Is It Hard to Pedal an Electric Bike? It’s easier, here’s why
The popularity (and affordability) of electric bikes has been steadily rising over the past decade or two – and for good reason! Their emergence onto the market has effectively created a category of cyclists that simply did not exist before.
It’s no surprise that so many people are becoming curious and searching for answers as to how they work. Often the first question that comes to mind is, “is it hard to pedal an electric bike?”
Riding a pedal-assist e-bike requires 24% less energy than a conventional bike and 64% less energy than walking per mile traveled. Modern e-bikes allow the rider to adjust the power output of the motor. Some e-bikes even have a throttle for engaging the motor without the need to pedal at all.
How do e-bikes work?
E-bikes make it easier for the rider to build and sustain speed. They do this by propelling the bike forwards using an electric motor.
Let’s cover the two main ways the motor can be controlled: pedal-assist and power-on-demand. All e-bikes have at least one of these control systems, and some even have both.
The archetypal e-bike has a pedal-assist control system, meaning the motor is controlled by the rider’s input into the pedals.
As the rider begins to turn the pedals forward, the bike detects this effort and begins to assist the rider by engaging the motor at the same time. This motorized assistance significantly reduces the effort required to get the bike moving.
When the rider ceases to push the pedals, the bike detects this and responds by disengaging the motor.
A consequence of this kind of control system is that the motor will not put out any power without some amount of “human power” going into the bike as well.
In other words, it is not possible to engage the motor without also pedaling.
Relatively low-powered e-bikes controlled exclusively by pedal-assist are known as pedelecs (from pedal electric cycle).
Some e-bikes allow the rider to control the motor directly using a throttle, typically attached to the handlebars as on a moped or motorcycle.
There are three ways to accelerate on a power-on-demand e-bike:
- Pedaling as you would on a normal bicycle
- Engaging the motor with the throttle
- Doing both of these things simultaneously
Power-on-demand e-bikes tend to have more powerful motors than their pedal-assist counterparts.
Those that have a motor powerful enough are not legally considered bicycles in many countries, and the law puts them in the same category as mopeds or motorcycles.
How much easier is pedaling on an e-bike?
By measuring oxygen consumption rate and energy expenditure, a study at the University of Tennessee found that riding an e-bike requires 24% less energy than a normal bike and 64% less energy than walking per mile traveled.
The difference in measured energy expenditure was most pronounced on uphill segments.
That said, pedaling an electric bike can be as easy or as hard as you like. You can put in the minimal amount of effort required to engage the pedal-assist motor and enjoy a very easy ride at a decent speed, or you can disable the motor entirely and ride it like a conventional bike.
Modern e-bike motors have adjustable levels of assistance, allowing granular control over just how much effort you need to exert on the bike yourself, and how much work the motor is doing to keep you moving.
The rider is able to set the motor’s contribution as a percentage of the overall power output.
For e-bikes with a throttle control (i.e. power-on-demand), you can even relax your legs entirely and rely solely on the motor for propulsion.
Automatic assistance for climbing
Another feature of modern e-bikes is automatic assistance when climbing. The motor can be configured to be engaged only when the rider is climbing a hill.
This makes it much more achievable for the rider to overcome steep gradients and long, enduring hill climbs. Just remember it’s important to have a good set of brakes equipped for the descent!
When riding an e-bike, terrain becomes less of an issue.
People who would otherwise avoid cycling are more likely to cycle to their destination if their bike has an electric motor ...which actually has a positive impact on the health and fitness for many cyclists.
Aren’t e-bikes really heavy?
The concern about overall bike weight is totally understandable, as every gram counts when it’s you who has to haul it up a great big hill.
E-bikes, understandably, need to be equipped with a battery to power the motor. Depending on the capacity, these batteries can be rather large, typically weighing around 7 lb (3.5 kg).
When riding with the motor disabled, this additional weight is going to be somewhat noticeable on the climbs. A heavy bike is also that much slower to take off when the lights turn green.
However, the power provided by the electric motor when it’s enabled more than makes up for the weight penalty.
As long as the battery is sufficiently charged, riding an e-bike is significantly easier than riding an equivalent – albeit slightly lighter – conventional bike.
Of course, when it comes to carrying the bike on your shoulder, the motor won’t be any help there! So if your average ride involves more than a few flights of stairs, this might be a factor worth keeping in mind.
That said, you’ll no doubt find climbing those stairs to be a much easier feat after an easy-going e-bike ride compared to the serious workout you get with a regular bike.
How fast can you go on an e-bike?
The motor on an e-bike is designed to cut out when it detects that your speed has exceeded a predefined limit.
The exact figure of this limit depends on the model and the region in which is was sold, but in general you can expect it to be somewhere between 15.5–20 mph (25–32 km/h).
Laws on e-bikes vary wildly across the US, but the figure is generally between 20–30 mph.
All eight Canadian provinces limit e-bikes to a maximum output of 500 W and the motor cut-off limit is 20 mph (32 km/h).
In Australia, the UK, the EU, Norway, Taiwan, Israel and Turkey the limit is 15.5 mph (25 km/h) for pedelecs.
More powerful pedelecs which are not legally classed as bicycles, known as s-pedelecs (for speed pedelecs), have a motor more powerful than 250 W and no such limit pedal-assist.
In Germany and Norway the limit is as high as 45 km/h (28 mph), a speed achievable on an s-pedelec.
Of course, there is no legal or physical constraint in place to stop you from exceeding this speed limit by other means – namely by pushing the pedals or descending a hill, just as you would when riding a normal bike.
The legal requirements surrounding the use and safety of e-bikes is a rather complicated area. Some jurisdictions require the rider to wear a helmet, require a valid driving license, registration and insurance, and so on.
Others regulate e-bikes as though they were mopeds or motorcycles. In Hong Kong, electric bikes are effectively illegal! For more information about the legality of e-bikes in your region, see the Wikipedia article on electric bicycle laws.
So to finish...
So there you have it! You now have a good understanding of what it’s like to ride an e-bike – how much easier it can be, how exactly the motor is controlled, and what kind of speeds you can expect to reach using the motor.
Again, there’s nothing to stop you from achieving greater speeds by descending a gradient or simply using your legs!
Not only are e-bikes great for commuting, they’re particularly great for building confidence with long distance riding. It’s much easier to bring yourself to get onto the saddle with a 10, 20 or 50+ mile route ahead of you on your bike computer when you know you have an electric motor to see you through to the end.
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