As a cyclist, I’ve often scoffed at electric bikes and skateboards. Cheaters!, I’d mutter under my breath as they zoomed effortlessly past. But after testing a bevy of the latest e-bikes for this article, I realized that, all this time, I was just jealous.
An e-bike replaced my car for every errand. I didn’t have to worry about finding parking, filling up the tank with gas, waiting for the bus, or how much an Uber was going to cost. Grocery runs, once sweaty workouts with my analog bike, became joy rides.
During the pandemic, I’ve seen more e-bikes than ever on streets. According to research from NPD, e-bike sales in June 2020 increased 190% compared with the same month the previous year.
In the market for an e-bike? What features are you prioritizing? Join the conversation below.
If you’re interested in getting your own, right on! But given the sea of options and confusing bike jargon, finding the right model is a challenge even for the most experienced bikers. And it’s also a considerable investment, ranging in price from $1,000 to nearly $10,000. For this column, I focused on midlevel models aimed at a variety of riders, from casual cyclists to high-performance off-roaders. For advice, I phoned an expert: Brett Thurber, who co-owns The New Wheel, an e-bike shop in San Francisco, with his wife, Karen Wiener.
“The number one thing is test riding, in our opinion,” he said. “These days, you can read a lot online, but bicycles are so personal. It’s all about how it feels and how it operates and how comfortable you are on it.”
There are different ways e-bikes deliver power. There are pedal-assisted bikes with a motor that engages when you pedal—sometimes these can feel jerky. There are also bikes with torque sensors, which match your power as you ride and feel more natural, according to Mr. Thurber.
E-bike batteries also vary widely. Some of the models I tested run on cheaper batteries with limited lifespans. Keeping batteries indoors, at room temperature, and partially charged when not in use, can help with longevity.
There are other considerations as well. Have a long commute? Opt for a motor rated Class 3—which tops out at 28 mph—rather than Class 1 or Class 2, which are limited to 20 mph. (You can still bike faster than that, but only with leg power.) Range depends on the route’s terrain, rider weight and the level of electric assistance you select. Some bikes offer a portable extra battery.
Live around steep hills? Most bikes can truck up gentle slopes. Not all, however, are capable of climbing inclines with grades of 15% or more. A motor’s “peak torque” can be a good indicator of a bike’s climbing ability—the higher the better, while keeping wattage as low as possible. The bike’s weight, number of gears and motor placement are also factors. For hilly areas, Mr. Thurber recommends a bike with a mid-drive motor, located in between the pedals. Hub motors are typically located in the wheel.
Need to carry the bike up stairs? Is bike theft a concern? Is cost a priority? While I tested four bikes that address these issues and more, it’s still a small sample of available e-bikes. After you read this, think about what you’d want to optimize for, then try to test drive a few models.
Rad Power RadRunner Plus
Good for: Those on a budget and/or looking to carry cargo
Weight: 74.3 lbs.
Top Assist Speed: 20 mph
Estimated Range: 25 to 45 miles
Warranty: One year
Battery: 672Wh, rated for 800 charge cycles
Motor and Peak Torque: 750-watt rear-geared hub motor, 80 Newton meters (Nm)
The RadRunner Plus is upright like a beach cruiser but with the power of a performance bike. I loved the awesome leather details, including a comfortable seat for a passenger. (Total capacity is 300 pounds.) The bike’s super-fat tires and front suspension fork absorb bumps from potholes and dirt trails. The headlight is blindingly bright, and other safety features include reflective tires and an integrated rear light.
The deep step-through frame and handlebar throttle make the bike accessible for riders of all ages and abilities. Plus, it’s great for sharing: The adjustable seat post can accommodate riders of different heights. And Rad Power’s bikes are designed to work with a variety of accessories, from insulated food bags to a console with a cup holder.
There are compromises at this price point. The company’s direct-to-consumer model means that its service and test-ride locations are limited—but they’re growing fast, says Rad Power Chief Executive Mike Radenbaugh. It’s a very heavy bike. The mechanical disc brakes are harder to activate than hydraulic ones, and the shifting isn’t as smooth as with others I’ve used. The battery’s lifespan is short compared with pricier options (and a replacement costs $549). Still, at $1,799, the RadRunner Plus is a capable, fun and full-featured bike for errand running or just cruising around town.
