Electric bikes have existed for years, but until recently were rare in the UK. Those who bought one were either cycling enthusiasts or people who specifically needed a helping hand because they couldn’t cycle without assistance, or wanted to cycle longer distances.
Now, you can buy electric bikes from plenty of bike shops and they’re even in Halfords. Prices have come down, too, and the cheapest models start from around £500.
You might consider that a lot of money, but it’s cheap compared to a top-end electric bike which costs several thousand pounds.
Riding an e-bike is great fun, not least because you can accelerate away from a stop quickly and beat your friends to the top of hills. And they take the misery out of hills.
What are electric bikes?
Exactly what they sound like: a bicycle with an electric motor in one of the wheel hubs. On more expensive bikes (typically over £1500) the motor can be built into the frame and drive the chain directly.
The motor is there to assist you when you’re pedalling, and it really helps to get up hills and it makes it easy to cycle in a headwind.
Once you’ve ridden an electric bike it can be hard to go back to a purely pedal-powered one.
To power the motor, and electric bike needs a battery and currently these are still quite large and heavy. And you need a bigger battery if you want bigger range, so electric bikes which claim to last up to 60 miles will have the biggest batteries.
There’s a knock-on effect: more weight. Every e-bike we’ve tested weighs more than the equivalent standard bike as the motor, battery and associated wiring and electronics weigh somewhere in the region of 5-8kg.
If that doesn’t sound significant, you’ll soon realise just how heavy these bikes are when you try to carry one up a flight of steps or lift one into a car.
How do electric bikes work?
They typically have a screen or a control panel on the handlebars which offers several assistance levels. If you want to get some exercise at the same time as making hills a bit easier, you can choose a low level.
At the top assistance level, you might hardly have to pedal at all.
Some come with a thumb throttle so you can increase the assistance instantly, but under UK law this should work if you’re not pedalling. All it will do is propel the bike at 4mph – walking speed – to help you get going.
Special brake levers are installed on e-bikes with sensors. These detect when you apply the brakes and cut power to the motor, so you’re always in control.
Which electric bike should I buy?
As well as deciding on a budget, you need to choose what type of bike you want. E-bikes come in all shapes and sizes. From fold-up models, through commuter and touring versions to full-on road and mountain bikes, there’s something to suit everyone.
Some designs are nicer than others. The best e-bikes are hard to tell apart from regular bikes, which also makes them less of a target for thieves.
Many bike shops will let you try before you buy, so when you have a shortlist, it’s worth riding them all to see which you prefer.
Any other considerations?
There are laws in the UK covering so-called e-bikes, and you can read more about which electric bikes are legal to use on the road.
Bikes that conform must have a motor 250 watts or less, and must not operate the motor over 15.5mph. Also, you have to be 14 or older to ride one.
You should also consider warranty and longevity. An e-bike may be cheap, but if a component fails you don’t want to have to pay to send the whole thing overseas for repair. Worse still, if you can’t get replacement parts at all, your bike may cease to work at all.
Similarly, it’s worth getting a branded battery (Panasonic, Samsung etc) or at least checking if you can buy replacement batteries. Lithium-ion packs can be recharged between 800 and 1000 times, which could mean a three-year lifespan if you commute to and from work. And batteries will lose their capacity over time, meaning the bike’s assisted range will decrease as the battery ages.
A removable battery means you can take it indoors to charge: handy if you don’t have a mains socket in your shed.
Finally, ask your employer if you can buy an e-bike on the ride-to-work scheme. This can knock off a big chunk of the cost. For example, it could take a £1,500 model down to £1,000. And that’s cheaper than even a Zone 1-2 annual Travelcard in London.
The Volt Alpine is a superb e-bile. It’s great to ride on- and off-road and has decent range. The motor is powerful enough for riding at a comfortable 20mph, too.
It’s pretty heavy at 23kg, though, and comes in just one frame size. Thanks to the fact you can test ride, you can check if you’re happy before buying.
Read our full Volt Alpine review.
The Xiaomi QiCycle is very well-designed electric bike. It takes the hard work out of long-distance and uphill cycling, and it’s easy to monitor your speed, distance and other stats, even over time.
We’d like to see the addition of a kickstand and some mud guards, but in other respects our only real complaint is the Chinese trip computer (clearly not a problem if you speak Chinese).
Read our full Xiaomi QiCycle review.
Ancheer 36V Electric Mountain Bike
If you’re keen to buy your first e-bike, the Ancheer is good value.
It’s built to a price, so don’t expect top-quality components.
However, it’s just as powerful as more expensive electric bikes and the battery has enough power for a 30-mile ride so long as it’s a warm day and not too hilly.
Read our full Ancheer review
F-wheel DYU D1
The F-wheel DYU Electric Bike is a lot of fun to use, and more so once you become comfortable with its tiny design. We’d prefer to be able to see how fast we’re going without resorting to the mobile app, and to be able to adjust the seat’s height.
But the DYU is relatively cheap, so you might be able to forgive these. Just bear in mind that, without pedals, it isn’t legal to use on the road in the UK.
Read our full F-Wheel DYU review.