Buyers Guide to selecting an Ebike: Which components matter?
Class 2? Hub or mid drive? Torque sensors? Battery size?
Buying an ebike? Confused by the choices of components and designs? This guide explains the different parts of an ebike and factors to consider to decide which options are right for you.
On this page:
- Brakes: Caliper, Mechanical or Hydraulic
Pedal Assist vs Throttle
Pedal-assist (or pedelec) means the bike detects when you press on a pedal and quickly provides the motor power to help. Most e-bikes allow you to dial up more assistance to go faster or provide more help for a hill climb or headwind, or dial down less assistance when you want to make the battery last longer or want to get more exercise.
Throttle: a twist grip, trigger lever or button that starts the motor without pedaling. An increasing number of bikes offer both - the pedal assist for normal riding and a throttle to help out when you want to accelerate fast from a stop at a busy intersection or with a big load. A throttle is useful if you have an impediment that makes pedaling physically hard for you. Of course using a throttle alone will use more electricity than using both pedals and motor. Using a throttle will also put more wear on the gears and chain.
All e-bikes can be pedaled without the motor when you run out of battery or just don't want or need the assistance.
Class 1, 2 or 3?
In the United States, many states & the ebike industry define e-bikes using a three-class system, defined largely by the type of electric motor control - pedal assist only (class 1) or including a throttle (class 2) and top assisted speed of 20 mph (class 1 & 2) or 28 mph (class 3). Read our Ebike class page to learn more about the class system and how it defines what you can and can't do on your ebike.
Controls & Dashboard: Assistance levels & Fuel gauge
Ebikes have a control device mounted on the handlebars with buttons for you to turn on and off the ebike and control the level of assistance that you want from the motor. This is separate from the Class 2 throttle if your bike is equipped with one.
Typically there are at least three or four assistance levels. Some models offer many more. The assistance level may be indicated by numbers with higher numbers indicating more assistance or the levels may have names like “Eco” and “Sport.”
Using different modes allows you to increase range by using a lower power assistance level, or help you overcome big hills or headwinds (and make the bike feel more sporty and powerful) by using a higher power assistance level.
Check out the different levels on a test ride. Some users (particularly with cadence sensors, see below) have complained that their ebike doesn't have low enough assistance to allow them to pedal comfortably (or efficiently) at slower speeds with assistance, but instead surges faster than they want.
The controls may be separate from, or integrated, with a display - the bike’s “dashboard,” which communicates important information including the speed, amount of battery remaining, and miles ridden.
Make sure that the display provides an estimate of the miles until the battery runs out of power - the ebike version of a fuel gauge. Also make sure that you can easily read key information while riding, like which support level you are in. Some displays have large easily visible numbers, others not so much.
Many ebikes are sold with only a single 1 gear. These tend to be less expensive bike and require less maintenance than a bike with a derailleur. A single gear ebike and may be fine for any rider if it is a small, lightweight bike and you only ride in mostly flat territory, or if you are a strong rider accustomed to fixies. It also may give you the option of a belt drive or chainless drive that further reduces maintenance.
However, if you will be climbing hills, dealing with stiff winds, or hauling heavy loads, you will probably want multiple gears. Learn to use your gears and you will be able to start up faster from a stop with a heavy load and climb hills easier and faster. Some ebike manufacturers are starting to offer automatic transmissions.
Pedal assist sensors: Cadence vs Torque
Cadence Sensor - This type of sensor detects when the crank is rotating from your pedaling and turns the motor on. There will be a short delay between when you start pedaling and when the motor kicks in - typically two to three pushes on the pedal - then a surge of power. This takes a little getting used to and can feel counterintuitive at times. Starting on a hill or when heavily loaded will still take a hard push on the pedals for a stroke or two. Because of this, many ebike with cadence sensors also include a throttle so you can call on a short burst of power until the pedaling is easier. A cadence sensor is the simplest and cheapest option for manufacturers and is typically used on lower priced models.
Torque Sensor - This type of sensor measures how hard you are pressing on the pedal and provides a proportional amount of power to what you are producing. A torque sensor starts the motor virtually instantaneously and more smoothly than a cadence sensor. There is less of a surge or jolt. The harder you pedal, the harder the motor pushes. This makes the bike’s motor power feel like a natural extension of your muscle power. It also saves battery power allowing you to go farther on a charge. Torque sensors are more expensive and so typically are not used on lower cost bikes.
In many cadence sensor bikes, the assistance level that you set on your handlebar controller directly controls the speed. The higher the assistance level, the faster the speed. In most torque sensor bikes, the assistance level determines how much power the motor will add to your pedaling effort regardless of speed (e.g., adding 25% more power to your push at the lowest assistance level and 300% at the highest level). Some e-bikes use a combination of torque and cadence sensors to adjust power based both on your pedal pressure and speed and rate of pedaling.
