Try an e-bike: A guide to electric bikes for the curious beginner

In these COVID-inflected days, bicycles have become very popular. I've ridden over 3,000 miles on two e-bikes in the last three years, after decades of pedaling human-powered bikes. Here's what I wish I knew then about e-bikes. Maybe this will help you.

I love riding my e-bike so much that I rarely take my car out of the garage, even when temps are in the 100s or below freezing. I've ridden in rain, snow, and, occasionally, off-road. Sedona, Arizona isn't very bike-friendly, although mountain biking (search
"white line trail") is popular. When a tiny fraction of Phoenix -- over four million -- decides to escape valley heat for the cooler mountains, we're easily overrun.

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I'm not a commuter, but I ride most days to favorite venues: Dozens of hiking trails; coffee shops; the library; breweries; and music venues. My average trip is two to four miles one way, but range up to 10 miles.

Here's a rundown of my take for key e-bike choices:

My first e-bike was a basic hard-tail mountain bike with a 350W rear hub motor, single-speed, large 700c wheels, five levels of pedal-assist only, and no throttle. But, after more than 1,200 miles over a year of riding, I chose a very different style: 750W motor; 20-inch fat tires; a throttle, and pedal assist. Here's why.

AlsoBest e-bikes to ride in 2020 CNET

Power

Lots of Euro-e-bikes offer 250-watt to 350-watt motors, which are fine for Europe's largely flat cities. But my town is hilly, and a 350W motor, while adequate on mild grades, made for slow going on long grades.

Top speed was sometimes an issue too, as the bike topped out at about 18mph. Again, fine for Europe and congested cities, but sometimes I wanted to reduce the differential of my speed versus traffic.

Most affordable e-bikes have a rear hub motor, but there are mid-drive, front hub motors, and all-wheel drive bikes, too. I've found my rear hub motors to be perfectly acceptable, but I've never ridden a mid-drive, so I may be missing something.

Throttle

Peddle assist adds motor power only when you're peddling. But sometimes I like to add maximum motor power to peddle effort, like starting up from a stop. Or not pedal at all. Throttles are highly recommended.

Tires

While I'm pretty active -- I hike some 15 miles to 20 miles a week in addition to biking 25 miles a week -- I'm not athletic. The 20-inch fat, 4-inch wide tires offer a lower center of gravity and more stability. Larger diameter wheels handle obstacles better than smaller wheels, but that's rarely a problem on city streets.

The fat tires are wider and put more rubber on the road -- a larger contact patch -- for traction, braking, and comfort, at the price of greater rolling resistance. That's why road bikes have narrow, high-pressure tires and mountain bikes have fat tires.

On an e-bike, of course, rolling resistance isn't a big issue. The higher average speeds -- my human-powered biking averaged 10-12mph, while e-biking is about 50% faster -- puts a premium on traction and braking. With nobby 4-inch wide fat tires and air pressure reduced to 5PSI to 10PSI, I've ridden in the snow.

If I had a choice, I'd prefer a bike with tubeless tires, as they tend to be more reliable than tube tires. Today, tubeless tires are a rarity among 20-inch fat-tire bikes, but that may change.

Safety

Most of the bike riders around town have accident stories, something I've been spared. But I think about safety every time I ride.

Your e-bike should have front and rear lights powered from the main battery, and you should always ride with them turned on. Some lights are pretty wimpy, so don't be shy about augmenting factory lights with add-ons.

Horns are desirable, but the vast majority come in only two types: Too loud (scaring pedestrians) or too soft (unheard by drivers). Traditional bike bells are good for pedestrians who aren't grooving out to tunes on their AirPods. 

I usually wear a high-visibility jacket in summer, and, in cooler weather, I wear a motorcycle jacket made of woven Kevlar-type fabric. I also wear a ventilated bike helmet in the summer and a full-face motorcycle helmet for cooler months. Europeans rarely wear helmets for commuting, but there drivers there are cognizant of bikes. In America, not so much.

Brakes

Disc brakes are common on e-bikes and are a must. Hydraulic -- as opposed to mechanical -- disc brakes are preferable because they are self-adjusting. Brake pads aren't expensive or difficult to replace, but since e-bike speeds are higher and the bikes heavier, you'll replace them every 1,500 miles or so.

Frames

Two issues to consider beyond size: Folding and step-through. Most vendors will give a range for suggested rider height, but your leg length is important, too. Most frames spec a "standover" height, and you'll want a couple of inches of slack, or agony may follow. 

Many 20-inch fat-tire bikes also fold. It sounds like a good idea, but most are so heavy -- 60-plus pounds -- that even after folding, they aren't very portable. I've never folded my folding bike, nor attempted to load it into my car. If folding and portability are important to you, consider a Brompton or perhaps a 30lb e-scooter.

I regret that my current e-bike is not a step-through design. Sometimes my cargo is high enough that throwing a leg over is a challenge. The world's largest selling motorcycle, the Honda SuperCub, has a step-through design. I now get why that style is popular.

Service

E-bikes typically dispense with the front derailleur (common on road bikes), which reduces maintenance. Electric motors are extremely reliable but look for some protection for the cable coming out the side of the hub motor. E-bikes require little more maintenance than pedal bikes.

Most bike shops will work on e-bikes, but be aware that some, concerned about liability, or focused on high-end bikes, don't. Bike components are fairly standardized, so getting parts is easy.

Upgrades

You'll probably want to carry cargo sometimes, so racks are a must. Mine came with a back rack, to which I attached a couple of folding baskets big enough for a grocery bag. One I leave unfolded for carrying bike lock, random stuff, and computer. The other usually remains folded. In wet climates, go with waterproof panniers.

I added a suspension seat post and a wide, cushioned bike seat. Since pedaling is optional, avoid hard, narrow road bike seats. The suspension seat post may add a couple of inches to the seat height, so be limber enough to handle it, or get a step-through.

I added a motion-activated rear light, which is extremely handy since there's nothing to remember except charging once a month or so. An add-on horn completes my setup.

The take

Although I love the convenience of ignoring parking or traffic, mostly I just love riding. It is just fun.

There are environmental reasons, too, but those aren't top of mind. Sure, riding into the recycling center on my bike gives me a blast of performative virtue strokes, but I still enjoy the ride even if no one sees me there.

Bicycles are enjoying exceptional demand these days. For many of us, an e-bike will be the most flexible choice.

For another take with good advice, check out this first-time buyers video:

Comments welcome. I'm looking at buying an electric stand-up scooter or e-scooter, for even more flexibility and fun. If you use one, I'd love to hear about your experience with it in the comments.