What is an e-Bike?

This is an e-Bike...

...but so is this

Put simply, an e-Bike is a pedal-powered bicycle with optional motorised assistance. They don't pedal for you, they add a little extra (variable) assistance when required.

Sounds straightforward enough, and they've been around for years, but now they're really starting to enter the mainstream. As e-Bikes begin to spread beyond the casual "town and towpath" realm into serious cyclist territory they bring a lot of questions and more than a little controversy.

e-Bikes aren't for everyone, and that's fine; neither are gravel bikes, singlespeeds, TT bikes or any other of the many and varied offshoots of this wonderfully inclusive world of bikes. But they aren't a flash in the pan either, and you might be surprised just how useful they can be, whether to you or to someone you ride with.

As bike fit specialists, and with a focus on performance bikes, we have a different perspective on the e-Bike question. Read on for our overview of what they are, who they're for, and a look at some specific models.

The Background

You don't need to spend much time in the comments sections of the big cycling websites to realise that cyclists can be an inherently conservative bunch.

It's easy to forget that a lot of the 'modern era' technologies, from clutch rear mechs to suspension seatposts actually date back decades, in some cases to the earliest years of cycling when a "throw it at the wall and see what sticks" enthusiasm drove some serious innovation.

The difference now is that modern CAD technology, new materials, CNC machining, 3D printing, all play their part in making these ideas more efficient and easier to realise.

When electronic shifting first made an appearance there was a lot of scepticism from the old guard, a kind of knee-jerk "if it ain't broke" reaction. That's understandable, but what we've seen is that Di2, EPS, eTap aren't simply tech for tech's sake, there's an upside in terms of precision and consistency that was hard to imagine from that initial announcement and which benefits riders of every persusasion. Plus there are a host of side benefits for a whole range of different riders, from the triathlete looking for effortless bar-end shifting on their aero bars to those of us with limited mobility in one or both hands who benefit from the reduced travel required to shift smoothly.

We're starting to see e-bikes following a similar trajectory. The initial response of "not for real cyclists" (whatever that means) has rapidly changed with real-world experience, and as the bikes themselves have taken leaps forward in design and tech.

The bulk and weight of the earliest e-bikes meant that they were aimed primarily at the "town run-around" market, with baskets up front, flat pedals, step-through frames. This goes some way to explaining their early dominance in mainland Europe, which in recent decades has had a far bigger market for that style of bike than the UK.

Motors and batteries have significantly shrunk in the last year or two (in both size and weight) to the point where it can be difficult to spot at a glance, on something like a Bianchi Aria e-Road or Colnago E64, that it's power assisted at all. And that opens up a whole world of new applications, for a whole range of different cyclists.

So yes, e-bikes are here to stay, and they may well be a lot more relevant to your own riding than you think.

below: Specialized's Turbo Creo SL packs a lot of technology, and power, into a sleekly understated frameset

The tech

The Motor

There are two main types of e-bike currently on the market: with the motor built into the rear hub, or with the motor tucked inside the bottom bracket area and powering via the cranks.

There are pros and cons to both approaches. The hub based systems tend to be the lightest (adding only around 3.5kg to the total weight of the bike), and make it easier to incorporate a front derailleur, but are possibly less flexible. You can't simply swap wheelsets around at will.

The BB-based systems tend to be a little heavier, and the need to encapsulate the motor within the frame leads to slightly chunkier framesets. It's also a little tricker, although not impossible, to build them with a 2x drivetrain (i.e. front derailleur) due to the added width. But they do allow you to swap wheels at will, and can provide more torque/power.

You may also see kits to convert an existing bike into an e-bike, usually by a bolt-on motor which drives the front wheel by friction. These are more of a novelty, fine for occasional use around town but too inefficient and unreliable for long distance/long term use.

The Battery

Batteries are typically hidden away within the frameset, although many bikes will accept an additional frame-mounted external battery for extra range. Charging will usually only take around 5-6 hours, and there are no issues with 'topping up'. If you're likely to struggle to get your bike close enough to a power point it's worth looking out for a model with an easily removeable battery, such as the Trek Domane+.

The range that the battery will give you is hugely variable, depending on the terrain you're riding, the level of assistance chosen and your own riding style (and weight!). You can expect anywhere from 20 to 100 miles of assistance on a 'standard' e-bike with a single integrated battery - but remember that you're unlikely to have it turned on for the entire ride; those aren't 'continuous' miles. So even the longest days in the saddle should be achieveable on a single charge (and if the battery does run out, the bike will still ride fine).

