Fear not: e-bikes aren’t here to rob us of our human-powered way of life. In fact, an e-bike may very well enhance it.
So. Why would you join the e-revolution? Who should? What are the pitfalls?
They make it easier to ride
E-bikes are bicycles with a battery-powered “assist” that comes through pedalling or, in some cases, a throttle. When you push the pedals, a small motor engages and gives you a boost, so you can zip up hills and cruise over tough terrain without blowing up. The technical name is pedalecs, and they feel just like normal bikes. Some e-bikes come with a throttle that engages the motor with the press of a button. These belong to a separate class of e-bike that, to our mind, doesn’t offer a pure cycling experience the way a pedalec does.
So are they faster?
Yes, to a degree. The harder you pedal, the bigger the boost, the faster you’ll ride, but e-bikes are limited to a speed beyond which the motor stops helping. Off-road, this is in the 25-28km/h range. For experienced, fit cyclists, these limits can feel frustrating, but for the target market, it is perfect. It is important to point out that you still have to pedal, quite hard, to reach these speeds on anything but the flattest route. These are not motor bikes. You will save time on your favourite route, or a commute and enjoy the scenery more than ever.
You control how much assist you get, most e-bikes come with a switch that lets you toggle in a variety of steps from eco (low) to turbo (high), depending on the terrain.
Riding an e-bike gets riders outdoors far more often than normally-aspirated cycling.
Most pedal-assisted e-bikes might use a speed sensor, which regulates e-assist by detecting the rider’s velocity, or torque sensors, which sense how much torque the rider is putting into the pedals. It is possible to ghetto the settings on most e-bikes, to get more free speed, but this is not clever; the rest of the bike (and your skill set) is not optimised for this, and you will struggle with control and braking, and you will crash. Very hard. Most systems are optimised to produce power between cadences of 70 and 80rpm, so gear-mashers will need to learn to spin a little.
Direct-drive motors tend to be bigger and heavier because they require more magnetic material to generate low-speed torque, but that added power and mechanical simplicity helps them operate well at higher speeds. They also tend to be quieter than geared motors, although newer geared motors with helical-cut gears (rather than straight-cut gears) are nearly inaudible as well. Direct-drives can also benefit from modest added range and decreased brake wear due to regenerative braking.
Attempting to compare e-bike power ratings is frustrating. That’s because “rated power,” the metric some manufacturers use, doesn’t equal a motor’s actual power output or maximum potential power output. The power rating might indicate how much power you’re getting for a specific amount of time, although there’s no universal standard. It could be 10 seconds or 30 seconds, or it may only be able to get that for 1 to 2 seconds and the long-term power is far lower.
Power measures how quickly work is done. Torque, a metric listed by some manufacturers, is a rotational measurement of force. To get a motor’s power in watts, you have to know how fast it’s spinning: Torque multiplied by rotational speed equals power. A motor’s power output therefore peaks at a specific number of revolutions per minute.
Torque is less subjective. If a manufacturer lists an e-bike’s peak or sustained torque in newton metres, go with that. Better yet, percentages of support (as Bosch lists) tell you how much help the motor is giving you at a given level of e-assist.
E-bikes use sensors to determine pedal-assist levels based on rider input. There are speed sensors, a.k.a. cadence sensors, which dole out e-assist based on the cadence of your pedalling. If you want to go faster, pedal faster, not harder. Speeding up is therefore as simple as increasing your cadence, no matter how much effort you’re putting in. These sensors are common on hub-driven e-bikes.
Torque sensors, by contrast, determine the proper amount of motor torque by measuring how much torque you’re applying to the pedals. To go faster, you must pedal harder. The experience is more akin to riding a traditional bike. Torque sensors are popular in mid-drive bikes, especially e-mountain bikes, because they offer riders more control over the application of e-assist. You don’t want heaps of power all at once when negotiating a tricky section of trail.
But it is cheating!
E-bikes do some of the work for you, but not all of it. For people who have otherwise been sedentary, they offer a great workout. In reality, some of our hardest rides when the e-bikes were in our test fleet were spent trying to stay ahead of the assist. If anyone tells you they are cheating, they haven’t ridden one beyond the bike shop car park. Many people are not fit enough to ride long enough to get meaningful health and fitness benefits from biking, and an electric bike means they can go out and ride for an hour and get a significant amount of exercise. In this respect, they have become a stepping-stone for many, not just into our sport but into the normally-aspirated side of our sport.
The cons of an e-bike
Okay, so they’re not cheap, but they can save you money. We just say that to help the negotiations at home… realistically, few e-bike-buyers in South Africa will commute on them – yet. You can’t really get a cheap e-bike just just now. But if you keep the car in the garage more often, you’ll save cash on maintenance and petrol money, not to mention the added health benefits and potentially fewer sick days from getting more exercise. Prices vary widely, but you should expect to pay at least R25 000 for a reasonable e-bike, and considerably more (R55 000-R100 000) for a quality bike with a motor system from a major manufacturer like Bosch, Shimano, or Yamaha. These prices drop every year, as volumes increase and tech catches up.
And, they weigh a ton. The first thing many people do when checking out a new bike is give it a lift to gauge the weight. You’re in for a shock if you try that with an e-bike. The battery, motor, extra components, and reinforced frame make e-bikes inherently heavier than standard bikes—by at least about ten kilos. Modern geometry and engineering help them handle well despite their weight, and obviously the motor-assist makes the extra heft disappear when you start to pedal. But you’ll need more muscle to get them on your bike rack or up and down stairs.
With power comes responsibility
E-bikes are different – and kinda scary. Even if you are an experienced cyclist, you need to proceed with caution until you have got the hang of the thing – it will accelerate out of corners on the singletrack, leaving you scrabbling for grip. Braking for corners going uphill will become a thing. Because they’re heavier and faster, your braking becomes a bit of a rollercoaster. As you will read just now, that road e-bike is a frightening proposition in traffic, and in a bunch – you are so much faster and beyond the norms of even racing cycling, that you will get into trouble in a heartbeat.
A little extra boost can lead to incredible possibilities – learn more about e-bikes here
The final e-bike test
You can’t ride an e-bike without smiling. And that is, to be honest, the biggest reason to embrace e-bike, and e-bikers. Any open-door to the joy cycling has brought us, should be welcomed.