What are electric bikes?

What are electric bikes? E-Bike News | 8.03.23

Patents for an electrically powered bicycle have been registered as far back as the late 1800s, but of course these were a bit before their time. On the other hand, electric bikes in the modern format have been around for decades, but arguably it is only within the last five to ten years that the technology has matured to a level that has become broadly inviting to the consumer. Within that short time frame the advances in technology and innovation have been exponential compared to the years before when batteries were far heavier and thus designs clunkier than those bikes found in bike shop showrooms today.

What has changed?

The batteries of old were similar to car batteries, which if you’ve ever lifted the hood of a vehicle you’ll notice are not small, nor were they lightweight. What that meant, in design and rideability terms, was often hard to control and certainly difficult to move from a standing start bicycle. The weight ratios of a lead acid composition battery, quite simply, meant that the bicycle could easily double its weight simply by becoming an electric bike.
As you’ll have noticed over the years in your mobile phone’s gradual reduction in size, battery technology has improved drastically. Not only do modern lithium-ion batteries weigh less, but they can also charge faster, the cells can be far smaller and they’ll deliver more energy pound for pound. From a bike design standpoint, small form factor and lightweight is the holy grail of component integration and so as time has gone on (and as you’ll notice in our catalogue) the electronics are largely all integrated inside our bikes. 

What does this mean for me?
In short, both useability and enjoyment are the by-product of our designers having more freedom to place components in the optimal position. To give a quick and easy insight, it is often far better for heavier components (like motors) to be placed low down, making the bike feel more planted to the ground thanks to a lower centre of gravity. If you have ever ridden a bike with a dog in the handlebar basket you’ll know why we don’t tend to put weighty parts high up and near the steering.

Is this why they’re getting so popular?
Did you notice it too? Yes, eBikes are now really gaining huge traction, especially in some European countries where there exists a safe cycling network in all towns and cities. There are countless reasons behind this rise in popularity, but within the urban space most are choosing electric bikes for their efficiency versus large transport that quickly congests the built environment. Take London, for example; the inner-city average speed is now just 7mph, while the legally assisted speed of our e-bikes is more than double that at 15.5mph. They’re smaller, more agile in traffic, cheaper to run, emit no pollutants and you don’t have to worry as much about finding a parking space. For these reasons, it’s now not uncommon to see delivery businesses prioritising delivery by electric bike over larger vehicles that cannot guarantee such efficiency. What’s more, many of our bikes are able to be equipped with pannier bags or cargo solutions, meaning you too can do the weekly shop by bike, or take the kids to school without the car.
Another lesser-considered reason for choosing an electric bike is the health benefits that come with exercise. Studies have demonstrated that electric bike riders are still utilising the vast majority of the lung capacity they would when cycling and the difference in average heart rates are negligible. One Brigham Young University study had pedal cyclists averaging 155 bpm over a defined loop and latterly averaging 145 bpm on the same ride but with light pedal assistance. So good for you is a pedal-powered exercise that in 2022 the Government announced trials where eleven local authority GPs would prescribe cycling to patients as part of a plan to improve mental and physical well-being.

I don’t understand the language used to describe the power output and range, can you help?

We sure can, here are a few pointers to help you compare electric bikes and their capabilities:

Watt hours (Wh): This term simply signifies the capacity of the battery, so therefore the higher the number, the larger the battery capacity. The watt hours are calculated by the number of volts times amps. To be classed and legally sold as an electric bike in the UK bikes must have a maximum power output of 250 watts.

Newton Metres (Nm): This is the torque output of the motor, which in layman’s terms is the power put through the motor to get you going. Systems designed for mountain bikes, for example, can deliver higher Nm ratings in respect of the bike having to deliver more traction on rougher surfaces

Volts: This is a standard unit of measurement of an electrical current that is passing around a system.

Amps: This is a unit of electrical currents, while Ampere-hours describe the rate of flow of a current over time.

Pedelec: This is another term used for electric bikes and specifically those that require the rider to pedal before the motor engages, as most do nowadays.

Walk Mode: Sometimes you will find that the onboard computer offers a setting called ‘walk mode’. This quite simply helps you gently along if you need to push the bike and would like some help with the weight of the bike.

ABS: This is a relatively new but up-and-coming technology in the eBike space. Quite simply it is the anti-lock braking technology that you may be more familiar with in the automotive world but downsized for the bicycle market. The benefit of this technology is to provide safety under heavy braking. The system prevents skidding or the jarring motion that can make a rider lose control of the bike if the brakes are applied suddenly.

Lithium-Ion: This is the term you will most commonly see used to describe the battery type. These batteries are commonly found in mobile phones, laptops and now in electric bikes and electric cars too. It is a modern battery type that charges quickly, holds the charge well and is both lighter and more compact in size than the older style batteries that early electric bikes carried.

