Our riding tests can tell you how good an e-bike is on the road, and our buying advice will help you choose the perfect one for you.
Choosing the style
Just like normal, unpowered bikes, e-bikes come in various shapes and sizes, each better suited to different sorts of riding and riders. However, bikes are versatile; most perform fine in most situations. Broadly, e-bikes can be split into these categories:
City bikes, sometimes known as “Dutch bikes”, are designed for urban riding. They often have low step-through frames, making them easier to mount and dismount. You sit upright on a plush seat, holding swept-back handlebars, which gives you a commanding presence among other road and path users. They might have up to 10 gears, sometimes built into the rear hub. Unpowered city bikes aren’t built to go fast, cover long distances, or slog up hills – but their electrified counterparts can do all these things.
Recreational, hybrid or commuter bikes are the do-everything bike, covering a wide variety of riding from daily commuting, to weekend rides on rail trails, to longer “fitness” rides. With flat handlebars, narrower tyres and a racier riding position, they’re faster and more comfortable than city bikes, including when going up hills. However, they’re less manoeuvrable on city streets and aren’t always as well equipped for carrying luggage or shopping.
Trail or mountain bikes, are designed for riding off-road on rough terrain. They have suspension at the front (and sometimes at the rear too), wide flat or high-rise handlebars and wide knobbly tyres. They’re often repurposed as an urban or commuter bike due to them being tough, having a big range of gears and powerful brakes, and striking a balance between city-bike comfort and recreational-bike speed. They usually lack features such as mudguards and luggage racks, though these can be added on. You might also find the knobbly off-road tyres that are so good on off-road trails are a literal drag on sealed surfaces.
Folding bikes are designed to, well, fold. That’s useful if you regularly take your bike on a train, ferry or bus, or if you need to store your bike inside your home or office. They have smaller wheels to aid folding, but otherwise ride like a recreational or city bike. There aren’t too many electric folding bike designs, as the motor and battery make them bulky when folded and heavy to carry.
Cargo bikes are longer than other types of bike, to accommodate additional load-carrying space either behind the seat or in front of the handlebars. Their frames are stiff and strong, and they often have smaller-than-usual wheels as they can be built stronger and to create more load space. Adding a motor to a cargo bike makes it a practical alternative to a car for a variety of trips. They can carry heavy loads with ease – anything from a grocery shop to a couple of small children.
Things to consider
Will you ride short hops into the CBD, or take longer journeys?
For short hops, an upright bike with just a few gears or a small-wheeled bike that’s highly manoeuvrable in tight spaces should suit. With longer journeys, you’ll benefit from something more streamlined and easier to pedal.
Will your regular rides be mostly flat or rather hilly?
If it’s hilly, you need a bike that’s efficient to pedal up and stable to ride back down, with good disc brakes.
Will you use it on off-road trails?
Most good bikes of any style will handle a rail trail or unsealed back road, but to make your journey more pleasant, choose a bike that has balanced handling, decent suspension and wide tyres with good tread. For more extreme off-road riding, a mountain bike would be the best choice.
Do you need to carry work bags, groceries or even children?
You’ll need a good rear rack at least. If you plan to carry big loads or kids, you’ll probably be better off with a cargo bike. A low or step-through frame makes a loaded bike easier to climb on and off and will be an essential feature for some riders.
The style of bike you prefer is a personal decision. All our testers thought, regardless of style, a bike with a balanced riding position (not too racy, but not too upright) was ideal. Those bikes did everything well – they’re as comfortable riding to the dairy as they are commuting longer distances or tackling a weekend adventure. If you choose a more upright, city-style bike, look for one that’s comfortable to pedal without power, has confident slow-speed steering and is stable at 25km/h (with power-assist you will be riding this fast).
Getting the right motor system
We recommend a mid-drive e-bike. Driving through the gears makes the most of its power and torque – meaning more assistance climbing hills and at high speed. They mount low and central, so mid- drive e-bikes have even weight distribution. The only reason we think you should choose a rear hub drive is cost (they are cheaper, although the price gap is narrowing). However, we found mid-drive motors noisier than hub drives, making an obvious “whirr” and causing a “clunk” on downshifts. The extra load they put through the gears can result in more drivetrain wear and tear.
An e-bike motor assists your pedalling, so when you pedal harder, the motor assists you more; when you stop pedalling, the motor stops too. A good motor starts when you start to pedal and stops when you stop, with no lag. It is responsive and smooth without feeling “jerky”. The best systems we tried flattened hills and made us forget the motor was there.
Maximum assist-speed is the speed at which the motor stops helping you pedal. We found it can be a rough transition from motor-assisted pedalling to human-power only. Many European bikes can only assist up to 25km/h. The higher assist-speed of 32km/h on some e-bikes made a difference – our testers found 25km/h to 30km/h was the sweet spot for speed vs comfort. If you have a long, flat commute, it could pay to choose a bike that assists to 40km/h or more.
There are 2 parts to the drive system interface – the display screen and the controller:
Display screens mounted in the centre of the bars are the easiest to use. We preferred uncluttered displays showing easy-to-read essentials: speed, assist level and battery remaining (or predicted range).
The controller allows you to select assistance level, operate lights and use the bike computer functions. The best controllers used thumb buttons near the grip that could be found without looking, clearly differentiated the assist (+/-) buttons from any others, and gave tactile feedback.
E-bike batteries explained
An e-bike battery is usually mounted inside the main frame on the “down tube” or on a rear rack, underneath the loading platform. Batteries are heavy, so, ideally, they’re mounted low down. Some step-through bikes have batteries mounted in the rear rack. This can make the bike feel “rear-heavy” and raises the rack platform higher than usual, making it less stable when loaded. All batteries we tested are lithium-ion with at least 418Wh capacity, good for 30km of maximum assistance (even when thrashing them on our 20km hilly test circuit). If you want to ride further, look for a bike with a higher capacity battery, or be prepared to accept lower pedal-assistance in return for extended range.
