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E-bikes buyer's guide: What to know about electric bicycles, plus our top picks

If you're new to e-bikes, here's a guide that'll show you what to look for, and whether or not they're the best EV for you.
By
January 8, 2022
A Super73 S2 e-bike on the road.
Super73

Believe it or not, electric bicycles — e-bikes, more commonly — are actually one of the oldest forms of motorized transportation. US patents for them date back to the 1890s, though of course they never really caught on until over a century later. Today the e-bike scene is exploding, fueled not just by better technology but the growing number of people who work from home or otherwise don’t need to drive every day. This guide should help judge whether an e-bike makes sense and what to look for when buying one, as well as offer a few choice picks to consider.

Go in-depth: The best electric bikes you can get

What is an e-bike, and what kinds of e-bikes are there?

The Zooz Urban Ultralight 750 e-bike.
Zooz

Ignoring the gritty details, at its most basic an e-bike simply adds a battery, motor, and controller to the gears and frame of a conventional bicycle. In fact, if you know what you’re doing, it’s not too difficult to convert a conventional bike, or build an e-bike from scratch. Companies like Swytch sell off-the-shelf conversion kits, and the best DIY designs can be as good as or better than commercial products, for less money.

There are just as many styles of e-bike as there are conventional cycles: city, mountain, cargo, foldable, recumbent, you name it. Often these check multiple boxes. A style that appears frequently in the electric world, though, is the fat-tire bike. Fat tires offer extra comfort, traction, and stability, and since they have a motor behind them, the added weight isn’t much of a concern. E-bikes in general tend to be heavy — it’s hard to find good ones under 50lbs (22.7kg), and some of the most powerful top 100lbs (45.4kg).

There are just as many kinds of e-bike as there are conventional cycles.

A few manufacturers exploit the benefits of fat tires to blur the lines with broader EV categories. Companies like Ariel, Juiced, and Super73 offer what are effectively electric mopeds, designed mostly to be throttle-powered, with pedaling as a backup or a speed/range assist. A handful of bikes, such as the Onyx RCR and Sur Ron X, take this to the point that they’re effectively motorcycles — their pedals exist for the sake of legally qualifying as an e-bike.

Should I get an e-bike?

QuietKat e-bikes being mounted on a car rack.
QuietKat

E-bikes are probably the most versatile form of personal electric vehicle (PEV). The right models can carry cargo or passengers, and there’s a plethora of ready-made customization options — even some that will let you ride in snow. Their range is typically higher than electric scooters and skateboards, and if their batteries run dry you can still pedal home, though you might end up tired and sweaty. The learning curve is also minimal — if you can ride a manual bike, you can ride an electric one.

There are many factors to consider when buying, beginning with space, weight, and transportation. Unless it folds, any e-bike is going to take up a lot of space, which can be problematic if you live in an apartment. Heavier models can be difficult (or impossible) to carry upstairs or on public transit. If you want to take one on trips, their size and weight can mean you’ll need a truck or a specialized car rack. It’s possible to slip e-bikes into some sedans, crossovers, and SUVs, but often only by putting the seats down and/or removing one of the bike’s wheels.

Another issue created by size is security. Many building operators force people to lock bikes up outside, where they’re inherently more vulnerable to theft. E-bikes in particular can be lucrative targets, so if you’re going to buy one, you should check that your intended stops are safe. If you live in a sketchy neighborhood you might want to consider vehicles you can take indoors without a fuss — namely electric boards, unicycles, or scooters. If you do get an e-bike, there are things you can do to improve security, which we’ll cover later on.

See also: Electric scooters — A buyer’s guide

Legality is less of a concern with e-bikes than it is with other PEVs, but it’s still something to worry about. Where you can ride is governed not just by state or provincial laws, but often by county and municipal regulations. It can, for example, be illegal to ride on sidewalks in one city, while another might demand it if the alternative is mixing with high-speed car traffic. There are places that won’t allow e-bikes on park paths even when manual bikes are zipping through at the same speed.

