The Best Electric Bike for Hills
Last update: 5th May 2022
Most weekends I cycle in the Cotswolds with my partner, who is a good bit more fit than me. I bought a Gazelle Ultimate C380 ebike to make rides together more fun. At the time I felt my Gazelle was the best ebike for hills. Things have moved on a bit since then. So, below I discuss:
• why I chose the Ultimate C380,
• why the Cube Kathmandu Pro 625 might be a better (and cheaper) option, and then I list
• other ebikes that might be a better choice for you.
Note: You can click on any underlined text to jump directly to that section or to more information.
Why You Might Want an Electric Bike
For anyone other than enthusiasts, long bike rides can be intimidating, especially if there is a hill towards the end of the ride or the risk of an annoying headwind. These sorts of doubts made my weekend bike rides unambitious.
After looking into it, I concluded that an electric bike solves my hesitation and lack of ambition – because … perhaps surprisingly … owners of electric bikes ride longer and harder, and than their equivalents on traditional bikes. I suspect this is because an ebike gives confidence to be ambitious, knowing that the electric motor can drag me home if required … but, in the end, I have never needed to be dragged home.
But what is the best electric bike for hilly areas of the UK?
Well, I own a Gazelle Ultimate C380. Wired magazine says “this is one of the best all-round ebikes [they’ve] tried”, rating it 8 out of 10. It is not the best electric bike, but it has everything I need. What it doesn’t have, I don’t really want. It cost me £3,600.
My ebike has a crossbar and thus is not perfect (see below), but it is a good starting point from which to understand the issues.
Likely because I wanted the Enviolo internal gear hub, I had to special order my bike and it took 6 months to arrive. Given that the good weather has already started, if I were to buy an ebike now, I would probably get the Cube Kathmandu Pro 625.
Either way, it makes sense to start with the features that we should be looking for.
When looking for an ebike for hilly terrain, I believe the 5 most important features (in order) are:
• Motor Position – a mid-drive motor is really your only option
• Motor Power – ideally 65 Nm or more
• Frame Shape – no crossbar and the handlebars around the same height as the seat (maybe a little lower)
• Internal Gear Hub – very convenient on hills
• Wide Gear Ratio Range – to build up speed approaching a hill
Instead of taking notes as you read through, you can jump to the Conclusion and Recommendations at the end, and can scroll back up if you have any questions. Note: You can click on any underlined text for more information.
The motor on electric bikes can be in one of three places: the hub of the front tyre, the hub of the rear tyre, or where you pedal (called a mid-drive).
Location affects cost and performance:
Front hub motors are the cheapest (available for around £700), but are not a good choice.
Rear hub motors are more expensive (starting at around £1,000), and could be useful.
For hilly terrain, you really want a mid-drive motor even though it is the most expensive (hard to find for much less than £2,000).
In a separate article, I discuss the 3 different motor positions in greater depth. I summarise the key points below.
Motor Position: Problems with a Front Hub Motor
Although the cheapest option, you don't want a front hub motor.
The first argument is irrespective of the terrain. Traditionally the front wheel on bikes is kept extremely light to make steering easier. Having a front hub motor adds weight to the front wheel, making steering sluggish and making it harder to maintain balance at low speeds.
In addition, a front hub motor delivers power to the front wheel. This can be disconcerting as it feels like you are being pulled along rather than pushed - and you are being pulled along by the wheel you use for steering. This can be an unforgiving combination.
Of particular significance for hills, the bike must grip the road where the power is. When climbing a hill, much of your weight and the weight of the bike is shifted onto the rear wheel. A front hub motor delivers power to the front wheel. The result is that the front wheel has poor grip on hills, meaning that front hub motors can struggle.
In answer to two potential rebuttals ... First, cars are different as they tend to have the engine block (which is heavy) in the front, thus changing the calculus. Second, yes, the front hub adds some weight to the front wheel; however, the amount of extra weight is not sufficient to affect the calculus.
Motor Position: Problems with a Rear Hub Motor
The next step up is a rear hub motor. Unfortunately, there are still substantial issues with climbing hills.
