What is an eBike?

Electric bikes, also called eBikes, continue to grow in popularity. But what is an eBike and what makes it different from a traditional bicycle?

What is an eBike and how do they work?

An eBike is a bicycle with a battery-powered electric motor that offers assistance when pedaling or by using a throttle. Many modern bikes come with multiple gears to make pedaling easier, but eBikes improve upon this, making pedaling nearly effortless or even optional if the bike is equipped with a throttle. 

eBikes come in several common configurations, each of which has its advantages and disadvantages.

  • Front-hub motor: With a front-hub eBike, an electric motor replaces the front hub. When pedaling or when activated by a throttle, the motor turns the front wheel, assisting by pulling the bike forward.
  • Rear-hub motor: With a rear-hub eBike, the electric motor is in the rear wheel hub, pushing the bike forward when you pedal or when you use the throttle.
  • Mid-drive motor: Mid-drive eBikes use a motor at the crankset to provide pedaling assistance or to propel the bike when using the throttle.

Rear-hub eBikes are the most common configuration on today’s eBikes because the setup combines lower cost with predictable handling. However, several manufacturers make front-hub kits and you’ll sometimes encounter this setup with older eBikes. By comparison to front and rear-hub electric bikes, mid-drive eBikes tend to be costlier, but also have a reputation for smooth power delivery.

Electric bikes can provide power in two ways:

  • Pedal Assistance (PA): With pedal assistance, the eBike uses sensors to determine when you’re pedaling and engage the motor to make pedaling easier. Typically, eBikes use either cadence sensors, which sense how fast you’re pedaling, or torque sensors that sense pedaling force. On most bikes, these sensors pair with a controller that lets you choose how much assistance you want. Some eBikes offer three levels of pedal assistance while others offer as many as eight. A bike that has an electric motor that assists only during pedaling is called a pedelec.
  • Throttle: Similar to a motorcycle or moped, many eBikes also offer a throttle that allows you to power the bike without pedaling at all. Cruise control is also becoming popular, giving the option of piloting the bike without pedaling, twisting a throttle grip, or pushing a throttle switch.

What you need to know about eBike regulations

Adding power and possibly a throttle to a bike can lead to state and local regulations regarding how and when eBikes can be used. In 2002, a federal law (107-319) passed by Congress exempted many eBikes from regulation as motor vehicles. Electric bicycles that meet the requirements in the bill are governed instead by the Consumer Product Safety Act.

The federal law roughly parallels part of a growing standard for electric bikes that defines each according to categories, called class 1 to 3. 

  • Class 1: This group includes eBikes that do not have a throttle and are powered strictly by pedaling or assisted pedaling. Additionally, the maximum motor-assisted speed for Class 1 eBikes is 20 MPH. Class 1 eBikes are generally allowed on bike paths and bike lanes that are shared with traditional, non-assisted bikes.
  • Class 2: This group follows the same 20 MPH motor-assisted limit as Class 1, but Class 2 eBikes have a throttle in addition to or in place of pedal assistance. As with Class 1 eBikes, you can generally ride them the same places as an analog bike.
  • Class 3: The last group of eBikes under this class system has a maximum motor-assisted speed of 28 MPH. Typically this top speed is only allowed to be achieved with assisted pedalling, with any throttle option only allowing up to 20 MPH.

Due to higher speed capabilities, Class 3 eBikes may face additional restrictions which prohibit their use on mixed-use paths or bike trails. 

The majority of states now use the 3-class system to categorize eBikes, but there still isn’t a national standard beyond the federal definition that gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission jurisdiction over low-speed electric bikes.

Regulations regarding electric bikes can vary from state to state or even by municipality, so be sure to research local rules before you ride. People For Bikes is a great resource for state-by-state electric bike laws.

What does eBike Insurance cover?

A basic eBike insurance policy includes coverage for theft, crash damage, and spare parts. For many riders, the best solution is to purchase a dedicated eBike policy that provides full-value protection and options to add liability coverage to insure against accidental injuries caused to others or damage to the property of others. Whether you ride a Class 1, 2 or 3 eBike, you can get customized coverage with Oyster easily based on your needs.

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