Electric bikes are enjoying a mainstream moment. As anxiety over Covid-19 drives many commuters away from public transportation, demand for bicycles, including electric models, is exploding. In March, US retail sales of e-bikes surged 85% compared to the same time last year, according to market research from N.P.D. Group.
Like regular cycling, e-bike commuting supports activity, sustainability, and, in the age of pandemic, social distancing. The technological advantage of e-bikes is the addition of a battery-powered motor, which allows riders to go faster and farther without breaking a sweat.
While it is possible to find a reliable e-bike for as little as a $1,000, if you want something that is feature-rich, equipped with top-end components, and doesn’t look like a dirt bike on a diet, your search will probably start around $2,000 and, from there, can stretch all the way into the five-figure range.
That upfront financial commitment can make shopping for your first e-bike intimidating. To help first-time buyers, we asked seven experts to pick the best e-bikes on the market for beginners.
For the sake of comparability, we limited our list to Class 1 and Class 3 e-bikes, which are pedal-assisted (or “pedelec”) and provide motor support up to 20 mph and 28 mph, respectively. Unlike Class 2 models, these machines are not throttle-controlled, meaning they need to be pedaled to engage e-assist. For more on the three-tier system of electric bikes, we recommend this article.
VanMoof S3 ($1,998)
If you’re searching for an e-bike that feels more like smartphone on wheels than a beater with a motor stuck to the hub, many in the cycling community are quick to suggest the VanMoof S3. The e-bike is known for its many bells and whistles—concealed wires and mechanicals, state-of-the-art antitheft system, app-controlled customizations—but according to Doug Gordon of the War on Cars podcast, these premium features don’t come at the expense of the overall rider experience: “With the e-assist at the fourth and highest setting—paired with the automatic shifting—I can crest the Williamsburg Bridge into Brooklyn with ease,” he says. Gordon also appreciates how hard the bike is to steal. “A smartphone app allows me to lock and unlock the rear wheel, perfect for when I don’t have time to use my regular lock,” he says. “And if anyone does mess with it, the bike lets out a nasty-sounding digital roar and beeping alarm.”
Like all Class 1 e-bikes, the S3’s motor amplifies how hard you are pedaling to help you reach speeds of up to 20 mph. Unlike similar models, though, the S3 has a Turbo Boost button on the right handlebar, which, when pushed, draws 500w of peak power from the front hub motor to give you an extra dose of oomph. (The motor allows for 250-350w of continuous power when pedaling, depending on your local regulations.)
The one drawback of the S3, Gordon says, is that its battery (which can reach a range of up to 90 miles) can’t be removed: “My building’s bike storage area doesn’t have any electrical outlets so I had to haul the bike into my apartment to recharge it.” Still, for the price and what you’re getting, which is a good-looking, tech-forward city bike, the S3’s is a solid value.
Gazelle Easyflow ($2,999)
A few experts we spoke with recommend cruiser e-bikes for beginners because they prioritize comfort and stability by placing the rider in a relaxed, upright position. Gordon is fond of the Gazelle Easyflow, which features a low seat, swept-back handlebars, and step-thru frame that makes it easy to mount and get going. Despite the laidback form factor, Gordon says the Class 1 pedelec is a “secret workhorse,” owing to a powerful Shimano Steps mid-motor, 80-mile-range battery, removable battery, and three e-assist settings. “I sit my 10-year-old daughter on the rear rack to ride her home from school and—if I didn’t love her so much—it would be easy to forget she was there,” he says.
Raleigh Detour IE ($1,999)
Because they prioritize rider comfort, cruiser e-bikes can also be great solution for people with disabilities to enhance their mobility. “As a cyclist with chronic pelvic pain, I knew that if I wanted to maintain riding long distances in my hilly neighborhood, I would need the extra assist,” says Massachusetts bike advocate Joelle Galatan. Her go-to pick for accessibility is the Class 1 Raleigh Detour IE, which is a similar system to the Easyflow at a more entry-level price. Both bicycles feature a low-step frame, a rear rack for holding items, solid hydraulic disc brakes, a Shimano Steps mid-motor, and a removable battery. While the Detour IE is a bit bulkier and its battery offers less range on a full charge, Galatan underscores the advantage of its wide tires, “which make it comfortable on both paved and unpaved roads.”