The first issue is with when power is triggered. UK law requires that the motor only provides assistance – i.e. it only engages when you are pedaling. Mid-drive motors use torque sensors that detect when you put pressure on the pedals, and provide power immediately. Most hub motors detect pedal movement (called cadence sensors). Often the pedals need to make a half (or even a full) rotation before the motor engages.
This below video is old (from 2018) but it explains and shows the difference between cadence and torque sensors well. To save time you can just watch from around 02:52. He starts to pedal and the motor provides no assistance and then at 02:58, "boom" the motor kicks in hard.
Motor turns on jarringly at 02:58
Now, think of yourself stopped halfway up a hill. With a (front or rear) hub motor, you have to get the bike going. Only after you have pedaled a full rotation will the motor engage. Whereas with a mid-drive motor, the motor engages as soon as you push down on the pedals.
There is another more subtle distinction with how the motor is engaged. With torque sensors (and thus mid-drive motors), the motor provides power in proportion to the effort you are putting in. In essence, it feels like you have bionic legs. Cadence sensors (which are standard for hub motors) provide power based on your cadence (how fast you are pedaling). So, the faster you pedal, the faster you go.
Cadence sensors (and thus hub motors) can be disconcerting if the pedals are offering little resistance. It makes the bike feel like a weak moped.
Note: Some ebikes with rear hub motors have the option of using torque sensors. This is not common; however, if you are getting a rear hub motor and this option is available, then the above issue is resolved.
The second issue is with how power is delivered. Rear hub motors deliver power directly to the rear wheel without using the gears - even if there are gears visible on the rear wheel.
In a separate article, I discuss why gears were invented. In a nutshell, because hub motors don't use the gear, they are less efficient at slow speed and when under load. This is precisely the situation when slowly climbing a hill – especially if you have had to stop partway up.
To understand the impact, have a look at the below video to see the performance of the same bike – once with a rear hub motor and once with a mid-drive motor. The performance difference is significant. The side-by-side demonstration starts at 03:21.
The side by side demonstration starts at 03:21
Motor Position: Other Issues
Wheels with hub motors have extra complexity (e.g. the wires going to the motor) and extra security (because the motors are valuable). This complicates changing a flat tyre if you get one.
Hub motors put strain on the spokes, which can work themselves loose or even break. Rebalancing a wheel with new spokes is a complex task for a professional. In contrast, mid-drive motors put strain on the chain, but the chain is easier and cheaper to replace – and indeed, you could upgrade to a carbon fibre belt instead of a chain and eliminate this consideration.
All these issues are covered in a separate article comparing hub motors vs mid-drive motors.
Conclusion: A mid-drive motor is a must because it will:
provide power as soon as you start pedaling
use that power more efficiently via the bike's gears
deliver that power to the rear wheel which has the greater grip,
keep steering light and easy and the bike easier to balance,
be easier to maintain, and
make you feel like a bionic man rather than a mere human on a weak moped.
UK law says that ebike motors can generate no more than 250 Watts of continuous power. Unfortunately, 250 Watts is not really that much considering that Olympic sprint cyclists can generate 2200 Watts.
Fortunately, the definition of “continuous power” is sufficiently ambiguous that ebike motors can and do output substantially more power (up to perhaps 600 Watts) during peak demand – for example, when climbing a hill.
Because of this law, virtually all ebikes say that they are 250W; however, there is significant variance in actual performance. A separate article discusses this point in more detail but torque is a good starting point when comparing motors.
As a rule of thumb, 40Nm of torque is sufficient on the flat – 50Nm for smaller hills. In hilly areas likely you will want at least 65Nm of torque to maintain a decent speed on the ascent. Higher levels of torque will give you even better performance.
Torque is not, however, the sole consideration.
Different manufacturers have tuned their motors to operate at peak efficiency under different circumstances. In another article, I discuss the best make and model of mid-drive motor. In a nutshell, Which? Magazine felt that Bosch motors are currently best.
Conclusion: For hilly terrain, you should aim for a Bosch Performance Line Cruise (65 Nm). For an extra £200, you can get even higher performance from a Bosch Performance Line CX (85 Nm).