The Control

Power assistance levels are variable, usually via a button on the top tube, or sometimes via a controller mounted on the bars. Either way the operation is the same - you can choose more or less assistance depending on the terrain and how you're feeling. Naturally using a higher setting will eat through the battery more quickly.

You might hear talk of a "speed limit" on e-bikes, but this is a bit of a misnomer. Think of it more as a 'cap' on assistance. UK regulations mean that power assistance can only be applied up to 15.5mph on a bike that'll be ridden on road. Otherwise it would be classed as a motorised vehicle and require licensing, taxing, etc. This applies to any bike that might see even the briefest use on the roads, including MTBs.

You can still go just as fast as you want - the assistance simply stops beyond that point, but the bike can be ridden as fast as you, and the gearing, allows - just like any conventional bike.

Early motor systems had two main drawbacks; the power assistance would stop abruptly when the speed limit was reached, making it hard to maintain a smooth cadence and causing issues with gear selection, and when not in use the motor could produce drag on the drivetrain, actually making it a little harder to pedal. Both of these issues have been addressed in the current range of systems, and any of the latest mid and high end models will essentially ride just like a 'normal' bike.

The Fit

Of course correct fit is every bit as important on an e-bike as on any other road bike, and that's why we always start with a bike fit to establish which model will work for you. Bikes with hub-based motors will usually be the same geometry as their non-powered equivalents, whilst BB-powered bikes will often have a slightly longer wheelbase and rear triangle due to the added size of the motor (although the actual fit geometry - i.e. the contact points - often remain the same). But don't worry, we sort all of this for you, it's all part of what makes Bespoke unique.

Who are they for?

We're all familiar with the glorification of "suffering" that can turn a weekday evening training ride into an epic worthy of an hors cat├ęgorie Tour stage. Yes it can sometimes be a bit OTT in the hands of the marketing types, but there's no denying it's a part of the joy and mystique of cycling.

But e-bikes aren't about destroying that mythos - they're about expanding the range of opportunities to a broader range of riders, and literally extending the range of our own rides.

You might be surprised just how broad a range of cyclists and riding scenarios can make good use of an e-bike. We're building a little library of case studies looking at just a few of these use cases:

Exploration, enhancement, enjoyment

e-Bikes - what are they good for? We take a deeper look into the why of e-Bikes, from the perspective of a serious road cyclist with decent fitness. What do they have to offer? Read Barry's thoughts here:

e-Bike Empowerment

Lets make one thing very clear, this is not about gender. At a time when the Pro peloton is finally starting to make small steps towards gender parity in races and rewards, and when Fiona Kolbinger recently won the 2,485 mile Transcontinental Race ahead of more than 200 men, any argument that "e-Bikes are only for women" is a complete non-starter.

What we do find is that many of our customers, regardless of their gender, have a partner who isn't as deeply into cycling as they are, but still wants to share and enjoy some of the fun and adventure that a bike brings.

Pro Training

Motorpacing has long held a place in the Pro training regime, but e-bikes offer unique advantages over the more traditional scooters...

Renowned coach and nutrition guru Dr Allen Lim has been working with Tejay Van Garderen, using a rider on a Cannondale Synapse Neo to set the pace:

"My inspiration came from Terminator 2... There is that scene where the mother talks about, 'What if there was a father who was always there, who never gets tired?' And I thought, what if we had a training partner who never got tired? That is what a good rider like Tim is on an e-bike"

What a fantastic idea for those group rides. Read more in this fascinating article at Velonews, or watch their video below:

A valuable part of the toolbox

Multiple times World Champion MTBer Annika Langvad doesn't have anything to prove. But she knows that the key to success is keeping those skills sharp.

Here she's hitting the trails on a Specialized Turbo Levo e-bike, using it as a tool to ensure that what might have been a forced rest day is used instead for fun and exploration:

"I was still somewhat tired from this week's training, but the Levo makes life a LOT easier on days like these. Otherwise you for sure would have found me on the couch all day long"

photo @annika.langvad via Instagram

Coming Soon...

You're a keen, experienced cyclist, coming back from a long period of injury and illness. You want to regain your fitness out on the road, not on a turbo trainer... Does an e-Bike hold the key? Further, faster and more fun, that's a lot of motivation.

