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How to choose your first electric bicycle: an e-bike buying guide

Electric bicycles have become the fastest growing segment of the bicycle industry. While standard pedal bike sales are either flat or falling in nearly every category, electric bicycles continue to see double or triple digit growth year over year.

With their ease of use and thrilling performance, e-bikes are drawing more and more first riders. If you’ve been considering getting your own electric bicycle but don’t know where to begin, then this guide is for you!

How to choose an electric bicycle

It is easy to become overwhelmed when you look at the sheer number of electric bicycles out there.

I remember when there were a half-dozen companies to choose from. Now there are hundreds – perhaps even thousands. Where do you even begin?

When it comes to buying an electric bicycle, there are two main differentiators that will help you narrow down the field: style and price. Both of these factors will help you cut through the noise and find the right e-bike for your specific needs.

If you prefer watching over reading, check out my video version of this article below. But then read on to see detailed info and important review links to the type of e-bikes that I discuss below.

I find it easiest to start with the style of e-bike, which can be divided into the following categories:

  • Electric mountain bikes
  • Electric cruiser bikes
  • Electric road/commuter bikes
  • Electric cargo bikes
  • Electric folding bikes
  • Electric fat bikes
  • Other specialty electric bikes

The purists out there will already be yelling at me, claiming that there are more categories. “Why the heck would you lump road and commuters e-bikes in the same category?!” or “What about electric recumbents?!”, etc. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll combine somewhat similar groups of bikes together. If you’re buying your first e-bike, you’re probably not a road e-bike snob – at least not yet. And bikes like recumbents, tandems, and other less common styles will all be covered in the “other” category.

xiaomi himo c20 electric bicycle

Electric mountain bikes

Electric mountain bikes are certainly great for riding trails and heading off-road. But don’t count them out on the street either.

Electric mountain bikes on the lower end of the price range can make excellent commuter e-bikes. Such bikes are usually hardtails, meaning they lack rear suspension. Instead they often have just a front suspension fork. Their suspension might not be good enough for hardcore trail riding, but it is usually sufficient for hitting a few pot holes on the way to work.

mountain e-bikes

Full suspension Haibike on left, hardtail Magnum Peak on right 

If you actually want to jump your e-bike and do any serious downhill mountain biking, you’ll be looking at a downhill electric mountain bike. These bikes are built to much higher standards and are designed to survive years of punishment. Things like dropping off 10 ft (3 meter) tables and reliably hitting jump after jump are par for the course with electric downhill bikes. Companies like Haibike and Greyp make these types of electric bikes, but expect to pay handsomely.

Electric cruiser bikes

Cruisers are built for, well, cruising. Electric cruiser bikes all about comfort and style.

They typically have wide, plush seats and higher handlebars that are swept back towards the rider. The pedals are generally mounted further forward, which allows the rider to rest both feet flat on the ground at stops.

Cruisers are the epitome of a beach bike, and often have larger balloon tires in the 3″ range, though the tires are not as large as those on dedicated fat bikes.

Pedego is one of the best known electric cruiser bike manufacturers in the US, while Rayvolt makes what I consider to be the most beautiful electric cruiser in existence.

rayvolt cruzer e-bike

The Rayvolt Cruzer electric bike

Cruisers are a lot of fun for leisurely riding. However, they are both larger and heavier than nearly any other type of e-bike. That can make them a bit less maneuverable at low speeds. If your goal is cruising along the local beach paths though, a cruiser will fit in perfectly.

Electric road/commuter bikes

Electric road and commuter bikes is a very broad category and includes a number of different types, ranging from hybrids to racing to leisure and even gravel bikes. Most share a number of characteristics, including narrower tires, a more forward leaning geometry, narrower saddles, lack of suspension and emphasis on lightweight design.

If your goal is cycling as a hobby and you ride mostly on the street, an electric road bike is an excellent choice. These bikes are designed for the most efficient pedaling and are often the lightest options. They can often be ridden easily without any e-assist at all, which is great for cyclists that only want help on the hills. Bikes like the Raleigh Redux, which we reviewed, fit into this category well.

If you plan to use an e-bike as a commuter vehicle and not necessarily for pleasure riding, you’ll likely want to look at hybrid or even cyclocross style bikes. These usually have slightly wider tires and their designs place more of an emphasis on sturdy multi-terrain frames. Gravel bikes such as the Yamaha Wabash also fit into this category. While they look more like road bikes, they can handle tough city commutes and even some fairly decent trail riding, as we found out on a test ride.

Bikes like the GenZe 200 series e-bikes are also optimized for commuting. Without suspension, they can remove costly components and focus more on rigid frames that allow proper pedaling form combined with enough motor power to keep pedaling optional. That can be nice after a long day of work when you just want to zoom home without pedaling.

Electric cargo bikes

Electric cargo bikes are the minivans of the e-bike world.

They aren’t sexy. They aren’t sporty. But they sure are useful!

Electric cargo bikes are designed for hauling as much crap as possible. To do that, they use a few different methods.

