Buying an e-bike? Here’s what you need to look for

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More than two-thirds of Britons have started or are considering cycling to work to cut travel costs, according to research from the employee benefits company Blackhawk. Could an e-bike be a solution?

Decide on the main use

E-bikes power you along with the help of a motor paired with a battery – you still use pedal power but with a motorised boost to take the strain and help you up hills. But, crucially, you do still need to pedal.

“Owning an e-bike isn’t cheating,” Tom Burnett, an assistant buyer for e-bikes and adult bikes at Halfords, says.

“That’s one of the biggest myths we hear. You’ll only receive assistance while you’re actively pedalling, so you’ll still be working.”

There is a wide range, with big differences in terms of the distances they can cover before needing a recharge, charging time for batteries and the weight.

The first point to consider is what you plan to use the e-bike for, says Adrian Warren, the director of Cyclescheme at Blackhawk and the chair of the Cycle to Work Alliance. “Whether it’s commuting to work or the trip into town to do the shopping or taking the children to school.”

Next, think about what your most frequent journeys entail. How hilly? How far?

Ranges on e-bikes start at about 10 miles through to 80 – the longer the range, the less frequently you need to charge your battery.

View image in fullscreenThink about what you plan to use an e-bike for. Photograph: Ada Houghton/GC Images

Consider, too, the type of storage you have – whether at home or at work. “All of these things will start to influence the type of e-bike that would be relevant to you,” Warren says. “A city bike or trekking bike, a mountain bike, or maybe an e-cargo bike where you can – you can stick two kids in the front, or quite a lot of shopping.”

E-Bikes Direct has an entry-level mountain bike at £680, while top-quality models can cost anywhere from £2,500.

There is a big difference in quality and comfort. “It’s like comparing a Fiesta to a Ferrari,” Warren says. “They do the same thing but they’re not comparable.”

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Consider running costs

The upfront cost of a quality e-bike is considerable – although many dealers offer payment plans to spread the payments. Once it is yours, running costs are relatively low. “They are similar to that of a standard bike, aside from charging.

“It might be that servicing is slightly more frequent due to riding the e-bike farther, and at an average higher speed, therefore entailing more wear and tear,” Warren says.

“Batteries obviously vary but a full charge will cost between 5p and 10p depending on your tariff. To put this into context, a washing machine cycle costs about 30p, or a toaster 2.5p.”

Push, pull or pedal?

There are three main positions for motors: the rear, front, and middle on the crank where the pedals are.

Entry-level bikes tend to have rear or front motors, while the crank position is very often found on higher-end bikes, and prices usually start at about £2,000.

The position of the motor makes a big difference to how it ridesDavid Clark of E-Bikes Direct

“You will get better mileage with a centre motor, because, when you’re riding, you’re not being dragged along, or pushed along, by the motor in the same way,” Paul Power, a co-owner of the Dutch Bike Shop in Littlehampton, says. “It’s a more efficient way of cycling.”

The position of the motor makes a big difference to how it rides, says David Clark, a sales manager at E-Bikes Direct in Hastings: “The crank drive is within the actual pedal arms. It works with the pressure that you put on the pedals, so it’s a more natural feel. But it’s not within everyone’s budget.”

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Cyclescheme’s Warren says: “If possible, try the bike out first. I always recommend a test ride. And I challenge anyone to not come back with a smile on their face.”

Check secondhand bikes

Some dealers sell secondhand e-bikes and, of course, there are the usual suspects – eBay and Facebook groups – where used ones can be found.

“The main advantage that secondhand e-bikes have over secondhand normal bikes is that most will have a computer, so you can actually go into the computer to see how many miles it’s been ridden for,” Warren says.

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“It’s really about checking if the brakes are worn, and if the tyres are OK, and that the gears and the cogs aren’t worn. Then take a test ride to make sure that it runs properly.”

However, it’s not really possible to check the condition of the battery – and since this is the most expensive element, it’s a significant drawback.

If a battery has not been well looked after – which includes being properly stored and charged regularly – it is likely to let you down. “The worst bikes to buy are those that have been kept in second homes,” Power says. “They might look fantastic, because they haven’t been used, but the battery will not have been charged regularly.”

Replacing a lithium battery is expensive and, with shipping regulations and restrictions because of hazardous materials, it is not always straightforward.

View image in fullscreenIf you want to go down the DIY e-bike route, Swytch makes two different lightweight kits. Photograph: Peter Walker/The Guardian

“Batteries can cost £500, or even upwards of £700, depending on the bike and size of battery,” Power says.

What’s more, batteries are specific to the model and make of the bike – so you may find the one you need is no longer available.

DIY kits can be cheaper

If you have a bike you love but you want the boost of a motor to help you on your way, DIY e-bike kits might help.

One UK company, Swytch, for example, makes two different lightweight kits. The latest version is about the size of a large smartphone, clips to the handlebars and recharges in about an hour.

To make the conversion, Swytch will manufacture a replacement front wheel. With the new motorised wheel and the battery pack, your bike will have 10 miles of range – which, says the chief executive, Oliver Montague, is the amount needed for “80% of cycling journeys”.

The kit is cheaper than a lot of e-bikes but still not exactly a snip at £1,000. However, Swytch runs a scheme based on a crowdfunding model, where “batches” of 1,000 people can order a kit online and get a 50% discount off the full price.

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Check out cycle schemes

“Cycle to Work and Cyclescheme have been around since 1999, and probably hit the mainstream in 2005. Employees can save 32% to 42% off the cost of a new bike and spread that benefit over 12 monthly payments,” Warren says.

“For anyone who has the option available, the most cost-efficient way to buy an e-bike is through a Cycle to Work scheme. You can save up to £900 on a £2,500 bike.”

Security and insurance

A good lock to secure your e-bike costs about £40. You may be able to include the bike on your home insurance – although it is important to check what is covered.

E-bike theft insurance costs about £86 from CoverCloud, while Eversure covers public liability for up to £1m, legal costs and personal injury, on top of theft, for about £124.

View image in fullscreenYou may be able to include an e-bike on your home insurance. Photograph: Paul Mogford/Alamy

Ask for all the details

A lot of the established, reputable names in the e-bike market will still be unfamiliar to many buyers, which makes it easy for unscrupulous sellers to cash in, Power says.

Whether buying new or used, get as much information as you can about a bike, and research the component pieces to check they are made by respected manufacturers.“Look at the information the brand or shop is giving you – if they’re not telling you the brand of the motor, or the brand of the brakes, or the other components on the bike, they’re not telling you anything at all about the bike, basically, and that’s not really good enough,” he says.

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