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How to buy an electric bike: What to look for and how to narrow down your options

How to buy an electric bike: three riders on e-bikes cycle on a bike path
(Image credit: Bosch)

While the idea of riding a bike instead of driving sounds great for most peoples, working out the logistics of how to buy an electric bike, and which electric bike to choose is where they might start backtracking.

Even the most intense and focused cyclist has to take time off from pushing themselves and their bike. If riding to work sounds great but you need to arrive fresh, doing it on one of the best electric bikes is a great option. The same goes if you already do most of your trips by bike but you want help with the heavy stuff, or if you just want to ride your bike more and not worry about hills, or riding hard all the time.

For some people, electric bikes actually are all about pushing themselves. While they can be an option for replacing a car or making rides easier, they can also be about adding to the rides they're already doing, working just as hard as they would on a non-electric bike, but going farther and faster.

However you see electric bikes fitting your life, whether you're looking at the best electric road bikes or the best electric gravel bikes, there has never been a better time to buy one. The technology has reached a point of maturity and there are tons of options. If you are thinking about taking the plunge, we have some suggestions for what to think about. 

Keep reading for suggestions on how to find the right electric bike for you.

Types of electric bikes

An image of a Cairn Electric Gravel Bike on a gravel trail

(Image credit: Cairn)

Ultimately, it's worth remembering the simple fact that electric bikes are bikes. Before you can buy the right bike, you have to think about what it's for and how you want to use it. There are some bikes designed to do a lot of things well and there are some bikes designed to do only very few things well. 

We have guides for a variety of different electric bikes. Spend some time checking out each one and considering what sounds right for you.

Before you get too far into the process, you might also consider converting the bike you already own to electric. If that sounds good take a look at our guide to the best electric bike conversion kits. Just be aware that a quality electric bike conversion requires a quality bike. Make sure you have a bike you love before spending the money to convert it.

Alternatively, if you are working with a tight budget, it might be worth visiting our guides based on price first. The best of the best most expensive bikes are amazing, but there is great quality stuff at all price points. In some cases, starting at the price point and working back is a good idea. You still want to consider what kind of bike you want as a first step, but the pricing will narrow the options naturally.

Class of electric bike

An image of the Bosch Nyon electric bike bar-mounted display

(Image credit: Bosch)

Once you've decided on the type of bike that is going to be best for you, it's time to get a little more specific. The class of bike is really about deciding how powerful you want the bike to be. It also has to do with where you can take the bike and what requirements there are for riding it. 

Depending on where you live and ride, different classes of bikes have different restrictions. We've outlined these below so you can make a decision about what sounds good to you and what works with your local laws. 

Electric bike classes explained

There are three classes of electric bikes in the US and each operates a little differently. Along with different operating features comes different restrictions. Class 1, 2, and 3 do not represent good, better, and best. Some people may prefer one or the other but fundamentally they are different, not better. Find the one that fits your needs. 

Class 1 electric bikes are pedal-assisted only. There is no throttle and they work by magnifying your input. Once you hit 20mph the electric motor will shut off. You can continue to pedal, and in the right circumstances you may continue to accelerate, but you won't have a motor to help you. Class 1 bikes get the same treatment as any other bike, so go ahead and take them on bike paths and trails without worry. 

Class 2 electric bikes operate like class 1 bikes but they also have a throttle. The throttle on a class 2 electric bike can operate with or without pedalling, but most of the time you get both. Just like a class 1 bike when you reach 20mph the electric motor will stop helping but you can keep pedalling if you want. The throttle is useful when mixing with cars in traffic and for getting started from a stop. If you find yourself quickly needing to pass a stopped bus, for example, a bit of throttle can get you out of harm's way as quickly as possible. 

The final class of electric bike is class 3. Class 3 bikes are subject to different rules in different locations. The biggest thing that defines them is pedal assist up to 28mph. They must also have a speedometer but most electric bikes do anyway. In some locations, class 3 bikes don't have throttles and in others they do, but it only works up to 20mph. There are also different rules about where you can take class 3 bikes. Often, they are not allowed on trails that prohibit motorised vehicles. 

In Europe, things are a little bit different. The easiest way to think about it is that you want something with a max speed of 25km/h and a motor of 250watts or less. You can also only have help from the motor while pedalling. Anything over those specs and it's no longer considered a bike in the way most people think of a bike. The upgraded status comes with a host of extra regulations and requirements.

