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Electric bikes are exploding in popularity right now. But there’s a common misconception that they’re like electric scooters: you press a throttle and whizz along with zero effort.
Although such e-bikes exist – often called electric mopeds – they’re not legal to use in many countries. In the UK and Europe, for example, electric bikes are only legal to use on the road if they are pedal-assisted and have a maximum assisted speed of 15.5mph (25km/h).
What this means is that the motor will only provide assistance if you’re pedalling. And assistance is the operative word: the motor doesn’t exclusively propel the bike: you have to put in effort too.
And that effort is surprisingly similar to riding a normal bike, not that you’d realise it. Electric bikes take the pain out of headwinds and make hills feel a lot less steep. Put simply, they make it easy to ride just about anywhere and over longer distances even if you’re not particularly fit.
Going back to the law, briefly, what you can have is a 'boost' button, as found on bikes such as the VanMoof S3 and X3. This brings you quickly up to the top speed, but only if you're pedalling.
Bikes with throttles that work even if you're not pedalling are often Chinese models, since a throttle is legal in some countries.
Electric bike assistance levels
If you haven’t ridden an electric bike, you might not know that they let you choose how much assistance the motor gives you.
Typically there are three levels: minimum, medium and maximum (usually represented as 1, 2 and 3), but some ebikes have more, allowing even finer control over how much help you get.
And you can use the control panel on the handlebars to change the mode while you ride, a bit like gears.
So, when it comes to a steep hill, you can go for maximum power and make things easy for your legs, and then switch to minimum assistance when the road is flatter. It’s really up to you. If you’re feeling up for a challenge you can try the hills on a lower assistance level.
All electric bikes can be ridden without motor assistance as well, whether that’s a specific mode or by turning off the power. This means you’re putting in all the effort, which will extend the range you can travel under battery power and, of course, give you more exercise.
Scientific evidence for ebike fitness
There are plenty of studies which have proven that, while riding an electric bike is a less-intensive form of exercise than riding a non-powered bicycle, it is still a great way to keep fit and get fit.
One such study, by the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that the vast majority of the time spent riding an e-bike was spent in MVPA. That stands for moderate to vigorous physical activity, and it accounted for between 92–99% of the test rides which were carried out.
Another study compared the use of electric and non-electric mountain bikes and found that the average heart rate while riding an ‘eMTB’ was 94% of the same while riding a traditional bike.
It concluded that electric mountain bike use “achieved a majority of the exercise response and exceeded established biometric thresholds for cardiovascular fitness” and also that “despite the measured benefit, participants’ perceived exertion while riding the eMTB was low.”
And this is one of the great things about electric bikes: you’re exercising and getting fit without feeling like you’re putting in the effort. So if you’re worried that you won’t get fit if you buy an electric bike, your fears are unfounded.
Here’s a selection of the best electric bikes to buy.