Guide: How to choose

How to choose e-Bikes – A GadgetGuy comprehensive guide

How to choose e-Bikes

e-Bikes are everywhere and with good reason. For the most part, they are street legal (although there are some caveats on style and places of use) and help all ages to get around, especially in hilly areas. Not to mention couriers and food delivery workers love them.

GadgetGuy has reviewed some e-bikes (here), but the demand is taking off. That means we need a more formal review guide for this new category.

You know – What does a buyer expect? What types are there? Sorting the legal ones from the rest? And then we need to look at motor style, battery size and life, intelligent features, warranty, maintenance, and so much more.

Over time we will develop more paradigms to measure against. But remember, the best guides come from reader experiences, so please use reader comments to let us know your views.

What is a legal e-bike?

In 2012 the Federal Government adopted the European standard (EN 15194: 2009 or EN 15194:2009+A1:2011), making certain ‘Pedalec’ (Pedal assisted) electric bikes legal in Australia. This is now the most common type of e-bike in Australia.

That means a maximum 250W, 25kph speed assist limited, and electric (not fuel) motor. In most States, if it uses a throttle to start moving or does not have pedal assist, it is likely illegal apart from private property use.

e-bikes legal

Why are we telling you this? Well, there are way too many dodgy online sellers of illegal e-bikes and the fines for using these on the road can be thousands of dollars.

Road rules – vary from State to State

  • Must wear an approved bike helmet
  • No drinking or drugs – RBT applies to cyclists as well, with likely a 0.000 BAC tolerance
  • Follow all motor vehicles road rules, including speed limits – speed cameras apply
  • Must use a bike lane if there is one
  • Keep to suburban roads with a 60kph or lower speed limit
  • Don’t use on urban freeways and any other roadways signed no bicycles
  • Can use shared bike/pedestrian paths – pedestrians have the right of way and watch distancing rules
  • Generally, not allowed on footpaths (check State Rules)
  • Must observe all traffic signs – stop (full stop), give way (slow), pedestrian crossings (stop if a pedestrian is about to use it), make hand stop and turn signals
  • School Zone rules apply
  • The bike must be roadworthy – good tyres, bell, and reflectors at least. Light for night use.
  • And must carry a legitimate form of identity (can be enforced if you are facing a fine)

Cyclist Rules – check before you buy

Why do you want an e-bike?

According to RACV, 99% of potential buyers cite (in this order) fun, fitness, exercise/weight management and convenience. But these are outcomes – not why you need one.

Very few purchases relate to need – transport to/from work or the shops, use it for work (courier or food delivery), and recreational devices. As you do not need a driver’s license, a fair few use them to get around driver’s licence loss.

Like any mode of transport, there are upsides and downsides. GadgetGuy will be looking at how e-bike makers address these pain points.

  • The biggest issue – intimidated by cars, traffic and speed so try before you buy
  • The second biggest issue – it is not like the bike I remember from my youth
  • Battery charge speed – it can take several hours
  • Realistic battery life in kilometres travelled
  • Bike weight too heavy and limited portability
  • Rider comfort (seat, weight, weather, wind, cold, hot)
e-bikes terror
Be it bike or e-bike you need to be comfortable in traffic

RACV found a significant percentage buy an e-bike and then discover that they don’t feel safe on the roads. They use footpaths and don’t realise that it is illegal, at least in NSW (if you are over 16). While you would be ‘unlucky to cop a fine’ (according to one bike shop), the reality is different. NSW Police will fine you if they see you on a footpath.

The result is a sizeable number of second-hand e-bikes on Gumtree and eBay (care – a lot of these are cheap new Chinese bikes sold as second-hand with no warranty).

Budgets

  • Second-hand tend to be up to $1000 with no warranty
  • Refurbished (ex-rental, returned and demo) for $1000-$2000 and limited warranty
  • Folding bikes – around $1000-$2000
  • Front motor step-through $1500+
  • Rear motor step-through $2000-3000
  • Centre motor step-through Bosch or Shimano $3000-6500
  • Mountain – $3000-5000
  • Custom and carbon fibre bikes – $15,000+

Types of e-bikes

Motor

  • Mid-mounted on the centre crank with direct connect pedals. These have a lower centre of gravity, offering perhaps better stability. The pedal usually has a torque sensor (how hard you pedal and vastly superior to a cadence sensor – how fast you pedal) to supplement your energy by motor power.
  • Rear hub. This has a slightly higher centre of gravity, but the cyclist’s weight presses down and has a good road grip.
  • Front hub. These are often retrofitted to push bikes and commonly used in folding bikes. There is far less weight on the front wheel which can result in torque steer. They can be harder to manage in potential accident situations.

