As part of our mega guide to the best bikes on the market, we give you the rundown on what to look for when buying an e-bike.
Words: Imogen Smith
Do you want to get from A to B without working up too much of a sweat? Or maybe you want to leave the car at home more often, or even permanently. It sounds like you could use an e-bike.
Thanks to greater options on motors and batteries, e-bikes are becoming increasingly popular globally – for commuting, general riding and even mountain biking.
WHAT IS AN E-BIKE?
An electric bicycle is pedal-powered, but gets a boost from a small electric motor. Legally, in Australia, e-bikes can operate in two ways - using a throttle, with assistance limited to 200 watts, and with pedal-assist, where the motor (limited to 250 watts of assistance), operates when you’re pedalling, and cuts out when you’re not.
Most e-bikes sold in Australia from mainstream bike companies tend to go for the pedal-assist option because it feels more natural, gives you a workout, and offers more top-end power. You can buy bikes that offer higher assist power and speeds, but they are not street legal, and for good reason. They reach speeds that are unsafe to tackle in a bike helmet and around pedestrians and other cyclists, and would cause messy insurance and legal problems in the event of an accident.
There are two main e-bike styles: those with a motor at the rear hub, and those with one mounted to the frame at the bottom bracket. The latter option offers better ride quality, efficiency, and more reliable wiring setups.
Most new e-bikes sold today come with a motor system (motor, battery, wiring, and controller) from a single supplier such as Shimano, Bosch, or Yamaha. System specs - motor power and torque, battery size, and assist modes - are tuned for the bike’s intended use.
In their ‘Eco’ setting, most e-bike batteries can cover over 100 kilometres, so there’s plenty of juice to get to and from work, run errands, or simply get out and enjoy a quiet spin without having to worry about the battery running out. We tended to use our Trek Conduit+ for a few days until there was about 25% battery left, then recharge it up to maximum overnight. Charging takes about five hours.
Most e-bikes have three settings: Eco, Normal, and High. The Eco setting was good for buzzing around, offering a slight boost over a normal bike. For daily commuting, we spent the bulk of time in the Normal mode. In this setting, we got up to speed earlier than in Eco and settled in to the 25km/h cut-off while still getting a bit of exercise. On days we rolled out the door a little late, deploying the High mode meant we could stay at a faster speed with less effort, arriving at work fresh rather than sweaty and stressed.
HOW LONG DOES A BATTERY LAST?
Depending on motor power, battery size, and assist level, ranges span from 45 kilometres to more than 140. Modern e-bikes use the same lithium-ion battery technology as most electric cars, and their batteries are typically good for about 1,000 full discharge-recharge cycles.
For most users, that’s three to five years of life, over which time capacity will slowly degrade to about 60 per cent of original and you’ll notice decreased range. You can buy a replacement battery from the system’s maker. Prices may drop in the future, but for now, count on at least $1,000 for a new one. Be sure to dispose of the old lithium battery appropriately.
For best performance and life, lithium-ion batteries shouldn’t be completely discharged, and should be charged every now and then if you’re not using them for long periods. Plan for several hours to reach full charge from empty, and always use the charger that came with your system to prevent power spikes or overheating that could cause a fire. For best power output, avoid storing the battery in extreme temperatures.
WHAT SORT OF MAINTENANCE DOES AN E-BIKE NEED?
E-bike motors produce high torque, which accelerates wear on consumable parts like tyres and chains. Keep an eye on them. Good-quality e-bikes bikes are built with heavy-duty components such as tyres with thicker tread, stronger rims, and larger brakes to handle the added force and weight, so be sure to purchase appropriate replacements.
What you can’t do: Work on the motor, replace individual battery cells, or fix the controller electronics (at least, not without voiding the warranty). For issues with the power system itself, take it to the dealer, who has been trained in how to service it. (Fun fact: Most e-bikes today use the same diagnostic system as cars.)
That said, you probably won’t need to do anything to the motor system. Small electric motors don’t need oil changes or regular maintenance. The systems are largely waterproof; you can wash an e-bike as long as you avoid spraying water directly at the motor, battery housing, or controller - pick the garden hose and bucket and leave the high-pressure washer in the garage.
Terms to Know
ASSIST MODES: Allow the rider to control the level of motor assist, which also helps to manage battery life and range.
CENTRE-DRIVE: An e-bike with the motor mounted to the frame at the bottom bracket.
PEDELEC: Another name for e-bike - a contraction of "pedal-assist electric bicycle”.
