Bicycles – convenient means of transportation that have been helping people get around town and nature for hundreds of years. Surprisingly, the electric bicycle is almost as old, with the first patents on them dating back to the 1890s.
While the earliest e-bikes would still be recognizable today, they didn’t take off in popularity until much more recently. Since the 1990s, electric bikes have been booming, first in Asia, then Europe, and now even in North America. And as e-bikes have taken off in popularity, they have evolved into more interesting and complex machines. So let’s explore exactly how these beautiful contraptions work.
Start With A Bike
To clear up the potential confusion, let’s start with what an electric bicycle is not: it isn’t a motorcycle, it isn’t gas powered, and it doesn’t require a driver’s license. A true e-bike has all the basic parts of a standard issue bicycle: pedals, gears, shifters, a chain drive, and of course a bicycle frame (usually steel, aluminum, or if you are a big spender: carbon fiber.)
Now that you have your basic bike, what is it that adds the electricity? Well since you don’t want to be plugging this thing into a wall outlet (that would make your trips awfully short!) you need a battery. Typical batteries offer between 250 and 500 watts, meaning they put out about 20 to 50 volts and 10 to 12 amps. To simplify things, think of volts as the potential energy, and amps as how much electricity can flow through any given point. Then, volts multiplied by amps equals watts.
How far a battery will get you, of course, depends on how much energy your motor uses, as well as the terrain, and how much the rider assists with pedaling. On average, a decent electric bike will go about 40 miles if the rider is helping pedal, or just 20 if they’re not. Throw in an “extended range” battery and you may get 60 and 30 miles, respectively.
Older electric bikes usually used lead-acid batteries, which are the type of batteries commonly used to start cars. While they are quite cheap, the downside is that they are very heavy and slow to recharge. More modern e-bikes have swapped these for lithium batteries, which are much lighter, require less maintenance, and have greater lifespans.
Now that you have a battery, it has to power something, the bike’s motor. In a more old-fashioned and affordable setup, the motor is on the rear, with what may be known as a “rear hub” setup. Power flows from the battery to the rear motor, which then directly spins the wheel. This gives the rider the sensation of being “pushed.”
More advanced electric bicycles employ what is known as a “mid-drive” motor. Here, the motor sits in the middle of the bike, engaging the bike’s drivetrain. This is similar to how a rider would pedal their bike naturally, with the power they generate then being sent along with their chain to spin the back wheel. It also means that the motor interacts with your bike’s gearing the same way you would, meaning hill climbs are more efficient for both your legs and your battery if the bike is in a low gear.
Control Your Ride
Another important aspect of an electric bike is the controller. In any electronic device, the controller manages how much power is being delivered to the motor, in essence, determining how fast it is spinning.
For an electric bike, things can be a bit more complicated, depending on the level of assistance the bike model offers. Say you’re feeling like you want to go riding without help, then you can be in “pedal only mode,” where the motor receives no power, and all the work is being done the old fashioned way, by your legs.
Then imagine you see a big hill up ahead, and you don’t feel like getting too sweaty. Now you might enter “pedal assist mode,” where both you and the motor work together. Depending on how much you work, and how hard you pull on the throttle, the ratio of human and machine power will vary, but either way both your legs and the motor are working together to spin your bike’s back wheel.
Finally, at the end of the ride, let’s say you’ve exhausted yourself. Well, now you can kick back and go into “electric only mode.” It doesn’t get any easier than this, as you can even take your feet off the pedals, and let the motor do all the work for you, almost like an electric scooter or moped.
Often, a small device with a display, mounted on the handlebars, will let you choose which mode you want to be in, as well as offer you helpful information about your ride: how far you have ridden, how much power you have left, calories burnt, and more.
You Are Good To Go
The best part is, if you know how to ride a bike, you can also easily get going on an electric bicycle. There are no special licenses required, no tests to pass, and no insurance to buy. So if you are ready to take your biking to the next level, consider taking a ride on an e-bike. After all, you are an expert now!
Oh yeah, if you ever forget any of this, you can consult this handy infographic.