Frame type

Like any bike, you have unisex, men and women styles (relating to the crossbar height). But one massive issue with e-bikes is the lack of proper frame sizing to fit the rider. One bike store said that all you do is raise and lower the seat – wrong.

Women’s pushbikes come on WXS (extra small), WSM (small), WSM (medium) and WLG (large). Men have XS, SM, MD, LG, and XL. Tyres vary from approx. 20-29″.

We are looking for e-bikes that fit the rider – not the other way around.

Pedals and shoes

An e-bike should not have a toe clip or pedal clip that affixes to your shoe. A standard pedal is all you need and is safer.

e-bike types

The majority of e-bikes are step-through (a.k.a. Unisex, Urban or Commuter bikes) – one size fits all.

While Urban is the closest in concept to a ‘Malvern Star‘ (Aussie pushbike legend since 1902), its recreational bike weighs <10kg; an e-bike will generally weigh 30kg or more. It is a very different ride and experience from a typical bike.

e-bikes urban

Mountain bikes are ruggedised, can have extensive front fork and soft tail suspension (100-180mm throw) and are usually not road legal due to higher wattage/torque motors.

e-bikes mountain

Cargo – outfitted with large racks, baskets, or flatbeds for carrying loads. They commonly have a longer wheelbase, lower frames, and smaller tyres for weaving in and out of city traffic.

Folding – weight and convenience of moving – limited gearing, usually front-drive, and smaller wheels

We will be looking at just how different each type is from the conventional bikes we all grew up with.

Suspension

Apart from low cost and most folding bikes, it should have front fork suspension. You need this as the bike is heavier, and if you hit a pothole or a rough road, you will feel it several times more severely.

Typically, you want hydraulic tube suspension with at least 50mm throw, but some of the better ones can reach 180mm. You don’t want chrome springs as they both rust and wear.

Rear suspension (soft tail) is nice but generally limited to mountain bikes with trailing rear fork suspension and compression hydraulics. Road users do not need this.

Frame type

The best, lightest and most expensive is carbon fibre. These tend to start at $15,000.

Some use a hybrid with carbon fibre front forks. On most are Chrome Moly steel or aluminium. Here it is important to inspect every weld for finish and fit. Aluminium will be lighter, but steel will be more robust.

Most use an electrostatic spray paint finish. Some will use a baked two-pack finish – more resistant to scratches.

Gears

Every e-bike has rear gears from 3, 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11 and more (up to 22) cogs. These offer gear ratios from about 1:1 – one rotation of the pedal give one rotation of the wheel (low gear for take-off) to 1:5 – one rotation of the pedal gives five rotations of the wheel.

e-bikes gears

Novice users will get lost in 11-22 speed gears and should look at the lower end. Don’t be confused – e-bikes need gears to match power output to speed. You can read more of the gear science here, but again, test drive first, paying attention to how easy it is to use the gear.

Brakes

e-Bikes need more efficient brakes to stop the inertia (heavier bike and more speed). As a guide, if you are doing 25kph, you need to stop in less than 5 metres (one car length).

Basic calliper, cantilever, V or U rim brakes can’t handle that, and that is why retrofits without brake upgrades are dangerous. Do not accept these brake types for any e-bike.

That leaves disk brakes that come in mechanical cable (how hard you press the lever) or hydraulic. Cheaper e-bikes will have cable. Only hydraulic can magnify the human exerted lever force and meet 25kph guidelines. And disks are not susceptible to water and mud – the moment you apply pressure, they shear clean.

Wheel size

Just as frame fit is essential, there are several standard tyre sizes. Note that e-bikes don’t generally use pushbike tyres.

Sizes range from 20, 24, 26, 27.5, and up to 29″

The most common Urban style is a 700C size (27.5″), and cargo e-bikes often have 20″.

ridiculous typresd
Those fat tyres completely remove manoeuvrability

Tyres and tread patterns are important

These are powered vehicles and have more power-to-weight requirements than push bikes.  It is all about tread/groove ratio, profile (round or flat) and bike weight.

Heavy, deep tread and tough, thick sidewalls are for mountain bikes – mud aware. But these give a very poor road ride.

Grooves are for road work (more rubber on the road). Look for a reasonably conservative ‘no-knob’ grooved design.

Narrow tyres (road) mean less friction and more speed. Wide tyres mean more friction and less speed. Tyre width depends on use – 60-66mm (2.3-2.6″) are best for road use.

