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Electric bikes: advantages and disadvantages explained

The pros and cons of an electrically assisted bike


What is an electric bike, or e-bike? Simply put, it's a bicycle fitted with an electric motor to help the rider with their pedalling. It's not a particularly new idea, with e-bikes having existed in one form or another for more than 120 years. The modern explosion in e-bikes began in the early 1990s with the Vector Services Zike.

Most e-bikes today have a 'hub motor' – that is, one mounted within the bike's rear wheel. The motor doesn't propel the bike entirely on its own, so you still get the exercise benefits of riding a normal bike. Rather, it just assists a bit so you're not completely wiped out by a hill. Electric bikes enable you to go further, get more rides in, keep up with the pack, haul larger loads and add a little to your overall pace on your commute.

UK regulations require that e-bikes (or 'pedelecs' as they're also known) cut the electric assistance when you stop pedalling, or when the bike reaches a speed of 15.5mph. You need to be aged 14 or over to ride one, and while wearing a helmet is a good idea, it's not a legal requirement in the UK. No tax, registration or insurance is required.

Advantages and disadvantages of e-bikes

As discussed above, the primary advantage of e-bikes is that they make it easier to cycle with less effort and less physical stress than a normal bike. They also make for a very cheap and environmentally friendly way to travel. Servicing is required no more frequently than a regular bike, so around once a year. They're unaffected by the weather, too, as all the electrical components are sealed up safely.

On the downside, they can be heavier and more expensive than a regular bike, but as with other battery-powered and electrical technology, there's a trend towards smaller, cheaper and slimmer designs being developed over the years. Batteries and motors are generally now kept both low and central in bike design to ensure best handling. In some cases, batteries are stashed within a bike’s racking for both discretion and ease of access.

One potential disadvantage is having to remember to charge the battery between journeys, but even if you forget, or run out of charge mid-way through a ride, you can still cycle the bike the 'old-fashioned' manual way. And if you're someone who likes to take their bike abroad on holiday, be aware that there are restrictions on the size of battery you can take on an aircraft, either in hand luggage or checked baggage, due to fire safety regulations.

You could get around this problem by posting a spare battery to your destination ahead of time, or travelling by ferry or Eurostar. You could also investigate battery hire options at your destinations – although make sure to check that what's available is compatible with your bike, as using an inappropriate battery can damage it.

You may have heard tales of e-bikes catching fire, but this is exceedingly rare and usually only happens when someone has tampered with their battery or motor in an effort to make the bike go faster. So make sure to leave things as the manufacturer intended and enjoy the 'e-bike smile' that these machines are renowned for!

For more on e-bikes, see which ones feature on our list of the best electric bikes available right now

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