Electric Bike Modes: Throttle vs Pedal Assist (Pedelec)
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Understanding E-Bike Propulsion Methods and Which is Right for You
Depending on their designation, e-bikes and their motors work in two ways: they can either make your level of pedaling effort easier, or completely take over and simply carry you along for the ride.
When you’re considering which type of e-bike to purchase, it’s important to think about which of these methods the bike offers, the environment(s) you’ll be riding in, and your own abilities and preferences. In this article, the writers here at Electric Bike Report will help you to understand the pros and cons of throttle vs pedal assist electric bikes, and help you to determine which is best for you!
Defining E-Bike Throttle and Pedal Assist Terms
Before we get into the differences between throttle and pedal assist and how they relate to you, let’s define those terms more clearly:
- Throttle: a handlebar-mounted device that can engage (and sometimes adjust) power output from the bike’s motor. Electric bikes with throttles can be completely self-propelled, since throttles tell their motors to dispense power without the need for any pedal motion or input from the rider.
- Pedal Assist: the standard method of operation for e-bikes. As the term suggests, this method of motor engagement requires the bike’s rider to move the pedals, though depending on the bike’s gearing, type of motor, and type of sensor, the rider may or may not need to actually be engaged with the drivetrain.
- Pedelec: This term is a synonym for pedal assist, and is an abbreviation derived from the words “pedal electric cycle.”
It should be noted that, in order to be classified as electric bicycles, all e-bikes must have operable pedals. As such, most e-bikes function through pedal assist, with some having additional throttles – though it is still possible to have a throttle-controlled motor mounted to an otherwise non-electric bicycle with a standard drivetrain.
Many e-bikes, like the Aventon Aventure 2, offer both throttle and pedal assistance for a range of applications in different environments.
E-bike Class System
At least in the US, e-bikes are separated into three classes or categories. This class system plays a significant role in regulating their legal use in specific areas or on specific paths. Their placement within this system is determined by the methods through which they employ their motors, as well as their maximum motor-assisted speeds.
This system, and much of the legislation related to it, exists largely thanks to the incredible, thoughtful, and intelligent folks at People for Bikes. Their work has helped to create a structure for the governance, safety, and consistency of e-bikes, in addition to promoting them as beneficial to the well-being of all. If you can’t tell, we’re big fans!
Let’s take a look at how throttle vs pedal assist ties into this 3-class system.
A Class 1 e-bike has a motor that provides assistance only when its rider is pedaling, and is limited to motor-assisted speeds of 20 miles per hour. These e-bikes are capable of going faster than 20 mph, but only on human power beyond that point. These e-bikes do NOT have throttles.
Class 2 e-bikes ARE equipped with throttles, and do not require human input to be propelled (though most do also offer pedal assistance). E-bikes in this category are still limited to motor-assisted speeds of 20 miles per hour.
Sometimes known as S-Pedelecs or Speed Pedelecs (primarily in Europe), Class 3 e-bikes offer pedal assistance up to a maximum of 28 miles per hour. Additionally, Class 3 e-bikes are required to be equipped with a speedometer. Like Class 1 e-bikes, these can still be pedaled faster than their motor-assisted speeds, but only with human power.
Class 3 e-bikes can ALSO be categorized as Class 2 e-bikes if they feature a throttle that is limited to 20 miles per hour.
Thumb-operated throttle levers, such as this one on the Evelo Omega, are typically the most commonly-used variety.
Any e-bike that differs from the descriptions above falls into the “Unclassified” category. This could be for a number of reasons, such as including a throttle that reaches speeds above 20 miles per hour, or being equipped with a motor with nominal output beyond 750 Watts.
While laws and regulations still vary widely, e-bikes within this category are often only legal off-road or on private property without a license and registration.
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Updates and new colours for eBike Sport and eBike Cross
The existing Sport and Cross models will also be powered by the Shimano EP-801 motor in the future. The eBike Sport has also been upgraded with a Shimano XT DI2 12-speed rear derailleur with free shift function.
