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E-Bikes or Electric Assist Bicycles

Electric assisted bicycles or e-bikes and “pedelecs” in Europe must be pedaled to use the assistance from the motor.

This page will cover such aspects of e-bikes as cost, weight, modes of electrical assistance, gearing, cyclometers, batteries, why use them, and rental or testing them. I also include a warning about the dangerous use of e-bikes.

An S-Pedelec and sometimes called an S-ebike or HS for "high speed" is a different machine for which one might be required to wear a helmet, have a drivers license, and be prohibited from riding on some of the many kilometers of bicycle paths in Germany. These have stronger motors (more than 250 watt output) and can provide assistance up to 45km/hour. I am told by bike shops that the requirements to have a license and perhaps to wear a helmet does not apply to those born before 1966. We do not dwell on the high speed e-bikes or S-pedelecs in this page. We feel they are unnecessary for the cycle tourism audience we seek. If they have a market niche, it is among German residence who travel longer distances on a weekly basis and can use roads that cars use. For example, if you live in a village and must travel 10km or more to a larger town for groceries and other necessities, an HS E-bike would make sense.

Note to Readers: This page is a work in progress. We will add photographs of some models and configurations of e-bikes and probably more text as well.

In a recent TV news story (PBS 9/2/16), they noted that statistically the Netherlands sell one e-bike in three bicycles sold; Germany sells one in five bicycles sold. However, US sells only one e-bike for every 100 bicycles sold. They made the point that there is a huge market in the US.

Our Experience: In 2011, Maxa rented an e-bike for the hilly re-riding of the Fairytale Tour that we first rode in 1999. She was a happy camper because, for the first time, she got to wait at the top of the hills for me as I huffed and puffed up the hill in the lower gears of my 27 speed cross-bicycle. I was jealous. In 2012 we knew that the tour down the Mulde River Valley was going to be quite hilly so we both rented e-bikes. Also in 2014, we rented e-bikes again for another hilly 5-day tour. We have almost convinced ourselves to purchase our own e-bikes. However, we keep putting it off. It seems that each year brings improvements in the cycles, the technology, and the weight of the e-bikes themselves. Perhaps in 2017!

Cost: One deterrence to our purchasing e-bikes is the cost. In Germany, you can expect to pay €2,500 to €4,000 for a good e-bike and €5,000 for a really good one.

Weight: Another negative issue with e-bikes is the weight. The heaver weight is partly because the frames are longer and slightly heaver but mostly the weight comes from the motor and the battery. They can weigh between 20kg to 26kg (44lbs to 55lbs US). E-bikes are difficult to lift into a train car or maneuver up or down stairs, such as one still finds in smaller train stations in Europe. (Fortunately, nearly all major train stations in Germany have elevators nowadays.) That difficulty is mitigated because most e-bikes have a button you can use when you are off the bicycle to make the motor provide low speed forward momentum. Handy for those who want to push their bike somewhere. Also handy in train stations where you are not supposed to ride bicycles.

Dangerous: On June 1, 2016, the local newspaper in Kassel, Germany ran an article that was scary for those of you over 50 with bad knees. The theme of the article was that older people who are lacking the tone and strength of their younger years should be cautious in handling a heavy e-bike. In Germany in 2014, there were 2,300 accidents involving e-bikes. Of those, 39 accidents were fatal and of those 39, 32 of the victims were over 64 years of age. The problem is older people enjoy e-bikes so much they exceed their capacity to safely handle the machine. Another scary fact is that the sale of e-bikes, primarily to older people, is rapidly increasing. In 2009 e-bike sales amounted to 150,000 representing 4% of the total market for bicycles. But in 2014, 535,000 were sold representing 12.5% of the bicycle market. According to the article, the typical e-bike owner is a male over 60-years old. This is a lousy way to reduce the number of people drawing the German form of social security.

E-bikes are simply faster than normal bicycles. If we ride a normal cycle, we might average 15km/h to 20km/h but with an e-bike, we'll ride 5km/h to 10km/h faster. That is fine on perfect surfaces in the countryside. But riding downhill or on a dirt or gravel path at higher speeds is simply dangerous. In an urban setting, one should ride slower because of cars, children, pedestrians, other cyclists, pavement difficulties, and dogs. Like most people of a certain age (think OFBK) our bones break easier, and wounds heal slower. In short, if you rent or purchase an e-bike please be careful; slow down and live longer.

Two interesting facts that relate to the topic of danger. In Germany if you are born before 1966, you can buy a higher powered e-bike and ride faster, therefore get in trouble at a faster speed. I think it might be an attempt by the law-makers to cull the herd a bit. Also, if you buy an e-bike made in the US, the speed is governed higher than those made in Germany. US bikes are governed at 20mph or 32/kmh. Remember, the maximum speed for those made in Germany is only 20kmh which to 15.5mph. I am thinking that the US has an over abundance of older people and want to kill them off faster than Germany culls their older citizens. Just saying!

Assistance Modes: In our limited experience, e-bikes have two or three power assist modes, one more if you count no assistance at all when the power is turned completely off. On our rented e-bikes the three assist modes are Eco, Standard, and High. On the flat, you can turn the assistance off but most people use either Eco or Standard modes. That will allow even the un-fit riders to travel along at a maximum of  25/km/hour (15.5/mph). While we do have a degree of fitness, we find that we can climb hills of average grade in Standard at that speed. When we reached speeds over 25/km/hour (15.5 mph) the assist feature stops assisting.