The geometry of bike frames is complicated. Every angle and proportion has been analysed to achieve easy steering and stability at various speeds on various terrain. Each manufacturer has its own “secret recipe” and all the major ones have done a good job.
As a casual rider, there are only two choices you need to think about. Once you pick the bike you want, you can be confident that the manufacturer has sorted out every other aspect of the frame to give you a good ride.
The two factors are:
(1) is there a crossbar and at what angle is it, and
(2) are the handlebars lower than the seat and by how much.
When bicycles were first invented, a crossbar (top tube) was needed to reinforce the frame. Women in dresses found it awkward to get on and off these bikes, and since they were considered less demanding riders, the “lady's bike” (without a crossbar) was born.
With modern materials, a crossbar is no longer needed. A sloping top tube (called a "low step") or no top tube at all (called a "step through") can be just as strong.
Given that all riders have an easier time mounting and dismounting without a crossbar, the main attraction of a crossbar is that it is the “traditional look” of a bicycle. However, increasingly this is no longer the case. For example, most modern mountain bikes have Low Step frames.
There are two additional reasons to favour a crossbar. First, a crossbar gives you somewhere to mount a water bottle, bike lock, or small bag – because the down tube (just behind the front wheel) often contains the battery, meaning that it can be difficult to mount a water bottle there.
Second, many bike racks on the back of cars clamp onto the crossbar to hold the bicycle in position. Some bike racks can clamp onto other parts of the bike's frame (e.g. the seat post); however, if your bike rack is not this flexible, then this may be a good reason to get a bike with a crossbar.
As an aside, I have no trouble attaching my ebike to my car's bike rack without clamping to the crossbar.
Assuming you do not need a crossbar to mount a water bottle, lock, or small bag – or to stabilist your ebike on a bike rack, then I strongly recommended that you avoid ebikes with a crossbar. While cycling slowly up a hill, bikes are less stable. To dismount quickly, it is safer without a crossbar.
Professional cyclists ride crouched down over the handlebars, watching the road through their eyebrows. This position is aerodynamic, and it improves stability – by keeping the rider's centre of mass low and over the front wheel. As discussed above, the more weight on the front wheel, the more sluggish the steering, which is an advantage at high speed.
Professional cyclists force themselves into this crouched position by having the handlebars lower than the seat. Unfortunately, this position can be uncomfortable on your neck and spine.
A good way to ensure a more comfortable posture is to get a bike with handlebars higher than the seat – or at least as high as the seat. At the opposite end of the spectrum is a frame configuration called a "Dutch bike".
This difference in frame design is obvious when you compare side-by-side a racing bike and a Dutch bike.
Dutch bikes are at the opposite end of the spectrum from racing bikes, and perhaps they also go too far because Dutch bikes are not good for riding on hills. The issue is that, when climbing a hill, you should shift your weight forward to keep your centre of mass over the pedals. Dutch bikes have their handlebars so high that this can be hard to do.
The result is that on a steep hill, pressing down on the pedals can almost push you off the back of the bike rather than putting power into the pedals.
There are two additional criticisms of Dutch bikes. First, they are not very aerodynamic, meaning that headwinds are particularly troublesome. Second, a lot more of your weight is on the seat (instead of the handlebars) and so your seat can get sore.
Seat position is a personal preference, but I prefer a compromise between the two extremes. In hilly terrain, I recommend that the handlebars are at around the same height as the seat (or perhaps a little lower).
Remember however that the seat height is set based on the length of your legs. So the issue here is handlebar height. Most handlebars are adjustable. So, just ensure that the appropriate adjustment is possible on your bike.
Conclusion: For hilly terrain, you should:
1. Get a step-through frame (with no top tube) as it is the easiest to mount and dismount. Even if you have no issues with flexibility, these are safer.
Before finalising this choice, consider whether you need a top tube to secure your bike onto a bike rack on your car, or need a top tube to attach a water bottle, lock, or bag.
2. Get a bike with high handlebars – specifically handlebars around the same height as the seat after the seat has been adjusted for the length of your legs. Higher than this and you may be sitting back too far to be able to climb hills comfortably. Lower than this and you may get neck strain.
