Have you ever had that moment when you’re out on a bike, riding with a friend who’s a little more into it than you, and you kinda want to curse them out because they’re able to dominate a monstrous hill like it’s NBD?
Us too. There’s also that moment when you see happy-as-a-clam cyclists riding to work every day. You’d love to be them, but since you can’t go to the office like a sweaty mess, that option is out.
Or at least, it was. Because now that electric bikes (e-bikes for short) have finally hit the scene at a relatively affordable price point, all of those things are possible. Never heard of an e-bike? Don't have a clue how it works? Let us fill you in.
WTH is an e-bike, and how does it work?
You know the saying, “What you see is what you get?” That’s pretty much the case here: An e-bike or "pedal-assist" bike is a pedal bike with an integrated electric motor that adds power when you pedal. It's not like a motorcycle, moped, or motorbike, because it doesn't have a throttle or engine. Think of it like when you get the rocket boost in Mario Kart (except it lasts for more than three seconds).
Of course, there are all different types of e-bikes that vary by style (commuter to mountain to fitness) and by power output. But again, they all have pedals, so it’s not like a motorized vehicle.
The way they work is pretty simple: The motor kicks in with extra assist when you pedal, and there are different levels of assistance. That's it. Just turn it on, pedal, and go! You can also turn the assist mode off and ride it like a regular bike. And e-bikes stop assisting at a certain speed (in the U.S., it's 20 mph or 28 mph depending on class) for safety, of course.
As far as battery life goes, e-bikes get their juice from a rechargeable battery usually located on or integrated into the frame, and many are removable, so you can power up wherever it’s convenient. The length of your ride and how often you use the bike will determine how frequently you have to charge up. “An e-bike battery can last anywhere from 15 to 60 miles depending on the terrain, how much assist you select, and the rider’s weight, among other factors,” says Jonathan Weinert, North American sales and marketing manager for Bosch eBike Systems. “With a dual battery [like the one Bosch has], you can double that range [around 20 to 120 miles], so it’s very feasible to commute for a week without charging.”
James LaLonde, senior brand manager for Cannondale, agrees. He says their entry-level (read: good for beginners and more affordable) e-bike—the Quick Neo—has a battery life that lasts up to 70 miles. “If you ride for a full day, you may want to recharge it before you go to bed. But if you’re just commuting [a few miles], you could use it for a full week before you need to plug in. Then it’s a four-hour recharge when it’s completely dead.” (Of course, you don’t have to wait for it to get to zero if you want a shorter charge time.)
Sounds cool, but how much do they cost?
When e-bikes first hit the U.S. market (about five years ago), it was pretty pricey to score one—like, approximately $5,000-minimum pricey. But that’s because, like any technology, when something new is introduced, the cost to produce it is expensive, explains LaLonde.
But with increased demand and production, as well as technology improvements thanks to advances in the electric car industry, the cost of components like lithium-ion batteries comes down, Weinert explains. Now, e-bikes are on the market as low as around $1,200 (like the Monroe 250 from Schwinn, available in November 2017). Plus, the competition is stiff. “There are more brands producing than there were five years ago, and they all have to be competitive," LaLonde says.
Of course, most e-bikes (even at $1,200) are an investment—the Trek Super Commuter+ and the Specialized Turbo Vado 6.0 are both around $5,000, for example, but both come with extra features like pricey integrated headlights and taillights, or a custom computer. These are like souped-up versions of a car with every bell and whistle included.
So why would I actually use one?
Trust us, we were a little skeptical of e-bikes at first. Why mess with the simplicity of a bicycle? But after testing a few, we realized there are plenty of reasons an e-bike is totally legit.
It can speed up your commute.
In big cities with heavy traffic or inefficient public transportation, you can actually save a lot of time on an e-bike. For busy people, that’s important.
And eliminate the sweaty aftermath.
One of the biggest complaints of bike commuters is that they hate showing up at work drenched in sweat. An e-bike solves this issue by making the ride easy, breezy, and sweat free. According to a recent online survey, 74 percent of people didn't need a shower after riding an e-bike.
But you'll still reap physical benefits.
One of the biggest misconceptions about e-bikes is that you're not actually doing any work when you ride one. Not true. Thanks to that battery-powered motor, E-bikes are heavy! So if you turn the assist mode to low or off, you're still putting in plenty of effort. Many commuters have found that traveling home from work with assist off (when they're not in as big of a rush and don't mind getting sweaty) is a great way to fit exercise into a busy schedule.
It's better for the environment.
If you want it to, an e-bike can replace a car, which is better for good ol' Mother Earth. Weinart says many young professionals are now seeking a "car-free" or "car-lite" lifestyle. In fact, 65 percent of people said replacing car trips was the main reason for getting an e-bike, according to a recent report. Accessories, such as racks, baskets, fenders, and even cargo e-bikes (for toting groceries or kiddos) are all available to make commuting by bike easier and more comfortable.
It may save you money.
Even though it’s a hefty amount of money to fork over upfront, LaLonde says you’ll likely save money in the long run. If you use public transportation, do the math to see how much you could save over time. If you choose an e-bike over a car, you’re foregoing auto maintenance, gas, insurance, parking fees, and potential tickets, LaLonde adds. “So while there’s sticker shock for a first-time bike buyer, it can still be cost-effective.”
It can level the playing field.
E-bikes allow more people to ride more. We know e-bike users who now get to ride with faster friends and don't have to worry about keeping up, or who live in a hilly area, or who've gifted one to their parents so they can ride a charity ride together at the same pace. And of course, commuters who no longer need to use their cars every day, as well as beginners who want to build their fitness. "The e-bike offers more confidence. You can go further, and it’s easier to go over hills than on a pedal bike,” Lalonde adds.
Above all, it's crazy fun!
At the end of the day, you'll have a ton of fun riding one. “There’s that nostalgic feeling that kicks in whenever you’re on one, that feeling you got when you started riding as a kid," LaLonde says. You might have to get on one to understand, but there are few things more smile-inducing than floating up a steep hill with little effort, Mary Poppins-style.
The Bottom Line
E-bikes are one of the latest ways technology is infiltrating the fitness market. Although they may seem techy and confusing at first, they really are just regular bicycles with a little extra boost. To test one, ask your local bike shop to demo a model they have available (pro tip: If a bike shop won't let you demo, don't shop there). Just getting on one will definitely help you understand how an e-bike works and how one might work for your lifestyle and goals.