Note: While the 2018 version of the Detour IE that Galatan owns is no longer available in some markets, she points to the Special IE as a comparable option.
Karmic Koben M ($2,500)
Edward Niedermeyer, the communications director for Partners for Automated Vehicle Education, spent more than a decade covering cars and the auto industry before acquiring his first e-bike. His advice for first-time shoppers who feel overwhelmed by all the choices on the market is to start with something versatile, or “a do-it-all companion that can handle commuting, shopping, and backwood hooning.”
Niedermeyer’s personal Goldilocks is the Koben M by Oregon-based Karmic, a budget-friendly Class 1 model whose five levels of pedal assist range from “barely there to hilariously boosted.” But what he enjoys most of all about the Koben are its fat tubeless tires. “Where I live, on Portland’s outer East Side, we have a number of ‘unimproved’ roads whose loose gravel and monster potholes are an obstacle for skinny-tired road bikes but a playground for the Koben,” he says, adding, “Hitting 20 mph on gravel is an entirely new species of fun.”
Specialized Vado SL (from $3,350)
One of the few areas where standard bicycles generally outclass e-bikes is portability. While a regular pedal bike might clock in at around 30 to 35 pounds, an electrified version of the same model could run 10 to 20 pounds more. That extra weight makes a noticeable difference for new riders, especially if you live in a city and need to lug your ride up five flights of stairs at the end of each day.
Brett Thurber, co-owner of Bay Area e-bike retailer The New Wheel, recommends the 32-pound, aluminum Vado SL from Specialized for its shoulderability. “It is one of lightest electric bikes on the market,” he says, “But unlike other lightweight e-bikes, it doesn’t compromise on performance, thanks to an exclusive mid-drive motor,” which provides pedal assist up to 28 mph. Other marquee features of the lighter-than-air Vado SL include hydraulic disc brakes, a 12-gear system with three levels of e-assist, and an 80-miles battery range.
Riese and Müller Delite (from $6,989)
Full-suspension e-bikes provide top-notch handling, which Thurber notes can be critical if your commute entails poor road conditions. However, due to the fork and other necessary components, these models tend to run large. An e-bike with quality suspension can easily weigh as much as a full-size armchair.
While it is not an inexpensive option, Thurber says the town-and-country-friendly Delite from Riese and Müller is positively sporty considering it weighs a whopping 70 pounds. “When you add a Bosch engine, you can have the benefits of full suspension—comfort, control, and safety—without feeling the drawback in terms of weight,” he says. “The result is a ride that is as good as it gets in terms of confidence at speed.” And depending on how confident you are, the Delite is available in both Class 1 and Class 3 models.
Thurber also notes that Riese and Müller makes full-suspension e-cargo bikes, in case you want to transport kids and groceries without worrying about either of them rattling around.
Tern HSD (from $3,199)
If you are in the market for a cargo bike, going electric is almost certainly worth the extra cost. Pedaling a week’s worth of groceries uphill is a slightly less punishing exercise when you have a motor nudging you along.
The foldable HSD cargo bike by Tern, which is capable of hauling an impressive 374 pounds of stuff with a near-silent Bosch Active Line Plus motor that amplifies your pedaling up to 20 mph, was a top pick for Arleigh Greenwald of Denver’s Bike Shop Girl and Loren Copsey of Washington, D.C.’s The Daily Rider. Both say the HSD’s superpower is that it can handle so many different kinds of lifestyles. Parents enjoy that its rear rack can be outfitted with a child seat; apartment-dwellers like that it can be folded or stood upright on a pair of back legs to save space; and large families appreciate that its compact frame can be resized to accommodate riders of various heights.
While the HSD is appropriate for most everyday uses, if you want to haul bigger loads or more kids, Copsey recommends the slightly larger GSD model. “If the GSD is the full-sized SUV, the HSD is the compact utility vehicle that makes sense in an urban environment,” he says.