Electric bikes have existed for years, but until recently were a fairly rare sight in the UK. Those who bought one were either cycling enthusiasts or people who specifically needed a helping hand because they couldn’t cycle without assistance, or wanted to cycle longer distances.

Now, you can buy electric bikes from plenty of bike shops and they’re even in Halfords. Prices have come down, too, and the cheapest models start from under £500, such as the Assist for £479.

You might consider that a lot of money, but it’s cheap compared to top-end electric bikes which cost several thousand pounds.

Riding an e-bike is great fun, not least because you can accelerate away from a stop quickly and beat your friends to the top of hills. And they take the misery out of hills.

What are electric bikes?

Exactly what they sound like: a bicycle with an electric motor that drives either one of the wheels. On more expensive bikes (typically over £1500) the motor can be built into the frame and drive the cranks directly.

Best electric bike buying guide

The motor is there to assist you when you’re pedalling, and it really helps to get up hills and it makes it easy to cycle in a headwind.

Once you’ve ridden an electric bike it can be hard to go back to a purely pedal-powered one.

To power the motor, and electric bike needs a battery and currently these are still quite large and heavy. And you need a bigger battery if you want bigger range, so electric bikes which claim to last up to 80 miles or more will have the biggest batteries.

There’s a knock-on effect: more weight. Every e-bike we’ve tested weighs more than the equivalent standard bike as the motor, battery and associated wiring and electronics weigh somewhere in the region of 5-8kg.

If that doesn’t sound significant, you’ll soon realise just how heavy these bikes are when you try to carry one up a flight of steps or lift one into a car.

How do electric bikes work?

They typically have a screen or a control panel on the handlebars which offers several assistance levels. If you want to get some exercise at the same time as making hills a bit easier, you can choose a low level.

At the top assistance level, you might hardly have to pedal at all.

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Best electric bike buying guide

Some come with a thumb throttle so you can increase the assistance instantly, but under UK law this is not allowed. Bike which meet current regulations come with no throttle at all and the motor just senses when you’re pedalling.

Special brake levers are installed on some e-bikes. These detect when you apply the brakes and cut power to the motor.

Which electric bike should I buy?

As well as deciding on a budget, you need to choose what type of bike you want. E-bikes come in all shapes and sizes. From fold-up models, through commuter and touring versions to full-on road and mountain bikes, there’s something to suit everyone.

Best electric bike buying guide

Some designs are nicer than others. The best e-bikes are hard to tell apart from regular bikes, which also makes them less of a target for thieves.

Many bike shops will let you try before you buy, so when you have a shortlist, it’s worth riding them all to see which you prefer.

Best electric bike buying guide

Any other considerations?

There are laws in the UK covering electric bikes, and you can read more about which electric bikes are legal to use on the road.

Bikes that conform must have a motor 250 watts or less, and must not operate the motor over 15.5mph. Also, you have to be 14 or older to ride one.

You should also consider warranty and longevity. An e-bike may be cheap, but if a component fails you don’t want to have to pay to send the whole thing overseas for repair. Worse still, if you can’t get replacement parts at all, your bike may cease to work at all.

Similarly, it’s worth getting a branded battery (Panasonic, Samsung etc) or at least checking if you can buy replacement batteries. Lithium-ion packs can be recharged between 800 and 1000 times, which could mean a three-year lifespan if you commute to and from work. And batteries will lose their capacity over time, meaning the bike’s assisted range will decrease as the battery ages.

A removable battery means you can take it indoors to charge: handy if you don’t have a mains socket in your shed.

Finally, ask your employer if you can buy an e-bike on the ride-to-work or Cyclescheme . This can knock off a big chunk of the cost. For example, it could take a £1,500 model down to £1,000. And that’s cheaper than even a Zone 1-2 annual Travelcard in London.

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