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Types of Electric Bikes Explained

By July 21, 2020February 19th, 2021No Comments
Types of Electric Bikes Explained

Electric bikes are everywhere these days. No matter what sort of adventure you’re looking to get up to, there is an e-bike that fits your needs.

However, if you’re new to the world of e-bikes, it can be overwhelming just how large a variety there is to choose from. To make things a little easier, we’ve broken down some of the most popular electric bike variants on the market today. The idea is to give you a sense of what’s out there before you start shopping and find the e-bike that’s right for you.

Electric Mountain Bikes 

The first response we usually get when people initially learn about electric mountain bikes is that they think they’re unnecessary. After all, mountain bikes are about fitness and climbing up that mountain with every bit of cardio power you can muster. And, for some cyclists, that is absolutely why they bought a mountain bike. However, it completely ignores two rather large groups of people: those who love downhill mountain biking (it is an organized competitive sport) and the general public who want to get out and ride the hills but don’t have the desire to train like an athlete first. With an electric mountain bike, the scenic vistas open up to everyone, and the ability to wander without worrying about exhaustion provides new opportunities for everyone to explore. 

Although with the advances in ultralight motors, e-bikes are becoming considerably more standard for even the most shredded mountain enthusiasts. Quite simply, having a little electric assistance means the days can last longer, the adventure goes further, and you always have enough get over that last incline no matter how many have come before it. And with hardcore mountain bikers embracing the e-bike, that means everyone benefits from manufacturers upping their game when it comes to quality components. 

Electric Cruiser Bikes

Quickly gaining in popularity, cruiser-style e-bikes have become the go-to transportation for people looking to get around town, while lowering their overall carbon footprint. These well-designed city-bikes are sturdy enough to carry you confidently through local streets, pathways, and trails, with many of them able to take you up to 45-miles on as a little as 10¢ worth of electricity. For price-conscious consumers, thinking about a second car, the electric cruiser may actually be a viable (and more affordable) option. Especially when paired with a trailer or child seat add-on.   

Electric Cruiser Bikes

Electric Road Bikes

While you’re never going to see electric road bikes competing in the tour de France, they have gained popularity as people realize you don’t have to be an uber-athlete to benefit from road cycling. In fact, the combination of fun and fitness that road biking combines makes it the perfect place to add an electric motor to broaden the range of participants. Whether you’re just starting out on your fitness journey or looking to simply keep up with more active friends on an epic ride, an e-bike is going to help you out. When it comes to most e-road-bikes, the motor component is going to be strictly pedal-assist, meaning if you don’t work, neither does it. So while you’re receiving an extra bit of boost to take you to the finish line, you are not getting out of putting in the effort altogether. If you’re still unsure if an electric road bike is right for you, check out this great electric vs. non-electric comparison by a couple of actual competitive cyclists.     

Electric Commuter Bikes

The most well-known of e-bikes, the commuter has come a long way in quality and is still the dominant electric bike in many downtown cores. Usually defined by its smaller tires, the commuter-bike is all about navigating efficiently through the scores of traffic and getting you conveniently to the office without breaking a sweat. As transit systems languish, and roadways continue to clog, having the ability to glide through traffic and around the jams has made these smaller-stature e-bikes even more appealing. And, while pedal-assist is always an option, it’s having access to throttle controls that make these electrics the top choice for professionals looking to arrive at work still feeling fresh. 

Electric Folding Bikes

Of course, as commuter bikes continue to gain popularity, secure bicycle parking is becoming an issue that many riders would rather not worry about. Especially given that many downtown office towers have been slow to increase their bike parking spaces to meet the rising demand. Enter the folding e-bike to help solve the problem. All the benefits of a commuter e-bike, but foldable and lightweight. Some people do find that the small tires found on most collapsables take some getting used to. However, you can opt to go with full-size tires if you don’t mind a little extra size and weight. The other great benefit of the folding e-bike is for professionals that commute into the city by train and still need to hop on local transit after that. A compact folding commuter can fit snugly next to you on the ride in and then spring into action to save you the bus fare and aggravation once you get downtown.

