An Electric-Assist Bicycle Guide for Minnesota
Editor’s note: Some of the links to the former Twitter (now X) in this story no longer function.
A bit about me. I am a 47 year-old, year-round cyclist who lives in St. Paul, MN. I own two electric-assist bicycles (also known as eBikes) and a car. I chose to buy my first eBike because over 90% of my trips are within 5 miles of my house. I owned a 1980’s Nishiki Sebring road bike before this, but it didn’t get much use. I still chose to drive, most of the time.
#eBikeThoughts If the hard part of driving less/biking more is psychological. Get a bike that is way more fun to ride than your car.
— James (@eBikeSTP) March 4, 2017
Like many adults, I was an avid cyclist in my youth. However, growing up in the southern suburb of Eagan, car culture was all I knew. I got my permit the day I turned 15, I got my license the day after I turned 16 and I owned my first car before I was 18. For much of my life, driving was a necessity. In the suburbs, transit is almost non-existent and few, if any, bike-commuting role models.
So when I finally moved to a home that was close to most every destination I needed to travel, I was ill-equipped to transition from driving. Enter eBikes—or as I like to call them, the excuse killers. Too far? Too windy? To hilly? To sweaty? To slow? The eBike conquers all of these excuses and more.
What is an eBike?
So what is an eBike? It depends who you ask. If you ask the Minnesota State Legislature, an “Electric-assisted bicycle” has two or three wheels, a saddle, fully operable pedals for human propulsion, has an electric (not gas) motor with a maximum output of 1,000 watts (just over 1HP), is “incapable of propelling the vehicle at a speed of more than 20 miles per hour (32km/h)” and “is incapable of further increasing the speed of the device when human power alone is used to propel the vehicle at a speed of more than 20 miles per hour.”
Under Minnesota State Law, an eBike inherits all the same benefits of a traditional bicycle, but is still a sub-category of a motorized bicycle (includes motorcycles), which is a sub-category of a motorized vehicle. However, MN Statute 85.018, subdivision 4 exempts electric-assisted bicycles from non-motorized statutes. So if you see a sign saying “no motorized vehicles”, you can legally ride your eBike there.
If you ask PeopleForBikes.org, an eBike is an electric-assist bicycle that falls into one of three classes:
- Class 1: Maximum motor-assist speed of 20MPH, pedal-assist only.
- Class 2: Maximum motor-assist speed of 20MPH, pedal-assist, with motor-only throttle.
- Class 3: Maximum motor-assist speed of 28MPH, pedal-assist only.
Because MN Statue 169.011.27 states, an eBike may not further increase the speed more than 20MPH, Class 3 eBikes are not legal for street or trail use, here. However, that does not mean they are illegal to sell. You can still ride a Class 3 eBike off-road, where unregistered motorized vehicles can travel (e.g., your personal property).
What would happen if you got caught riding a Class 3 eBike by a police officer? Probably nothing. For starters, I doubt any MN officer is capable of identifying a Class 3 eBike, just by looking at it. Even if you were traveling at speeds greater than 20MPH (which any eBike can do—just as any human-pedaled bicycle can do), they wouldn’t pull you over because of the eBike law. You’d have to be doing something else the officer deemed dangerous or illegal. Even then, it is highly unlikely an officer would even know your eBike violated MN Statute 169.011.27. They might even like it.
— James (@eBikeSTP) July 22, 2017
There is still a catch, for those who think it’s worth getting one. If you get into an accident on a road or trail, the police may not care, but it may be well worth the the time for an insurance company to determine if your bicycle is legal or not. Such findings could be used against you in court and in determining payouts for claims. So, you’ve been warned.
In a looser sense, eBikes take on entirely different meanings. In New York City, you may hear of eBikes being banned. While this is technically true (for now), when Mayor DeBlasio talks about crackdowns on illegal eBikes, he is specifically referring to Class 2 eBikes, with throttles. New York City considers eBikes and Pedal-Assist bikes two separate categories of bicycles.
