The Best Electric Bike:
If You can Afford It
How did I choose my ebike? I started by understanding what the Best Electric Bike looks like, which features make it the best. I then downgraded specific features that didn't represent value for money for me.
You can do the same. I summarise here my understanding of what you are paying for when you buy a top of the line ebike. You can then make your own judgements about which features are not that important to you.
Motor Position: Mid-drives
Ebike motors can be found within the front wheel, the rear wheel, or where you pedal. In a separate article, I discuss why mid-drive motors (placed where you pedal) are best. Briefly:
Mid-drive motors use the existing rear gears. Gears have evolved over the past 125 years to allow the cyclist (and thus a mid-drive motor) to pedal at their most efficient speed regardless of whether you are slowly climbing up hills, or racing along on the flat.
Hub motors in contrast have a single gear, which drives the wheel directly. The result is that often they do not operate at their most efficient speed.
Mid-drive motors use torque sensors to know exactly how much effort you are putting in so that they can multiply that effort in a way that feels natural. Without torque sensors speed is unnaturally linked solely to how fast you pedal.
It is inevitable that at some point you will get a flat tire. Replacing a flat requires you to remove the affected wheel. Unfortunately, the wiring and security features of hub motors complicate this process.
The extra weight of the hub motor increases your chance of a puncture. If you get a flat on the wheel with the hub motor, you will likely get a shop to fix it, meaning extra expense and your bike out of action for an extended period.
The weight and size of hub motors put extra strain on the spokes. Spokes break more often. Replacing a single spoke is annoying (and is more work than a flat tire). Once several spokes have been replaced, a professional is required to rebalance the wheel.
Hub motors unbalance the bike. This is particularly true of front hubs, where the extra weight makes steering much heavier and sluggish. When not riding, the unbalanced weight can make the bike difficult to lift onto a bike rack or carry up steps. Front hubs make it surprisingly difficult to mount a kerb.
Bluntly, hub motors are old technology.
They only exist because mid-drives are more complex and initially had teething problems. Now that the kinks have been worked out, mid-drive motors are simply better. This is why 3 of the top 4 manufacturers of ebike motors only make mid-drives.
On the flipside, hub motors are cheaper. Front hub motors are particularly inexpensive because their installation affects none of the existing complexity of your bike (the front and rear gears).
In summary, if you can afford a mid-drive, it is worth it. The next step down is a rear hub. The cheapest but most problematic solution is a front hub.
Motor Power: Torque above 40Nm
UK law says that no ebike motor can provide more than 250W of continuous power. Superficially you might conclude that all motors are about the same. This is not the case. The definition of “continuous power” is sufficiently vague that the effective power of motors varies considerably.
In a separate article, I discuss why torque is a more accurate measure of effective power.
In most cases, 40Nm is a little underpowered for climbing a good hill. However, above this level, the software of the controller becomes the main influence on perceived performance.
In summary, more torque is better, but this should not be a deciding factor. To ensure you do not feel underpowered on hills, your mid-drive should produce more than 40Nm of torque.
Motor Make and Model: Bosch Performance Line CX
Mechanically most mid-drive motors are pretty similar. The primary difference comes down to software. As evidence of the importance of the software, a recent software update by Bosch increased the torque of one of their motors from 75Nm to 85Nm.
Software is so important because most manufacturers over-spec their motors so as to ensure they don’t break down during the warranty period. It is the software the keeps the motor from achieving its full potential.
With that said, there are some differences in construction.
To minimise weight (and noise), all manufacturers use nylon (instead of metal) for some internal gears. There is some evidence Yamaha made a poor design decision using nylon for a particular planetary gear, meaning that their motor may not last much beyond the warranty period.
Arguably Bosch has the best software. Which? Magazine rates the Bosch Performance Line Cruise (listed at 65Nm) best overall and best at hill climbing.
Indeed, they rate the Bosch Active Line Plus (listed at 50Nm) better overall and equivalent at hill climbing to the Yamaha PW SE (at 70Nm) and the Shimano E6100 (at 60Nm).
Also, Bosch currently has the largest market share among bike manufacturers. Given that manufacturers pick the brand of motor they want to use, the fact that Bosch is their No.1 choice is significant.
Bosch produces 5 ebike motors for the UK market. Which? Magazine's top 2 picks were the Bosch Performance Cruise (65Nm) and the Active Line Plus (50Nm). Bosch has an even more powerful motor - the Performance Line CX - which was not reviewed by Which?