Tubeless tyres are better – less weight and lower rolling resistance. They are also more easily fixed with a can of puncture ‘putty’ spray.

e-bikes tyre types

Fat tyres provide more grip but less handling – fine for beach work with lower pressures but lousy on roads.

Experts recommend different profiles for the front (handling and turning) and back tyres (grip). As most punctures are on the rear tyre, it may be best to fit a more durable one there – tyres don’t require matching tread patterns.

Pressure: 1.8bar or 26psi for most road work – increase slightly if you have a heavier e-bike. Never go beyond 30psi, or you lose too much grip.

Winter versus summer – temperature and tyre life. It is a fallacy that tyres last longer in cold weather. Once the tyre hits the road, it heats up to similar running temperatures despite outside temperatures.

Tyre life varies from about 12 months for daily users to 18-24 months for weekend easy-riders.

The problem is that ‘marketing’ thinks big fat knobbly tyres look best, yet they are among the worst performers.

Carry weight

Most 250W e-bikes top out at a gross weight of 135kg, including the bike, rider, backpack, and any carry items. They are not to carry passengers either – although small children or pet carrier seats are often options you need to check carry weight.

E-bikes range in weight from about 15kg (foldable and small battery usually limited to 110kg carry capacity) to 30kg (135kg carry capacity). Some that have oversized batteries or added battery holders can reach 40kg.

If you are over 100kg, you will need to look at a heavier duty e-bike.

The carry weight is not arbitrary. Engine capacity, frame thickness, welds and tyres all meet this limit, and you can overstress the bike and expect a shorter life.

Handle-bars

Look for the standard straight or slightly curved handlebars. Avoid the ‘rams horn’ racing style. Why? A 20-30kg bike at speed needs more attention to steering, and you will be more comfortable in an upright position.

Seat

Narrow bicycle seats (saddles) are among the most uncomfortable thing you can sit on. At a minimum, look for a wider well-padded or spring suspension seat because it has to support your weight and absorb heavier shocks.

Most fit the standard round seat height adjustable pipe, but many are proprietary fitting square tubing (prevalent on folding bikes).

And note that the right bike frame size is far more crucial than simply adjusting the seat upwards, revealing a long pipe. As a rule, more than 150mm upwards adjustment significantly changes the centre of gravity and can lead to accidents, especially when cornering.

Battery

Batteries are the leading cause for complaints about e-bikes. Three things stand out – the distance you can travel on a charge, recharge time and replacement costs.

Distance is roughly equivalent to watt-hours (Wh) – the number of watts that it can deliver for one hour. Anything under 500Wh is probably not for you. From what we see, at least 50km is the target.

For example, if a battery capacity is 500Wh and the motor takes 250W (legal limit), you can ride at full-cop for two hours. That could be as far as 50km. But there are so many other factors like speed, hard acceleration, braking, how much personal energy you use, hilly terrain etc.

e-bikes battery

Recharge time is usually 4-6 hours. Here the battery capacity is divided by the charger capacity. For example, that 500Wh battery with a 100W charger will take at least 6.25 hours for 0-100% (you add about 25% more time for loss of charging efficiency).

Look for chargers with higher watt capacity, and some support fast charging as well.

Replacement costs depend on charge cycles. Legitimate brands will tell you the estimated charge cycle life, and these range from 500 to 1000 complete 0-100% cycles. That 500Wh battery (say at a replacement cost of $500) could cost between 50 cents and $1 in depreciated time every time you charge it.

For the most part, you won’t charge 0-100% but top-up. Moden chargers are capable of being left connected permanently and switch off when the charge is complete.

Look for an intelligent charger and the highest number of battery charge cycles you can get.

Battery placement

Battery placement affects the centre of gravity. The higher the mount position, e.g., under a luggage rack or in the top bar, the less stable the bike is in turning corners.

Look for a lower mounted battery, preferably under the seat column or on the front frame. Batteries preferably should be removable for charging and replacement. On that note, buying a replacement battery is far more straightforward if it is from a well-known brand like Bosch or Shimano that will keep stock for years.

e-bikes bosch

Note e-bike batteries exceed the flight limit for cabin or in-hull luggage and may need special arrangements to ship them

Everything is smart these days – IoT and more

We have not reviewed enough yet to fully comment except to say that the more intelligence, the more cost of the e-bike.