Internal Gear Hub (IGH)
When approaching an uphill at speed, you have to downshift quickly as you lose momentum. Numerous times I have jammed or derailed the chain by shifting gears too fast. This happens because:
external gears require the chain to be moving (i.e. you pedalling) as you shift,
pedalling under load making shifting difficult or even impossible, and
you have to shift through each gear in order. If you try to skip gears, the chain can jam.
The above is a particular problem if you are cycling through a dip. On the initial down hill you will want to get up speed, so that you can coast part way up the subsequent up hill. On the way down you will be in a high gear, but then need to shift quickly into a low gear as the bicycle loses momentum.
There is a technical solution to this conundrum: an internal gear hub (IGH).
An IGH has gears inside the hub of the rear wheel instead of as an external cassette. As a result, shifting does not involve moving the chain from one ring gear to the next. Instead, the chain does not change position at all and all the work is done inside the hub itself.
The first type of IGHs still has gears, they are just internal.
The top of the line in this category is the Rolhoff Speed Hub. It has 3 internal gears that in various combinations give you 14 different “speeds”. Geared IGHs still require you to be pedaling to shift, but you do not need to shift through all the intervening gears to get to the one you want. Once you choose the gear you want, the required combination of internal gears are set all at once, making shifting smooth and quick.
A Rohloff costs about £1,770 extra. You can see this by comparing the Riese & Muller Nevo3 GT Rohloff (with the Rohloff internal gear hub) to the Nevo3 GT touring (without one).
The second type of IGHs do not have gears at all.
Enviolo are by far the dominant manufacturer in this space. They make a continuously variable IGH that allows you to set any “speed” you want with a twist of the wrist. Importantly, continuously variable IGHs can be “shifted” even when you are stopped and not pedalling.
An Enviolo costs about £380 extra. You can see this by comparing the Riese & Muller Nevo3 GT (with the Enviolo internal gear hub) to the Nevo3 GT touring (without one).
In a separate article, I discuss the advantages and disadvantages of internal gear hubs (IGHs) compared to a traditional external gear cassette. Briefly IGHs:
allow for faster, smoother shifting – as you don't have to shift through intermediate gears.
allow you to shift when not pedaling (in the case of Enviolo IGHs)
are easier to maintain,
allow you to use a carbon fibre belt instead of a chain (which itself is longer wearing and easier to maintain),
have a very wide gear ratio range, the importance of which is discussed next, but
are more expensive and add a tiny bit of friction to the wheel as it turns.
Please note that you cannot have both an internal gear hub and a rear hub motor as there a significant technical hurdles with combining these two technologies.
Conclusion: Hilly terrain can require you to shift gears often and to do so efficiently. If you find shifting an issue especially when you start up a hill, an internal gear hub (IGH) may be the solution.
The most flexible IGH is made by Enviolo. It costs around £380 extra, has no fixed gears and so you can set pedaling difficulty to any level you want with the twist of the wrist. Not only can you change "gears" while stopped, but it changes the way you think about cycling. In a sense, it is like driving an automatic car instead of a stick shift because you no longer think about gears. Instead, you think about whether pedaling is too hard or too easy, and you make minute adjustments as required.
Gear Ratio Range
Gears let you trade off effort for speed. When going up hill, you down shift to reduce the effort required to climb. When racing down the other side, you shift back up so as to obtain greater speed.
Measuring Gear Ratio Range
This trade-off can be calculated by comparing the number of teeth on the front gear (where you pedal) with the number of teeth on the back gear. The more teeth on the front, the further the chain is pulled each time you pedal. The fewer teeth on the back, the faster the rear wheel rotates as the chain is pulled.
The maximum teeth in the front combined with the minimum teeth in the rear is the highest gear because each rotation of the pedals rotates the rear wheel multiple times.
On a traditional bike, the highest gear might involve 53 teeth on the front gear and 12 on the back, meaning that each full rotation of the pedals rotates the rear wheel 4.4 times (53 / 12). In contrast the lowest gear might involved 39 teeth in front and 25 on the back, meaning that each full rotation of the pedals only rotates the rear wheel 1.6 times (39 / 25).
