Choosing the best electric bike for takes some research. There are several features that need to be considered before you spend your hard-earned money. It’s easy to choose the wrong ebike and later regret your purchase, so hopefully this guide will help you avoid that, because ebikes are fun and useful. At the end, I will tell you what electric bike I would specifically recommend as your first ebike!
You don’t have to spend a fortune to get an ebike that you’ll enjoy riding, but going too cheap will probably cost you more in the long run. I would suggest spending what you can afford, but also consider long-term ownership, because that has a cost too. Better quality ebikes will hold their value longer. Certain brands are very popular and easy to resell. I’ve had no trouble selling bikes from Rad Power Bikes, Lectric, Juiced, or Aventon. These are all very popular brands in the ebike world, and good brands to start with.
Most of all, buy from an established ebike company that can supply parts, replacement batteries, and technical support long after the sale.
No matter how great a bike is, if it is too big or too small for you, it will be a miserable experience, and possibly dangerous. Seat height from seat to ground (and from seat to pedals), reach (distance from the center of the bottom bracket to the center of handlebars), and stand-over height are numbers you need to look at.
You need to know your measurements, such as your bike inseam. This is the distance from the groin to the bottom of the ankle, not the bottom of your foot.
Proper leg extension when pedaling also matters, because you’ll avoid a lot of knee pain. Choosing the right bike geometry for your reach will also eliminate a lot of shoulder and wrist pain. Plus, you’ll be better able to control the bike and ride comfortably for longer distances.
To measure your reach, have someone measure your arm length from the bony point on the top of your shoulder (the acromion) to a pen you hold in your hand to simulate a handlebar grip. Your reach doesn’t extend to the tip of your fingers, but instead the middle of your hand.
It can be more of a challenge to find a bike that will fit you if you’re under 5’3″ or over 6’2″. If you fall into either of these categories, companies that offer multiple frame sizes is where you need to begin. Of the major online ebike brands, Aventon is one of the few that offer different frame sizes, for most of their models. Also, higher end ebikes found in bike shops will often have frame size options. I’m 5’1″ with a 28″ inseam and can ride a wide variety of ebikes, but I had to do my homework first.
High-Step, Mid-Step or Step-Thru Frame
Many electric bikes come in either high-step, mid-step, or step-thru frames. A step-thru frame on an ebike makes a lot of sense, and they aren’t just for women or short people. Because ebikes are heavy and motorized, it is extremely important to have good control of them. Being able to straddle the frame when stopped and safely mount and dismount an ebike will prevent accidents.
If you have knee or hip sensitivity, or balance problems, step-thrus are a godsend! They are a great choice for older riders, who maybe can’t toss a leg over a bike. Some step-thru frames have some frame flex, but many ebikes are built very beefy, and this isn’t so much of an issue.
If you want a bike with a stiffer frame for higher speeds, then a high-step or mid-step is the better choice.
Ebike Classifications, Legal Stuff
There are legal issues to consider when choosing the right electric bike. Different states, cities, parks, public lands, etc., have different regulations when it comes to ebikes. For instance, if you want to cruise along Chicago’s gorgeous lakefront trail, you’ll need to do it on a Class 1 or Class 2 ebike. Illinois law defines ebikes as bikes with motors less than 750 watts.
What Are The Ebike Classifications?
- Class 1, No Throttle, Pedal Assist Only, Top Speed 20 MPH
- Class 2, Has a Throttle, Top Speed 20 MPH
- Class 3, May or May Not Have a Throttle, Top Speed Using Pedal Assist 28 MPH (Ebike throttles by law should not exceed 20 MPH. Otherwise, it is classified as a moped or motorcycle.)
Be wary of some overseas brands that ignore these regulations. Many will sell you bikes that aren’t legal to ride as an electric bike. They’re really mopeds or don’t fall into any legal classification. You may have a hard time insuring them, as well.
How safe an ebike is depends upon its build quality, quality of components, geometry, speed, and payload capacity. The most important safety feature are the brakes. Look for good quality disc brakes. For a Class 1 or Class 2 ebike, mechanical disc brakes are fine. I prefer a minimum of 180 mm rotors, unless it’s a lightweight bike. For Class 3, or heavy cargo ebikes, I’d go with hydraulic brakes.
Some ebike companies go cheap on the brakes, which really bothers me. You can upgrade them yourself later fairly easily, but I’d like to see some regulations. It’s kind of the wild, wild west when it comes to ebike standards.
Make sure the brakes have what are called brake inhibitors. These are sensors that can tell when the brakes are being applied and will shut off the motor while you brake. This way, the brakes aren’t fighting against the force of the motor.
Also, for safety, I’d choose an ebike with integrated lights. These are lights that are powered by the bike’s battery. Most ebikes have integrated lights, but a few don’t. If you’re going to be riding around traffic, an ebike with a brake light is a good safety choice. These are lights that get brighter when you use the brakes, whether the lights are turned on or off.
Tires with reflective striping and light colored frames are more visible, and a smart safety choice.
Sizing also plays a big part in bike safety. A bike that is too big, heavy, or fast for you will be hard to control.
Something many first-time ebike buyers forget to consider are the bike’s gears. You don’t want your ebike to haunt you with ghost pedaling. Gearing is definitely an area where many ebikes fall flat. Bad gear ratio will lead to ghost pedaling, or “hamster wheeling”, and not being able to reach the top speeds the bike’s motor is capable of. Bad gear ratios will also make it impossible to achieve a comfortable and practical cadence when pedaling.