In summary, Bosch makes the best ebike motors at the moment. Their top of the line motor is the Performance Line CX. The next step down is the Performance Line Cruise. The step down from here is the Active Line Plus.
Drivetrain: Carbon Fibre Belt
A traditional bike uses a chain to connect the front gear to the rear gear. Mid-drive motors add power at the crank, leading to extra wear on the chain. The next step up from a chain is a carbon fibre belt.
In addition to lasting longer, belts are lower maintenance in that they do not require regular lubrication – especially if they have gotten wet.
If you do go for a carbon fibre belt, you cannot use an external rear gear. This is discussed in more detail in the next section.
Gear Ratio Range: Rohloff Speedhub
As mentioned above, the purpose of gears is to allow you to pedal at a reasonable rate (and level of effort) regardless of whether you are climbing a steep hill or cruising along on the flat with a tailwind.
How do gears work?
The ratio of the number of teeth on the front gear compared to the rear gear determine how your effort is transferred to the wheel.
On the flat, you might use the largest gear in the front (53 teeth) with the smallest in the back (12 teeth), meaning that 1 rotation of the pedals results in 4.4 rotations of the rear wheel (53/12 = 4.4).
If you are cycling at a modest 60 rpm (which is slow for a regular cyclist) and your bike has 28" tyres then a 4.4 highest gear ratio will have you going at 21 mph.
On a hill, you might “downshift” and use a smaller front gear (39 teeth) and a largest rear gear (25 teeth) so that one rotation of the pedals results in less rotation of the rear wheel. In this case only 1.56 rotations instead of 4.42.
If you are push down one pedal at a time, alternatively each second (i.e. 30 rpm) then a 1.56 lowest gear ratio translates into 3.7 mph which is a fast walking pace.
The gear ratio range is the difference between the lowest and highest gear combinations. Typically, this range is around 280%. In the above (realistic) example the gear ratio range is 283% = 4.42 / 1.56.
Why is this relevant?
The first issue is that a mid-drive motor eliminates your front gear options – reducing your gear ratio range from 280% to around 210%. This being just the range of the rear gears only: 25 teeth / 12 teeth.
The second issue is that an electric bike is heavier and has a lot more power. If you want to both climb steep hills and go fast on the flat, then you may actually require a larger gear ratio range than normal.
The first solution is to get a more expensive rear gear cassette. SRAM makes a couple of cassettes with a 500% gear ratio range. The cassette itself costs around £400.
The second solution is to use a rear hub with internal gears.
As mentioned above, carbon fibre belts do not work with derailleurs and external gears. Instead, bicycles with belts use a rear hub with internal gears. The advantages of an internal gear hub are discussed in more detail in a separate article. Briefly:
External gears require more maintenance. The chain requires regular cleaning and lubricating, and it will need replacing much more frequently than a belt would. The rear mechanics (the gears and the derailleur) will wear out and parts will require replacement.
With external gears, you have to pedal when you shift gears and ideally you will not be pedalling hard when you shift. If you have ever come upon a hill in the wrong gear, you know how annoying this can be.
On the flipside, rear gears are less expensive, lightweight, and very efficient (when you are in gear).
What options are there for internal gears?
The top of the line internal gear hub is produced by Rohloff. It has 14 speeds and a 526% gear ratio range.
A different technology, produced by Eviolo, has no fixed gears at all – meaning that with a twist of the wrist you can set the gear ratio to whatever you are most comfortable with. Enviolo produces two “continuously variable” rear gears with gear ratio ranges of 310% and 380%.
Shimano produces an 8-speed internal gear hub called the Nexus. It has a gear ratio range of 307%, which is not bad, and is cheaper than both the Rohloff and Eviolo. One potential concern is that it may not be suitable for motors producing more than 50Nm of torque. Given that the Bosch Performance Line CX produces up to 85Nm of torque, there could be issues.
In summary, the lowest maintenance solution is a carbon fibre belt instead of a chain, and internal gears instead of external ones.
Whether you use internal or external rear gears, the greater the gear ratio range, the more flexibility you will have with your bike in terms of terrain you can comfortably ride on.
Because a mid-drive does not have front gears that you can shift, a standard external rear gear will be noticeably limited. As for alternatives, the top of the line is Rohloff’s 14-speed Speedhub. The next step down is the Enviolo. The next step down from there is either a Shimano Nexus internal gear hub or a higher quality external cassette.
Personally, I settled for the Enviolo 380% continuously variable internal hub with a carbon fibre belt.