Types of pedal assist

We are going to keep getting more and more specific to help narrow down the perfect electric bike. You have an idea of the type of bike you want and how powerful it should be. Now there's a decision about how you want the power of the bike to feel. One of the biggest differentiators in the feel of an electric bike is what type of pedal-assist sensor it uses. 

A cadence-based sensor starts assisting when the pedals are turning. Cadence-based systems add a set amount of assist, based on the level you've chosen. As you turn the pedals faster the assistance drops. There's no consideration for how hard you are pedalling. Some people prefer this type of system because it feels easier. As long as you are turning the pedals lightly you will get assistance at the level you've chosen. The downside of this type of system is that it doesn't feel as natural. You can be moving down the road very fast with only minimal effort. 

If you want a bike that feels more like a traditional bike then look for a torque-based system. Torque-based pedal-assist adds power based on how hard you are pushing on the pedals. The very best of these kinds of systems make it feel like you are doing all the work. It feels like you woke up on the right side of the bed and the hills are just a bit easier but you are still doing the work. It can be so subtle that it's hard to tell it's there until you turn it off. Torque-based systems are great when you want to feel like you are riding a normal bike, and also tend to be more responsive and kick in faster. 

In some electric bikes, there may also be a speed sensor incorporated. With the extra sensor information, the amount of assist gets added based on how fast the bike is going. It's a great way to add extra smarts on top of the information coming from the pedals.

Motor location

The Bosch ActiveLine motor is positioned in place of the traditional bottom bracket

(Image credit: Courtesy)

The specific location of the motor in the frame doesn't have to be that important, though it does impact how the bike feels when you ride it, so it's worth bearing in mind. 

Some of the best e-bike motors that come from companies like Bosch, Fazua, and Shimano tend to be located between the cranks, placing the majority of the weight down low and central to the bike. These mid-drive motors tend to provide the most balanced and comfortable ride because the centre of gravity is right in the middle. However, this doesn't necessarily mean they're the only good option. For one thing, they tend to be a lot more expensive because they require more frame design to incorporate them.

Front hub motors - placed within the hub of the front wheel - are much easier to install and service in the long run. This is in large part due to the lack of gears that need navigating around. While having the motor at the front can make the overall weight of the bike seem less evenly distributed, once you're actually riding, the amount of strain put on the wheels is more level. The front takes on the additional motor weight, while the rear supports your body. 

Rear-drive motors are located within the hub of the rear wheel, behind where the gears are. These tend to be higher powered than front hub motors and provide a more natural ride feel. However, they are a bit trickier to service and they do add a lot of additional weight to the rear of the bike.

Weight

Electric mountain bikes placed onto a car bike rack

(Image credit: Kuat)

There are a lot of pieces of the puzzle that get you to the final weight of the bike. Just like with a traditional bike, price plays a big part in how heavy an electric bike is. That's why it's not at the top of the list of considerations. In some ways, you will be at the mercy of other choices when it comes to weight. It is worth considering though.

Weight comes into play most in the day-to-day use of an electric bike, but because there's a motor to help, it has less of a role in the ride experience. It mostly becomes a limiting factor if you find yourself needing to lift your bike or carry it upstairs, for example.

If you need to transport the bike by car, then you will also need to invest in a rack that can handle the weight. Look for the hitch racks in our list of the best bike racks. Once you have the bike in your home, you might also want to consider storage options. Electric bikes are often too heavy to be hung. 

Anti-theft

Abus lock

(Image credit: Abus)

Electric bikes are expensive and in demand. That makes them prime targets for thieves. Some electric bikes have built-in theft protection. That might mean a lock of some kind or it might even mean tracking capabilities. 

If you plan to leave your bike locked outside while shopping or working, make sure you spend some time checking our articles on theft protection. Even if your bike has locks and tracking built-in, it could still not be enough to stop an opportunist from walking away with your pride and joy. 

Josh Ross

Josh hails from the Pacific Northwest of the United States but would prefer riding through the desert than the rain. He will happily talk for hours about the minute details of cycling tech but also has an understanding that most people just want things to work. He is a road cyclist at heart and doesn't care much if those roads are paved, dirt, or digital. Although he rarely races, if you ask him to ride from sunrise to sunset the answer is probably yes.
Height: 5'9"
Weight: 137 lb.
Rides: Look 795 Blade RS, Cannondale Topstone Lefty, Cannondale CAAD9, Priority Continuum Onyx