Should you buy an electric bike? Everything anyone really needs to know about e-bikes

Thinking of buying an electric bike? Don't add an E to your biking until you've read our beginners' guide

Electric bike myths busted
(Image credit: Scott)

Are electric bikes any good? With people worldwide looking for ways to commute that are a) more eco-friendly and b) not public transport, there's no doubt that e-bikes have seen a massive boom in popularity. And why not? For a lot of people, and in many situations, the best electric bike is the best two-wheeled option.

While you could get sporty and opt for the best road bike as your ride of choice, if you are using them to commute or as a way to get around in general, electric bikes have some significant advantages. The main one, of course, is that they are much less effort to pedal. 

A lot of people who aren't cyclists have reservations about e-bikes based on their cost and weight. A lot of people who are cyclists have doubts because they see them as 'not proper bikes' and even as 'cheating'. However, resistance to electric bikes has dropped off in recent years and with good reason: they are a lot better, more affordable and more fun to ride than they were a decade ago. 

Here are the key things you need to know about electric bikes, and some good reasons why you should buy one. Plus a few equally good reasons why you might not want to buy one. 

Please note that I'll be dealing mainly with e-bikes for urban riding and commuting here, but we also have a list of the best electric mountain bikes, as well as a very handy guide to buying an electric mountain bike, should you want to go off-road…

Buying an electric bike: cost

VanMoof S3 review

(Image credit: VanMoof)

Prices of e-bikes vary enormously but on the whole they are considerably cheaper than they were 10 years ago. That's notwithstanding the severe lack of availability that's arisen as a result of the global pandemic and shipping crises. 

Unless you come across an amazing deal – unlikely in the current climate, but you never know – I would not, personally, consider buying an e-bike for much under £1,000. Probably a better entry point for most people would be at least £2,000. 

Looked at in terms of models, the E-Trends Trekker is just over £1,000 ($1,300) and the Gtech eBike City is fractionally under. They're both acceptably good bikes that function well and have solid longevity. 

However, I would recommend something like the VanMoof S3 – just under £2,000 or $2,000 – as a better entry point. Once you get up to the 2K mark, bikes start to feel more powerful, better built and, in the specific case of the VanMoof's e-bike, positively festooned with high-tech features.

The question of what you get for paying extra money with an e-bike is slightly more vexatious than with most modes of transport. In general, if you pay more for a vehicle it will be faster or more luxurious. However, all e-bikes go at exactly the same speed – or at least the same electrically-assisted speed. They have varying degrees of build quality and comfort, but few could be described as luxurious.

What you get for your extra outlay on an e-bike, then, is better reliability – thanks to better mechanical components, motor and batteries – and longer range in some cases. Depending on the bike, you might also pay more to get an average range, but a much lighter bike that is more fun to ride. 

Perhaps the key thing to shell out more for if you are already a cyclist  – or if you want to get more exercise from your e-bike, rather than just letting its motor take the strain – is lighter weight and more gears. That is for a reason I will move on to now.

What is an electric bike like to ride?

What is an e-bike like to ride?

(Image credit: Hummingbird)

If you have never ridden a bike, and are put off by all that sweaty pedalling, an e-bike will seem like a lot of fun straight away. That's also probably true for more senior riders and those who haven't ridden for years. Experienced and cynical cyclists will be glad to know that their prejudices about e-bikes are broadly correct, and many of them are not as much fun to ride as a real bike – certainly on the flat. But they are an awful lot more fun than they used to be 10 years ago.

The most obvious use for an e-bike is getting you up hills. Nobody who is not a MAMIL or masochist enjoys fighting their way up a steep incline on a bike, and with electric power, you don't have to. In fact, you can effortlessly conquer most hills you'll encounter in UK towns and cities with even a cheapo e-bike. Simply pedal in a leisurely fashion, and enjoy the feeling of waving at sweating road bike users as you overtake them, perhaps while reading a book or smoking a pipe with your other hand. Don't actually do that; I'm just joking. But they are ever so good on hills.