Are there any incentives or subsidies available?
There’s a good chance your employer will be able to help you sign up for a Cycle to Work scheme, which will enable you to make significant savings on the overall cost of your electric bike and accessories. Ask your human resources department if such a scheme exists and if not, have them contact companies such as The Green Commute Initiative, or Cyclescheme. These schemes will enable you to shop with a national network of bike retailers who will be able to supply and set up your bike, as well as fit any extras.
Outside of this scheme, there are not yet direct subsidies available against the purchase of electric bikes for consumers, though there have been trial schemes in some localities to help businesses switch from private motor vehicles to eBikes. Most recently in London a scrappage scheme aligned to the expansion of the ULEZ emissions zone for the first time directly wrote in scrappage incentives for those trading in vans for electric bikes. If that scheme goes well, we would expect the Government to take note.

What’s changing in the UK to make my ride safer?  
Changes to the Highway Code came into force in 2022 that were designed to give vulnerable road users greater protections, putting those walking and cycling higher up on the hierarchy of road users and allowing you to ride assertively on the road in order to protect from dangerous overtakes.
Of course in an ideal world, there will be safe cycling routes available, but these are not yet ubiquitous. This is slowly being addressed and a new Transport body – Active Travel England – is now performing authority by-authority assessments of active travel infrastructure, issuing grant funding to those councils shown to be receptive to better accommodating walking and cycling infrastructure. That means that many areas receptive to driving modal share change should now begin to see the construction of more safe cycling arteries connecting residential areas to towns and workplaces.
A key benefit you’ll find with electric bikes, if you are at all nervy about the pedals, is that from a standing start, you will gain that little extra boost to get ahead of traffic and settle into a steady cadence. Many of our customers find that light assistance to get going extremely helpful when moving off the traffic lights from a standing start.

So, how do they work?
Perhaps not how you’d think. There exists a misconception that there will be a throttle to push or twist to get the extra boost, but these kinds of designs have generally been phased out of the marketplace now in favour of motors that rely on your pedalling input, on top of which the motor matches your effort with feedback. In short, you have to pedal in order to access the ‘free’ power that assists your riding, which has the distinct upside of ensuring you are still getting some exercise. For this reason, you may occasionally hear the term ‘pedal-assist’ used to describe the electric bike.

What else can they do?
With the integration of a battery, theoretically, there is no limit to the innovation and indeed we are increasingly seeing technology more commonly found in top-end cars found on electric bikes – think indicators, GPS navigation and security features too. Of course, these innovations can add immense value, but the smarter the bike the higher the cost, so it is worth asking yourself what add-ons you may eventually buy when it comes to bike security, or cycle computers as two examples of bolt-on accessories that now come as standard at the higher end of the marketplace; if your budget can extend a little further, in the beginning, there’s every chance you’ll save space on the handlebar, or expense on security products further down the line.
The sky really is the limit and we suspect that in the not-too-distant future artificial intelligence will come into play to further enhance the ride experience, learning about your riding habits and either making recommendations or making subtle changes to improve your experience as you ride.

How much should I spend to guarantee a certain level of quality?
Generally speaking, to avoid cheap and cheerful components that may not last, we recommend committing at least £1,500 to your purchase in order to ensure that both the bicycle itself is robust, but also to allow for the addition of good quality electricals.
While that may sound like a lot, there are hundreds of reasons why the upfront expenditure makes good sense, especially when weighed against other more expensive and less efficient transport forms. It is worth considering, as part of the build quality, those components on electric bikes are generally built to a more robust standard to account for the additional forces present. That means more powerful brakes, sturdier chains and frames designed specifically to accommodate the weight and power of motors, to give just a few examples.
The way we like to look at the subject of cost is on a per-use basis. Studies have shown that people who own electric bikes tend to ride them more often, replacing car or train journeys, riding further and thus getting the value out of their bikes. Where people ride more often and for longer, each time in greater comfort than had they not had a little assistance, over time more and more journeys are made by bike, which is savings terms begins to give you a return on your investment faster.
Bike and electric bike prices sadly have not come down in recent years thanks to inflation and supply chain turbulence, though both of these factors are set to improve. As with any consumer goods, if you buy a quality product, you’ll likely only need to buy one. On the other hand, cheaply made goods need replacing and fixing with greater regularity.

What else do I need to know?
Like any bike, your electric bike will need a semi-regular service which is probably best undertaken by somebody with the right tools and knowledge to ensure everything is safe. Component parts that will most likely need occasional replacement in order of frequency will include brake pads, handlebar grips, chains and cassettes. Most other components should last if you keep up a reasonable cleaning and care schedule on moving parts.
Further to mechanical care, it is also advisable to care for your battery; that means making sure you put it through a full charge once every three months or so, even when not in use. This will help prolong the life of the cells. 

What bike style is right for me?
We have written a guide to answering that question right here.

Any other questions?
Head over to our FAQs here and we’ll likely have them answered. If you have further or more specific questions, contact our team.

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