We'll be taking a closer look at what an e-bike can mean for a cyclist of average ability but great enthusiasm, looking to maximise their enjoyment and time on the bike.

The Bikes

Pretty much any style of bike is now available as an e-Bike, from full-suspension MTBs to lightweight carbon road race machines.

Here we'll take a look at just a few representative examples of the latest models:

Specialized Turbo Creo SL

An S-Works road bike with a motor? Yes, and it's a proper performance bike with the very latest technology to keep weight to a minimum and make the optional, variable assistance as seamless as possible.

For more details on the tech and spec of this intriguing e-bike check out Dave's first look article on the Bespoke blog, or watch our First Ride video below:

Colnago E64

Yes, that's right, an iconic Italian brand embracing e-Bikes. Colnago have signalled their intent quite clearly with the E64, it shares the tube shapes and geometry of the race-focused C64 (albeit in a monocoque, rather than lugged, carbon frame).

They've opted for a rear hub based motor system, which enables the frame to remain remarkably svelte (and only adds around 3.5kg to the total bike weight).

A proper high-end road bike, just with a little extra power on tap when needed...

Trek Domane+

Trek have favoured the Bosch BB/crank based power system over the hub-based alternatives on their MTBs, and for their first foray into performance road e-Bikes they've stuck with it.

The result is the Domane+, a regular Domane in terms of fit geometry, but with a slightly longer wheelbase and a distinctly larger downtube. This solution might be a little less elegant in appearance than some of the Italian frames, but it does mean that you can easily swap out wheels without losing the motor.

IsoSpeed damping is present, as you'd expect on a bike carrying the Domane name, and is very welcome - after all, if you're going further than ever then you might as well be comfortable too.

Of particular note is the easily removable battery with built-in handle, which makes charging (on or off bike) a doddle.

Bianchi Aria e-Road

Another interesting addition from an Italian brand, Bianchi have also chosen to go with a hub-based motor on their Aria e-Road range.

Again this makes for an exceptionally slim and sleek frameset, almost indistinguishable from a conventional bike and very lightweight, with 2x gearing. It does mean you're likely to lose the power assist if you swap wheelsets (unless you have more than one set with a powered hub), but the sheer versatility of an e-bike makes this less of an issue for most (and the hub can easily be rebuilt onto a new rim if and when required).

Trek Powerfly LT 9.7 PLUS

It's not only road bikes that can benefit from the addition of a motor - MTBs were early adopters of the new tech, ideal for getting you to the top of a trail faster and fresher, ready for the next descent.

The Powerfly is a genuine performance trail bike, with 160mm front/150mm rear suspension and Trek's usual trail geometry making for a versatile machine. A 27.5in wheelset with 2.8in wide tyres is perfect for rolling over the rough stuff.

Where it comes into its own is when you want to go further - the variable power assistance from the sturdy Bosch motor (with the battery neatly hidden in the downtube) lets you push your limits without cramping your style.

Pinarello Nytro

The Nytro uses a Fazua Evation hub-based system, similar to the ebikemotion used on the Colnago E64. This leads to another relatively sleek and understated frameset, with the unusual side benefit of being able to remove the battery and motor completely if you wish (leaving just an internal gearbox at the bottom bracket, which adds minimal weight and next to no drag to the transmission). That'll take the total weight of the bike down close to non e-bike territory, so although it's a bit of an oddity it could be useful for those who only want assistance on selected rides.

The Nytro is perhaps one of the more ungainly framesets in appearance, but you are getting the benefits of Pinarello's race experience here, and with fairly aggressive geometry this is a proper performance bike.

Cannondale Synapse Neo SE

Gravel and adventure bikes are hugely popular right now, and so it's no surprise that Cannondale have included a gravel-focused option in their Synapse range (road versions also available). 47mm WCS Byway tyres on 650B wheels, with SRAM's Apex drivetrain, make for a versatile all-rounder on road or trail.

The Synapse uses a Bosch 3rd generation motor, which has significantly less drag than earlier models. It's also notable for having a 2x drivetrain, complete with traditional front mech. This is hard to achieve for Bosch systems, as the increased width at the bottom bracket makes chain alignment an issue, but Cannondale have cleverly offset the rear triangle to allow for a full range of gearing options.

Interested in exploring the world of e-bikes?

We'll be updating our blog regularly with more info as the e-bike world continues to develop and expand.

Get in touch and we can talk you through the options, and of course when you buy from Bespoke you know that whatever bike you opt for will fit perfectly.