Then, just as motorcycle riders call their vehicles bikes, there are gasoline motorcycle-equivalent electric motorcycles, that are also called eBikes, by their users and manufacturers. So, just for clarity, when I say eBike, I am speaking specifically about those defined in our MN Statutes as “Electric Assisted Bicycles.” I am also only going to cover purpose-built eBikes vs. DIY after-market kits. Although, much of this article would apply to both.
Should You Even Buy an eBike?
EBikes tend to cost $1,500 or more (for something worth buying), so some care and consideration will likely be taken before choosing to part with that much cash. There are some instances, I would not recommend an eBike. The first being range.
The average battery capacity of eBikes is about 500 watt/hours. Because there are such a wide variety of motors with different power outputs, this nets between 20-30 miles of range at the motor’s peak output and under ideal (wind-free, mostly flat) conditions. All eBikes have the ability to lower the assist level and increase range. For example, the popular Bosch Performance Line CX Motor (considered one of the more powerful mid-drive motors), could be extended to 85 miles by using the Eco mode, cutting the motor’s power in half and reducing the torque. So, if your commute is greater than 30 miles, round trip, you may want to do some more research. They do make bikes with higher capacity and dual-batteries, but this greatly increases cost and weight.
Also consider, in winter months, cold will cause your range to drop to roughly 60-70% of its typical capacity. Further on cold: If you don’t have the ability to store the battery (or bike) inside, I would not recommend an eBike. Allowing your battery to freeze is not good for it. EBike batteries, stored during the winter (or time periods greater than a few months) should be stored between 40-60% capacity, indoors. They should also be charged every 90 days, to prevent them from entering “sleep mode,” which is when a battery thinks it is never going to be used again and renders its internal chemicals safe for disposal. It can be very difficult, or even impossible, to bring a lithium ion battery back from this state.
The final reason to weigh against buying an eBike is weight. If you live in a walk-up apartment/condo and/or have some other reason you’ll need to carry your bike, most eBikes weigh around 50lbs (22.68kg). Nearly all eBikes have removable batteries, which can shed 5-9lbs (2.7-4kg) of weight, but it would still be a chore to get up several flights of stairs. EBikes, depending on where their motors are, can also be fairly unbalanced when trying to lift them. Even folding eBikes are generally the same weight as their non-folding counterparts. This is because the frames need to be more robust.
If you have a situation where you need to push a bicycle, un-powered, they do make eBikes with a feature commonly called “walk-mode.” This feature is typically activated by the controls on the handlebars and provides gentle, slow motor assistance to help you push the bike up hills, without being on the bike.
Justifying the Cost of an eBike
#eBikeThoughts “Twenty-eight percent of respondents said they bought an e-bike specifically to replace car trips.”
— James (@eBikeSTP) March 21, 2018
If you’re waiting for eBikes to become as inexpensive as traditional bikes, that day will never come. You can’t add a motor and battery and expect it to cost the same as something without. EBikes can be several thousands of dollars more expensive than an equivalent human-powered bicycle. EBikes also tend to have more accessories than their counterparts (if the manufacturer sells both electric/non-electric versions), so that also increases price.
If I was pressed to suggest a target budget for an eBike, I would probably say $3,000-$3500. In that price range, you will find a large selection of bikes with quality components, major-brand motors, torque sensing (and often torque/cadence/speed sensors), main-battery powered lights, hydraulic disc brakes, and more. Bikes in this range also tend to have three or more frame sizes to choose from. Many cheaper bikes have fewer sizes.
So how does one justify parting with $3500? For starters, a $3500 eBike will be a rough equivalent to a $1200-$2000 human-powered bike in terms of build quality and components. So really we’re talking about parting with an additional $1500-$2200. Already with an eBike you’re getting more than you would with that $2,000 human-power bike. You get a motor, a battery, controllers for setting assistance levels, probably a display and a computer to control it all.
Those parts alone (and in this price bracket, quality parts) would show a value of at least $1500. The Copenhagen Wheel, add-on eBike motorized wheel, costs about $1800. So the cost of a $3500 eBike is a rough equivalent to its human-powered counterparts given what more you’re getting. But still, it is a big chunk of cash to spend on an eBike
Sure you can help justify it by how much gas you’ll save. Plus there’s less wear-and-tear on your car, if you drive. But for me, the biggest hidden justification isn’t monetary. Unfortunately, I can’t prove to you these benefits will manifest if you buy one. But there is growing evidence to support them.
