At the Micromobility Report, we explain what an e-bike is,
how they work, and answer your frequently asked questions.
An e-bike is an otherwise conventional bicycle that adds electric power assist. E-bike sales are booming, both within Australia and worldwide, and driving a broader micromobility revolution.
If you’re a total e-bike tech-guru, then you may already know most of the information in this article. But if you’re a newbie looking to learn, then this article is beginner-friendly and perfect for you!
Do You Have to Pedal on an E-Bike?
Yes and no! It depends upon which type of e-bike you buy.
There are two main categories of e-bikes that can be legally sold in Australia for use on roads and cycle paths:
These are the most common form of e-bike. Pedelecs have no throttle. As their name suggests, you make them go by simply turning the pedals. Then the electric motor also cuts in to give you a certain level of assistance that you can dial up or down.
On the cheapest pedelec bikes, they have a simple sensor that only knows if the pedals are turning or not, rather like an on/off switch. So it’s noticeable when the power cuts in and out.
On more expensive pedelec bikes (say $2,000 and up) they also have a torque sensor which is measuring how hard you’re pushing on the pedals with your leg power and gives a proportional electric power boost. Because it measures your leg power input so often, 1,000 times per second or even more, the power boost is so instantaneous and smooth that it feels like you have bionic legs.
That’s why people come back from their first ride with what the bike industry calls ‘the e-bike smile’. They immediately understand how easy and user-friendly this system is.
Fortunately, in recent years, all Australian states and territories have adopted the European pedelec standard (EN15194). This means that all bikes from Europe and other nations around the world that meet this standard are legal here.
This standard requires that the motor gives no more than 250 watts of continuous power and that the power assistance cuts out at a top speed of 25 kph. You can still ride faster than that, but without the power assist, it’s hard work, so most riders stay just on or below that speed.
These are less common in Australia and generally are lower price point e-bikes. But they still have important markets to serve.
The one possible downside of pedelecs is that if you can’t or don’t want to pedal for whatever reason, the bike won’t go.
As the name suggests, throttle control bikes have a twist grip throttle on the handlebar grip, and you can ride along without pedalling if you want to. This is a particular advantage for riders with a disability, older riders and even delivery bikes that are frequently starting and stopping, such as the entire Australia Post fleet.
“…another key advantage of electric motors is that they’re quick off the mark. Just like electric cars, all electric motors give 100% torque from zero rpm.“
Is Cycling on an E-Bike Good For You?
Even though e-bikes feel so much easier to ride, multiple studies conducted around the world have now shown that you still get a significant exercise benefit when riding an e-bike.
Sure, it’s less intense, but the studies have found that people tend to ride further as a consequence, so they’re often getting as much total exercise.
This is particularly impactful when it comes to recreational mountain biking. For all but the fittest of people, riding a mountain bike to the top of a mountain is just too intense to be either possible or fun. But with an e-mountain bike you can breeze to the top, then when you’re freewheeling back down the trail having fun, the handling is very little different to a normal mountain bike.
This relative lack of effort means that people might do three or four runs to the top and back again in a day on an e-mountain bike, rather than just one and being exhausted on a regular bike. E-mountain bikes are a key reason why mountain bike parks such as Blue Derby in Tasmania and many others Australia-wide have absolutely boomed in recent years, with more being planned or under construction.
Do Electric Bikes Make a Big Difference?
Absolutely! Compared to a motor car or motorcycle, 250 watts does not sound like much power. But only elite cyclists can sustain outputs higher than this for long periods.
Bikes are very efficient so it’s quite possible to roll along nicely on a conventional bike with just 100 watts of power output. At that level, the e-bike can more than triple your total power output to 350 watts, which puts you right up there with an elite athlete’s sustainable power output.
You don’t have to be a racer. You can use this extra power to go faster, but also to ride with less effort or carry heavier loads.
Why Would I Use an E-Bike Over a Regular Bike?
There are multiple answers to this question, depending on your stage in life and lifestyle.
If you commute to work especially to a city centre, you could save a fortune in parking fees or public transport fares by e-biking to work. In summer, or year-round in our tropical cities, it’s hard not to get sweaty riding to work, which is inconvenient, especially if your workplace does not have nice showers and change rooms.
But when you ride an e-bike to work, it’s very easy to ride, even in office clothes and not raise a sweat.
Another key advantage of electric motors is that they’re quick off the mark. Just like electric cars, all-electric motors give 100% torque from zero rpm. In simple terms that means the moment you start, you’ve got full power available. That’s an important safety feature for cyclists when they get off the mark at traffic lights. They don’t feel so vulnerable and particularly on roads with lower speed limits, their speed differential with cars is very small, so it feels safer.