Electric Folding Bikes

Electric Fat Bikes

It only makes sense that the go-anywhere Fat Bikes would have an electronic version. Designed initially as desert bikes, the fat tires were devised to bob along over uncertain terrain without sinking. Since then, they’ve become ubiquitous off-roaders in hot, cold, or temperate climates. Pair that with a bit of electric power to get over the really tough bits, and you have the perfect e-bike. With the right racking, Electric Fat Bikes have even made a name for themselves on backcountry hunting expeditions. Which is to say, they do more than just fine tearing up suburban trails on the weekend. And while it may seem like overdoing it to use an all-terrain bike in the city, the over-the-top comfort level of these bikes has made them a town and country favorite.

Category Variations

Now that we’ve looked at the most popular e-bike model-types were going to delve into some of the finer points about e-bike motors and the regulations you can expect to find. However, keep in mind that you should always check what e-bike regulations your municipality has in place before making a purchase. 

Electric Bike Motor Types

When it comes to e-bike motors, there are two primary types, Mid-Drive Motors and Hub-Drive Motors. Both have advantages, depending on the primary purpose of your e-bike.

As the name suggests, Hub-drive motors are stuck right in the center (or hub) of one of the wheels. Most often, hub-drives are placed on the rear wheel, so the power is pushing you forward instead of pulling you along. These motors have been powering e-bikes from the very beginning, and as such, they have become pretty reliable and affordable. However, hub-drives tend to do their best work over long, flat commutes. So, if you’re planning a series of trail rides, this is probably the wrong sort of electric motor. However, the most common complaint about hub-drives is that they can be a pain when it comes to swapping out a flat tire because you have to deal with unhooking the drive before you can get at the wheel mount.

On the other hand, the Mid-drive motor is positioned in the bike center, often placed right between the pedals. These motors tend to be smaller, lighter, and capable of laying out considerably more torque without overly depleting their battery reserves. They also benefit from having the power source at the mid-point of the bike. This position provides for greater balance and stability when riding. All of which makes the mid-drive style a much better option for mastering inclines and declines. Of course, it’s also going to make your e-bike more expensive overall, which is why many economy commuter bikes still use the tried and true hub-drive motor.

Accessing the Electric Power

If you’re new to e-bikes, you can be forgiven for assuming that they function like electric motorcycles. Hop on, turn the throttle, and off you pop. To be fair, there is a variety that allows for something like this, but they are not the majority. Whether it’s a mountain bike, a fat tire, or a cruiser, it’s very likely a pedelec. It’s a fancy way of saying, pedal-assist electric bike, and it means that to get going, you simply start pedaling. Depending on the e-bikes settings, the electric motor will then kick in to help you along. If you’re looking for just a bit of juice in the hills that can be arranged. Or if you’d prefer to lazily cycle while the motor does the lion’s share of the pushing, that’s also an option. As we’ll discuss a little further down, being a pedelec can also be important in many jurisdictions when it comes to riding restrictions. However, not all pedal-assist systems are created equal, and it’s pretty standard today to be choosing between three different styles.

Cadence Sensor

A pedelec bike employing a cadence sensor is the most basic form of pedal-assist out there. In many ways, it’s like have a throttle controlled by your pedals. As soon as the bike senes that your underway, it engages the motor and directs power to the wheels. The faster you pedal, the more it assists. Of course, this doesn’t help much when you’ve slowed down to tackle a monster hill. The sensor simply can’t tell what you’re doing other than how fast you’re pedaling. This style was the first pedal-assist system ever created, and the fact that it’s still out there shows you it’s a simple and reliable mechanism, it just isn’t great for all types of rides. It’s also the least expensive option, so you’re going to find it more predominantly on lower priced e-bikes. 

