At age 67, Gary Fisher still logs around 250 miles a week cycling near his home in Marin County, up and around the same Northern California hills where in the 1970s he helped launch a new sport called mountain biking. But while he relies solely on human power for his regular workouts, he tends to power on his Trek electric bike to commute into San Francisco.
“As you pedal, it matches the energy you put in, so you feel like Superman,” says Fisher, who sold his eponymous company to Trek Bicycle, where he is now a product executive. “It’s an amazing feeling, but it’s still riding a bike.”
Long popular in Europe, electric bikes (a.k.a. e-bikes) are starting to catch on in the U.S. Parents use them to haul kids and cargo; commuters zip to work quickly without needing a full wardrobe change; non-elite mountain bikers can master high-elevation terrain.
And older riders are embracing e-bikes as a way to continue cycling without having to fight headwinds or suffer up hills—or simply to keep up with faster friends.
Why you feel less burn
As the name suggests, e-bikes have small electric motors that give you a little more pedal power. While they are heavier than their non-powered equivalents, e-bikes are generally very quiet and, with the exception of bikes with throttles, still require some effort on your part.
“It’s like when you’re late for a flight and have to run on the moving walkway. That’s what it’s like to ride an e-bike,” says Erik Saltvold, 54, who is the founder and owner of ERIK’S, a specialty bike retailer with 29 stores in five states. “You’re still pedaling, only you can go a little farther and faster.”
Like Fisher, he is an avid cyclist with a quiver of bikes, but he generally opts for his Specialized Turbo Vado for his 20-mile commute from his home in Minnetonka, Minn. to his office in Minneapolis. (You can read ERIK’S guide to e-bikes here.)
While e-bikes are available on a wide range of bike types, including commuters, cruisers, mountain bikes, and, though less commonly, road bikes, the industry categorizes e-bikes into three classes based on the type of motor.
Class 1 bikes are pedal assist with a top motor assist of 20 miles per hour; you can go faster but on your own accord. Class 2 bikes have an assist up to 20 MPH and have a throttle, which makes it possible to move without pedaling; these are increasingly being banned from bike paths. Class 3 bikes split the difference, with an assist up to 28 miles an hour but no throttle.
How to pick your ride
As with any bike purchase, start your e-bike search by thinking about how and where you plan to ride it, and then test different models.
As with traditional bikes, prices run the gamut from less than $1,000 to more than $10,000. For a quality bike from a reputable brand, figure on spending at least $2,000 to $2,500. You can find e-bikes online for as little as $500, but be careful about bargain hunting.
“You want to buy something you know has been tested and can be easily serviced,” says Saltvold, noting that specialty bike dealers warranty their bikes, including the motors, typically for a year, and can help with ongoing service and repair.
Before you invest in an e-bike, understand the rules of the road. States and municipalities have only recently begun offering a clear path about where you can and cannot ride e-bikes. (Check out PeopleforBikes to see how your state stacks up.) Under the most widely-used guidelines, Class 1 bikes are legal on bike paths but Class 2 and 3 bikes are not.
In the case of mountain bikes, the landscape is varied and changing. In some areas
And when it’s time to start riding? If you’re new to cycling or haven’t been on a bike since you were a kid, it helps to know bike-handling and safety basics, especially if you plan to power your bike to its full assist.
The sales staff at the store should show you how to use the different features, and for more help search for e-bike clubs or workshops in your area. But essentially “you’re just riding a bike,” says Travis Ott, a brand manager for Trek Bicycle.
Keep in mind that battery life is a consideration; while range varies by terrain, the level of assist, and the weight of the rider, many quality bikes can go around 50 miles between charges. A heavy bike isn’t as fun to ride without the assist, “but if you run out of battery it’s not the end of the world,” says Fisher. “Most people will be able to pedal it back.”