— James (@eBikeSTP) June 24, 2018
First, eBike riders have been shown to replace more trips by car than traditional bike riders. Second, eBike research has shown, riders almost always ride farther and for longer durations than they did prior to owning an eBike. If you are someone who owns a traditional bicycle that sits idle in your garage, most of the time; you are far more likely to get more use out of your investment owning an eBike.
Third, while without argument, you do not get as much exercise per mile biked as you would on a traditional bike. However, multiple studies have shown eBike riders get nearly the same health benefits. This is because eBike owners ride more frequently and for greater distances than they would on traditional bicycles.
More biking, more exercise, less stress driving, less effort riding, means a happy lifestyle. An eBike changed my life and it has for so many others. It has redefined what a bicycle means to me for transportation and recreation. It has improved my health and well being to an immeasurable extent.
Help Me Buy an eBike
— Hill (@HFrazey) March 4, 2017
If you’ve decided an eBike is for you and would like some advice, here is mine. For perspective, I have watched thousands of eBike video reviews and read even more. I’ve been doing this daily for the last four years. I am very well versed in the eBike industry, its major players, systems available and what to look out for. That being said, I am one person and you should always take advice from multiple sources when making major purchases.
First things first. Decide on a pedal-assist technology. Even if you decide you want a throttle, most eBikes also have pedal-assistance. That is to say, as you pedal, the motor helps you along. Many attribute this to riding a bike as a kid and one of your parents giving you a push on the back.
There are two primary systems that provide pedal-assistance. First is cadence-sensing. This is most common on eBikes under $2,000. Cadence sensors, typically, use a ring of magnets on the crank to determine if the crank is moving or not. It is the equivalent of a light switch. It is either sensing movement or not. This system has no way of knowing how hard you are pedaling.
#eBikeThoughts What the researchers found again puts the notion that users are somehow “cheating” to rest. #eBike…users at 8.5 times more active over resting, while pedal power registered at 10.9…a closer margin than previously assumed. https://t.co/qYcBYD5ep8
— James (@eBikeSTP) February 9, 2018
When a cadence sensor senses movement, it turns on the motor. The motor will power up at the power output you have selected from the eBike’s controls. The amount of power is typically split into segments of miles-per-hour (or km/h). For example, level 1 would cause the motor to accelerate to 5MPH, level 2 to 8MPH, level 3, to 12MPH, etc. All the way up to 20MPH. You rarely see cadence sensors on Class 3 eBikes. This means, at level 1, the eBikes would not go slower than 5MPH, unless the conditions, e.g. a hill, were too aggressive for the motor’s maximum power output. Some cadence sensing eBikes have lots of levels, some have only a few. The more levels, the more granularity you have in determining the bike’s speed.
Because cadence sensing is an on/off switch, you do not have to pedal as fast as the bike is propelling you. You only have to turn the cranks fast enough for the sensor to sense forward motion in the crank. There is nothing to prevent you from pedaling faster than the assistance level, but the motor will not help you do so. This type of sensor tends to feel less natural to traditional cyclists.
The alternative to cadence sensing is torque sensing. This type of sensor can actually determine how hard you are pushing on the pedals and changes output levels accordingly. For example: if you are starting from a dead stop and are in a relatively high gear…on a traditional bicycle, you might stand on the pedals to get moving. A torque sensor, along with its computer, can sense this type of activity and provide lots of power to help. However, when you are pedaling along on a flat smooth path, it intelligently lowers the power to allow a more natural pedal feel. Unlike a cadence sensor, a torque sensor allows to motor to output power regardless of speed, increasing/decreasing power depending on your pedaling effort.
Just like on a regular bicycle, you pedal until you meet a feeling of resistance that is comfortable for you. It doesn’t feel “loose,” like a cadence sensor can (with which you can pedal slower than the wheels are turning). I highly recommend seasoned cyclists choose torque sensing models. More advanced systems use cadence, torque and speed sensors to get a total picture of a riders movements. These systems use this data to give the ultimate bicycle-feel. So when looking at eBikes, first and foremost, determine what type of sensor it uses. This will have the greatest impact of how the bicycle will feel to pedal.