RANGE: The number of kilometres an e-bike system can go while assisting the rider (affected by mode, wind, weight, tyres etc).
TORQUE: A measure of force on a rotational axis. More torque means a more acceleration when the motor assist kicks in.
WATTS: A measure of the motor's power. In Australia, pedal-assist e-bikes can legally provide up to 250W of power assistance before the motor cuts out and then you’re on your own.
WATT-HOURS: A measure of a battery's capacity. A 200Wh battery can produce 200W of power for one hour.
Trek Conduit+, $3,999
Commuting is unlike any other activity I do on a bike. While I might dress up in Lycra for my training rides and embrace the huff-and-puff, the sweat and the tears, my commute is all about practicality. It’s about saving money. It’s about being green. It’s about arriving looking, well, if not neat, then at least respectable. It’s about getting the job done.
So when I look for a commuter, I’m looking for the bike that has it all. I don’t want to be swapping pedals over or sticking lights on, I don’t want to have to worry about wet weather, or where to store my cargo. And yeah, I don’t really want to work up too much of a sweat.
Enter the Trek Conduit+. This neat little e-bike is all-in, straight-up, 100% about your commute. It’s built around a simple alloy frame made of Trek’s Alpha Gold Aluminium, designed to balance weight and strength, and comes with a bunch of city-friendly features like disc brakes and rear rack.
The Conduit+ is outfitted with Shimano’s trusty STEPS e6000 drive system, which operates on three power assist settings: Eco, Normal, and High. The STEPS system includes a bike computer, a neat little unit that comes mounted above the stem, and displays a range of information including time, speed, and distance, as well as the essential e-information: range and battery life estimates. A switch on the left-hand side lets you choose between the three power assist settings.
The Conduit+ is built around relaxed geometry that encourages an upright, relaxed position in tune with commuting goals of arriving fresh and stress-free. The bike weighs in at about 20 kilograms (I’m not known for upper body strength, but I could get it into the back of the car without much trouble), while Shimano’s reliable M315 hydraulic disc brakes, with their powerful and predicable modulation, provided a lot of confidence and functioned perfectly.
But it’s the extras that really buzzed me about this bike. The rack, fenders, lights and kick stand mean there is literally nothing to do but plug and play. I don’t have pannier racks, but all I had to do to get to work was throw a lock in my bag and take off, simple as that.
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Specialized Turbo Vado, From $4,800
If looks are high on your agenda, the Specialized Turbo Vado delivers. With a sleek integrated battery neatly tucked away into the downtube, the Vado comes in men’s and women’s versions. At $4,800, the Turbo Vado 3.0 offers up an integrated 2.2-inch computer with Bluetooth capability, a 50mm travel Suntour suspension fork, nifty fenders, and the comfortable aesthetics of internal cable routing, smooth welds, and a neat, minimalist rear rack.
Giant Quick-E, $3,999
Equipped with Shimano Deore 10 speed shifters and rear derailleur, Giant battery and motor, and Shimano hydraulic discs, the Quick-E, with its rigid fork, fenders, rack, and integrated battery, is pure-bred for city riding. Made of Giant’s Aluxx SL aluminium and finished in shiny Metallic Anthracite paintwork, it’s sure to turn a few heads as you zip your way through the traffic on the way to the office.
Focus Aventura2, $3,599
Tough and ready to do your bidding, the Aventura2 is a little bike with a lot of punch. Available in men’s and women’s versions, the Aventura2 comes equipped with Bosch drive system and shift sensor technology for extra-smooth shifting. With internal cable routing, a pannier rack, kick stand, and suspension fork, and Shimano M315 hydraulic discs, there’s nothing to add to this trusty little workhorse.
Avanti Inc E, $3,999
Thinking outside the box, Avanti’s Inc E is a little different. Instead of a chain, it’s equipped with a belt drive system that requires no lube and little maintenance. The belt-drive powers an 8-speed internal gear system that’s also incredibly easy to look after, and the whole package is driven by Shimano’s trustworthy STEPS drive setup. With fenders, kickstand, big reflectors and hydraulic disc brakes, the Inc E is the ultimate in fuss-free commuting.
Merida eBig Nine 500, $3,699
With its off-road pedigree, this nimble E-MTB from Merida can take you from the office commute to the trails as fast as you can say: “It’s the weekend.” Equipped with a Shimano STEPS E6000 motor and battery, Shimano Deore brakes and shifters, and a Manitou Marvel comp suspension fork, this is the perfect bike for the rider who wants to dabble on the trails between shifts.