Adding the ‘e’ to bike: The benefits and drawbacks of an e-bike

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

Just like the smartphone revolution of the early 2000’s, there is a transformation happening to the bicycle - the addition of electric power to create what is known as an e-bike. As a form of urban transport the e-bike has so many advantages over a regular bike that many commentators are predicting the regular bicycle to go the way of the horse and cart.

If you haven’t already joined the urban e-bike revolution you may be wondering what all the excitement is about. To give you some insight, we thought we’d answer a few of the most common questions we get from people exploring the idea of using an e-bike to get around their town or city.

  • So what exactly is an e-bike?

  • Are they scary to ride?

  • Can I ride one everywhere I can ride my normal bike?

  • Why would I get one?

  • Aren’t e-bikes just for older people?

  • Won’t it make me less fit?

  • How much does an e-bike cost?

  • How heavy is it?

So what exactly is an e-bike?

If you search ‘electric bike’ or ‘e-bike’ in Google images, you'll see a large range of electric bike designs on offer around the world. Despite so many different shapes and sizes, they all have a few things in common as compared to a normal pushbike.

Firstly, they all have an electric motor to propel the bike along or make it easier to pedal. To control that power, most e-bikes have a range of power settings so you can choose how much assistance you get.

All e-bikes also have a battery to power the electric motor. Most e-bikes now sold in the western world have a lithium ion battery but the size and location on the e-bike will vary.

All e-bikes also have some way of controlling when the motor comes on. When e-bikes first came out, the power control was usually via a throttle on the handlebars. Due to safety concerns about this style of power control, both Europe and Australia throttles are being phased out and replaced with power control via the pedals. This makes an e-bike ride more like a traditional bike.

Most e-bikes also have some form of display so you can see, as a minimum, how much battery power you have left and how much electric assist you are currently getting.

Are they scary to ride?

We have been surprised to find that a large number of people who attend a Tiller Rides test ride event to ride an e-bike for the first time are scared that the bike will get out of control and so be dangerous.

It is hard to say where this fear comes from, perhaps it is an experience with a motorbike, but because most e-bikes have relatively small motors compared to motorbikes and have intuitive ways of controlling the power they aren’t scary or dangerous to ride at all - especially once you know how to control the amount of power you will get.

It is true however, that over the last few years e-bikes have undergone a range of changes to make the riding experience smoother and closer to a regular bike.

One of the first innovations in this direction was a ‘cadence’ (think pedal rotation speed) sensor on the pedals that detected if the pedals were turning and only allowed power to be sent to the motor if they were. The amount of power being sent to the motor was selected by a switch on the handlebars with usually between three and five power assist levels. While this innovation made the eBike feel more like a traditional bike the drawback was that the motor power was either on or off.

A cadence sensor on an electric bike

So for example, if you selected power level two out of three, which equated to 180 watts of power (of the full 250 watts possible for the motor) when you rotated the pedals you got the full 180 watts instantly. This made these ‘cadence’ sensor versions of e-bikes, which are still commonly sold here in Australia, a little jerky compared to a regular bike.

The most recent innovation that has improved the smoothness of an e-bike is the torque sensor. This is a smart little electronic device that works out exactly how much you are pressing on the pedals and uses this knowledge to control how much power the motor produces.

A typical torque sensor for an electric bike
A typical torque sensor

So for example, if as in the previous example, you have selected assist level three which produces 180 watts peak power, if you only press lightly on the pedals you will only get say 60 watts of assist. If you get to a slight hill and have to press a little harder you will get say 110 watts. If you reach a steep hill and start pressing even harder you get the full 180 watts possible for setting three. The result of constantly varying power assistance proportional to the effort you put in is a very smooth ride that is similar to a regular bicycle - only easier.

E-bikes with torque sensor assist usually don’t have a throttle, and so are referred to as pedal assisted. Because of the enhanced feel and similarity to a standard bike, and improved safety compared to a throttle, this pedal assist e-bike is quickly becoming the e-bike standard across the world.

Can I ride one everywhere I can ride my normal bike?

At present the answer to this question depends on what country you live in however the overarching goal with the design of e-bikes, and the regulations that control their design, has been to enable them to be considered as a regular bike as far as the road rules go.

Here in Australia we recently adopted the European Electrically Power Assisted Cycle (EPAC) standards which control certain things about the way an e-bike is designed. For example it states that it must have a motor that is 250 watts or less that is controlled by the pedals and cuts out at a maximum speed of 25 kilometres per hour. Most e-bikes sold in Australia are now following these regulations.

There is an old Australian design standard that is still in place that allows an e-bike to have a throttle and a maximum power of 200 watts. Because these e-bikes don’t have a speed restriction, and are hence can be dangerous to other road and path users, most predict these regulations will be eventually revoked.

