-Bikes will also have a small display on the bike itself that allows you to select the power mode and see your battery level. The more advanced displays (such as those of Trek and Specialized) will allow you to see ride stats such as distance, power output, etc 

What You Need To Know About E-Bikes And Buying One
Integrated TopTube displays are sleek and found on the more premium offerings. (c) Trek

If you are looking for optimal data interaction, make sure that your E-Bike of choice can connect to a cycling computer such as Wahoo Elemnt or Garmin Edge for a clear display and lots of customisable data.

E-Bike Components

That is a lot of software talk, which is naturally a big topic with E-Bikes, but let’s cover some hardware details. There was a big craze with “E-Bike approved” and “E-Bike specific” components that seems to have settled down a bit. There’s no need to pay attention to silly things such as ‘E-bike specific grips’ or pedals, saddles, chain lube etc. but there are a few components that do need some special thought on E-Bike Spec.

Your gears and chain can take a beating on an E-Bike with all the power going through the drive on a regular basis. Companies like Shimano (with Link Glide) have developed ultra-durable drivetrain parts to extend the lifespan of your E-Bike drivetrain when weight isn’t a big concern.

Shimano Linkglide For E-Bikes
Shimano’s LinkGlide drivetrain promises superior durability, perfect for E-Bikes! (c) Shimano

Tyres need to be a little more robust to manage the weight of the E-Bike, especially for mountain bikers who like to ride aggressively. Harder rubber compounds will naturally prolong the lifespan of the tyres that have a lot of forces going through them! Rolling speed may be less of a concern for you with the added motor support and thus it is common to see E-Bikes with aggressive tread patterns for maximum traction. A lot of this will depend on your preferences.

It takes a lot of power to slow down these brutes and thus a good set of brakes is possibly the most crucial of all for an E-bike. Disc brakes with large rotors are king here.

Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1 E-Bike First Look
With great power comes great responsibility, big bikes need the right components to manage the forces adequately.

So where to from here?

In the rest of this article series, we will cover the nuances of these topics in more detail particularly how they relate to E-bikes specific to road, gravel, and mountain bikes (of a marathon and trail riding focus) so that you will have all the information you need to find and purchase the bike that suits your intended riding.

In each of those articles, we will include some recommended models, such as the newly released category-breaking Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1, for each use case across road, gravel, and the various mountain biking disciplines!

Find the rest of this article series here on understanding E-Bikes.

Find more e-bike-related content right here.

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