Six questions to ask before buying an electric bike

Person about to plug in an e-bike charger to their bike.

David Morley

Posted February 09, 2021

Thinking of buying an e-bike? Here’s what you need to know.

The e-bike has definitely arrived. Just like hybrid and electric cars and rooftop solar, electric bikes are set to change the way we move around, especially now that many of us are looking for alternative ways to commute to work. Even if you’re not of the green persuasion or aren’t looking for an alternative form of transport, an e-bike still has the potential to be lots of healthy fun. So if you’re thinking of taking up some electric-charged pedal power, we answer some commonly asked questions. 

Six questions to ask before buying an e-bike

What is an e-bike anyway?

Fundamentally, an e-bike is a broad term used to describe any conventional pedal bicycle with an electric assistance motor fitted. They look like normal pushbikes, they handle and brake the same, but when there’s a hill between you and your destination, you can dial up a little (or a lot) of pedal assistance and zoom off into the sunset. Some designs drive the bike’s front or rear wheel, but increasingly common is the type that helps you power the actual pedals.

How is it powered?

The battery pack clips into the bike somewhere (on the frame tubes or the pack-rack) and can be charged up at home on a normal power-point over a few hours. Once fully charged, most e-bikes will give you a range of between 40 and 60 kilometres before they need another session on the battery-charger. (Run out power? RACV Bike Assist can arrange a taxi to take you and your e-bike to a destination of your choice).

You can vary the amount of assistance the motor provides from zero to flat out, but legally, an e-bike’s motor can only take you to 25kmh. You can still pedal faster if you have the lungs and the leg muscles, but you’re on your own from that point.

Why would I want an e-bike?

By adding a small electric motor to the equation, an e-bike allows you to travel over hillier terrain, into a headwind, or simply farther than you might have done on your own pedal-power. The thought of having an electric motor to help you up that last hill on the way to or from work will be enough incentive for many people to return to riding to work. Plus, if you want to arrive at your destination without raising a sweat, an e-bike lets you hop straight off your bike and into an office or cafe without the need to shower or change your T-shirt.

If your house has solar panels, a storage battery, or is connected to any other renewable energy source, you can recharge your e-bike, often without running up your energy bills or increasing your carbon footprint.

But if you already happily ride a pushbike and don’t miss having that electric leg to get you up hills, you’ll be wasting your money – and using more of your body’s energy – buying a heavier e-bike if you don’t intend to use the benefits of pedal assist.

Also, like a lot of emerging technologies, e-bikes are still quite expensive. It depends on what style and level of sophistication you buy, but don’t count on spending any less than about $2000 for even a humble commuter version. If you want the full e-mountain-bike experience, be sure to take lots of cash to the bike shop.

What are the road rules for e-bikes?

In Victoria, the authorities classify e-bikes as just like any normal bicycle. So all the same rules apply including the wearing of helmets as well as where you can and can’t ride. And remember that whatever is illegal on a normal pushbike is illegal on an e-bike, too. (More: What’s legal and what’s not)

Do I still need to pedal?

The law limits e-bikes to 250 watts although there’s also a class of e-bikes that have slightly less power at 200 watts. In the case of the 200-watt version, you can have a hand throttle which controls the electric motor. If you opt for the more powerful 250-watt version, the law requires that the electric motor can’t help you unless you’re actually pedalling yourself. It’s a way of keeping everybody safe.

In either case, you can dial up or down the amount of assistance the motor provides. More assistance means your battery will be flat sooner, less assistance means more range and a better physical workout. But even with the motor helping you along, you’ll still get plenty of exercise on an e-bike as well as lots of fresh air and a reduced reliance on your car.

What are they like to ride?

In a word, exhilarating. The first time you dial up full power and lean on those pedals, you’ll be amazed at how swiftly and effortlessly the e-bike gets you up to your cruising speed. From there, hills still exist but they seem a whole lot flatter.

An e-bike still needs regular maintenance and servicing as well as the requirement for you to plug it into the charger each time.