Why would I get one?

Depending on what you plan to use it for, the reasons for getting an e-bike (or not) vary. The top seven reasons why people seem to get an e-bike are (in no particular order):

  1. It is a healthier and greener way to get around compared to a car

  2. It is much much cheaper than using a car (see our cost comparison post)

  3. It allows you to ride in any clothes because you don’t get hot and sweaty. This means the commute to work doesn’t require a shower when you get there - a saving of 15 - 20 minutes.

  4. It flattens out the hills and makes getting around less of an effort - and so you are more likely to use it more often than a regular bike.

  5. It is usually quicker than a regular bike - in fact, as you can see in this Post it can be as fast as a racing bike.

  6. It allows you to go further and hence use your e-bike for more occasions than you would a regular bike.

  7. It allows you to easily carry heavy loads - for example shopping or carrying (or towing) children.

Aren’t e-bikes just for older people?

The benefits of using an e-bike can be enjoyed by every body who can ride a bike. Older people might want an e-bike because they no longer have the strength to easily ride a normal bike, however there are many reasons why younger people would use an e-bike too.

If you watch the streets of any modern city these days where cycling is possible, especially European cities, you will see that the global e-bike revolution is a revolution for all ages.

Won’t it make me less fit?

It is common for people who regularly ride a pushbike to ask me if having an e-bike will make them less fit. I have now ridden a Roadster daily for the last six months (since we were allowed to show them publicly) and based on my own experience I answer this question like this.

Firstly I tell them that I also have a regular pushbike that I use purely for exercise and ride it a couple of times a week when I am going out purely for exercise. Buying an e-bike then isn’t about replacing your exercise rides - it is about replacing car rides.

A male professional stretching at his work desk

I then explain that after you replace car rides, as I have done in the last six months, you realise that an e-bike means that overall you are more active. Suddenly you are integrating some light exercise when you duck out to pick up the milk or some last minute ingredients for dinner. You get a bit more activity when you visit the local bar for a drink with friends and then more when you go to a meeting or the dentist.

My commute isn’t very far these days but for most people the biggest increase in physical activity comes when they start replacing the car or public transport commute with an e-bike. This can have significant health benefits for office workers who spend most of their day sitting down.

How much does an e-bike cost?

E-bikes vary in price depending on what features and quality you want. Here in Australia they start at around $2,000 for the basic models and go up to around $5,000 - $6,000. The main things that affect the price are:

  1. The integrated features - such as carriers - or in the case of our Roadster an alarm, GPS tracking, lights, stand etc

  2. The size of the battery - i.e. how far it will go

  3. The type and quality of motor.

  4. The type of assist - a torque sensor assist is more expensive than a cadence assist (see explanation of what these are elsewhere in this article)

  5. The quality of the parts - especially the frame.

Because an e-bike is more of a car replacement than a replacement for your recreational or exercise bike it makes more sense to compare the cost of an e-bike with that of a car. As we discovered when we ran the numbers on this comparison you can save several thousand dollars per year (see our post about this comparison) - and that is only factoring in the cost savings you can put a dollar value on.

How heavy is an e-bike?

All e-bikes are heavier than an equivalent pushbike - mainly because they all have a battery and motor on board which are both relatively heavy. An e-bike motor usually weighs around four kilograms and a battery that will power you for 50+ kilometres is of a similar weight. The electric part of the e-bike alone therefore adds around eight kilograms which if the average regular pushbike weighs around 12 - 15 kilograms, pushes the weight of an e-bike into the 20 kilogram range.

E-bikes with a range of 50 kilometres or more therefore start at around 20 kilograms in weight and go up to the high 20s if they have extra features such as carriers and stands etc or have a steel frame. The beautiful thing about an e-bike however is that because you don’t need to move the weight yourself it is not such a problem and extra usable features can be added with little change to the way it feels to ride.

While keeping the overall weight down is important, it is the location of the weight that makes the biggest difference. As a general rule, the lower the weight is on the e-bike the better, as it keeps the bike’s centre of gravity low while maintaining manoeuvrability. E-bikes with batteries on top of the rear wheel will therefore feel a lot more top heavy compared to ones with the battery low in the frame like our Roadster.

If you are concerned about the weight of the bike because of a need to lift it onto the back of our car or a parking rack then an important feature is a removable battery. This enables the weight to be instantly dropped by up to four kilograms.

The crux

For most people, adding the ‘e’ to ‘bike’ allows them to get around town much more regularly than their regular pushbike. If you love to be out in the fresh air, would like an easy way to stay fit and healthy and want to reduce your footprint on the planet, then adding an e-bike to your life is an obvious choice. Is it time for you to join the revolution?

By Julian Ilich - Co-Founder of Tiller Rides

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