It's worth noting that you do still have to pedal your new e-bike. By law, the electric motorised part of making an e-bike move must be 'assistance' to your pedalling, not a replacement for it. Yes, you can get bikes where you just hold down a button and off you go, with no pedalling, but they are illegal and bad. So don't get one of those. As long as the bike you get is powerful enough

Another important thing to bear in mind here is an e-bike's top assisted speed is not all that fast, and it is the same on every single electric bike you can buy.

How fast does an electric bike go? A somewhat less than hair-raising 16mph in the UK, Europe and Australasia, or a slightly more impressive 20 mph in the USA. Again, you could buy a bike that goes faster, or have it altered in order to do so, but that would be very illegal, very bad and with the potential to cause death, serious legal liability and troubling conversations with law enforcement officers. 

Yes it is galling that no matter if you pay £300 for an e-bike on eBay from a brand you've never heard of, or a stunner from Specialized or Canyon that costs north of £4,000/$4,000 it will get you to the exact same top speed, but there it is. 

Most e-bikes have different power settings but this can be a bit deceptive if you don't know what that means. The top power setting will give you better acceleration, more consistent assistance and shorter battery life. The bottom power setting will give you battery longevity and less assistance. However all the settings will give you the exact same top speed.

If 16mph is more than fast enough for you then you can stop reading now, but if you are concerned that that is too slow, there is a way around it. It involves using your legs and, ideally, it also involves spending more. That's because by spending more you can get a lighter e-bike with more and better gears, allowing you to push on past the maximum assisted speed.

Older electric bikes, and cheaper ones today, had a notorious tendency to 'fight back' once you got to the top assisted speed. This was partly a function of how their motors worked and partly because they were – and frequently still are – so damn heavy. A bike weighing over 20 kilos can be pushed along quite easily by a motor but as soon as the assistance is removed at 16mph, you are really going to feel it. 

However, the best of today's e-bikes don't have the same tendency to make everything feel like uphill as soon as you go over 16mph. And that is a very good thing. 

How long do electric bike batteries last?

Canyon electric bike range 2020

(Image credit: Canyon)

This is a vexed question, and perhaps the thing that puts the most people off buying an electric bike. The answer comes in two parts, because it's a question with two meanings. 

Firstly, the range of an electric bike is important but, unless you are making a huge commute every day, probably not as important as you think. Most modern ebikes will easily do 30 miles on their top power setting before needing a recharge. 

Using the VanMoof S3 as a benchmark again, that is a mid-priced ride that has built-in lights, Bluetooth, GPS and an anti-theft alarm. Yet even that will still do 37 miles on full power and 93 miles on its lowest power setting – and that still offers a decent amount of assistance.

You can get bikes with substantially longer range than that, but unless you are violently allergic to charging cables, ask yourself if you really need more.

The other question about the longevity of electric bike batteries is how long they last before dying entirely. Again, the news here is not as bad as you might fear.

Depending on how often you ride, how much assistance you use, how good the bike's battery management software is, how big the battery is in the first place and a number of other parameters you will get varying results but most e-bike batteries should last 3-5 years before they start to lose charge.

No, 3-5 years doesn't sound like a long time, given the cost of an e-bike and the cost of getting a new battery – anything from £150 to around £1000 depending on its sophistication and capacity. However it's not the case that your bike will immediately die when the battery loses charge, it just means your maximum range will diminish. Depending on how often and how far you habitually ride it, you could still get another 2-3 years of acceptable use out of it. 

Eventually you will probably need to replace the battery, but maybe that is just nature's way of telling you it's time to buy a whole new bike.

So, should you buy an electric bike?

If you want an eco-friendly commute, you can't do much better than a bike, but they do cause you to sweat a lot, which may not leave you in a perfect state for your job. 

Electric bikes are almost as eco-friendly as a normal bike – make sure you dispose of old batteries in a responsible fashion, via specialised recycling – and don't require any of that unpleasant effort and perspiration. They're a great way of getting from A to B. 

It's also very possible to get a good workout on an e-bike if you want; after all, you're not obliged to use the battery assistance. If you're wanting to use it for exercise in some situations and for effortless trundling in others, I would strongly recommend paying a bit more for a lighter and zippier e-bike with a full range of gears, however. Pedalling a more traditional type of e-bike with just two or three gears and a weight of over 20 kilos is really not a lot of fun – although it is undeniably a good workout.