To put this in perspective, imagine pedaling at 60 rpm (one rotation of the pedals each second). This is a decent but leisurely cycling rate. On a bike with 28" tyres, in the highest gear (4.4) you will be going 21 mph. Now, imagine pedaling up a hill at half that rate (pushing down each pedal alternately each second). The bike is still going 3.8 mph, which is the speed of a slow jogger.
On a steep hill, there is no way you can go that fast, but it is difficult to pedal much slower while maintaining momentum.
The Trade-Off between High and Low Gears
The ideal bicycle will have both a very high high-gear (so that you can go fast on the flat) and a very low low-gear (so that you can climb the steepest hill will minimal effort) – because: if your gears do not go low enough, hills are a struggle – as is setting off from a dead stop. And, if your gears do not go high enough, then you “spin out” at higher speeds – meaning that your legs can't move fast enough to maintain speed.
The gear ratio range is the difference between the highest and the lowest gear. The above example bicycle has a 283% gear ratio range – in this case 4.4 divided by 1.6.
The gear ratio range tells you how adaptable the bike is. Does it allow you to both: slowly climb a steep hill with a heavy load, and go super fast riding down the other side?
I discuss the above in more detail in a separate article, if you are interested.
Importance of Gears on Electric Bikes
Even though an electric bike has a motor, the gear ratio range is still important.
First, ebikes start out with fewer gears because the motor either replaces the front gear (if you have a mid-drive motor) or the rear gear (if you have a rear hub motor).
Second, because ebikes are heavier than traditional bikes, manufacturers have biased the range towards low gears to ensure that the motor is able to get the bike up hills.
Third, UK law requires that the motor stops providing assistance when the bike reaches 15.5 mph. If you want to pedal faster than this, you need the gears to allow this. Otherwise, you will not be able to pedal fast enough to actually increase your speed. (This is called "spinning out".)
Gear ratio range is listed as the last factor to consider because its importance depends on whether you might like to cycle fast on the flat. 15.5 mph is a decent speed compared to walking but is noticeably slower than traffic, even in a 20 mph zone.
If you cycle in hilly terrain:
the lowest gear ratio should be 1.3 or less, which is 3.1 mph (a fast walking pace) when you are pushing down each pedal alternately each second (30 rpm).
If you think you may want to go faster than 15.5 mph then I recommend::
get an ebike with a gear ratio range of at least 310%
the highest gear ratio should be 4.0 or more, which is 19 mph at a decent but leisurely pedaling rate (60 rpm), and 25 mph if you push yourself (80 rpm).
How to Determine This
If you have a mid-drive motor and an external cassette of gears, count the number of teeth on the front gear and the largest and smallest of the back gears.
The gear ratio range is found by dividing the teeth on the largest rear gear by the teeth on the smallest.
The highest gear ratio is found by dividing the teeth on the front gear by the teeth on the smallest rear gear.
The lowest gear ratio is found by dividing the teeth on the front gear by the teeth on the largest rear gear.
If you have an internal gear hub, either look up the specs of the hub or shift to the lowest gear (easiest to pedal), and make note of a spot on the rear wheel. Then, slowly rotate the pedals one revolution.
On my ebike, the rear wheel rotated once and a bit times.
The lowest gear ratio is found by dividing the number of rear-wheel rotations by the number of complete pedal cycles. In my case, my lowest gear is 1.15 (which I have confirmed by looking at the specification of the Enviolo).
The gear ratio range is as reported by the manufacturer. In my case, it is 380%.
The highest gear ratio is found by multiplying the two numbers. In my case, it is 4.35, which gets me up to 29 mph if I push myself a bit.
In other words, my Gazelle ebike is acceptable on hills but importantly (for me) allows me to get faster than 15.5 mph on the flat.
If you are looking for the best ebike for hilly terrain, your ebike should have:
1. a mid-drive motor. These are more efficient than hub motors especially in varying terrain with ups and down. If you decide to get a rear hub motor, then get torque sensors. Without these you will find it very difficult to start from a stop on a hill as the motor will not kick in until the pedals have made a full revolution. Avoid a front hub motor.
