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What is an electric bike and would one be right for me?

Carlton Boyce / 28 September 2016

Electric bikes are becoming a common sight – but what are they?

An image of a bicycle sign on a bike path with a plug to signify an electric bike

You, like me, have probably been riding a bicycle for years. Whether you ride a sports bike with dropped handlebars, a mountain bike with 24 gears and knobbly tyres, or a sit-up-and-beg with the lovely Sturmey Archer three-speed trigger on the handlebars, it is a path well trodden and familiar to us all.

Until now. New-fangled electric bikes are becoming a common sight on roads and canal towpaths across the land.

What is an electric bike?

An electric bike, or e-bike, is a bicycle that has a small electric motor and battery fitted to propel it. Interestingly, the law actually defines what is and isn’t classed as an ‘electrically assisted pedal cycle’ (or EAPC).

To be classed as an EAPC: 

The bike must have pedals that can be used to propel it,

The electric motor shouldn’t be able to propel the bike when it’s travelling more than 15.5mph, and

The motor shouldn’t have a maximum power output of more than 250 watts.

Also, an electric bike’s top speed is limited to a maximum of 3.7mph using electrical assistance alone, i.e. when you aren’t pedalling.

It must also display one item from each of the following:

The power output or manufacturer of the motor,

The battery’s voltage or maximum speed of the bike.

The Department for Transport go on to warn: “We are aware of some electric cycles that have a switch offering a temporary increase in top speed – often advertised as an ‘off road’ facility. When the switch is pressed the vehicle can be propelled by the motor at a speed greater than 15 mph. Vehicles with this feature fitted, in our opinion, do not comply with the GB EAPC Regulations.”

What else does the law say about them?

The law says you can ride an electric bike that has been classified as an EAPC without a licence providing you are aged 14 years or more and the bike itself meets the requirements set out above. Nor do they need to be registered, taxed, or insured.

If a bike is classed as an EAPC in law it can be ridden in the same places as a conventional pedal cycle.

Are there different sorts of electric bike?

Yes, there are. The first type controls the electric motor via a handlebar–mounted throttle just like a motorcycle. These are often known as ‘twist ‘n’ go’ bikes and some of them can be used without having to pedal at all, which means they don’t qualify as a EAPC. If you buy one of these then you won’t enjoy the exemptions the law gives, so they’re best avoided no matter how tempting you find them.

The other type of e-bike only boosts your performance when you are actually pedaling and has no on-off switch. This sounds like it could be quite tiring but it isn’t because the system is easily triggered and simply pedaling slowly and with little power is enough to generate significant input from the electric motor.

The level of assistance can be varied too, and the lower the level of assistance the longer the battery will last. More expensive EAPCs also have a torque-sensing feature that increases the assistance in line with how hard you are pedaling.

The other main difference is the location of the electric motor. Some bikes put the motor in the centre of the front wheel while others drive the crank that the pedals are attached to. The latter are more expensive but are also more effective as they can utilise the bike’s gearing.

An electric bike can be have two or three wheels and be a bicycle, tandem or tricycle.

Do they have any disadvantages?

Well, apart from the expense, EAPCs are usually about 7kgs (15.5lbs) heavier than a conventional cycle thanks to the need to fit a motor and battery.

Of course, some of the extra weight is offset by the assistance the motor gives but if you’re lugging them onto a roof rack or up a flight of stairs then this is something you will need to take into account when deciding whether an electric bike is right for you.

How long does a typical charge last?

Manufacturers often claim ranges of up to 100 miles or more on a full charge but, as with cars, the reality is a bit more complicated than that. The range will vary considerably depending on how much assistance is used, how hard and how long you pedal, how much you weigh and what the terrain you are cycling across is like.

Some of the more expensive e-bikes will recharge the battery when you freewheel or brake but this will only top up the battery by a tiny amount and it won’t negate the need to charge it properly.

The battery will take anything up to six hours to charge but some can be removed from the bike meaning you can have a spare. This means you can charge one and use one, or even carry it as a spare with you to extend your e-bike’s range.

Are they expensive?

Yes. Prices start at around £500 and rise to some way north of £5,000. However, if you are still working and your employer has signed up to it, then the Cycle to Work scheme can save you money and help you spread the cost.

Should I buy one?

Well, if you can afford one, an electric bike has a lot to commend it. A standard pedal cycle will get you fitter than an EAPC but if you are starting to struggle with a conventional bike then an e-bike could keep you cycling for years to come.

They’re also a great choice for anyone that lives in a city. Cycling through congested streets is often faster than driving and the extra boost the battery motor gives makes even quite significant commutes easily doable.

Finally, if you’re trying to get a bit fitter then an e-bike is a great way to get started; as you become fitter you can pedal harder and cut down on the assistance the motor is giving. Of course, it will always be there for those ultra-steep hills, a level of reassurance that even the fittest cyclist will appreciate!


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.