While the first functional battery was developed in the year 1800 by Italian physicist Alessandro Volta, a practical battery would not be seen for several decades yet. By the end of the 19th century, practical and portable batteries were more widely available, this finally freeing the electric motor to be used in a wide new array of applications. It might come as a surprise, but the electric motor, battery, and a bicycle were first paired as far back as the 1890s. It would be approximately 100 years later that electric bicycle development finally entered the mainstream, but the technology and concept behind the electric bike were all in place generations ago.
The way they work is pretty simple: The motor kicks in with extra assist when you pedal, and there are different levels of assistance. That's it. Just turn it on, pedal, and go! You can also turn the assist mode off and ride it like a regular bike. And e-bikes stop assisting at a certain speed (in the U.S., it's 20 mph or 28 mph depending on class) for safety, of course.
The bike recently took first place at the Interbike Hill Climb Challenge, a third of a mile sprint up a six per cent gradient hill. Fortune powered in front of professional riders to secure a decisive win in the first of an annual competition especially created for electric assist bikes. The race was sponsored by the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA).
Another type of electric assist motor, often referred to as the mid-drive system, is increasing in popularity. With this system, the electric motor is not built into the wheel but is usually mounted near (often under) the bottom bracket shell. In more typical configurations, a cog or wheel on the motor drives a belt or chain that engages with a pulley or sprocket fixed to one of the arms of the bicycle's crankset. Thus the propulsion is provided at the pedals rather than at the wheel, being eventually applied to the wheel via the bicycle's standard drive train.
E-bikes can be a useful part of cardiac rehabilitation programmes, since health professionals will often recommend a stationary bike be used in the early stages of these. Exercise-based cardiac rehabilitation programmes can reduce deaths in people with coronary heart disease by around 27%; and a patient may feel safer progressing from stationary bikes to e-bikes. They require less cardiac exertion for those who have experienced heart problems.
E-bikes mostly use motors and battery options from a few major suppliers: Bosch, Yamaha, Shimano, and Brose. A few other brands exist, but are less reliable or powerful. Some, like the Yamaha system, have more torque and others are quieter. But generally all four make good options. Look for motor output (in watts) which will give you an idea of total power. But watt hours (Wh) is perhaps a better figure to use—it takes into account battery output and life to give a truer reflection of power.