#eBikeThoughts. What hill? 😂😎
— James (@eBikeSTP) May 16, 2018
The next decision would be if you want a throttle or not (Class 2). There are many (often strong) opinions on throttles. Some equate it to buying a moped instead of a bicycle and are put off by them. Others, who are primarily looking for their eBike as transportation to replace a car, see it as a great benefit.
I will say this. Whatever your feelings on throttles, they are incredibly important to very specific groups of people with accessibility issues. In particular I am reminded of a man who uses his eBike while struggling with MS. With MS, his disability, on any given day, can range from subtle to extremely debilitating. The throttle means he can enjoy the exercise of the pedal-assist, while having the confidence that if his disabilities flare up, he won’t be stranded.
Those who think an eBike with a throttle is a moped replacement, will be very disappointed. Even with the largest motor permitted by law, a measly one-horsepower may struggle to get up medium hills without your pedal help. Ebike motors are also far more prone to overheating. Especially up steep hills and under heavier rider weight. Estimated ranges are also for pedal-assist. Using a throttle alone, you should reduce the max range by about one-half of the range at max pedal-assist. So, if you want a moped experience, buy a moped. Full stop.
Neither of the eBikes I own have throttles and I don’t regret it a bit. Most eBikes do not come with them and limiting your selection to models with throttles will greatly limit the number of bikes you can choose from. My advice, if you don’t have a solid reason for needing one (such as my MS example), don’t worry about getting one.
The second biggest decision is mid-drive or hub motor. Hub motors are placed in the actual wheel of the bike. There are two types of hub motors: geared and direct-drive. Direct-drive are the simplest motors. They only consist of copper coils surrounded by magnets. Because of this simplicity, it makes them incredibly reliable, however they produce less torque than geared models. To compensate, manufacturers make them much larger, also making them heavier. The greatest benefit of a direct-drive motor is it is completely silent. You will never hear the motor on your direct-drive eBike.
#eBikeThoughts Yes you can ride your eBike in the rain! ⚡️🚴🏽☔️😊
— James (@eBikeSTP) April 16, 2017
Geared hub motors are significantly smaller and lighter. By using gears, they give the motor mechanical advantages that allow more power/torque from a much smaller package. Unlike the direct-drive, these gears must physically touch to work, so that friction produces noise. How much noise depends on the manufacturer. Typically, motor noise is most noticeable at slower speeds when you are pedaling fast (e.g. in a low gear). The noise typically goes down in higher gears and also gets drowned out by the wind as you increase speed.
Mid-drives seem to be the way the industry is heading. This places the motor in place of the traditional crank shaft and bottom bracket. By doing so, the motor can take mechanical advantage of the rear gearing of the bike—making it very efficient. A 250 watt mid-drive motor, will feel just as zippy at a 500-750 watt hub motor, if you’re in the correct gear. This also means the motor consumes less power and extends the range of the eBike. Mid-drives also use internal gears to further increase the mechanical advantage of the motor. As with geared hub motors, noise is the result and noise level depends on cadence and manufacturer design. German manufacturer Brose, from my experience, builds the quietest mid-drive motors.
Each motor type has its advantages and disadvantages. A hub motor, can certainly make changing a tire more difficult. Not only is the wheel going to be heavier, but wiring also has to be plugged in. The big disadvantage I see with a mid-drive motor is you will never convert the eBike into a traditional bicycle, if the motor dies and parts are no longer available. You can’t simply replace the motor with a bottom bracket and crank (except for some after-market conversion kits)—tho, the mechanical gearing of the motor may still work. With a hub motor, there is nothing to stop you from replacing the motorized wheel with a traditional bicycle wheel, if you choose to do so, in the future.