E-bikes can come with something as simple as an on-off switch to fully amped AI systems with automatic gears and complete diagnostics.

e-bike display

At a minimum, look for

  • Speed
  • Battery remaining (percentage and range)
  • Kilometres ridden (trip and total)
  • At least three riding modes pre-set*
  • Walk assistance (if you have to walk the bike and remember it is heavy)
  • Touch screen
  • IP rating – IP67 is the best, but few offer more than IP52 (light rain)
  • Easy removal – reduces theft
  • Good readability in day and night (backlight)
  • Powered by the e-bike
  • Optionally gear shift recommendations and gear indicators are highly recommended.

Most have an e-bike app that connects to a smartphone. These can help (with on-body sensors) heartbeat, cadence etc. Also, use its GPS to do route planning. This seems to be the best option for serious users. Remember, it is an offence to use a smartphone while cycling, including calls, messages, and manipulating the app.

Bosch has various intelligent displays ranging from basic speed/battery to a full smartphone hub with GPS.

* Modes: Eco for distance (25-80% assistance), Normal 100-150% and half the range, High 200% and short battery range.

Accessories

  • All have a chain, so chain protector is excellent for commuter use to keep grease off pants and stop them from getting caught in the chain.
  • A rear luggage rack or basket is handy.
  • It will have a bell and should have a stand.
  • You need a decent lock to stop theft. Better still, make sure the serial number is prominent and not removable and a GPS tracking chip is part of the e-bike.
  • But you can add all manner of accessories such as water bottle holders, tool kits, tyre repair kits, air pump and then decent lighting, including LED turn indicators.

Be aware that it may be illegal or detrimental to the e-bike to add child seats or oversized carry racks and baskets.

Retailer because you will need support and service

The more we look at e-bikes, the more we shudder. Not mentioning brands or retailers, but one CE retailer sells two models of legal e-bikes from $1499 (foldable) to $1799 (road) and does not have a clue nor offers service options. As far as they are concerned, one size does fit all.

A trip to our local bike shop (the source of much of this information) left us feeling confident. They asked all the right questions and offered a choice of brands and models. But more than that, they emphasised that you don’t simply buy an e-bike and ride off into the sunset. Like any motorised vehicle, E-Bikes need maintenance and must be kept roadworthy – doing 25kph in traffic is not for beginners.

Some companies offer rent, try, buy options, including ongoing servicing, insurance, IoT/GPS tracking (theft is a real issue).

Local warranty (and repairs) are essential – how long do the makers think it will last. There is usually a different warranty for the battery, charger, frame, gears and accessories.

Our advice – buy local – you and your bike shop will become besties. Test ride a few different ones – do they meet expectations for hills, handling, fit etc.

Ongoing cost

One of the significant issues with e-bikes (any bike) is theft. So, look for ones with GPS tracking. Because they are heavier and more challenging to carry, e-bikes tend to be stolen by organised gangs that can disable GPS and repurpose them (similar to a car theft chop shop). A bigger problem is vandalism.

But the significant ongoing cost is insurance. A fairly standard cover is about $500-750 per annum plus excesses of around $500 -1000. And don’t forget this does not cover death and disability or health recovery costs.

  • Theft from locked home and elsewhere (if secured)
  • Damage in transit – planes, buses, trains
  • Accidental damage
  • Malicious damage
  • Road hazard (potholes)
  • Bicycle rack damage (while on a car)
  • Accessories
  • Limited Personal accident (hard to get)
  • Third-party (hard to get)
  • Cyclist liability (hard to get)

Then there is maintenance

Apart from routine bike maintenance – chain tension, brakes, etc., motors need servicing. Most will quote a useful life – it is just like a car. Many are sealed units, and if they break down, you get a new one – typically at around $1500 for a mid-unit to as low as $150 for a front-drive unit.

Front-drive hubs are easy to remove. Rear hubs require chain and gear removal. Centre – it is part of the frame and can be easily removed.

Services are time, not kilometres based, and start from $200 plus parts to comprehensive fixed price service agreements that include insurance and repairs.

e-bikes maintenance

Battery costs depend on charge cycles. The best will have 800-1000 complete charge cycles and cost around $1000. These usually have a 2-year warranty, so it is a consumable.

Battery electricity – a few cents per charge.

Tyres are rubber, and they both age and wear. If you are a frequent rider, then annual replacement is usually required. If you are a weekend rider, then 18-24 months. Tyres cost from $50 to $200 (typically a road use set for $200)

Packages

Your local bike store will likely offer a maintenance package – basic safety checks start around $100, and top of the line is about $200 plus parts.

An important part of any service is to have the bikes software/firmware updated, including GPS and maps, e-diagnostic checks, and more. So look for a bike with an IoT hub and regular service or home over Wi-Fi updates.