Governments also frequently impose performance caps. Whereas much of the US is effectively unlimited, Canada, for instance, requires that all e-bikes be capped at 500W unless they’re used off-road, and there are tougher restrictions in countries like India and Norway. Where those caps are in effect, it may be possible to circumvent them by getting a license and registration, but that costs time and money, defeating the simplicity of a PEV.

The enforcement of e-bike rules can vary wildly, whether for better or for worse. Police aren’t necessarily familiar with PEV regulations, and wattages can be difficult to check if they’re not openly labeled. Beyond following the letter of the law, the safest strategy is to avoid drawing attention — if you’re not causing problems for cars or pedestrians, there’s usually no reason to stop you.

The enforcement of e-bike rules can vary wildly, whether for better or for worse.

Some e-bikes can draw unwanted attention from law enforcement. Just as a Porsche 911 is bound to draw more eyes than a Honda Civic, a Super73 looks enough like a motorcycle that police may stop you on paths you’re technically allowed on. If this feels like a legitimate risk where you live, it might be safer to buy a more traditional-looking e-bike, or at least minimize throttle-only operation.

See also: Electric bikes vs electric scooters vs electric mopeds vs electric motorcycles: What’s the difference?

It’s lastly important to consider maintenance and repair. As a rule, e-bikes require the same level of maintenance as manual ones, with the added complexity of a battery and motor. Be prepared to keep tires inflated, bolts tightened, chains oiled, hydraulics topped, and the battery charged. You’ll probably have to deal with the occasional flat too, though you can sharply reduce the chances of that by using tire liners, and/or preventative sealants like Slime or FlatOut.

Most major cities have at least one shop capable of servicing e-bikes, so you can offload some of the work on them if you have the budget. If you’re really averse to doing anything yourself, however, it might be worth considering other PEVs, so long as they meet your requirements.

What to look for when shopping for an e-bike

A side profile of the RadWagon 4 e-bike.
Rad Power Bikes

Because there are so many styles, your intended usage matters a great deal. If you’re planning to regularly carry cargo or mount child seats, you’ll want to choose a bike with built-in rack mounts — preferably in the rear, since front racks can sometimes obscure lights or your view. There are alternatives such as trailers, panniers, and tube bags, but out of those only trailers can carry substantial volumes.

Seating matters for a few reasons. If you’re planning to carry adult passengers, you’ll want not just an extended seat but footpegs, and possibly wheel guards to keep legs safe from debris. With or without a passenger, never underestimate the importance of a cushy seat, since the opposite can make long rides unbearable. In some cases, it may be possible to install a suspension seat post, which takes the shock out of bumps.

When it comes to batteries, you’ll see them rated in terms of voltage (V) and amp-hours (Ah). Higher amp-hours translate into better range, while higher voltages improve power delivery — Juiced, for example, insists on using 52V batteries across the board, which helps push its bikes up to 28mph (45kph) or more. For the snappiest performance, you should demand 52 or 72V. You can get away with 48V, though, if you don’t expect demanding conditions like steep hills.

For the snappiest performance, you should demand 52 or 72V.

Performance is also going to be affected by wattage, tires, gearing (e.g. the number of “speeds” a bike has), and how much you’re willing to pedal. Some bikes can only achieve top speed with pedaling, and range estimates are normally dependent on it. Moped-style bike makers will sometimes separate pedal-assist and throttle-only ranges.

You should always buy a model with a removable battery. That makes charging more convenient, and if a battery fails or runs dry you can swap in another one, though replacements tend to be expensive. Removing a battery is also good for safeguarding against theft, rain, or cold weather depletion.

Motors come in two varieties: hub and mid-drive. The vast majority of bikes use the former option, since it’s a lot cheaper and usually more than enough. Mid-drive motors are connected directly to the drivetrain instead of a wheel, which improves efficiency, especially on inclines. Read more about hub-drive vs mid-drive electric bikes here.