Torque Sensor 

As things advanced, manufacturers refined the process a little further and introduced the torque sensor pedal-assist. The advantage here was that the bike relied on the pressure you were pushing to the pedals, to know when to increase the assistance. It had the result of making it easier for the rider when they needed it most. Combined with the cadence sensor, these more advanced e-bikes had a fuller picture of the type of ride you were on and how to engage the motor to respond to the situation.

Combination Sensor 

If you thought it was a great idea to combine the cadence sensor and the torque sensor after reading about how each of them worked, you’re not alone. However, in higher-end e-bikes, they take that one step further and add a speed sensor. Now the bike knows how fast you’re pedaling, how hard you’re pedaling, and how quickly you’re traveling. All three calculations allow the bike to adjust the electric motor to provide you with an overall smoother riding experience. 

Throttle e-bikes

When it comes to having a throttle on your electric bike, there are two standard options. The first is the sort where you have a pedals-assist system and a handle throttle. This allows you to take advantage of the sensors to help you out along the way or simply crank on the power when you would prefer not to pedal at all. The second variety is where you only have a handle throttle with no pedal assist. You can either pedal the bike on your own or engage the throttle for some electric help. Although as pedal-assist systems have advanced, and government riding restrictions have increased on throttled e-bikes, this second variety is quickly disappearing. 

Typical E-bike Classes

As electric bikes continue to rise in popularity, many jurisdictions are grappling with where riders will be allowed. In Europe, e-bikes have been commonplace for a while now, meaning the regulations have become pretty uniform across the continent. However, in the United States, there is still a patchwork of rules to contend with. Although, as e-bike ridership expands, more States are coming together to streamline the regulations. About half of the fifty states now use the three-class system, while most others use a similar variation. It’s crucial, though, that you investigate what the restrictions are where you live. Just because they use a similar class system is no guarantee they extend the same benefits to each e-bike class as other municipalities. 

The Three Class System

The trouble that e-bike riders have always faced is the temptation by regulators to classify them as motor vehicles. As a compromise, the three-class system was devised to allow low-power electric bikes to be classified generally as conventional bicycles, with a few exceptions. We’ve listed the standard class breakdown below. However, all three categories limit motor output to 1 horsepower or 750-Watts. And most States will require you to display a highly visible e-bike sticker on the frame, which indicates its Class designation.

Class One

Class One denotes a basic pedal-assist e-bike without a throttle and a max speed of 20 miles per hour. These bikes are allowed on roads, trails, and anywhere you can ride a conventional bicycle. They also don’t require anything in the way of an operator’s license. Essentially, class one, in most places, means a bike with a bit of extra help. 

Class Two

Class Two is a throttle-assisted e-bike that can not exceed a maximum of 20 mph. This class of e-bike is a little more complicated. Some States allow class two the same privileges as class one because they have a capped top speed. Although this isn’t always the case. For example, in New York, Class One e-bikes are treated as traditional bicycles, while Class Two has certain trail restrictions given the effects the throttle can have on trail wear over time.

Class Three

The Class Three designation is for pedal-assisted e-bikes without a throttle, and a top assisted speed of 28 mph. The important thing here is the max speed. As soon as it goes over 20 mph, the restrictions start to pile on. You’re going to be limited to roadways in most places and subject to hefty fines if you’re found roaming around on the public trails. 

Everything Else

No matter how much your e-bike looks like a conventional bicycle, anything over 28 mph and governments designate them as motor vehicles. This means you need to conform to a different set of rules altogether and may be required to have an operator’s license and insurance policy before you can take them out on the roads. And you most definitely won’t be allowed on the public trails.

Sebastian Arciszewski

Sebastian Arciszewski

I've been riding electric bikes for eight years and I love the fact that we're entering an age of electrified micro-mobility. Our cities are changing and adapting to the needs that climate change is thrusting upon them. Electrified micro-mobility is the future, and I'm excited to write about it. You can find me on twitter: sebastian_a