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Gearing: In addition to the electric motor assistance, you may have normal gears. Which one is a matter of preference; the 8-speed models are easier to keep clean and they are simple to use. However, we are more familiar with the 27-speed gearing that we have on our trekking bikes. So, for that same range of gearing, we might choose an 11 gear rear freewheel bicycle with the familiar rear derailleur. In any event, the bottom bracket where the motor is will probably have only one gear and no front derailleur because the gear is directly connected to the motor. There are alternate designs but this design seems to be popular. Shifting gears in addition to your assistance mode is easy and finding the right combination for each hill is also easy.

One of our test rides was on a Riese & Müller Blue Label e-bike with a NuVinci rear hub. That hub has an infinite number of gears with a 300% range, somewhat higher than an 11 gear rear freewheel. The display is also easy to understand; you see a tiny icon of a bicycle on a flat line and then as you twist the ring on right inside handle of your handlebar grip, the flat line begins to look like a hill with the tiny bicycle climbing it. The farther you twist the grip, the steeper the hill and the lower the gear. You will not hear any clicking or feel any uneven pedaling, it simply adjusts to your setting. I was impressed with the ease in changing gearing on this bicycle. The downside is the hub is a little heaver than a rear derailleur with a freewheel and gears but perhaps it is worth the extra weight. These NuVinci hubs are becoming popular.

Cyclometer and Information Displays: All the e-bikes we have seen have a built in cyclometer that cannot be removed. It measures speed, keeps track of maximum speed, the distance traveled and the total distance on the bicycle since it was last reset. The display will also tell you how much charge is remaining in your battery and perhaps an indication of the possible distance before you have no charge left. This item is a computed distance based upon how you have used the assistance so far that day. It is not very accurate in our experience.

Batteries: E-bike batteries are rechargeable and typically are recharged when the indicator on the cyclometer shows that the battery is low. You will need to plug the battery into the recharger and that into an outlet. The process from empty to full can take 3 or 4 hours but you can add a little charge in the time it takes you to eat lunch or consume a drink at an accommodating restaurant. The recharger is not heavy but it is bulky. If you are on a bike tour, you have to carry it too because the batteries will last a distance of between 50 km to 100 km depending on the level of assistance you choose and the number of hills. We had to pack our rechargers in our panniers. Nowadays, some e-bike batteries can be charged while still on the bicycle so all you need is a cord that will reach an outlet.

There are some differences in batteries. Bosch offers a 36 Volt, 13.8 Amp/h, 500 Watt motor in 2016. Panasonic, which boasts the longest battery life, offers a soon to be available 36V drive system with 13 Amp/h and 17 Amp/h versions. Panasonic also sells 26V drive system with 18 Amp/h, 21 Amp/h and 25 Amp/h batteries.

The location of the battery on the bicycle may be important. If you want a step through frame design, you will want to have the battery either behind the seat tube or under the rear luggage rack so you have no obstruction to stepping through the frame. If you are camping and carrying heavy panniers, you will want the battery anywhere but under the rear rack for better weight distribution and balance. From our observation there are four possibilities:

The "inside the down tube is location rare, but we have seen them in German bicycle stores. A cover comes off and the battery can be removed for charging or storage.

We are told that most e-bike batteries will last at least two years with normal use but Shimano has one they claim will last 8 years. I am sure that with time all manufactures will improve the battery life. We have heard good things about the Panasonic batteries from users.

Reasons for E-bike Use: Using e-bikes in metropolitan areas for short trips and errands makes a lot of sense. In cities and towns you will stop frequently because of traffic, traffic laws, red lights, and pedestrians. Getting an e-bike back up to speed is simple because the motor assistance is really like stepping on the gas of an automobile. If you want to get to speed faster, use a higher assistance mode. It is quite a lot of fun, really. We think that use of e-bikes on week-long bicycle tours also makes a lot of sense for people who are not in top shape and would like to avoid pushing up the occasional hill.

Testing or Renting: Testing or renting are about the same thing. Renting for a day might be free or the cost might be included in the price of a bicycle. One can purchase or rent e-bikes with all the accoutrements of a touring or trekking bicycle, such as fenders, lights, luggage racks, etc. Renting for a week or more for a tour will give you a better idea of an e-bike's utility. That makes good sense. If you are thinking of renting an e-bike for a multi-day bicycle tour, consider bringing your own saddle. My only complaint with one of the e-bikes I rented was that the saddle was too broad and I had some compression discomfort just below my gluteus Maximus muscles (seat cheeks?). Maxa did not have that experience, perhaps that is a gender specific type of thing.

The cost to rent an e-bike can vary but a typical price is €25/day or €130/week. There are many different models of e-bikes as I noted about, the least expensive to the most expensive models will also vary in rental price.

We also fitted our handlebar packs to the rental bikes but only because we could and that is what we were used to, not because it was necessary. Our panniers fit nicely on the rear racks provided for that purpose.

A 2013 website reviews the whole concept of e-bikes and pedelecs at http://www.electric-bicycle-guide.com/electric-bicycle-speed.html. The information there will help you decide which type and configuration to purchase (or rent if that is your goal).

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