Motor wattage can be a tricky thing. It’s the ultimate arbiter of how powerful a bike is, so the more the better, but as mentioned earlier it’s often capped by regulations — some governments limit bikes to as little as 250W, which guarantees plenty of pedaling. The US market isn’t quite so restricted, which is how the 3,000W Onyx RCR can exist. Every motor also has a higher peak wattage indicating what it can sustain in short bursts, say. when climbing a hill.

Speaking of gearing, it’s entirely possible to get by with single-speed on an e-bike, since the motor is doing the hard work. If you expect to climb a lot of hills, however, you should opt for a multi-speed setup, which will let you gear down as necessary. Thankfully, multi-speed bikes and upgrades are fairly common at this point.

Tires should never be an afterthought. If you’re coming from conventional city or mountain bikes it can be tempting to stick to those sizes and treads, and they’re certainly fine if you’re riding in similar contexts. But with a motor, you’ll probably be riding further and faster than before, or even in new terrain.

Urban riders can use their preferred size of street tires, which have less rolling resistance and in some cases are more puncture-resistant. If you expect to be dealing with rough or slippery terrain you’ll want off-road tires, the fatter and knobbier the better. These do tend to hurt range a little, and they’re softer — making them more prone to wear and punctures — but the tradeoff is an aggressive grip. You can mitigate puncture worries by adding liners and sealant.

Tires should never be an afterthought.

The right handlebar is subjective, but it’s important to know what posture you like. For cruising, it’s better to have grips positioned high and wide so you can stay upright. Bringing things tight and low, meanwhile, tends to enable superior control. That said, if you don’t like a bike’s stock setup, it’s frequently possible to adjust it or swap in third-party handlebars. You can also change grip coverings if you find them too fat, thin, or slippery.

Related: The best bike phone holders

Returning to specs, range should surpass your furthest destination unless you can afford to charge for a few hours midway — say, while you’re at work. You may need extra headroom if you plan to ride in cold weather, since freezing temperatures can cut battery life in half. Remember too that companies often overestimate range, giving a best-case scenario with moderate speeds and minimum pedal assist. Higher speeds, increased pedal assist, and/or using the throttle can slash range dramatically.

The only reason to worry about top speed is if you love going fast or think you might ride in traffic. In the latter case, you’ll want at least 28mph (45kph) and preferably faster, since there aren’t many roads with such slow limits. You can hit speeds of up to 60mph (96.6kph) on an Onyx RCR, but you’ll want motorcycle-grade body armor if you attempt that — and probably training as well.

On the safety front, it’s important to consider lights and brakes. Many bikes ship with weak lights or none at all, and whether or not you plan to ride at night, good lighting can increase your visibility to cars and pedestrians. Night rides demand strong headlights and tail lights, as well as turn signals if you’re going to be on major roads. You’ll probably have to add the signals yourself.

Night rides demand strong headlights and tail lights, as well as turn signals if you’re going to be on major roads.

E-bikes typically rely on mechanical or hydraulic disc brakes, since anything less might be too weak (or even damaging) for the amount of force electric motors can generate. Mechanical brakes are alright at low speeds, but because of their stopping power, hydraulics are preferable. They’re virtually mandatory on bikes topping 28mph — there’s just no way to slow down fast enough in some situations.

Helping to regulate pedal-assist modes are cadence or torque sensors. The former are more likely on cheaper bikes, and can feel jerky, since they just turn the motor on or off based on whether or not you’re pedaling. They’re not a dealbreaker — just not ideal. Torque sensors measure the actual force you’re applying, adjusting power delivery accordingly, although you’re going to pay for the privilege.

Entry-level picks

The Lectric XP 2.0 folding e-bike.
Lectric

The Lectric XP 2.0 is hard to top as a do-it-all starter bike. It’s a $999 folding fat-tire model that ships fully assembled, yet comes with features like fenders, lights, an LCD, front suspension, and a seven-gear drivetrain — equipment that’s sometimes missing on bikes twice as expensive. It even has a 28mph (45kph) top speed and a 45-mile (72km) max range. Some downsides are a 48V battery and a 500W motor.

