Note: This post was updated on September 7th, 2018.Here’s a guide to types of electric bikes! Although there is an almost dizzying number of different electric bikes, there are a limited number of types of electric bikes. You can begin your search for your ideal electric bike by narrowing down what type of electric bike you want. This will depend entirely on your priorities, that is, on what you really want to do with your bike.
Perhaps you are clear that you want to commute with your electric bike. Or perhaps you want an electric bike purely for recreation, maybe to go exploring when you are on an RV trip. Once you are clear on your priorities, it will be easier to choose between the various types of electric bikes.
Electric Hybrid Bikes
Hybrid bikes are a great choice for all-round versatility. As their name implies, they are a blend of traditional road bikes (which are built for speed) and mountain bikes (which are built to be tough). As a result, they’re tougher than road bikes, but not as heavy as mountain bikes. Some have suspension; some do not. You can make your own electric hybrid bike by simply taking a great hybrid bike and retrofitting a great electric bike kit onto it. I did this with the bike below. It’s a Devinci Copenhagen bike with a BionX electric bike kit.
Electric hybrid bikes are a good choice if you want to commute, or if you want to ride the local trails. These bikes really are ideal for commuting purposes, as they are strong enough to withstand potholes and carry your luggage. However, they are not as heavy as mountain bikes, so you do not have to deal with unnecessary extra weight.
Electric City Bikes (Cruisers, Comfort, Urban Bikes)
Electric city bikes are usually steel bikes, with fatter tires than usual. They are not as efficient as most other bikes, but they are fun. Some of the newer electric city bikes combine modern components with creative retro styling.
Electric city bikes usually have a comfortable, upright sitting position. They are intended to be used for cruising in style to the coffee shop, perhaps running a few errands, and then meeting up with friends. Basically, these are bikes for short, leisure-oriented trips. The assumption is that there will be few, if any, hills, and that neither speed nor carrying heavy cargoes are high priorities.
These bikes are perfect for adaptation as electric bikes, as they are designed for a casual, sweat-free cycling experience, and an electric assist makes that much more achievable for a wider range of people.
While speed is not important for city bikes, torque and acceleration are important. This is because the nature of trips in the city is to have frequent stops; therefore to make sure the experience is as easy and sweat-free as possible, it is useful for the bikes to have good acceleration capabilities. Also, as stop-start traveling drains batteries rapidly, the bikes need to have good batteries.
Throttles are useful for this type of traveling, as they make pulling off quickly from red lights much easier.
Folding Electric Bikes
Folding bikes typically are smaller and lighter than regular bikes, with shorter wheelbases and smaller wheels. The seating position is very upright, making them ideal for cycling in traffic. Folding bikes are a good choice for combination transit options – such as biking to the station, taking the train, then biking from the train station to work – and then sliding the bike tidily under your desk for the day! They are also good for short distance commutes, as you can just fold them up and take them into wherever you are going. (With regular bikes, the hassle of locking them up sometimes means that for very short commutes, walking is easier.)
Folding bikes are designed to be light, so that people can easily carry them around. Of course, the catch with folding electric bikes is that the motor inevitably adds weight to the bike. While an average folding bike might weigh between 20 and 30 pounds, adding a motor typically takes it up to between 40 and 50 pounds. For some commuters, a 40-pound bike can be just too heavy to carry. Fortunately, some of them can be rolled along.
When buying an electric folding bike, it’s important to make sure that the folding mechanism is not hampered by the engine. This is unlikely to be the case with folding bikes that are designed to have engines, but may be a problem when the folding bike is retrofitted with an engine – particularly if you do it yourself. In any event, check this carefully before buying. Ideally you want a folding electric bike that folds easily and correctly, that is light enough for you to carry short distances, and that can be easily rolled along when it is folded. This would give you enormous traveling flexibility.
Another thing to consider if buying a folding electric bike is whether the bike has gears. Some do, some do not, and this could be a problem if you plan to cycle up any hills. Also, some folding electric bikes come with suspension, and this could really save you some discomfort if you are using your bike in a city. I always find it amusing that mountain bikes were designed to smooth out bumps in the countryside, but trails are often a lot smoother than downtown city roads. I regularly hurt myself on unexpected potholes in urban areas, and once, in the dark, hit a pothole so deep that I broke the rim of my hybrid bike and injured my back. And this was on a designated bike route!