If you want a good pedaling ebike, look for one with a freewheel or cassette with a range from 11-34 tooth or better. 14-32 is acceptable, while 14-28 teeth will often leave you wanting more. Chain ring size also matters. Typically, a larger chain ring, one with more teeth, is better than one with fewer. It will depend upon what gears it is paired up with. Generally, more gear options are better than less, unless you want a low maintenance single speed drivetrain.
Mid-Drive or Hub-Drive
Hub-drive ebikes are the most common because they are the most affordable. Hub motors are usually located in the hub of the rear wheel, and they propel the bike independently of the bike’s chain. In fact, the chain could fall off, and you could still ride it. Most hub-drives use a cadence sensor to turn the motor on and off.
Cadence sensors use magnets to sense when the pedals are moving. A good quality cadence sensor will have 12 or more magnets and be sealed from water and dirt. Some cadence sensors are more sensitive and precise in detecting when you’re pedaling, and others have a longer delay.
Some ebikes start off like jack rabbits and others are smooth and steady. If you’re new to ebikes, you probably don’t want a bike that takes off like a rocket. Read reviews to find out how a bike performs in this regard, because it’s hard to tell by specs alone.
Mid-drive motors will provide the best pedaling experience because they utilize the bikes’ gears and usually have torque sensors, which detect how much pressure you put on the pedals, not just whether you are pedaling. Applying more pressure tells the motor you want more power, applying less pressure tells the motor you want less assistance. So, you’re getting the power needed for the situation, such as going up a hill. Mid-drive motors are more efficient, so you will get more range from a mid-drive with equal battery capacity, compared to a hub-drive.
Mid-drives are good hill climbers, usually quieter, and have better weight distribution because the motor weight is low and center on the bike. They also make changing a flat tire on the rear easier, because there’s not a heavy motor or motor cabling to worry about.
If you want a more natural pedaling experience, a mid-drive is the way to go, though of the hub-drive bikes I have personally ridden, the Ride1Up 700 Series and 500 Series, have a satisfying cadence, and I’m picky about this, as a pedaling enthusiast myself.
Displays and Controllers
Ebikes displays and controllers are the brains of the bike. Some allow more customization in that you can specify how many pedal assist levels you would like, how much power you would like from each level, cadence sensor sensitivity settings, etc. Most ebikes don’t allow much customization. Ride1Up is a brand that is very good at allowing customization. It’s probably the best feature of their bikes, as it is available on most of their models.
If customization isn’t available, look for an ebike with multiple pedal assist levels (5 or more), a more precise battery indicator, and a readable screen for both day and night riding. Color screens are pretty but usually hard to read in sunlight, unless the display has very good backlighting.
Best Online Ebike Brands
Okay, you came here to find out what is the best ebike to buy, so I’m going to give some solid recommendations.
The best online bike brands are:
All of these brands are known for good customer service. Rad Power Bikes is the largest ebike company in North America, with a few showrooms around the United States and in Canada. Lectric is the most popular budget friendly ebike company, and known for no-hassle service. I really like their Lectric XP Lite for portability, and a great price. You can purchase Aventon’s bikes online or in a dealership. This means you’ll be able to have your bike assembled professionally, and/or be able to take it to an Aventon dealer for any repairs it might need.
I tossed REI into this group too, because you can either buy online or purchase in-store. REI provides ongoing support, free flat tire repairs, tuning, etc., to their customers and members. This takes a lot of the worry out of buying an ebike that you may or may not feel comfortable working on yourself.
REI offers this service to any bike they sell, not just their brands, so you have a wide variety of bikes to choose from.
Top Dealer Brands
There are many good dealer ebike brands. The obvious advantage to buying from a dealer is ongoing customer support. You also get to see the bike in person and be fitted for the right one. Trek and Giant are huge bike companies with dealerships throughout the United States. Pedego is a good brand that you can buy online or through a dealership. Tern, Gazelle, and Specialized also top my list. Bikes that you buy from a dealer are usually more expensive, but that’s because you’re buying from a dealer and not directly from the company. Also, these are locally-owned shops with more overhead.
The Liv Amiti that I bought online and had shipped to a local dealer and then delivered to my door fully assembled and perfectly tuned. That’s the advantage of using a dealer. Some bike shops will work with online brands to assemble your bike for you. You’ll want to call ahead first.
There’s no one electric bike that is the best bike for everyone. Instead, you’ll have to decide what type of riding you want to do, but if you want a good introductory ebike, any of the above-mentioned will be a safer bet.
My Choice for A First-Time Ebike Buyer
I didn’t want to just leave you with an “it depends” answer for the best ebike for a first-time buyer, so here is my choice. A great multipurpose entry-level ebike is the RadExpand 5. It’s foldable, accommodates riders of different heights, is approachable, fast enough for most people, and fun! I can’t imagine somebody not having fun on this bike. Even if you don’t use it as a folding ebike, it’s a good size to handle.
The lower step-over height, quality rear rack, good range, and fat tires providing comfort and stability makes it a terrific first ebike. Yes, there are electric bikes with much better components and that are more ideal for mountain biking, or for the serious road cyclist, but many people are simply looking for a way to get out and enjoy nature on an ebike that will be reliable and safe.
My top recommendation for the most affordable ebike goes to the Lectric XP Lite. For a full-sized bike that is great for pedaling, my choice is the Ride1Up Prodigy with its mid-drive motor. It has become my favorite bike, out of the dozens I’ve reviewed. Also, don’t forget to check out your local bike shops, and see what they have to offer.
My job is to steer you in the right direction, not just earn commission pushing a particular brand or bike. There are many great ebikes out there. Just make sure you choose one that will fit your particular needs and budget.
Whatever you choose, just get out and ride, and welcome to the wonderful world of ebikes. You’re going to get hooked!
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