How to choose your first electric bicycle
- an e-bike buying guide
Electric bicycles have become the fastest growing segment of the bicycle industry. While standard pedal bike sales are either flat or falling in nearly every category, electric bicycles continue to see double or triple digit growth year over year.
With their ease of use and thrilling performance, e-bikes are drawing more and more first riders. If you’ve been considering getting your own electric bicycle but don’t know where to begin, then this guide is for you!
How to choose an electric bicycle
It is easy to become overwhelmed when you look at the sheer number of electric bicycles out there.
I remember when there were a half-dozen companies to choose from. Now there are hundreds – perhaps even thousands. Where do you even begin?
When it comes to buying an electric bicycle, there are two main differentiators that will help you narrow down the field: style and price. Both of these factors will help you cut through the noise and find the right e-bike for your specific needs.
I find it easiest to start with the style of e-bike, which can be divided into the following categories:
- Electric mountain bikes
- Electric cruiser bikes
- Electric road/commuter bikes
- Electric cargo bikes
- Electric folding bikes
- Electric fat bikes
- Other specialty electric bikes
The purists out there will already be yelling at me, claiming that there are more categories. “Why the heck would you lump road and commuters e-bikes in the same category?!” or “What about electric recumbents?!”, etc. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll combine somewhat similar groups of bikes together. If you’re buying your first e-bike, you’re probably not a road e-bike snob – at least not yet. And bikes like recumbents, tandems, and other less common styles will all be covered in the “other” category.
Electric mountain bikes
Electric mountain bikes are certainly great for riding trails and heading off-road. But don’t count them out on the street either.
Electric mountain bikes on the lower end of the price range can make excellent commuter e-bikes. Such bikes are usually hardtails, meaning they lack rear suspension. Instead they often have just a front suspension fork. Their suspension might not be good enough for hardcore trail riding, but it is usually sufficient for hitting a few pot holes on the way to work.
Electric cruiser bikes
Cruisers are built for, well, cruising. Electric cruiser bikes all about comfort and style.
They typically have wide, plush seats and higher handlebars that are swept back towards the rider. The pedals are generally mounted further forward, which allows the rider to rest both feet flat on the ground at stops.
Cruisers are the epitome of a beach bike, and often have larger balloon tires in the 3″ range, though the tires are not as large as those on dedicated fat bikes.
Cruisers are a lot of fun for leisurely riding. However, they are both larger and heavier than nearly any other type of e-bike. That can make them a bit less maneuverable at low speeds. If your goal is cruising along the local beach paths though, a cruiser will fit in perfectly.
Electric road/commuter bikes
Electric road and commuter bikes is a very broad category and includes a number of different types, ranging from hybrids to racing to leisure and even gravel bikes. Most share a number of characteristics, including narrower tires, a more forward leaning geometry, narrower saddles, lack of suspension and emphasis on lightweight design.
If your goal is cycling as a hobby and you ride mostly on the street, an electric road bike is an excellent choice. These bikes are designed for the most efficient pedaling and are often the lightest options. They can often be ridden easily without any e-assist at all, which is great for cyclists that only want help on the hills.
If you plan to use an e-bike as a commuter vehicle and not necessarily for pleasure riding, you’ll likely want to look at hybrid or even cyclocross style bikes. These usually have slightly wider tires and their designs place more of an emphasis on sturdy multi-terrain frames.
Electric cargo bikes
Electric cargo bikes are the minivans of the e-bike world.
They aren’t sexy. They aren’t sporty. But they sure are useful!
Electric cargo bikes are designed for hauling as much crap as possible. To do that, they use a few different methods.
To retain a size closer to standard bicycles, some electric cargo bicycles use frame that is stretched in the rear to provide a foot or cargo platform on either side of the rear wheel. They also offer a number of different cargo accessories like racks, bags, and child carriers.
Electric folding bikes
Electric folding bikes are one of the most popular categories due to their extreme portability. Most e-folders have a folding point in the middle of the bike and on the handlebars. This collapses the bike into a package usually no larger than a suitcase.
If you plan to put your e-bike in a car trunk or you plan to carry it onto the bus or train, then a folding e-bike is likely in your future.
The downside to many folders is that they are often heavier than comparably sized e-bikes and sometimes suffer from lower quality parts. Designing a bike to fold means you have to make compromises to prevent the price from rising too much – and those compromises often come in the form of bicycle component quality.
However, there are still some great folders out there. One of my favorites is the Rundeer Hummer Ebike, which has an awesome battery and motor combo along with other nice components including hydraulic disc brakes.
Electric fat bikes
Electric fat bikes are one of the most fun categories of e-bikes, in my humble opinion. They excel in off-road conditions with loose soil, sand or even snow. Their large tires, usually 4″ or greater, help electric fat bikes ride up and over nearly any surface.
They can of course be ridden on streets, sidewalks or bike lanes, but also offer the ability to hop a curb and right straight down the middle of a park. Most won’t have suspension, though some have suspension forks. But with such large tires, suspension isn’t quite as important – the fat tires absorb many bumps and pot holes.
Electric fat bikes used to be a small niche, but now there are dozens of companies offering competing models.
Other specialty electric bikes
While these represent a minority of e-bikes, there are some other fun styles out there.
Electric tandem bicycles have two seats and two sets of pedals. They’re perfect for couples that want to put less effort into pedaling and more effort into arguing in closer proximity.
Electric tricycles are better for riders with disabilities or lack the balance or leg strength to support themselves during stops on a standard two-wheeled bicycle. Delta trikes, with two wheels in the back, are much more common. Tadpole trikes, with two wheels in the front, are more stable during higher speed turns but are also more expensive.
Electric recumbent bikes put the rider in a more laid back position and usually use a chair instead of a standard bicycle seat. They come in standard and tricycle varieties. Electric recumbent bicycles can be a lot of fun and give more of a go-kart feeling. However, it is recommended to use a safety flag so that other drivers can see the low profile of a recumbent.
Electric bicycle price ranges
Once you’ve decided which style of electric bicycle fits your riding needs best, the next consideration will be the price point.
Like most products, e-bikes come in everything from the ultra-budget level to the ultra-premium level.
Interestingly, one of the biggest differentiators in e-bike quality isn’t the electric components but the rather the bicycle components. Most e-bikes use similar electrical components until you reach the mid-range price level, at which point the bikes begin to feature nicer quality electrical components. On the lower end of the spectrum, more affordable prices are usually achievable by reducing the quality of the bicycle itself, not the electronics.
Like many hobbies and sports, e-bikes are a play-to-pay activity. But that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. By choosing the right type of bike at the right price level for you, anyone can have a great time on an e-bike!