Front loaders like the Yuba Supermarché have large front buckets or covered pods. They have some of the best hauling capacity, but the extra-stretched bikes can be a bit unwieldy, especially at slow speeds.

To retain a size closer to standard bicycles, some electric cargo bicycles use frame that is stretched in the rear to provide a foot or cargo platform on either side of the rear wheel. They also offer a number of different cargo accessories like racks, bags, and child carriers. The Tern GSD is a great example of a cargo bike that somehow manages to offer a 400 lb (181 kg) capacity while still keeping the frame minimized to a manageable size.

Tern’s founder after pulling me around in a Tern GSD’s child carrier

Another great example of a smaller-ish cargo bike is the CERO One. We reviewed one and found that the combination of front cargo rack and rear cargo box, plus many other cargo accessories, made for a super useful electric cargo bike. I was even able to do a lumber haul from my local hardware store. Check out the video below to see me carrying 32 board feet of shelving lumber on a bicycle!

Electric folding bikes

Electric folding bikes are one of the most popular categories due to their extreme portability. Most e-folders have a folding point in the middle of the bike and on the handlebars. This collapses the bike into a package usually no larger than a suitcase.

If you plan to put your e-bike in a car trunk or you plan to carry it onto the bus or train, then a folding e-bike is likely in your future.

The downside to many folders is that they are often heavier than comparably sized e-bikes and sometimes suffer from lower quality parts. Designing a bike to fold means you have to make compromises to prevent the price from rising too much – and those compromises often come in the form of bicycle component quality.

However, there are still some great folders out there. One of my favorites is the Oyama CX E8D II, which has an awesome battery and motor combo along with other nice components including hydraulic disc brakes.

folding e-bike

Electric fat bikes

Electric fat bikes are one of the most fun categories of e-bikes, in my humble opinion. They excel in off-road conditions with loose soil, sand or even snow. Their large tires, usually 4″ or greater, help electric fat bikes ride up and over nearly any surface.

They can of course be ridden on streets, sidewalks or bike lanes, but also offer the ability to hop a curb and right straight down the middle of a park. Most won’t have suspension, though some have suspension forks. But with such large tires, suspension isn’t quite as important – the fat tires absorb many bumps and pot holes.

Electric fat bikes used to be a small niche, but now there are dozens of companies offering competing models. We recently reviewed the RadRover and found it to be an excellent compromise between low price and good performance.

Of course you can also try your hand at building your own electric fat bike if you are feeling adventurous.

Other specialty electric bikes

While these represent a minority of e-bikes, there are some other fun styles out there.

Electric tandem bicycles have two seats and two sets of pedals. They’re perfect for couples that want to put less effort into pedaling and more effort into arguing in closer proximity.

Electric tricycles are better for riders with disabilities or lack the balance or leg strength to support themselves during stops on a standard two-wheeled bicycle. Delta trikes, with two wheels in the back, are much more common. Tadpole trikes, with two wheels in the front, are more stable during higher speed turns but are also more expensive.

Electric recumbent bikes put the rider in a more laid back position and usually use a chair instead of a standard bicycle seat. They come in standard and tricycle varieties. Electric recumbent bicycles can be a lot of fun and give more of a go-kart feeling. However, it is recommended to use a safety flag so that other drivers can see the low profile of a recumbent.

Electric bicycle price ranges

Once you’ve decided which style of electric bicycle fits your riding needs best, the next consideration will be the price point.

Like most products, e-bikes come in everything from the ultra-budget level to the ultra-premium level.

Interestingly, one of the biggest differentiators in e-bike quality isn’t the electric components but the rather the bicycle components. Most e-bikes use similar electrical components until you reach the mid-range price level, at which point the bikes begin to feature nicer quality electrical components. On the lower end of the spectrum, more affordable prices are usually achievable by reducing the quality of the bicycle itself, not the electronics.

Let’s check out some examples.

Ultra-budget electric bikes ($300-$500)

On the extreme low-end of the price range are ultra-affordable e-bikes. These can start as low as $300-$400 and are exclusively Chinese imported bikes.

ultra-budget e-bikes

Xiaomi is a big name that has recently gotten into the e-bike game. They have produced two models that cost $261 and $375 in their domestic market, but get closer to $400-$500 locally.

Amazon also has a number of scooter-style e-bikes that lack functional pedals yet retain the shape of a bicycle. These can normally be found for around $399.

Many people will refer to this level of e-bike as disposable, as in you just toss it out and get a new one when it inevitably breaks. I’m not sure I’d go that far, but these definitely aren’t quality options. They have no-name bike parts and often super cheap battery cells that offer limited range. You pretty much get what you pay for.

If you are looking for a good deal and can spend a bit more, I’d recommend moving to the next category of budget e-bikes.

Budget electric bikes ($500-$1,000)

Once you move into the budget-level e-bike category, you see an increase in component quality and range. One of my favorites in this category is the Swagtron EB-5. At only $499, this e-bike is nearly in the ultra-budget category. However, I’ve been riding one for the last 8 months and it has held up incredibly well. For that reason I’m classifying it in the budget category instead of ultra-budget.

