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Choosing the Right Electric Bicycle

If you're interested in biking to work, but not interested in arriving covered in sweat, an electric bicycle might be for you.

Here's the scenario when you would want an electric bicycle: gas prices on the march, a depressed economy, and an increasingly urban populace. Sound familiar? The majority of Americans commute to work alone, in a car, and when we're not on our way to work, 40 percent of the trips we take are under two miles. Yet, like 21st century hermit crabs, we are determined to drag two thousands pounds of metal and plastic with us on every little errand.

Electric bikes are not for the tiny-hatted bike geeks leaning over racks of $400 carbon fiber wheels at your local bike shop. They're not even for people who are happily biking to work already. Electric bicycles are for people who would otherwise drive. In other words: people who know nothing about bikes, much less the electrified kind. If you are thinking about buying one, here are some things to keep in mind:

Lithium Ion versus Lead Acid batteries

If you're a commuter with modest needs, a bike is a bike, but your batteries can make or break the user experience. Lead acid batteries are heavy—strapping a pair of them on the back of a Currie EZip electric bike, one of the most affordable ebikes in the United States at around $400, adds 36 pounds. That's like carrying a case of beer over your back tire even before you hit the grocery store. Currie says their batteries should last about a year with regular use, but an informal survey of Ezip owners at my local grocery store revealed that the batteries started to give out after 6 months of use for a daily 5 mile round trip commute.

Lithium ion batteries have a much higher power density—the same power in that 36-pound battery pack gets crammed into a 10 to 12 pound brick, and they'll last significantly longer, up to two years, or the equivalent of 10,000 to 20,000 miles, depending how you use it—but they're expensive. Replacing the lithium-ion battery on an average ebike will cost you as much as $500.

Beyond the initial ebike purchase, batteries are the real expense of owning an ebike. The electricity required to fully charge the bike may cost $0.25, but spread over its lifetime, the cost of the battery works out to between two and five cents a mile.

Electric Motors

The power of the electric motor on an ebike is measured in watts, and ranges from 250 to 500. In extreme cases, you will find one that goes as high as 800 watts. This number is like the megapixel ratings on digital cameras—it doesn't tell you as much about how satisfied you'll be with your purchase as you might think.

A case in point is the Trek line of electric bikes: all of them have 350 watt electric motor, but if you test drive them, you'll find that the top of the line FX+ (4) will easily hit 20 miles per hour, while the lower-end 7200, which has the exact same motor, tops out at 17 or 18 mph, and it will make you work for it. (All Trek electric bikes are of the "assist" type, which requires that you pedal to make the motor kick in.) The mechanic at my local bike shop says that he thinks Trek deliberately dialed-back the power on the lower-end bikes.

Meanwhile, a Pedego Cruiser (5) which has balloon tires and the swept-back looks of a beach cruiser, has about the same acceleration and top speed as a Trek FX, despite having a more powerful 500 watt motor. The difference could be down to the battery, but it's as likely a consequence of the fact that the Pedego is a bigger bike with knobbier tires and therefore, higher rolling resistance.

Whatever wattage you choose, make sure the motor you're buying is a "brushless, gearless" motor. These kind have no moving parts inside, which means they're maintenance-free.

How Much Bike Do I Need?

The prices of electric bike vary by an order of magnitude. At the low end, you can pick one up at Wal Mart for $400, but if you want to be like Demarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, the proud owner of an Optibike, (6) you're going to spend $12,000. Depending on your budget, here are the breaks in the price spectrum:

Less than $1,000

Currie Technologies
makes a frightening array of electric bicycles. The only one with a lithium-ion battery in this price range is the EZip Ecoride, (3) with an MSRP of $999. Ebikes are like the cars they're meant to replace: that price is negotiable, and don't be surprised if you can find one for significantly less.

$1,000 to $2,000

If you're serious about replacing a car with a bike, you should seriously consider paying at least as much as you would for that late model Chevelle with no muffler that your brother-in-law is looking to unload. Schwinn, Giant, Currie, eZee, and Pedego all make electric bikes in this range. This is the minimum you can spend on a bike that will go the top speed an electric bike can go by law under power of its motor alone—20 mph.

$2,000 to $3,000

All of the top of the line electric bikes are available for under $3,000. Trek, high-end Curie, Kilowatt Bikes (2), Sanyo Eneloop, UltraMotor (1).

Electric bikes are not for everyone—they're not going to replace an hour-and-a-half commute from the outer ring suburb to an office park—but that's sort of the point. When our government puts a price on carbon or the economy recovers enough to push oil prices back up again, the question will be: do you really want to live outside the range of an affordable electric vehicle?

Illustrations by Matt Manos.

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