If you want a folding bike, some dealers sell a selection of the top-class Brompton folding bike, complete with pre-installed BionX systems. One of the best such stores is NYCEwheels in New York, an extremely reputable company with in-depth expertise in electric bikes – check them out if you are in New York.
Tricycles are three-wheeled bikes. As such, they offer increased stability. They may be used by those who have physical challenges of various sorts. For example, trikes are a great option for seniors who wish to rediscover cycling, but are afraid of falling. They are also manufactured for children and teenagers who have special needs. Many manufacturers also offer electric trikes. Or you can retrofit a trike or even a recumbent trike, such as the one below, to be an electric bike.
Electric Mountain Bikes
You could commute on a mountain bike, but it would be slower than commuting on a hybrid bike. But as they are tougher, you would be able to jump on and off curbs!
On the other hand, if your primary goal is to explore trails or to bike on mountains, then you need a mountain bike. If you do go for an electric mountain bike, bear in mind that you may be taking a heavier and more powerful bike into wilderness areas. As such, you may have to be more careful about your own safety, and more careful about not damaging nature.
A front suspension mountain bike will probably be fine for almost all riders. It is also possible to buy a full-suspension electric mountain bike.
Like all mountain bikes, an electric mountain bike needs to be able to deal with obstacles such as rocks and logs. However, with electric mountain bikes there are special considerations. First, the electric components need to be tough enough to deal with the rough conditions. Because of a higher likelihood of exposure to water, the cables and their connections need to be properly sealed.
Either a crank drive or a chain drive motor will do, but the bike should have gears, as you will certainly be climbing up hills (they basically come with the territory if you want to bike on a mountain). At this point in time crank drive motors are less common; however many believe that they are the best suited for mountain bikes as there is less friction, they are sealed better, and in general they perform better on hills. It is likely that in the future we will see more electric mountain bikes with crank drive engines. Here’s a post all about choosing between hub drive and crank drive motors for electric bikes.
In terms of power, an electric mountain bike should be on the higher end, preferably between 500 watts and 750 watts, to cope with the demands of steep hills. Note that various jurisdictions have different laws for maximum size of bike engine, and that in some places the law is different for on-road and off-road usage. Generally speaking, your local dealer will not be selling motors that are illegal in your area.
In planning your purchase and your trips, bear in mind that the advertised mileage on batteries is achieved under laboratory conditions – and on a mountain, you will definitely not be under laboratory conditions! So work on the assumption that your range will be only half what was advertised, to avoid getting stuck with a heavy bike and a flat battery on top of a remote mountain.
Brakes are a special consideration for electric mountain bikes. Often mountain bikes are equipped with V-brakes, and these are just fine for regular mountain bikes. However with an electric assist – especially a 500 to 750 watt motor – you are going to be moving a whole lot faster, and V-brakes will not suffice. You will be moving like a pro cyclist, and you will need the same kind of stopping power they depend on. This means that disc brakes on your electric mountain bike are essential. They offer improved stopping power in general, and especially under rough conditions. Moreover, they require relatively little maintenance, for which you will be grateful when you return exhausted from conquering a mountain, with a very muddy bike!
Another aspect that is important with electric mountain bikes is shock absorption. This is important for all mountain bikes, and the intensity of your riding style will dictate whether you go for front shock absorption only, or whether you get dual suspension (also called full suspension). Bear in mind that the shocks will not only be protecting you – they will also be protecting the engine, battery and other electrical components. Which means the better your shock absorption, the longer your system will last. On the other hand, dual suspension is not really a great idea for electric bikes, as the suspended rear section can wobble sideways, making the bike unstable at the kind of high speeds you can achieve on an electric bike.
The frame, tires and wheels should be very strong, to stand up to the combination of rough terrain and speed. Haibike makes a rugged, good looking electric mountain bike, the Haibike SDURO HardSeven 1.0, which we review here.