The EB-5 has decent power and range for its low-cost, but has only one pedaling gear. So if you like to shift, this isn’t the bike for you. It’s geared very low though so you can easily pedal on hills. Above 10 mph or so, you’ll want to use the throttle since the pedaling cadence gets quite high without gears.

Ancheer is another common brand that sits squarely in the budget-bike category. We’ve reviewed a few of them and found them to be basically fine. For a $600 or $700 e-bike, you can’t expect too much. But they get you where you need to go and perform pretty well for as long as they hold up. The frames don’t inspire a lot of confidence and the bike parts are low-end, but they’re pretty good for the price.

Don’t expect these bikes to last for years of abuse. But if you take care of them and use them within their limits, budget e-bikes can be a solid way to get your feet wet in the world of e-bikes.

Mid-range electric bikes ($1,000-$2,500)

This is the sweet spot, where both the electrical and bicycle components improve drastically. Whereas budget-level e-bikes are good for those that want to experiment with the concept of e-bikes, this mid-range category is for those that are committed and want a decent e-bike without paying used-car prices.

Once e-bikes surpass $1,000, components like brakes and shifters start transitioning into better models by companies like Shimano and Tektro. Tires start coming with recognizable names like Kenda, and frames start feeling like something you could ride down a set of stairs without braking in half. On the higher end of the spectrum you’ll even start to see hydraulic disc brakes and other high-end components.

Blix Aveny is an affordable Dutch-style bike that we tested

Companies like Rad Power Bikes and Blix Bikes specialize in this category, offering good quality bikes with proper components at prices that remain reasonable.

These bikes can actually last 3-5 years with good bike maintenance, though today’s lithium battery technology is unlikely to last much longer than that.

Premium electric bicycles ($2,500-$5,000)

This is a fairly wide price range and includes a number of factors. By the time you reach $2,500, you’re unlikely to find any junk components anymore. Parts like shifters, brakes, frames, and suspension start entering the mid-range level for various suppliers, as opposed to the entry-level brand name components found on e-bikes in the previous category.

priority embark review premium e-bike

Priority Embark with its Gates Carbon Belt Drive system

Another differentiator in this category is that you’ll start to see big name mid-drive motors like those from Bosch, Shimano, Brose, Yamaha, and Panasonic.

These mid-drives are a step up from hub motors found on most mid-range and lower e-bikes. They offer better performance, especially for those that enjoy using the electric power just for assist while actually pedaling.

Some notable examples that we’ve previously reviewed include the Priority Embark, Yamaha Wabash, Raleigh Redux, Trek Super Commuter, and Cero One.

It is important to point out though that just because an e-bike is priced in this range, doesn’t mean it is necessarily of premium quality. Some companies simply charge higher prices than their bikes warrant. Pedego is a good example of this. Their bikes can easily cost $4,000-$5,000, yet the quality isn’t comparable to other e-bikes in that price range. There’s nothing wrong with Pedego’s quality, it’s just that the price doesn’t only reflect the bike. The company has a lot of overhead, between their large dealer network, huge marketing presence, and other expenses such as paying William Shatner to talk about how much he loves Pedego. So what would otherwise be a $2,500 e-bike (c’mon Pedego, rack mounted batteries in 2019?!) is now suddenly more expensive because you’re paying for the company to manage their sprawling e-bike empire.

Ultra-premium electric bikes ($5,000-$10,000)

This is where things start to get a bit crazy. At this level, we’re talking about super high-end bike components. Interestingly though, a lot of the electrical components aren’t much better than you’d find on a $3,000 e-bike.

But bikes like the $10,000 Stromer ST5 include expensive electronic shifters and other parts that jack up the overall price of the bike. Other e-bikes offer belt drive or $1,000 internally geared Rohloff hubs.

Once you enter the ultra-premium realm, you’ll see e-bikes that are designed for serious enthusiasts.

Electric downhill bikes fall squarely in this category. Last year at Interbike we tested a $2,000 Magnum Peak electric mountain bike against a $7,000 Haibike downhill electric bike. The difference is night and day. While the $7,000 dedicated downhill bike felt like I was riding on a cloud while racing down treacherous mountain paths, I thought I was going to die on the $2,000 electric mountain bike. It just wasn’t built to handle that kind of extreme riding. To perform at these levels, four-figure frames and suspension components are simply a must.

greyp g6 test ride

And that’s it! To choose your first electric bike, you’ll need to determine the type of riding you want to do and the price level that you want to pay.

Like many hobbies and sports, e-bikes are a play-to-pay activity. But that doesn’t mean you have to break the bank. By choosing the right type of bike at the right price level for you, anyone can have a great time on an e-bike!

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Avatar for Micah Toll Micah Toll

Micah Toll is a personal electric vehicle enthusiast, battery nerd and author of the Amazon #1 bestselling books DIY Lithium Batteries, DIY Solar Power and the Ultimate DIY Ebike Guide.

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