Bike curious: A novice’s guide to buying your first e-bike
New Zealand imported a massive 65,000 e-bikes and e-scooters in 2019 and that number is likely to continue growing exponentially. But what do you need to know before you buy an electric bike? Russell Brown has the lowdown.
This is an edited version of a story first published in 2018.
If you think you’re seeing more e-bikes on the road, you’re not wrong.
In 2017, according to Statistics NZ, there were 23,000 e-bikes imported. In 2018, the number had jumped to 27,000 – and in 2019 65,000 e-bikes and scooters landed. Every sign is for the trend to continue, or even accelerate, this year. The surprising thing is that the company that triggered the growth isn’t even in the cycle business.
Everyone The Spinoff spoke to agreed that what really kicked off the boom was a move by Auckland-based energy retailer Mercury. In 2016, the company launched a promotion offering its customers a $250-$500 discount on the price of a range of e-bikes – and backed it up with a big TV advertising campaign.
Small cycle retailers who shifted maybe one bike a month suddenly found themselves selling one or two $3500 e-bikes a week. Most of them were to Mercury customers, but the campaign had a halo effect for the whole sector.
This year, if you ride the roads and paths in Auckland, you’re seeing not only more e-bikes, but many more new models, as new brands enter the market and established cycling companies rush to get in the game. The market is broadening from its original base – baby boomers with money in the bank, basically – and new ways of buying (and hiring) them are emerging.
So what does all this mean for you, a potential-bike owner?
What is an e-bike?
It’s a bike with an electric motor and a battery built in or bolted on. The motor tops up the energy you’re putting in pedalling, depending on the assist level you’ve chosen. Technically, this kind of e-bike is a pedelec or electric-assist. Some e-bike have throttles which will propel you along without pedalling (which means your battery charge won’t last long) and a very few don’t have pedals at all. You charge the battery by plugging the charger into the wall.
Are e-bikes “cheating”?
No, no and no again. You still need to pedal and several European studies have established that e-bikers experience levels of exercise and consequent well-being not that far adrift of standard cyclists – in part because they ride their e-bikes more often. (On the other hand, the Dutch have found that more older men – and it is only men – are being killed on the roads as a result of e-bike uptake.)
At any rate, you govern the level of motor assistance on your e-bike. If you want to put in a bit more effort, you can. This has the bonus of letting your battery last longer between charges.
What do you want an e-bike for anyway?
If you already ride a bike, especially as a commuter vehicle, you’ll find switching to an e-bike lets you get places faster and much less sweatily. (This was recently proved beyond all scientific doubt by the Herald’s in-house cycle rat Tristram Clayton.) If you don’t currently ride a bike, or you own one but commute by car, this might be what changes that. The cost of the electricity is negligible – you’ll get two months riding or more for the price of that cup of coffee. Also, e-bikes are really fun.
But the “what for?” question is important in another way. Generations of New Zealanders have been sold unsuitable bikes by big retailers, and their lives have been blighted by the experience of trying to ride cheap, crappy, knobbly-tyred mountain bikes on the road. If you just want to ride on the road, buy a bike for that.
Likewise, if you want to bump over the odd gutter and ride the occasional urban trail, or if you have a longer commute or just want to go faster, you may not be satisfied with the most basic e-bikes and you’ll want something more flexible and powerful.
And if you actually want a mountain bike and plan to ride trails, well there are e-bikes for you too. Outside Auckland – and in particular in centres like Wanaka and Queenstown – off-road e-bikes represent the majority of sales.
You said “go faster”. Like, how much faster?
The better e-bikes on the market here will take you to about 40km/h, while a basic one will do 30km/h, assuming, in both cases, that you’re fit enough to do your bit. But paradoxically some of the most expensive imported models top out at 25. That’s because they come from Europe, where EU regulations mandate that the electric assistance drops out at those speeds. Some other models have a 32km/h limit. You can still go faster than that, but you’re on your own. (And yes, you can get your bike modded, but that may void the warranty. And remember that your bike may not actually be designed to go that fast. Going faster puts more strain on the components.)
