What are electric bikes?

Electric bikes are simply bicycles with battery-powered motors to assist with pedaling. Some electric bikes can also power the bike on their own, so you can take a break from pedaling and use a handlebar-mounted throttle to control your speed.

In the United States, electric bikes are broken down into the following categories:

  • Class one e-bike: These bikes only give pedal assistance; they don't have a throttle that can propel the bike on its own. The top speed of the motor is limited to 20 mph. You can ride a class one e-bike everywhere you can take a normal bike.
  • Class two e-bike: A class two e-bike has both pedal-assist and throttle, so you can use the motor to propel the bike without pedaling. The top speed of the motor is limited to 20 mph. In most states, a class two e-bike can be ridden anywhere a normal bike can, but some areas may not allow a class two bike on naturally paved or single-track dirt trails.
  • Class three e-bike: A class three e-bike is a pedal-assisted bike that can hit 28 mph. It doesn't have a throttle, and the motor will shut off once you hit 28 mph. The big downside to a class three bike is that you can't ride them on unpaved surfaces or multi-use trails in most states. However, you can ride them on roads and in bike lanes.

How do electric bikes work?

For the most part, electric bikes work like traditional bikes — they pedal, steer, and brake. The electric motor is designed to augment your pedaling, not completely replace it. An electric bike can make a long ride — one that involves lots of hills or riding into a headwind — much more enjoyable.

The main component of an e-bike that varies from a traditional bike is the motor. The motor provides the pedal power. Motors can range from 200W up to 1000W. In the U.S., the legal limit is a 750W motor, but this can vary by state. The watt rating of the motor will determine its pulling power. A larger motor will move more weight than a smaller motor, but there's a tradeoff with battery life. Keep in mind that a larger motor will drain your battery more quickly.

Motors are usually a hub or mid-drive, and each has its advantages and disadvantages, along with controllers and other components:

  • Hub motor: A hub motor is integrated into either the front or rear wheel. It pulls or pushes the wheel. These motors work well, but they aren't connected to the bike's gears, so they aren't as efficient as a mid-drive motor.
  • Mid-drive motor: The popular mid-drive motor is integrated with the gears and crankshaft. That allows the motor to use the bike's gears to leverage the torque. These motors tend to give you better hill-climbing assistance.
  • Battery: The battery can have a significant impact on the weight of the bike and power to the motor, so it's an important component of the bike. While a sealed lead acid battery used to be the standard for e-bikes, most manufacturers use lithium batteries these days. They're lighter and offer a longer range and lifespan.
  • Controller: The controller allows you to operate the electric assist on the bike. The controller is usually mounted on the handlebars. The two types of controllers are pedal-activated and throttle controllers.
  • Pedal-activated systems: The controller lets you adjust the assistance as you pedal. A pedal-activated system will engage simply by pedaling the bike. You can dial in the assistance using the controller.
  • Throttle controller: A throttle controller can be a twist grip or a thumb press on the handlebars. Bikes with a throttle can often be ridden without having to pedal.

Do I need a license to ride an electric bike?

In most cases, the answer is no. However, there can be other restrictions, and they vary by state, so it's important to check your local laws regarding e-bikes before purchasing one.

For example, in Colorado, a class three electric bike can only be operated by riders 16 and older, and the bike's electric motor is limited to 750w of power.

Are e-bikes covered by homeowners insurance?

It may depend on many factors such as your state, insurance company, and type of claim. While some insurers cover e-bikes, others don't. If your insurer covers your e-bike, understand that coverage may be capped at a specific dollar amount. Contact your insurance company to find out if and how you can insure your electric bike.

How popular are e-bikes?

If you've never heard of an e-bike, you're not alone. However, sales have started to climb recently, with e-bikes sales up 190%, according to market research firm NPD Group.

What's the cost of an electric bike?

The price range for electric bikes can vary, depending on what you're looking for and the features you choose. You can pick up a bare-bones electric bike for around $400. Prices can run over $8,000 for a high-end model. In general, expect to pay between $600 and $2,000 for a standard e-bike.