Specialized Vado SL 4.0 Step-Through EQ
Good for: People who need to carry their bikes
Weight: 33 lbs. and up (varies by size)
Top Assist Speed: 28 mph
Estimated Range: 35 to 80 miles
Warranty: Lifetime for frame; two years/300 charge cycles for battery
Battery: 320Wh, estimated lifespan 4 to 6 years, 1000 charge cycles, a spokeswoman said
Motor and Peak Torque: 240-watt mid-drive motor, 35 Nm
The “SL” stands for “Super Light” and, indeed, the bike is relatively easy to carry and lift. While the bike’s motor may seem underpowered, it’s extremely capable up steep climbs. The lightweight frame means the motor isn’t carrying extra pounds, and the bike has a friendly low gear. A companion app has a unique feature called Smart Control that rations power output so you have enough battery for your ride. Integrated lights and reflective tires are nice safety features.
I was impressed with how much this bike feels like a nonelectric bike, which is probably showing my cyclist bias. The ride is silky smooth—no sudden jerks when accelerating from a stop, or reduced speed when the bike is moving faster than its legal assist limit. There are certainly bikes with more powerful motors out there at this price, including Specialized’s own Turbo Vado, which starts at $3,350. It provides twice the pedal assist—and is 20 lbs. heavier.
Good for: Commuters who live in high-theft cities
Weight: 46 lbs.
Top Assist Speed: 20 mph
Estimated Range: 37 to 93 miles
Warranty: Three years
Battery: 504Wh, rated for 800 charge cycles
Motor and Peak Torque: 250-watt front-wheel hub motor, 59 Nm
Bike theft has become so rampant in some cities that many riders would rather take a cab. The VanMoof, with its high-tech antitheft features, is a no-brainer for those urban cyclists, although the bike also comes with some head-scratching quirks.
The back wheel can be locked with a foot tap. Once locked, any movement will trigger a loud sound and a light-up skull on the bike’s frame. After one minute, the VanMoof’s alarm becomes persistent and its lights begin flashing. After two minutes, the bike will broadcast its location to VanMoof and the bike’s motor will become unusable, until it’s reconnected to the owner’s phone. A recent integration with Apple’s Find My app means anyone’s iPhone can help locate your bike. For $340 extra, you get three years of theft coverage: If VanMoof’s bike hunter can’t recover your bike, you get a replacement.
As an e-bike, the X3 is decent but slightly underpowered. I kept the bike at its highest power level and still had to press the Turbo Boost button liberally while riding up San Francisco’s hills. I couldn’t come close to achieving the bike’s maximum range of 93 miles—in hilly terrain at max power, it was closer to 35. (VanMoof sells a $348 range extender that promises an additional 28 miles.)
I also wasn’t a fan of the automatic shifting because it’s difficult to service, and occasionally, as I gained momentum to climb, it would shift momentarily to a harder gear. And as a direct-to-consumer company, VanMoof has U.S. test-ride options limited to New York, San Francisco and Seattle.
Canyon Grail:ON CF 8
Good for: Gravel riders and commuters with a need for speed
Weight: 36.82 lbs.
Top Assist Speed: 28 mph
Estimated Range: 68 miles
Warranty: Six years for frame; three years for battery
Battery: 500Wh, rated for 10 years/1,500 charge cycles.
Motor and Peak Torque: 250-watt mid-drive motor, 85 Nm
There is simply no incline that the Canyon Grail:ON can’t power its way up. I effortlessly climbed steep fire roads littered with roots and rocks and opted for longer, tougher routes with the Class 3 motor beneath my seat. The lightweight carbon frame has clearance for meaty tires designed for gravel.
It’s a stupidly fun performance e-bike with lots of nice components. One big problem? A number of trails in the Bay Area, where I live, prohibit e-bikes—specifically ones with Class 3 motors. Other cities are working on their own bans. Womp womp.
While the Grail:ON doesn’t come with commuter-friendly features like integrated lights, reflective tires or even a kickstand, it will get you to the office (when we eventually return to those) in a jiffy.