By Stan Purdum
QUESTION: How fast do electric bicycles go? Will they let me keep up with my speedy friends? I’m having trouble keeping up on group rides as I get older, and I don’t want everyone to have to wait on me but I still want to go on the rides. —Tom B.
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: An electric bike — commonly called an ebike — will help you go pretty fast, but whether it will let you keep up with your friends depends on how speedy they are.
That’s because the motors on ebikes assist your pedaling only up to 20 mph (Class 1 and Class 2 ebikes) or 28 mph (Class 3 ebikes). All three classes of ebikes make climbing hills and riding into the wind easier, but for running with the really “big dogs,” the bikes in Class 1 and 2 are too slow. It’s not uncommon for fit road riders to zip along for extended periods at 22-25 mph, and if you’re riding a Class 1 or Class 2 ebike, you might as well be riding a brick.
Some ebike have throttles, which will power the bike without you pedaling, but those will not move the bike faster than the mph limits of the motor.
The regulation of ebikes is currently a matter of state laws, and most states have now passed appropriate measures. By law in most states, all legal electric bicycles must fit into one of three classes, defined as follows:
- Class 1: ebikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and have a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph. That is, the motor ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 20 mph. You can still pedal faster if you are able, but without any motor assist.
- Class 2: ebikes that also have a maximum speed of 20 mph but are throttle- and pedal-assisted. The throttle does not have to be employed, but both throttle-assistance and/or pedal assistance cease when the e-bike reaches 20 mph. With the throttle, class 2 ebikes can be driven without pedaling, but do not have to be.
- Class 3: ebikes that are pedal-assist only, with no throttle, and a maximum assisted speed of 28 mph. The motor ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 28 mph.
All classes limit the motor’s power to 1 horsepower (750W), which is more than enough to propel the bike to its legal speed limit while you pedal. Bikes with more than 750W motors are regarded as electric mopeds or even electric motorcycles and must be licensed and insured, and the rider must have the appropriate driving license. Electric bicycles do not require any of those measures.
Even though ebikes have motors, they are still bicycles, and just like analog bikes, they are primarily propelled by pedaling. They can move at speeds similar to regular bikes, though an individual rider may achieve faster sustained speeds than he or she was able to reach on a conventional bicycle. In other words, your average speed on an ebike may be higher than if you were pedaling a non-electric bike, but it will not be higher than what a strong rider in good condition can maintain on a regular bike.
But if you are able to pedal faster than the motor limits, the bike will go faster, though without any motor assist. And if you are heading downhill, gravity will contribute to your speed, which may well exceed the pedal-assisted limits. What’s more, if your battery runs out, you can continue to ride your ebike, powered only by your pedaling, though it will likely be a tiring task, since thanks to their motors and batteries, ebikes are heavier than regular bikes, and turning the cranks moves more parts than on a non-ebike, creating more resistance.
So the bottom line is, if your friends are casual riders or ones who pedal at moderate speeds, a Class 1 or Class 2 ebike will let you keep up with them. But if they are diehard competitive roadies who often ride above 20 mph, or even riders who cruise at 17 or 18 mph but have lots of surges to higher speeds, you need a Class 3 ebike to stay with them. In those circumstances, a Class 1 or 2 ebike goes from being an advantage to being a big disadvantage.
If you already have a Class 1 or 2 steed, however, there is a clever hack that will bump it up to perform like a Class 3. The great bike tech Lennard Zinn explains it here, saying “There is a very simple hack that I’m convinced will work with any e-bike, and that is to lie to the bike’s computer about the wheel size. For instance, I converted my wife’s e-bike from Class 1 to Class 3 simply by inputting in her computer controller the diameter (or circumference — I can’t remember which it asked for) of a 20-inch wheel, even though she … has 700C wheels. I had to put a separate bike computer on her handlebar that would display her actual speed, since the speedometer on the e-bike computer display is now useless. When her e-bike computer now says she is going 20mph, she is actually going 28mph—voilá, a Class 3 e-bike emerges from its Class 1 beginnings (and it still has the Class 1 sticker).”
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.