By John Allen
E-bikes appeal to middle-aged and elderly people including long-time CRW members like me, who don’t have quite the energy we had when younger. And other new e-bike riders have not had much experience with bicycling since childhood. Some elderly people may also have worsened balance, reaction time, eyesight and other issues.
Here are some specific issues for a new e-bike rider to consider. The CyclingSavvy Web Site has a series of articles addressing these issues in detail – but briefly stated:
- CRW welcomes e-bikes, except for throttle-controlled ones, but an e-bike poses special questions of safety and etiquette during a group ride. Riding off the front doesn’t play to your credit, nor does running out of battery power. You might be called upon to pace another rider. Should there be a special ride option for e-bike riders?
- The bicycle can just go faster, uphill - and downhill too, being heavier. Greater speed increases the potential for crashes, and their seriousness. Braking distance increases as the second power of speed – twice the speed, four times the distance. A particular problem is that a motorist may not recognize that a longer distance is needed to pass an e-bike uphill.
- Infrastructure designed for slow bicycling (or not even well for that) works poorly for people riding at 20 miles per hour or more. Yet people tend to think “it’s just a bicycle” and maintain the same poor riding habits. My hair stands on end as I watch YouTube videos of people riding e-bikes at speed in the door zone of parked cars, etc. On an e-bike, it is even more important to understand and apply best practices for riding on streets, and to avoid the temptation to make full use of the e-bike’s power on paths.
- The bicycle is heavier and less maneuverable. Much of the added weight is with the battery. This is less of a problem If the battery is low and in the middle of the bicycle (for example, on the down tube or inside it). A battery on the rear rack makes the bicycle top-heavy and tends to make the bike prone to shimmy if the frame is flexible. A heavy e-bike with a flexible frame and high handlebars, with an inexperienced small person at the controls, is a recipe for control problems.
- Maladroit application of power can result in a loss of control. A common problem is the “lurch” when power is applied before the rider is ready. This can result in a pedal’s striking the rider’s shin or the e-bike itself striking another bicyclist, pedestrian or vehicle.
- Control issues depend also on the rider’s situational awareness –more so at higher e-bike speeds, but also due to the more cumbersome handling at low speeds.
- An e-bike may have front or rear hub drive, or a mid motor (at the cranks). The mid motor applies power through the bicycle’s gearing – and so it is effective over a wider range of speeds than a hub motor. A front hub motor makes steering less nimble, and if it causes the wheel to skid, you can’t steer to balance. For this reason, it is a poor choice for riding under tricky conditions or on soft or slippery surfaces – mud, gravel, snow.
- Any e-bike will have several power level settings (for example “Off, Eco, Normal, Turbo“– or they may be maximum speed-under-power settings). It is best to use only as much power as needed, to get exercise, extend range on a battery charge, and avoid unexpected acceleration.
- An e-bike may have torque sensing: power assist is proportional to how hard you push on the pedals. Or an e-bike may have pedal rotation sensing, which applies full power whenever you are turning the pedals forward. Torque sensing feels just like normal pedaling, only you are stronger. You can turn the pedals without applying power when you shift gears, and modulate pedaling to prevent the rear wheel from spinning out on a slippery surface. With pedal rotation sensing, you don’t have that level of control, and if there is a mid motor, you must apply the brakes to actuate an interruptor and release tension on the chain when shifting down.
- Some e-bikes also have a throttle. By applying power even when you are not pedaling, it can lead to confusion and lurching when starting and stopping. With the throttle, you also lack the ability to modulate pedaling that you would have with torque sensing.
All in all, as I hope that these comments have made clear, different e-bikes have different control characteristics, and it is important to feel them out. A new e-bike rider needs to start out cautiously, get to know the bike before taking on greater challenges, and recognize that riding habits may need revision.
I thank Clinton Sandusky for assistance with this article.