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Introduction to electric bikes: Everything you need to know

18 Apr 2017

A look at the modern machines that are a lot older than they look

Produced in association with Cycle Surgery. To find out more, have a look at the range of Electric Bikes on sale at Cycle Surgery.

What is an electric bike or e-bike?

An e-bicycle is one with an electric motor (attached to the bottom bracket or front wheel) that assists the rider with their pedalling.

This means that while you’re still getting a workout – and enjoying the scenery – you don’t need to pedal nearly as hard, especially up hills.

Under UK regulations, e-bikes – or ‘pedelecs’ – cut the power assistance when you stop pedalling or when your speed reaches 15.5mph.

Are e-bikes a new thing?

Not at all. Hard as it might be to believe, e-bikes have been about for over 120 years.

The first patent for one appeared In 1895. It was registered by an American gentleman by the name of Ogden Bolton Jnr.

We don’t know a lot about Ogden but we do know that that his invention included a hub motor mounted in the rear wheel – an idea that got overlooked in the evolution of e-bike design until the last decade or so when it made a huge comeback.

Today it can be found propelling vast numbers of modern e-bikes.

So they've evolved quite a bit?

Oh yes. In the earliest days, a series of Americans – mostly with fabulous names, it has to be said – searched for ways to finesse what Ogden Bolton had come up with.

First up was a Bostonian chap called Hosea J Libby who invented a bike with twin motors to assist with climbing.

It also featured the first example of a controller on an e-bike. Then came a New Yorker named John Schnepf who devised a friction roller system to drive the rear wheel.

Nearly 50 years later, a Californian called Jesse D Tucker was granted a patent for a motor with internal gearing and the ability to freewheel, and thus the ability to use the pedals in combination with or without the electric motor.

What are modern e-bikes like?

Not radically different to the one Jesse Tucker patented in 1946, to be honest.

In 1992, a company called Vector Services came up with an e-bike they marketed as the Zike. It included nickel-cadmium batteries that were integrated into the frame and a magnetic motor.

Torque sensors and power controls were developed in the mid-90s.

By 2001, the term e-bike had been coined (along with ‘pedelec’ and power-assisted bike) and soon hub-style motors, just like the one ol’ Ogden Bolton invented right back at the end of the previous century, reappeared on the back wheels.

Today e-bikes are among the most popular forms of transport in the world, with nearly 35 million sold around the world last year alone.


e-bikes FAQ

Answers to the 10 most commonly posed queries about owning an e-bike

1 Where can I ride an e-bike?

Anywhere that you would ride a conventional bicycle. So that means on the roads, on cycle paths, local trails, bridleways – you name it!

2 Are there any legal restrictions I should know about?

As of April 2016, UK law stated that for an e-bike (‘electrically assisted pedal cycle’ or EAPC) to be classed as a normal pedal cycle – and therefore enjoy the same rights – it must have working pedals, a motor that doesn’t exceed 250W and a cut-out that prevents electrical pedal assistance once the bike reaches 15.5mph.

You’ll also need to be aged 14 and over, but you don’t need a licence, nor are you legally required to wear a helmet (although it’s probably a good idea anyway) and the bikes don’t need to be taxed, registered or insured.

3 How far will an e-bike travel on a single battery charge?

It varies from bike to bike, rider to rider and journey to journey. If you were to account for all the variables such as battery, drive system, tyre pressure, power assist level, weight and fitness of the rider and the type of terrain they’re travelling it could be anywhere between 10 and 80 miles.

4 How long does it take to charge an e-bike's battery?

Again it varies depending on the quality and size of the battery being used but most decent batteries will take between 3-4 hours to recharge, which you do simply by plugging it into a regular wall socket with the supplied lead.

A lot of manufacturers recommend charging the battery once a month if the bike isn’t being ridden much.

They also claim that the more the bike is ridden the stronger the battery gets. Which is another incentive to get out on it more!

5 How fast can I go on an e-bike?

As mentioned above, the law restricts the electrical assistance to 15.5mph but after that it’s up to how good your own engine is.

6 How much does a typical e-bike cost to run in terms of electricity?

Approximately 0.4pence per mile – compared to 34 pence per mile for the average-sized diesel car.

7 How long will my battery last?

Once more there is no straight answer to that but most good bikes will come with Li-Ion batteries and will often have a warranty of between 12 and 24 months.

Replacement batteries can cost up to a couple of hundred pounds so it’s worth haggling for an extended warranty.

Three years or more would cover the battery against premature failure.

8 How often will I need to get it serviced?

An e-bike requires a similar level of servicing as a regular bike so we’d suggest at least once a year. offers a professional maintenance service for all types of bikes, ranging in price to suit every pocket.

9 What if the electronics on an e-bike get wet?

This shouldn’t be a problem. Generally speaking any electronic item on an e-bike is housed in a sealed weatherproof unit.

Short of falling into a lake, the average e-bike can cope with whatever the heavens or a post-ride scrub down can throw at it.

10 Aren't electric bikes cheating?

Only if you use them clandestinely in a race! All the evidence suggests that people who own e-bikes ride more, so even though you’re getting a bit of help from the motor, you’re still doing most of the leg work, over what will probably work out to be greater distances than you’d be covering on a regular bike.

Read about the advantages and disadvantages of e-bikes on our sister site Driving Electric


e-bikes jargon buster

Amp: A unit of electrical charge.

AH: Amp-hours, a measure of how much energy the battery can store – a higher number means the battery will last longer and you can ride further.

Crank motor: Also called mid-drive motors, these directly power the crank and usually work in concert with your gears. The motor is often integrated into the frame.

Drive system: Another name for an e-bike’s motor.

E-bike: The common name for what is formally known in law as an ‘electrically assisted pedal cycle’.

E-group: The battery, motor and control system.

EDS: Electronic drive system, used to control the speed, torque and direction of an electrical motor.

EAPC: Acronym for Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles, the legal name for e-bikes.

Hub motor: A motor that is located in the hub of the (usually) rear wheel. Common on cheaper e-bikes.

LED display: The bar-mounted screen where you can see a host of information ranging from distance and speed, to power assist mode, battery level and – on more advanced bikes – a whole host of other diagnostics.

Li-Ion: Lithium-ion, the most common type of battery in modern e-bikes, similar to those in mobile phones. The latest LiPo (Lithium-Polymer) batteries are lighter but more fragile.

Low step: A frame with no top tube, making it easier for the rider to mount and dismount the bike.

Motor controller: The unit that allows the rider to select the power level delivered by the EDS to the drivetrain/pedals.

Pedal assist: Refers to the amount of power being delivered while the rider is pedalling.

Pedelec: From PEDal ELECtric Cycle, the standard name for low-powered e-bikes that are legally classed in the UK as pedal cycles, meaning you don’t need a licence to ride them on the road.

Roadster: A traditional frame design with a top tube.

RPM sensor: A device that records revolutions Per Minute.

Suspension fork: A telescopic fork that’s designed to insulate the rider from rough terrain. Common on MTBs.

Torque sensor: A sensor that monitors torque (i.e. how hard you are oushing the oedals around) to ensure the right level of power is delivered from the EDS.

Turbo button: A switch that delivers a boost of energy when you need to accelerate, take on a steep hill or tackle headwinds.

Twist and go: A standard of e-bikes that commonly have a throttle on the handlebar, much like a motorbike.

Volts: Unit of measurement for electrical force.

Watt-hours: A measure of battery capacity based on power output, calculated as Amp-hours x Volts.