Weight: Carbon Fibre
Lower weight has always been a goal with traditional bicycles – arguably because the bike was human-powered, and thus people wanted to reduce the effort required to move the bike.
Electric motors add weight but also power. So, at first blush overall weight is not that important.
Weight is still a consideration.
First, you may have to carry your bike upstairs, or even lift it onto the rack on the back of your car. With a front hub motor, the extra weight is noticeable even when pushing your bike and mounting a kerb.
Second, extra weight also makes it more difficult to keep the bike balanced while riding … especially at slower speeds. Older riders in particular should look for lighter bikes.
As discussed above, weight distribution is also an issue. The extra weight of a front hub motor makes steering much “heavier” and more sluggish.
The lightest bicycle frame material is carbon fibre. You can get both the frame and front forks in carbon fibre.
Interestingly, when searching for a specific ebike with all the above features, I was not able to find any with a carbon fibre frame. Likely this is because the ebike motor (Bosch Performance Line CX) is sufficiently powerful that not even the manufacturers felt that a carbon fibre frame was worth the expense.
Frame geometry is also a factor. The top crossbar makes a bike frame more stable and thus the frame can be lighter. On the flipside, a top crossbar requires you to lift your leg to get on and off your bike.
Personally, my ebike has a step-through frame (mistakenly called a “ladies” bike) despite the slight extra weight. I have also opted for aluminium instead of carbon fibre, but these are personal choices. Specifically, I do not see the value for money in going for carbon fibre or the net benefit of a crossbar frame.
CONCLUSION: the Best Electric Bike
Bosch lists 91 bike manufacturers using their motors. Rohloff lists 44 partners. Only 9 bike manufacturers use both – 3 of whom only make specialist bikes and 2 more are not for sale in the UK.
The 4 remaining bike brands are
This bike comes with:
Bosch Performance Line CX mid-drive motor;
Bosch Intuvia controller;
Gates CDX Carbon Fibre Belt;
Rohloff 14-speed Speedhub;
500 Wh battery :: meaning a 100kg rider should get a range of 51 miles; and
It is worth noting that the Gazelle comes with the Bosch Performance Line Cruise (65Nm) and a 500Wh battery.
Personal Choice: My Electric Bike
Wired magazine says "this is one of the best all-around ebikes [they've] tried", rating it 8 out of 10.
This bike comes with:
Bosch Performance Line Cruise mid-drive motor;
Bosch Intuvia controller;
Gated CDX carbon fibre belt;
Enviolo Trekking rear hub (380% range);
500Wh battery; and
61cm aluminium frame.
If you are interested in the Gazelle, this video does a good walkthrough of all the features, advantages and disadvantages.
Enviolo lists 60 partners. Only 26 of these also use Bosch motors. I only found 10 of these who make a suitable bike that can be bought in the UK. In order of increasing cost:
£3,599 for a Gazelle Ultimate C380
£3,599 for a Hercules Futura Pro I-F360
£3,599 for a Moustache Monday 27.5
£3,850 for a Trek District+ 9
£4,229 for a Koga Pace B10
£4,479 for a Reise & Müller Charger3 GT Vario
£4,499 for a Kettler Quadriga Duo
£4,559 for a Bergamont E-Horizon Pro Belt
£4,799 for a Corratec Power C29 CX6 Belt
£5,499 for a Ruff Cycles Ruffian
Hercules Futura Pro I-F360
Hercules is German electric bike brand. Unlike Gazelle, it is hard to find an English language review of their bikes. With that said, they cite Focus Money as a prestigious German testing organisation. They found the Future Pro I-F14 (with the Rohloff hub) to be "very good".
Radfahren magazine reviewed the external gear version of the Future Pro, which they rated "very good" (4.4 out of 5), describing the bike as "a long-distance touring bike ... that shows its strengths above all in hilly terrain".
It is worth noting that the Hercules comes with the larger Bosch Performance Line CX (85Nm) but with the same 500Wh battery as the Gazelle. So, you have more power at your fingertips but the trade-off is less range - depending on how much power assistance you use.
Moustache Monday 27.5
Moustache is a French company making very iconic, designer looking bikes. The Lundi (Monday) line was their first model, which they have updated progressively over the years.
This video discusses features of Moustache and the Monday line.
The latest version of the bike has the battery integrated into the downtube of the frame.
It is worth noting that this bike encourages an almost upright sitting posture, which is most suitable for shorter distances and city riding.
Similar to the Gazelle, this bike has the Bosch Performance Line Cruise motor (65Nm) and a 500Wh battery.