If your riding is mostly flat and lightly loaded, cadence sensors with a throttle will probably be fine. If you ride in hills or with heavier loads, a torque sensor may make for a more satisfying ride. It is best to try out an e-bike on typical terrain before you buy.
Motor location: Front or Back hub or Mid drive?
Hub motor - The motor is integrated into either the front or rear wheel hub. Most rear hub systems include pedal assist, but some front hub systems are limited to throttle only. Often use cadence sensors. Manufacturers are developing more pedal assist systems for front hub motors.
Pros - Hub drives are generally cheaper than mid drive and usually require less maintenance. Since the motor works directly on the wheel, it does not put any additional strain on the chain and gears of the bike, reducing wear.
Cons - Hub motors usually only have a single gear so are not as effective for hill climbing. The weight of the motor placed in a wheel can make the bike feel oddly balanced and make handling harder while riding. Front hub motors, particularly, make the steering more sluggish. The heavier weight on the front or back of the bike may make picking up the bike more difficult when hauling the bike over a curb or up a stair. Removing the wheel is more complicated, making it harder to change tubes and tires.
Mid drive - The motor is in the center of the bike, usually integrated into the pedals. Usually includes pedal assist and often has torque sensors.
Pros - It uses the bike’s gear system so can provide more power for hill climbing and acceleration from a stop. It usually weighs less than a hub motor, and having the extra e-bike weight in the middle makes it better balanced and easier to lift the bike when needed. Mid drive motors often give a smoother, more intuitive and responsive feel to the ride by using torque sensors, rather than cadence sensors. Mid drive motors increase stability by having a lower and more central center of gravity.
Cons - Mid drive motor bikes often cost more. They put more strain on your chains and gears, wearing them out faster, though companies are now producing e-bike drivetrains that can handle this better. They are more complex and so require more maintenance and have more parts to fail.
Motor Power: Watts, Volts & Torque
Motor power ratings are confusing. Manufacturers use many different measures with little consistency. How much power you need will depend on how much weight you will be carrying and how much steep hill climbing you will be doing.
Watts are a measure of the power that a motor is rated to provide. Most e-bikes sold for commuter or on road recreation in the US have motors rated between 250 watts and the 750 watt limit for Class I & II e-bikes. Unfortunately there is lots of variability in how the watt rating is measured by different manufacturers and in other design variables that affect how much power you will experience. Therefore the rated watts are not necessarily very informative.
Volts: Higher voltage motors generally have more acceleration power. A 24 volt 250 watt motor may be plenty for a solo commuter in flat lands and gentle hills, while a cargo bike expected to carry kids and groceries up steep hills may have a 48 volt motor rated at the maximum allowable 750 watts.
Torque, usually measured in Newton-meters or Nm may be the most useful measure, though still with its limits. Torque is a measure of the amount of force that a motor can apply to the wheel. This affects how rapidly the bike can start from a standstill and its ability to help you on steep climbs. For flat city commuting purposes a relatively low torque motor at 25-40 Nm will be plenty. If you will be climbing some hills or have a heavily loaded cargo bike you will be happier with 60Nm or more of torque. If you are tackling very steep hills or will be mountain biking, go for 80 Nm or more of torque.
It is a good idea to test ride a couple of bikes with different power levels to find one that’s right for you, particularly if you will be riding in very hilly territory or with heavy loads.
Battery Capacity & Range
Battery capacity is generally measured in amp hours or watt hours (amp hours times voltage).
A standard 24 or 36 Volt 10 amp hour battery pack will go anywhere from 20-40 miles on a charge depending on many factors including speed, weight carried, hills, wind, road surface, tire pressure, bike condition, and how hard the rider pedals and how much assistance is used.
Extended range batteries with higher amp hour or watt hour ratings may provide a range of 50-80 miles and beyond on a charge. Some models allow you to double (or even triple!) up your batteries for greatly increased range. If you plan on riding long distances between charging (50 miles or more) consider getting a second battery to bring along on those long rides).
Battery location: Down tube vs Back rack
Down tube mount: Many e-bikes put the battery on the down tube - the tube that runs diagonally from the handlebars to the pedals. Some even integrate the battery inside an oversized downtube to hide it and to reduce weight of the bike. A down tube mount puts the weight in the center of the bike and relatively low which generally improves handling. It also simplifies wiring to a mid drive motor. This location may, however, get in the way of brackets to carry water bottles or locks.
Rack Mount: Rear rack battery mounting may work better with step through frames or where the downtube space is needed for other mountings. It does, however, put the battery weight higher on the bike which can affect handling on corners. Furthermore, having the battery on a rack is generally less secure than being built into the frame. Make sure that the battery rack still allows panniers (paired baskets on the bike’s sides) to be clipped to the side of the rack for carrying groceries or other cargo.