We will assess if service locations are plentiful or not.

Resale value

Low, low, low – did I mention low? Despite what retailers say, it is a classic case of losing 50% when you walk out the door – and that is for a good brand. Generic brands and especially foldables, have far higher depreciation.

Due to COVID, second-hand values are a little higher at present but just remember that as of writing this guide (April 2021), there were over 550 second-hand e-bikes on Gumtree.

As always, resale values will hold better for well-known brands.

Buying options

  • Outright buy
  • Monthly Rent/subscription (with/without fixed contracts, insurance, and maintenance)
  • Bike share (like time-share)

First, if you have an ABN and use this for business, it is a legitimate tax deduction and, in most cases, can be depreciated immediately. There are a lot of tradies buying these for so-called business use!

For example, Zoomo (an Australian company) has a basic personal rental plan for its Classic e-bike (front-wheel drive) from $29 per week (80km with rollover), maintenance and no lock-in. That is $1508 per year for a bike worth about $1200. Its 2020 Zero rear-wheel e-bike is $79 per week ($4108) for about a $3000 device. But damage and loss insurance are an optional extra.

e-bikes

It also has courier plans with unlimited km, battery swaps (limited to Zoomo covered areas) and more.

Bike share charges by the hour or day. Some offer weekly or annual passes. You just can’t take it home. You locate the nearest free bike via a smartphone app. These services are just starting to be popular.

Things to be aware of

When we review an e-bike, we will be looking at safety, quality and pedigree. Here are a few things to be aware of – none of which should stop you from trying an e-bike.

Safety

Like bikes – e-bikes seem to be invisible to motorists that should give them a clear berth and show respect. But that usually means the bike rider needs to be far more aware of cars than vice versa. And that comes down to experience. Crawl before you walk.

Some studies have shown that front-wheel drive is more dangerous (torque steer and loss of control at speed).

Studies in China found that e-bike user injuries are more severe than pushbike riders and that the injuries are increasing with e-bike sales. It concluded that e-bike riders tend to travel faster than pushbikes. Studies show that over the same route, e-bikes travel at an average of 6-12km faster than push bikes.

Official studies in Europe so far have been skewed by the fact that a lot of older people are using e-bikes. Broken bones are at higher risk as you get older. It also means that older people perceive safety and traffic differently. It concluded elderly people have, on average, higher body weight, weaker reflexes, not as strong health, and less understanding of how modern e-bike work in various situations during a ride.

But a Netherland study showed little difference between injuries on bikes or e-bikes.

The leading causes of e-bike accidents are

  • In flowing traffic – related to speed and bumped by a car
  • Turning off the main road
  • Turning into the main road
  • Poor road surface and edges and being forced to the side of roads

e-bikes are as safe as pushbikes, but it is a very different riding style with 20-30kg of e-bike and more available top-end speed. In short, the risks associated with e-bikes are different from those associated with regular bikes. Inexperienced users will find an e-bike can give a false sense of security yet be harder to handle in a potential accident situation.

Things to avoid

  • Standard Bike conversion – generally not worth it as brakes and frame are not up for it.
  • Online thinly disguised offshore merchants
  • IndieGoGo or Kickstarter crowdfunding schemes for new e-bikes
  • Generic e-bikes with no pedigree. There is a direct correlation between safety and e-bike quality

Road rules legislation

There is a powerful lobby pushing for the registration of e-bikes (and e-scooters etc.) for on-road use. That will carry annual fees and compulsory insurances. There is even talk of a limited licence. Some States are very favourable to this concept.

Equally, there are solid lobbies for e-scooter legalisation (and by inference, e-bikes would fall under this) but it may also come with costs like registration etc.

Insurance

Read the fine print to ensure you are covered. If you plan to ride on the road, you need it.

Law Enforcement

At present, Police seldom enforce the rules but do conduct regular blitzes of established bike lanes for helmet wearing, speed, and bike roadworthiness. There is pressure from the anti-e-scooter lobby to strictly enforce current regulations for e-bikes and e-scooters.

Salesman hype or online BS

Don’t believe salesman hype that the cops won’t catch anything over 250W. Police are getting better at recognising 500, 750, 1000 and even 1500-watt motor hubs. If a salesman says it can provide assistance over 25kph, watch out.

e-bikes advt
Totally not legal here – 500W and Australian market

Always have a test drive!

Cheap e-bike battery fires

Although not widely reported here, there are numerous reports of dodgy generic e-bike lithium ion batteries catching fire during charging, under maximum load, and collisions.