There is no requirement for speed-limiters here. But to be considered a bicycle, an e-bike can only have a motor of 300 watts or less. This is a less precise rule than it seems and Chris Speedy, the founder of the New Zealand company Smartmotion (given recent controversies, we should make clear that Smartmotion’s bikes are designed in New Zealand but manufactured in China) told us the 300w limit is “arbitrary”:
“There’s no real valid reason for doing that, but there’s certainly a valid reason for restricting speed. Restricting power on a bike disadvantages a lot of people, people who can’t pedal hard enough get up hills, even with an electric motor, disabled people. There’s no good reason for that.”
The local transport consultancy Viastrada explored the options for regulating e-bikes – and other kinds of low-powered vehicles – in a recent presentation. It’s worth a look, if you’re a nerd.
But can we have a chat here? The fact that your shiny new e-bike can go fast doesn’t mean it has to go fast – and certainly not all the time. If you’re already a rider, bear in mind that the hazards you’re used to looking out for come up much more quickly than they did. If you’re a new rider, dammit, you’re a new rider: bear that in mind.
Bear in mind also that major routes like the northwestern cycleway are shared paths. It’s dickish to zoom through groups of pedestrians. And you don’t need to – the beauty of an e-bike is that you can make up any lost momentum immediately. A word also for riding slowly on a e-bike – it’s kind of dreamy.
The evangelists told us two years ago that e-bike prices would plummet. Did that happen?
In a word, no. And, says Chris Speedy: “It doesn’t look like they will at the moment. The demand for lithium cells is increasing all the time. It’s the electric car industry – we use the same cells that they do and there’s a massive demand for those cells.”
So you’re basically looking at the same entry point as two years ago: about $2500.
“Occasionally you’ll get something for less, but you are getting a $300 bike then,” explains Barry “Electric Bazza” Page, keeper of the NZ Electric Bike Review website. “The electronics will cost you between $1600 and $2000. Whatever you’re paying above that is what you’re paying for the bike. If you’re paying $2000, then it’s a $400 bike with $1600 worth of electronics strapped to it. You probably want a $1200-$1500 bike with $1600 worth of electronics on it. That’s what the Smartmotion Pacer is.”
Basically, you get what you pay for. In lower-end bikes, the motor is usually tucked inside the rear wheel hub – which is just fine, but it can mean more things to go wrong. On a mid-drive bike, the motor is built into the frame, between the pedals – and that allows for the gears to be enclosed in the rear hub, which is a tidier and more reliable arrangement than derailleur gearing. A few high-end bikes have a drive belt rather than a chain, which is tidier still.
Yes, you can probably buy a bike for $1000 on Trade Me – but will the vendor still be around when the shipping container is emptied in six months’ time? Which brings us to …
Service is everything.
If the bike you’re looking at doesn’t come with a warranty of at least two years on the motor, don’t buy it. Just don’t.
And in general, future serviceability should be a key question. If you need a new battery in five years’ time, will one be easily available? Does the supplier have parts in the country – or will that expensive German motor have to be shipped back to the manufacturer when it fails in the first week? (We have heard of this happening.)
This doesn’t necessarily mean a smaller supplier will let you down. And indeed, says Page, shopping at a big chain might not guarantee future service.
“If you look at Bikes International, who are Bike Barn and who supply Evo Cycles, they’ve just dropped the BH line of bikes. So if you have one of those E-Motion bikes and you want a new battery, will they have it? Hmmm.”
“There’s a lot to be said for buying an e-bike from a dealer who has a good relationship with the wholesaler of a name brand,” says Tim Welch, the former owner of Rode in Ponsonby. “Just rock into your local bike shop and say, hey, what are your reputable brands, what’s the story if I have any issues with it? Are you able to send the motor away and get it replaced easily?”