E-cargo bike sales are booming and in most cases, the cargo is not parcels, but kids. These bikes either have a long tail upon which one or two kids can comfortably sit, or a box at the front, some of which can hold up to three kids. Without the e-power assist, standard cargo bikes are hard work even up the slightest hill. But e-cargo bikes, which also have low gearing, wide, strong, comfortable tyres and sturdy centre stand kickstands, are easy to ride.
As we’ve previously mentioned e-mountain bikes for recreation let you have the fun of riding downhill without the pain of riding up. Other styles of recreational e-bikes are also extremely popular for rail trails, cycle paths, local parks, and other traffic-free or low traffic recreational rides.
What is Actually Different on an Electric Bike Compared to a Regular Bike?
Ebikes have three key additional components: A battery, a motor and a control unit.
There are subtle differences to a range of other components such as slightly heavier and more durable wheels and tyres, slightly heavier, stronger frames and more wiring, but we’ll just look at these main three elements in a little more detail:
Affordable lithium-ion batteries have been the game changer that led to the e-bike boom. They’re smaller, lighter and more ‘energy dense’ than the old lead acid batteries they superseded from the earliest e-bikes.
Originally e-bike batteries were mainly mounted on a rear rack or bolted to the frame. But now, more often the battery is hidden inside the frame. Most of these models can be recharged without removing the battery. You just flip open a small cover that reveals the plug.
Being dense storage of energy, batteries have to be treated with care. If both the battery and the battery charger meet the relevant Australian standard, then you’re extremely unlikely to have any problems. But some cheaper, non-standards compliant batteries and chargers have been sold here and caught fire, particularly if the charger does not automatically cut out as it should before over-charging the battery.
Because of the fire risk, you can’t carry an e-bike battery on a regular passenger plane flight. They’re ok on road and rail transport and usually on cargo only flights.
There are three motor configurations in electric bikes: front hub, rear hub and mid-mount.
It’s not a one size fits all solution because there are pros and cons for each set-up.
For lower priced bikes, the front hub mount is the simplest.
For more expensive bikes, particularly full-suspension e-mountain bikes where you want a minimum of unsprung weight at each wheel, mid-mount motors are the best solution.
For e-road bikes, which often look very similar to conventional road racing style bicycles, the rear hub motor option is the least obtrusive.
Bosch and Shimano are the two biggest brands in the mid to high-end e-bike drive system market but there are several other high-quality options in this rapidly growing market.
This is usually a small, square display panel that mounts to the centre of the handlebars. It will typically show battery level, power output level, speed, distance covered and in some cases many other measurements.
There’s usually a second, smaller unit with up and down arrow labelled buttons and an on/off button, that’s mounted next to the rider’s thumb for dialling the power assist level up or down without having to take your hand off the bars.
Some e-bikes, particularly e-road bikes have very small unobtrusive single button controls embedded into the top tube of the frame.
Some systems have smartphone apps so you can change settings from your phone. (You can easily mount your phone to the handlebars via a wide range of purpose-designed mounting systems.)
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What About Range, How Long Will My Battery Last?
You certainly need to keep the battery charged because e-bikes are significantly heavier – usually about 5kg to 8kg more than an equivalent conventional model. In the case of some lower-priced or old e-bike models, the motor also induces drag when it’s not powered, so you can end up riding a heavy, slow bike if you don’t make it to your destination before the battery goes flat.
Fortunately, e-bikes come with display panels that include quite accurate battery charge indicators. If you see the battery starting to drop too low, you can lower the power boost setting to conserve the battery. Most e-bikes have five or more power boost settings. At the lowest setting, some e-bikes can provide battery assist for 100 kilometres or even longer.
At high power, most can do at least 30 to 40 kilometres. This is ample for the average recreational or commuter ride.
E-Bike batteries typically take 2-3 hours to fully recharge from dead flat or low power, using a conventional household powerpoint. Depending upon the battery size and your electricity supply contract, it might cost you about 10 to 20 cents for a full charge. They’re cheap to run!
Like all electronics based products, you can expect e-bikes to progressively improve. Battery range will continue to increase and motors will become smaller, quieter, smoother and lighter. Best of all, prices should eventually decrease, particularly as batteries, which are the most expensive component, come down in price.
Because e-bike demand has boomed so much during covid-19, prices have actually increased slightly. This is partly because factory production has fallen way behind the demand levels and also due to higher freight rates, less discounting and other factors.
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