A side profile of the RadMission 1 e-bike.
Rad Power Bikes

Rad Power Bikes’ RadMission 1 is priced identically to the Lectric, and even has similar specs, but switches to a conventional, purely urban bike frame and tires, dropping things like fenders and an LCD. What you get in return is a choice of six different color combos and an extremely light weight — it’s less than 50lbs (23kg), so you should be able to carry it over your shoulder.

Mid-level picks

RadRunner Plus E Bike
Roger Fingas / Android Authority

There are a few Rad Power bikes in this guide, and not without reason. The RadRunner Plus ($1,799) nails a sweet spot in terms of functionality and creature comforts. While it once again has a 48V battery with 45-mile range, it upgrades to a 750W motor (in the US version) and can handle loads up to 300lbs (136kg). It comes with a passenger package by default, specifically footpegs, wheel guards, and an attractive extended seat you’ll end up using on solo rides too. We strongly suggest adding the $99 Center Console accessory — this provides a large storage compartment with phone and cup holders, and makes the bike look even more like a moped.

The RadMini Step-Thru 2 e-bike.
Rad Power Bikes

The RadMini Step-Thru 2 ($1,299) is one of the best value folding bikes. It uses better components than the Lectric, including a more readily accessible battery, and its sleek step-through design makes it easy to climb on and off, particularly for shorter riders or those balancing the bike while loading cargo (assuming you have a rack attached). The only serious problem is that pedaling is uncomfortable for taller riders, who should opt for the RadMini 4, which differs only in using a non-step frame.

A woman hopping on the Super73 ZX e-bike.
Super73

The Super73 ZX is $1,995, and missing basics like fenders and lights in its US incarnation — Europeans are lucky enough to get these — but it makes up for it with a plush extended seat, 20×4-inch fat tires, a dedicated smartphone app, and (in the US) a 750W motor with speeds up to 28mph (45kph). Its battery is big enough to go about 30 miles (48km) using the throttle at 20mph, or 50 miles (80km) relying on low-level pedal assist.

High-end picks

Riding the Juiced HyperScrambler 2 e-bike on open road.
Juiced

Juiced’s HyperScrambler 2 ($2,999) sports a 1,000W motor, front and rear suspension, and both torque and cadence sensors, as well as smaller amenities like turn signals and a built-in alarm system. Its marquee feature is an optional, $500 second battery, which under ideal circumstances pushes range over 100 miles (161km). You may need it if you’re planning to go throttle-only, since the bike can reach 30mph (48kph).

The Super73 S2 e-bike on a sunset ridge.
Super73

The Super73 S2 ($2,695) is the Super73 model most of us should aim for. Upgrades from the ZX include a 1,200W motor, fenders, front suspension, a powerful headlight, and even fatter tires. Range rises to 40 miles (64km) using the throttle, and 75 miles (120km) or more with pedal assist. You could spend $3,495 on the top-of-the-line Super73 RX, but while there are many subtle differences with the S2, the only major addition is rear suspension. The RX is better at off-roading or handling curbs and potholes.

The Specialized Turbo Levo mountain e-bike.
Specialized

If money is no object but you insist on the best conventionally-styled bikes, we suggest looking at products by Specialized. One option is the Turbo Levo mountain bike, which starts at $5,500. While it only has a 250W motor peaking at 565W, you’re getting a mid-drive system and other top-shelf components, such as a carbon frame that keeps its weight under 50lbs. Base range is just 15 to 50km (9 to 31mi), but then the Levo is built for trails first and foremost, and you can upgrade if you’re rich enough.

The Ariel Grizzly e-bike on a park path.
Ariel Rider

The Ariel Grizzly ($3,099) is a dual-battery fat-tire bike with a range between 35 and 75 miles (56 to 121km), and twin hub motors rated at 1,000W each. That helps quite a bit with acceleration and hills, and makes it preferable to most e-bikes in its price class for going off-road.