Time to recharge the battery depends on the power of the charger. We found most pumped out 180W, recharging the battery from about 30% to full in less than 3 hours.
We were impressed with the weatherproofing of the systems, suffering no glitches or failures in our winter testing, which included riding in some atrocious weather. However, durability of batteries is worth consideration. All Li-ion batteries degrade with time, use and recharging – gradually losing capacity. Bosch says its batteries will retain 60-70 percent capacity after 500 full charge cycles – that’s at least 12,500km on maximum pedal-assist, or more than two years of 24km per day commuting, 5 days a week.
Finding the features to suit
A suspension fork adds safety and comfort. Unless you plan to ride off-road a lot, it doesn’t need more than 40mm of travel. It should be smooth and quiet when it moves. Test it by standing astride the bike and pressing down hard on the bars, then releasing quickly. Make sure the fork moves down smoothly under your weight and doesn’t make a “clunk” when it pops back up again.
Look for hydraulic disc brakes. Not only are they smooth and powerful to use, they work as well in the wet as they do in the dry and are very low-maintenance. Cable disc brakes can be as powerful and smooth but need more maintenance, while rim brakes don’t perform as well in the wet.
For comfort, safety and versatility, large-volume tyres with good tread are essential. Some have reflective strips in the sidewalls. A puncture-resistant lining is a good addition, as there’s no such thing as a convenient puncture.
Mudguards protect you and your clothes from grime thrown up by tyres on wet roads in less-than-perfect weather. Look for full-length mudguards that wrap around the side of the tyre. A chain guard is useful if you ride in long trousers or skirt.
A rear rack provides a platform for attaching a bag so you don’t have to carry a load on your back. Look for a wide platform to provide support to your load – some we tested were narrow. Side frames on the rack are useful if you use pannier-type bags.
A kickstand makes parking and loading the bike easy. Look for one mounted near the rear hub, as kickstands mounted centrally can hit the cranks and pedals when pushing the bike and aren’t as stable with a heavy rear load.
The battery can be used to power fixed front and rear lights. This means you won’t get caught out at dusk or dawn, and modern LED lights use so little power you can use them as daytime lights without affecting pedal-assistance range. Being bolted to the bike makes them secure from theft and always there when you need them.
Bike saddles are a personal thing – no one size really fits all. You’ll generally find wider, softer saddles on more upright bikes and narrower, harder ones on racier models. Wider, softer saddles are more comfortable for short trips, while narrower, harder saddles are better for long rides. The only way to find out if a saddle is right for you is by riding the bike.
Some models have a suspension seatpost. Some of our testers liked the extra comfort, while others thought the “bouncing” made pedalling less comfortable. Most suspension seatposts aren’t adjustable so, if you’re a bigger rider, check it’ll support you adequately.
Buying from a good store
Find a local bike store that sells different e-bike brands and styles. A store that knows e-bikes will help you find a bike style and motor system that suit you. Talk to a few stores selling different brands.
Test ride as many bikes as you can, trying different styles with different motor systems – and not just around the car park. Take them on a ride of a few kilometres at least, typical of how you’d use your e-bike. Try them up and down hills, at speed on the flat, and around traffic and on shared paths. Some stores will rent you an e-bike for a day, refunding the rental cost if you choose to buy a bike from them.
Ask the store about maintenance and servicing. All bike shops can service a bike, but what about the motor? Ask how often the motor needs servicing, if they need to hook it up to a computer to analyse it, and whether they service it in-store or need to send it away. Also ask if they offer a free bike check-up and tune after a few months to adjust brakes and gears.
Getting kitted out
Before you hit the streets, you’ll need a few other items to go with your e-bike (and, no – one of them isn’t Lycra). At the minimum, you’ll need a helmet to ride legally on public roads and cycle paths and a good bike lock to protect your ride.
Talk to the bike store when you buy your e-bike, as it should be able to offer a good package discount on accessories.
You might also want to consider insurance. Adding an e-bike on to a home contents policy is the most cost-effective option. You need to specify the bike as an extra on the policy and maintain proof of value, but insurance shouldn’t cost more than a few percent of the bike cost. Check your policy covers your bike when locked in a public place, not just when stored at home, and includes third-party cover when riding.
Getting used to it
- Get used to your e-bike before heading out on the road. It’ll be heavier than a regular bike, which means it handles differently. Start somewhere with a bit of space and have a go at adjusting the power settings, testing how the bike responds when stopping and starting, and turning, balancing and negotiating obstacles with different levels of power assist.
- On an e-bike you’ll probably be travelling faster than a regular bike. Other road users might not anticipate your speed. Ensure you scan well ahead, signal your movements and look out for cars turning in and out of driveways and side roads. In slower city traffic, be prepared to “claim the lane” as you may be moving as fast as other traffic.
- When starting off at an intersection or up-hill, use a low gear. You need to start pedalling before assistance kicks in, so be prepared for the surge in power and acceleration. Drivers might not expect you to start off so quickly – position yourself prominently on the road and use advanced stop boxes to get a head start on other traffic.
- You might find yourself passing other cyclists on busy routes. Make sure you pass safely: look behind you for traffic, signal before pulling out and give the other cyclist sufficient space.
- Shared paths are for slower more relaxed travel. Put your e-bike in a low power setting and cycle at a speed consistent with other users so it doesn’t put them at risk or make them feel uncomfortable when you pass.
The People's Choice endorsement for Electric bikes is given to Trek and Sinch as they rate above average for customer satisfaction in our annual surveys and meet our other performance criteria.
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