2. a pretty powerful motor, at least 65 Nm. If the hill are particularly steep, go for something stronger. I recommend a Bosch Performance Line Cruise (65 Nm) or a Bosch Performance Line CX (85 Nm).
3. a step-through frame. People cycle slower up hills. At slower speeds, bikes are less stable. It is much easier to get off a bike without a crossbar. So, it is safer.
If you have good reasons for wanting a top tube consider getting one that slopes down, like a mountain bike (a low step frame).
4. once your seat is adjusted for your leg length, the handlebars should be about the same height as the seat. Low handlebars force you to crouch forward more, which can be stressful on your neck and back after a while. High handlebars encourage a more upright position, which is not aerodynamic and can make it harder to pedal on steep hills.
5. an internal gear hub. These make it much easier to shift gears rapidly once you start to climb a hill. If you find yourself in the wrong gear when setting off from a stop, get an Enviolo internal gear hub as you can change gears even when not pedaling.
If you do get a mid-drive motor and an internal gear hub then upgrade to a carbon fibre belt instead of a chain. These last longer and are lower maintenance.
6. If you may be interested in cycling fast on the flat (faster than 15.5 mph) then you need to check the gear ratio range. The top gear ratio should be at least 4.0, and the gear ratio range should be at least 310%.
My Choice: Gazelle Ultimate C380
I settled on the Gazelle Ultimate C380 for £3,599. Wired magazine says "this is one of the best all-around ebikes [they've] tried", rating it 8 out of 10.
However: I had to wait 6 months to get this bike (as I had to special order it), and, since ordering this ebike (last August) I think better bikes are now available.
I chose the Gazelle Ultimate C380 because it comes with:
a step-through frame,
a Bosch Performance Line Cruise mid-drive motor (65 Nm of torque),
a Bosch Intuvia controller - which Which? magazine rated highest,
an Enviolo internal gear hub,
a Gates carbon fibre belt (instead of a chain), and
a 500Wh battery.
This video gives a good walkthrough of all the features, advantages and disadvantages of this ebike.
My Recommendation: Cube Kathmandu Pro 625 Lowstep (save £500)
If you cycle in hilly terrain, especially if you are an older person, I would now recommend the Cube Kathmandu Hybrid Pro 625 Lowstep for £3,099. Last year's model of the Cube Kathmandu Hybrid was selected as the best electric bike by MYBIKE magazine (in April 2021), saying:
"The Kathmandu Hybrid is not only incredibly comfortable to ride, it's also packed with well-chosen, high-end equipment. ... The Kathmandu Hybrid is close to being the perfect touring bike."
The Cube Kathmandu Hybrid Pro 625 comes with:
a step-through frame,
a Bosch Performance Line CX mid-drive motor (85 Nm of torque)
a Bosch Intuvia controller - which Which? magazine rated highest,
an 11-speed Shimano CS-M5100 rear cassette,
a chain (and not a carbon fibre belt), and
a 625Wh battery.
This motor is more powerful and this battery is larger than those found on my Gazelle ebike. In addition to being more powerful, this motor can provide more assistance (340% instead of 300%). Although this power may not be necessary, it certainly cannot hurt - especially if you cycle in hilly terrain.
The Cube ebike has external gears (a rear cassette) and a chain, and so is slightly higher maintenance than my Gazelle, but the bike is also £500 cheaper.
An interesting thing is the gearing.
My Gazelle has a 380% gear ratio range with a lowest gear ratio of 1.15 and a highest gear ratio of 4.35. Pedaling leisurely I can cruise along at 21.4 mph on the flat, but when going uphill I can slow down to around 2.8 mph (perhaps a typical brisk walking speed).
This Cube ebike has a 464% gear ratio range. The bike has slightly bigger tyres and its highest gear ratio is 4.36. So, I can go slightly faster on the flat (22.5 mph) with the same leisurely pedaling.
At the same time, the lowest gear ratio on the Cube is only 0.95. This means that when going uphill, I can go even slower (2.4 mph) while maintaining momentum. When climbing a hill, this speed difference is substantial. Especially the steep hills, the Cube is much easier to ride.