Removable or integrated: An integrated battery that is not easily removable, is obviously hard to steal, though you are probably more likely to have your whole bike stolen, than just the battery. An easily removable battery has the advantage that you can take it to somewhere close to an outlet for charging instead of having to have the whole bike close to power or running a long extension cord. It also means you can remove the battery (typically 4-8 pounds) to make the bike lighter for lifting up stairs or on to a car bike rack. If the battery is removable, make sure it locks securely to the frame with a key, unless you plan on removing it whenever you need to lock the bike outdoors for an extended amount of time.
Charging your Battery
Charging batteries generally takes 2-6 hours depending on the battery size and how far it was discharged. Charging is done with a small home charger that plugs into a normal home electric socket and normally costs less than a penny a mile in electric costs. Batteries in many models are easily removed to bring to the charger.
If the battery is integral to the frame and not easily removed by the user, consider how you will get the bike and charger close to an outlet or how you will bring an extension cord to the bike.
Front and back lights are very important for safety. Lights that are wired to the ebike battery are strongly recommended. Most ebike lights draw less than 1% of the power that the motor draws. This means that you can keep your lights on all the time, while losing less than one mile of range and you will never have to worry about your lights running out of juice just when you need them most.
Some manufacturers are now providing a USB port that you can use to recharge or power your cell phone or other USB powered device. This is particularly useful if you are using your cellphone for navigation which otherwise can drain the phone battery rapidly. Similar to lights, the impact on your bike's range should be insignificant.
Brakes: Caliper, Mechanical or Hydraulic
Since ebikes are heavier and faster than regular bikes, good brakes are all the more important. The caliper brakes used on many pedal bikes are not sufficient for an ebike. All ebikes should have either mechanical disc or hydraulic disc brakes. Hydraulic disc brakes have the strongest braking action and will likely stay in alignment longest. They are also more expensive than mechanical disc brakes. If you are buying a fast Class 3 or expect to be going down steep hills and/or carrying heavy loads, hydraulic disc brakes are a good investment.
Less expensive mechanical disc brakes are probably sufficient if you will be riding a slower Class 1 or 2 ebike on flat or gently rolling terrain without heavy loads. If you do your own work on your bike, you will find mechanical disc brakes easier to service. But you will need to give them more attention than hydraulics. Mechanical brake cables, like gear shift cables will stretch some during the first few months after installation and will need adjustment.
Regardless of brake type, be sure to check (or have a bike shop check) brakes regularly for break pad wear and alignment.
Many ebikes are not being offered with fatter tires than normal bicycles.
Fatter tires give a more comfortable ride on bumpy roads and more traction on gravel or dirt or snow.
On the other hand they are less efficient and so will require more battery power - and more pedal power if you run out of juice. Tires larger than about 2" thickness also may not fit in some bike racks. If you expect to carry your bike on a bus or on the rack on your car, make sure you know the maximum size the racks can carry.
Wheel diameters vary widely too.
A larger wheel will roll over bumps more easily and give a gentler ride.
A smaller wheel can make a bike more compact to fold up or otherwise fit into small spaces and drops the center of gravity making it more stable at slow speeds.
Some ebikes offer shock absorbers on the front fork and some also in the rear under the seat. How important is this? Shocks front and back are quite standard features for serious mountain bike riders for comfort and control when riding rapidly down very rough trails. The advantages, on the other hand, are marginal and may not be worth the extra expense for bike riders on relatively smooth city streets, particularly for a class 1 or 2 bike riding at less than 20 MPH and with relatively fat tires (2" or more) which also provide more cushioning.
If, however, the streets on which you ride are particularly bumpy or even potholed, shocks can improve comfort significantly. If you ride a class 3 bike that can support speeds up to 28 MPH or even a class 1 or 2 in serious hills where you may exceed 20 mph coating downhill, front shocks will be useful to reduce the bounce on serious bumps and help you keep better control of steering. A rear shock will make your ride more comfortable on the bum.
Originally designed for mountain biking where you might frequently want different seat heights for on and off road riding. These now are great add-ons for a bike that will be shared by two people with different inseam sizes and so needing a different seat height.
Useful for any bike, and particularly useful for cargo bikes. For a heavy cargo bike, get a two legged kickstand.
Protecting your bike from theft
E-bike manufacturers are starting to pay more attention to protecting e-bikes from theft. If you will be riding in high theft areas in big cities or around college campuses, their are a number of security measure to look for or to add to your bike to keep if from being stolen or stripped of valuable parts.
Make sure the battery is securely lockable. You won’t want to carry it with you everywhere.
Consider locking skewers (the bolt that holds the wheels and axles to the bike) and seatpost locks.
Some brands are starting to add security features, such as GPS trackers (e.g., Faraday), tamper detection and remote lockdown modes and retrieval services (e.g. VanMoof). GPS trackers are also available as aftermarket add ons.
And of course, do not leave the bike store without the strongest lock they sell.
For more info on locks, GPS trackers and more, see the Security section of the Owners Guide