“I think warranty and a guarantee of supply of parts is crucial,” Page agrees. “In five years’ time, will I be able to get a battery? Do you have them in the country? They’ll probably say yes, and you should say show me your spares.”
You can still take your e-bike to any decent repair shop for mechanical service – they’re getting used to it, and some are investing in power-lift work stands to deal with the weight of the bikes. But when it comes to the electronics, the supply of auto-electricians isn’t keeping pace with the boom in the market.
What’s all this I hear about sensors?
Excellent question. There are two ways your bike can tell the motor when to help out, and how much. Cadence sensors deliver assistance according to how fast you turn the pedals. That means the assistance doesn’t kick in until you’re properly cranking, meaning it can take a while to get up speed taking off from an intersection, for example. That’s why some cadence-sensor bikes come with a throttle to get you away without pedalling.
A torque sensor measures not how fast you’re pedalling, but how much effort you’re putting in. It’s likely to feel much more natural if you already ride a bike – it’s just chucking in an extra 50% on top of what you’re already doing.
But your mileage may vary. Says Page: “When we bought bikes for our work fleet, we bought two cadence-sensing bikes and one torque sensor. I was sure people would love the torque sensor bike. They didn’t. They liked the cadence sensor, because if you’re using it for work purposes, to go to meetings and things like that, you can just throttle it and it’s much easier. From a commuting and work point of view, having a cadence-sensing bike is perfectly okay. It doesn’t matter as much as you think.”
Welch believes “the whole torque sensor thing is just so much better,” but grants that “a lot of people like the cadence sensor bikes with a throttle, because suddenly it becomes a motorbike. Lots of people want to do the minimum amount possible and really want an electric motorbike. And a bicycle with a throttle will do.”
In general, more expensive mid-drive bikes will have torque sensors. A few offer the ability to switch between torque and cadence, which is pretty sweet.
Some of these e-bikes look like ladies’ bikes. Is it okay for a chap to ride one?
They’re not ladies’ bikes, they’re step-through frames, and it appears that buyers are getting over such preconceptions.
“We see a lot of guys now buying step-throughs,” says Page. “They’ve seen that it doesn’t mean girl-bike, it means a really practical bike for getting on and fiddling around. Not having to throw your leg over is quite nice. You don’t have to be wearing a dress.”
Speedy agrees, and notes that the next iteration of SmartMotion’s e-City step-through, the City XE, is quite a sexy beast: “It looks more like a motorbike, really.”
Yes. Unless you’re solely intending to use your e-bike for sport, get a rear rack, and budget for one or two pannier bags. You’ll be surprised how much you can carry in a decent pannier, and some of them convert to backpacks and satchels. Panniers rock.
And tyres! Look for good-quality tyres. Bigger is better and puncture-resistance is a very, very good thing – even if you know how to fix a flat on your ordinary bike, removing and repairing a punctured rear tyre on a hub-drive bike is almost impossible at the roadside.
In a similar vein, one of the nice things about an e-bike is that it can carry all the things that might be considered too heavy for a standard street bike – mudguards, integrated lights and more.
What is the future of e-bikes?
“Electric bikes will replace regular bikes and fewer families will have two cars,” says Weavers. “I think the price will come down, but the cost of the battery is still half the cost of the bike, so until that improves a lot, then we’re stuck with what we’re paying.”
“I don’t know where market saturation is, really,” says Speedy. “One bike in every house? Two bikes? It’s definitely moving down in the age-range.”
NZ Electric Bike Review is no longer being updated but is a great resource for reviews of older-model bikes.
Consumer also has a periodically updated e-bike guide with reviews and advice.
Electric Bikes NZ (a national chain owned by the same company as SmartMotion) and fellow supplier Electrify both have worthwhile buying guides.
Mercury. If you’re a customer, the savings on e-bikes (which now apply to seven different ranges) can be as much as $500.
Bike Auckland. Not specifically an e-bike organisation, but if you’re going to get up on two wheels, you might as well join the tribe