Specialized Como E-bikeYour 5-Step Guide to the Perfect Pedal Assist

In biking, nothing beats having a tailwind when you need it. With their battery-powered motors, e-bikes offer the equivalent of a tailwind on demand. Whether you’re cruising with friends, embarking on a long road exploration, pedaling around your favorite singletrack, or replacing your daily car commute with a bike ride, e-bikes offer efficiency and comfort for longer, faster, and less effortful rides. 

Because of their awesome versatility, e-bikes are one of the fastest growing segments of the bike industry. But with so many kinds of e-bikes to choose from, what are the most important things to consider when buying an e-bike? Whether you’re a motor-assisted aficionado or e-bike curious, here’s a five-step guide to help you find the perfect e-bike.

1. Decide where and how you plan to ride your e-bike 

These days, there are as many varieties of e-bikes as there are ways to ride a bike. Commuters, cruisers, hybrids, road e-bikes, gravel e-bikes, mountain e-bikes––when it comes to pedal assist the options can feel endless. But as with choosing any other kind of bike, the first question to answer is where and how you will ride the bike most.

Active e-bikes

The most general category, active e-bikes serve a variety of rider needs. Low standover or step through models, wider tires that can handle some off-road activity, and racks or the ability to tow cargo. If you’re looking for a capable, well-rounded e-bike that is as comfortable cruising bike paths to the office as it is picking up groceries or towing a kids’ trailer, active e-bikes fit the bill.

Road and gravel e-bikes

For a more performance-oriented motorized whip, consider a road or gravel e-bike. Many models mirror the performance geometry of their analogue counterparts and some like the Specialized Creo SL are nearly as lightweight.  Road and gravel e-bikes tend to prioritize battery range over motor power and some even offer extender batteries. If you have a longer work commute, don’t need to haul much cargo, or want to embark on long road or gravel rides with less effort on the climbs, road and gravel e-bikes are a great option.

Specialized Creo e-bike

E-Road bikes like the Specialized Turbo Creo SL are sleek and compact, yet pack a powerful punch when you need it.

Mountain e-bikes (eMTB)

Mountain e-bikes or eMTBs have taken off in recent years. Built on the capable suspension models of their analogue cousins, eMTBs open up a world of exploration. Your legs no longer need to be a limiting factor when embarking on big backcountry rides, and battery powered rides like the Pivot Shuttle are so sleek and lightweight they can easily be mistaken for non-motorized bikes. Not to mention the growing segment of Enduro focused eMTBs like the Yeti E160 that pair big, terrain-eating suspension with a motorized boost for Enduro racing and pedaling to the top of demanding downhill courses. Many mountain bike trail systems have regulations around eMTB usage, so check your local trail systems for rules and access.

Santa Cruz Bullit e-mountain bike

Modern mountain e-bikes (eMTBs) feature the handling and performance of analogue mountain bikes but can keep you powered for longer adventures.

2. Choose your features

E-bikes often come with features you don’t typically find on analogue bikes like lights that recharge when you pedal, built-in LCD screens that provide real-time data on battery usage, and a Garmin radar that alerts you of approaching cars. For some bikes like the Specialized Vado, the build kit you choose (Turbo Vado 3 versus Turbo Vado 5) will determine the extra features the bike will come with.

Specialized Turbo Vado e-bike

The Turbo Vado has a variety of accessories like fenders, lights, and racks that are included depending on which model you buy.

Other things to consider are whether you want front or rear shocks, what tire size and type (slicks or knobbies), rack and fender attachments, and the ability to tow cargo. These decisions circle back to the two initial questions: where are you going to ride most often, and how.

Battery security is also important. Some e-bikes like the Specialized Turbo Vado let you lock the motor remotely via the Mission Control app, and either lock the battery on the bike or remove it entirely. Others like the Transition Relay have an easy to remove battery not only for security, but also so you can ride it like a regular mountain bike if you want to.

3. How much assist do you need?

For regulating reasons, e-bikes fall into three classes:

Class 1: provides pedal assist up to 20mph; above that you are pedaling on your own power. The assist will only kick in while you’re pedaling.

Class 2: includes a throttle button so you can get an assist without pedaling, for speeds up to 20mph. 

Class 3: provides pedal assist up to 28mph. You still have to pedal for the assist, but can go faster while doing so. Because of the more powerful motor, this is a useful option for hauling cargo but it comes with more regulations. Class 3 bikes are often banned from bike-specific paths, multi use paths, and mountain bike trails.

Class 1 and Class 3 bikes also typically offer varying degrees of pedal assist such as eco––which offers little assist and uses less battery––and turbo––which will make pedaling feel like a breeze but will shorten the battery life.

4. The battery and motor power equation

Speaking of batteries, where do you want yours? On most eMTBs and road e-bikes, batteries are integrated within the frame for a sleeker system. This can make them harder to remove, unlike many hybrid/commuter oriented bikes that store the battery on the outside. 

Specialized Creo e-bike

Some e-bike motors and batteries are so discrete, it's easy to mistake them for analogue bikes.

Most e-bikes are powered by lithium-ion batteries, which can be charged hundreds or thousands of times (there are specific ways to maximize battery life, covered  in a future article). Batteries are often listed in terms of watt hours (Wh), which is the number of hours a battery can sustain one watt of power. Bigger batteries generally last longer, though that is dependent on the motor size. They’re also heavier and more expensive. 

Motors are also measured in watts, with the number being the maximum power the motor can produce. Generally, a more powerful motor will drain the battery faster, and a less powerful one lets the battery last longer. The amount of range available in an e-bike is expressed in miles and/or hours and is an equation of battery capacity and motor output. Some bikes offer range extenders, essentially auxiliary batteries that you can take along if you know you’re going for an extra long ride.

For a deep dive into e-bike power (including handy analogies to horsepower, and Tour de France riders), check out this article on Cycle Volta.

On the topic of motors, you have options with where that lives too. Most e-bikes offer mid-drive or hub motors. Mid-drive are integrated in the bottom bracket between your pedal cranks and offer a balanced, natural pedal-assist feel. Hub motors are integrated into the rear or front hub with the former feeling a bit like being pushed from behind, and the latter similar to driving a front-wheel drive car. It’s worth noting that hub motors can make changing a flat on the back or front wheel a little more challenging.

5. Frames and components

E-bikes come in a variety of frame materials but the most common is aluminum. Without the weight concerns that come with performance on analogue bikes, carbon fiber and other expensive materials like titanium are less common on e-bikes. That said, carbon e-road bikes and eMTBs are increasing in popularity.

Pivot Shuttle SL e-mountain bike

The high-performing Pivot Shuttle SL only comes with a carbon frame, though many other e-bikes offer aluminum builds.

As with analogue bikes, quality components can influence how smooth the ride is, how often the bike needs maintenance, and general durability. Some components manufacturers including SRAM make e-bike specific components designed to withstand higher torque and speeds, while some bikes like the Specialized Como SL offer low maintenance belt drive options that replace the standard drivetrain. Belt drives can shift when stopped and don’t need the lube and cable maintenance that typical bike chains and drivetrains do. If you’re a rider looking to just get on and go, belt drives are an easy option.

Final thoughts

When it comes to bikes, you get what you pay for. That’s even more true with e-bikes that have motors, batteries, and electronic systems that need to be well engineered and dialed to work consistently well. At Basalt Bike and Ski, we only stock e-bikes that we can stand behind and provide maintenance for, giving you extra piece of mind with every purchase.

April 13, 2023 — Manasseh Franklin