Riding the Onyx RCR e-bike at speed.
Onyx

As highlighted earlier, the Onyx RCR is basically a motorcycle. Sure, you can pedal it if you have to, but you’ll want to use the throttle whenever possible, and there’s no way you’ll hit 60mph using your feet. Prices start at $4,349 — if you expect to use the RCR as a car replacement, you should strongly consider shelling out $5,404 to double your range (Onyx doesn’t publish throttle-only range specs). You can spend even more if you plan to add integrated turn signals, and/or an off-road kit with knobby tires and better suspension.

A Sur Ron X e-bike in an alley.
Roger Fingas / Android Authority

The Sur Ron X ($4,100) is similar in concept to the RCR but has a lower 45mph (76kph) top speed, and is explicitly designed with off-roading in mind, though it’s still adept in the city. Range is rated between 20 and 60 miles (32 to 97km) depending on which mode you’re in and how hard you push. If you order from Luna Cycle you can pay for upgrades like slick tires or a belt drive.

E-bikes: FAQs

A pair of VanMoof e-bikes.
VanMoof

Q: Is it harder to learn to ride an e-bike than a regular bicycle?

A: In general, no. While e-bikes are heavier, the same principles apply. Where things might get complicated is at high speed. The faster you go, the harder it becomes to maneuver or stop, and your reaction times need to improve accordingly. The consequences of failure go up as well — we strongly recommend motorcycle-grade safety gear at 40mph (64kph) or more, and you may want motorcycle lessons. Remember that you can still cause serious injuries below the 40mph threshold, it’s just less likely. Kids shouldn’t be going beyond 20mph (32kph).

Q: What can I do to prevent my e-bike from being stolen?

A: If it’s an option, never park in dark or isolated areas for extended periods of time. That could mean as little as 10 to 30 minutes, since it doesn’t take long to lift a bike into a truck bed or ride off once any locks have been cut. Chances are theft won’t happen that quickly, but the risk is there.

You can mitigate threats by using heavy-duty wheel and/or frame locks, like Kryptonite’s New York Fahgettaboudit chain. No matter the brand you choose, don’t skimp — some thieves are equipped with grinders and lockpicks, and only the toughest products will slow them down. Use multiple locks if you can afford it. Always lock your bike to something immovable, and buy an alarm system if your ride doesn’t come with one. Take your battery with you if it’s removable and won’t disable security systems.

Q: I want to replace my car — is an e-bike a viable option?

A: Potentially, but you need to acknowledge certain truths. The first is the necessity of function over fun. Replacing a car sometimes means carrying passengers and/or cargo, so you’ll at least want an assortment of bags or baskets, a good backpack, and a second or extended seat. For bigger loads, you may want to invest in a trailer and/or a cargo bike, such as the RadWagon 4.

Another factor is weather. You can often ride bikes in light rain or snow, but you’ll need to go slower, take special precautions, and have alternate methods of transportation available if conditions turn south. Said precautions can include everything from tarps and off-road tires to putting a bag over the battery. It’s entirely possible that an e-bike won’t make sense in your climate.

Build quality, meanwhile, can become extremely important. It’s not enough for a bike to survive your daily commute, assuming you have one. You need the range and reliability to make it to the grocery store and other common destinations, sometimes several on the same trip. You’ll want to buy spare parts, and if you can afford it, a second battery and/or a cheap backup ride. Carry a tire repair kit on trips, and learn how to use it.

No matter how well-equipped you are, there are limitations to what an e-bike can do. You won’t be hauling much furniture, for instance, and most intercity trips are probably a no-go. In some cases, you’re just going to have to bite the bullet and rely on public transit, rideshares, or rented/borrowed vehicles.

Also read: The best cycling apps and biking apps for Android

Q: Is an e-bike still going to get me some exercise?

A: Usually! Pedal assist lowers your exertion and calorie burn, but not completely until you switch over to throttle-only riding. In fact, e-bikes may be a great option for seniors looking for light exercise, or anyone who wants to make biking their cardio but finds themselves surrounded by hills.