An introduction to e-bikes

Published 2020-04-17

E-bikes make hills seem flat, help you go further and faster, are environmentally friendly and a whole lot of fun. It’s no wonder that people have been flocking to them in droves.

Chances are, an e-bike will get you out and about more often by helping you overcome the physical and mental barriers to regular cycling. Do you drive to the shops even though you could get there by bike? Do you want to commute to work but the journey is a tad too hard or too far? Are you looking to improve your fitness but only if it’s fun? Do you love riding a bike but your health’s not quite up to it or your simply too tired?

The e-bike is the great enabler, giving you the extra power to ride comfortably, safely, and keep up with your kids, your partner or your friends while still improving your health and fitness. And if you can ride a bike, you can ride an e-bike.

What is an e-bike?

The dictionary definition is ‘a bike that can be powered by electricity as well as pedals.’ The New Zealand Transport Authority describes them as ‘cycles to which are attached one or more auxiliary propulsion motors having a combined maximum power output not exceeding 300 watts.’

At or below 300 watts, an e-bike is considered a bicycle rather than a motorcycle, which means they don’t have to be registered or licensed.

How does it work?

An e-bike works on the principle of ‘power assist’, which means that when you pedal the electric motor automatically kicks in, giving you a boost. You need to pedal to get the power.

The motor is usually located in the rear wheel hub or the crank, with the crank-type e-bikes providing more of a traditional biking experience as they sense the amount of power you are putting into the pedals and respond accordingly. The harder you pedal the bigger the boost.

Most e-bikes have different power settings – from 1 (eco) to 5 (turbo), for example. The higher the power setting, the more power you get out of the motor and the faster you go. Your battery, however, will drain more quickly in higher power modes. The higher settings are really useful when you need a little more oomph to get up steep hills.

Some models also have a throttle (normally a lever on the handle bars) that gives you power without even pedalling. Although also an extra drain on the battery, this function is particularly handy when setting off as the motor normally only kicks in on the second rotation of the pedals. It also gives you a welcome boost up hills.

Are there different types of e-bike? 

Like normal bikes, e-bikes come in all shapes and sizes: upright city bikes, cargo bikes, hybrids, hard-tail and full suspension mountain bikes, and road-racing style bikes. So, there’s e-bike to suit most adult riders.

What do they feel like to ride?

Generally speaking, riding an e-bike feels much the same as riding a conventional bike.

They are, however, around 10kg heavier due to the battery pack and motor. You’ll notice this when you hop on: e-bikes take a little more grunt to get going from a standing start, but they’re also more difficult to push over obstacles or load on to the car.

E-bike design, however, has come a very long way and the bikes today feel pretty much like a conventional bike.

Previous cycling experience is essential, and you’ll need to take it easy until you’re comfortable with the basic handling issues, namely the bike weight and geometry (the centre of gravity varying depending on where the motor and battery are located), as well as acceleration and speed. At the end of the day, however, it’s like riding a bicycle. You’ll take to it like a duck to water.

What can go wrong?

Beyond the usual bike mechanical failures such as punctures, the most common problem with an e-bike is a lack of battery charge. This is usually due to forgetting to charge the battery up, or simply biting off more than you can chew. If you’re on a long ride, use your power-assist judiciously so you’ve got enough juice to see you through to the end.

Beyond that, most problems are due to dodgy riding skills – riding too fast, too soon. With all that power at your fingertips, it’s tempting to put your foot down and go full tilt, but there’s a very real danger of canning off if you don’t have the cycling skills to handle the speed.

How do I get e-biking now?

There are lots of ways into the wonderful world of e-bikes. The obvious first port of call is your local bike shop, most of which will offer a trial. Be clear on what you’ll be using it for: around town commuting, recreational riding on off-road tracks, or perhaps multi-day bike tours on cross-country trails like our 22 Great Rides.

Starting from around $3000 for a decent model, e-bikes aren’t cheap. Bosch and Shimano motor systems come highly recommended, although there are other decent manufacturers. Note also that after-sales service can be poor or non-existent on cheaper, imported models.

The New Zealand Cycle Trail is a great way to try out an e-bike. Bike hire and tour companies serving the trails often have e-bikes available, allowing you to get a feel for them on safe, dedicated cycle ways through spectacular landscapes. Not only will their varied terrain offer a chance to put the bike through its paces, chances are you’ll be so wowed by the scenery you’ll wonder why you waited so long.

Top trails for e-bikes

Looking for a trail to trial an e-bike on, or ride your own if you're already a convert? Check out our top 10 Great Rides for e-biking.