For me, the motor brands are far more important than the bicycle manufacturer brand. Brands I trust are Bosch (mid), Brose (mid), Yamaha (mid), Currie (hub/mid), Go Swiss (direct-drive), and Dapu (hub). This isn’t to say other brands are bad. I just haven’t seen enough positive feedback on durability and lack of problems, as I have on these. The most reliable motors, in my opinion, are direct-drive hub motors and the Bosch mid-drives.
Now that you’ve decided on a drive train, you can start looking at eBikes that use your preference. But where are you going to buy one? The cheapest place, like with so many things, is online. Most of the budget eBikes are sold exclusively online and are typically rebranded China imports. Not to hate on China. Well over 90% of all eBikes are made there, or at least their components. I only say China because the sellers tend not to be the manufacturers. Look at enough cheap online eBikes and you will start to see the same frame styles repeated over and over again. That’s not an accident.
— James (@eBikeSTP) November 3, 2017
As with any online purchase, you should do significant research on the company selling the eBike. Where is the seller located? What is the warranty? Any bad review of the company online? How long have they been in business? Can you talk to an actual human being? Do you have to pay for shipping of warranty parts? Who replaces the warranty parts? You? What if the bike arrives damaged? Do you have to pay return shipping to get a new one? How about shipping for warranty replaced parts? If the seller doesn’t make the eBikes, getting parts may take an extra long time—sometimes months, if the part needs to be special-ordered from China. If you plan to do your own repairs, ask yourself, if you can fix a regular bicycle, can you diagnose/fix electric and electronic components?
My strongest recommendation, especially for a first-time eBike owner, is to buy your eBike from a local dealer. Stick with major brands that have been in the traditional bicycle manufacturing business for a while. These companies will tend to have the best warranties and best service. Buying local, also means you are likely able to try the bike before you buy it and experience far less hassle with returns.
Because eBikes are so expensive, most local dealers don’t carry the entire stock of bikes they can obtain in-store. So, if you are looking at say, a Trek, and your local dealer doesn’t have the specific model you’d like to try, ask them if they can obtain a demo bike. Most can—especially with major brands like Trek, Specialized, Raleigh, etc. It may take some time for them to get one, but most retailers know, the easiest way to sell an eBike, is to let you ride it.
EBikes also have extremely high markups. So discontinued models can often be found for hundreds if not thousands of dollars below retail price. My first eBike was $4,000 retail, when new, but after it was discontinued, the price dropped to $2600. It was still new-in-box with the full warranty. Most of these eBikes are in manufacturer warehouses, so ask your local dealer if theirs has any discontinued models in stock. You could save yourself a lot!
Demo bikes are also an option, but you have to take into consideration there will be wear and tear on the components and reduced battery life. My best estimates are batteries typically last 5,000 miles, with replacement costs between $500 and $1,000.
The other option is buying used. Again, determining existing wear and battery use will be the keys. If the eBike doesn’t have an odometer (many do), it may be possible for a dealer to determine the battery’s health (if it is from a major bicycle brand). So possibly ask to meet at a dealer, with battery condition as a condition of the sale.
Never, ever, buy a used eBike where the seller doesn’t have the battery key or charger. This is a first-tell sign the bicycle is stolen. As with any bicycle, check to make sure the serial number on the bottom has not been tampered with.
Enjoy The Ride
#eBikeThoughts: Since I purchased my Fat-Tire #eBike in 2017, I have not missed a ride after a single snowfall. That may say something about me, but I believe it speaks equally to the empowerment of eBikes and why I will continue to advocate for them.
— James (@eBikeSTP) December 2, 2018
Hopefully this has been helpful. I love eBikes. As I’ve mentioned, I own two of them and hope to buy a third within a year or two. I am not rich, by any means. My eBike purchases were the result of many, many years of savings. Including using up all of the savings I had for a new car. The result? I switched from over 90% car usage and under 10% bike usage to the exact opposite. I still drive my car for many long trips, required by my work, but I drove less than 2500 miles last year, which means that old used car is going to last a lot longer.
So while I’ve spent as much as a used car on eBikes, I’ve probably extended the time period in which I’d need to purchase a replacement car, by roughly the same value. Not to mention the physical and mental heath benefits of having a bike I love to choose over my car. For me, it was well worth the investment.