The eBikes Sport and eBike Cross of the first generation
The eBike Sport: the white eBike from Porsche. The flat frame design developed by Studio F. A. Porsche ensures optimum light reflections. The Shimano EP-8 motor provides powerful propulsion in conjunction with the 630 Wh drive battery.
Porsche eBike Cross. 2nd Gen.
Porsche eBike Sport. 2nd Gen.
The Porsche eBike Cross in dark gray
Off paved roads in difficult terrain, the Porsche eBike Cross is in its element. Here, too, the sporty character of the Porsche Taycan served as inspiration. The organically shaped carbon frame quotes the vehicle’s roofline.
Porsche eBike Cross. 2nd Gen.
Porsche eBike Cross. 2nd Gen.
Porsche eBike Cross. 2nd Gen.
Porsche eBike Cross. 2nd Gen.
How do you ride an electric bike?
Riding an electric bike is pretty much like riding a non-motorised bike of the same type.
You switch on the motor, select the assistance level you want using the controller, and then pedal. The motor will make initial acceleration much easier and then help you keep up to speed, particularly when you need to climb a hill.
However, because of the extra weight from the motor and battery, an electric bike may handle a bit more sluggishly than a non-assisted bike.
It may also have wider tyres to carry the extra weight and provide more grip, and it will usually have disc brakes because there’s more mass to slow down and stop.
What range will an electric bike have?
The motor type and battery capacity, plus your riding style and the terrain, all influence the range. Russell Burton / Immediate Media
Batteries on electric bikes can give you a range of anything from 20 to 100 miles or more on a full charge, depending on their capacity (measured in watt-hours and abbreviated to Wh). Batteries are expensive, so an ebike with a longer range will, in general, cost more.
You’ll usually get a battery-level indicator, while some control systems will give you an estimated range as you ride or regulate the power output to let you achieve your planned ride distance.
Some ebikes let you plug in a second battery, which might fit in a bottle cage, to up range. You can also lower the assistance level during a ride to help conserve the battery and extend the bike’s range.
While many brands will offer an estimated range for a particular model of bike, and it is possible to gauge a bike’s theoretical range based on its motor power and battery capacity, ultimately it depends on the level of assistance you’re using and the terrain.
Fully recharging the battery from the mains can take anything from around three hours up to nine hours, or more depending on the model, charger and battery capacity.
What types of electric bike are there?
We’ve got a separate guide to electric bike types, but you can find almost any kind of bike with a motor.
The most common types of electric bikes are hybrids and mountain bikes.
The best electric hybrid bikes have flat bars and chunky, puncture-resistant tyres, useful for biking to work, shopping and more leisurely rides.
They may also have mudguards (or the eyelets to add full-length mudguards), a rack and lights, and sometimes have a step-through frame design to make it easier to hop on and off the bike.
Electric mountain bikes normally have a beefy motor with a high torque output to help you get up loose off-road climbs and over obstacles. Once you get to the top, the motor can be turned off to enjoy the downhill ride.
There’s also a growing number of electric road bikes. With drop handlebars, they’re designed to ride fast and are usually relatively lightweight (as far as electric bikes go), to help with handling and hill climbing.
Electric gravel bikes are designed to be capable off-road and fast on tarmac. Russell Burton / Our Media
There’s an increasing number of electric gravel bikes, too. With wider tyres to enable you to ride off-road with confidence and drop handlebars for road speed, e-gravel bikes are designed to offer the versatility to really broaden your riding.
The best electric folding bikes will be designed for versatility and compact size. They can be folded up to take on public transport or for easier storage at home/work, so they could be the best bike for commuting for many people.
There are also electric cargo bikes, designed to carry loads for deliveries around town and other day-to-day tasks where they can replace a car or van.
Whichever electric bike you choose, we suggest you read our guides to electric bike insurance and electric bike maintenance to look after what’s likely to be a sizeable investment.
In short, if you want a helping hand on your ride, you can find an electric bike to suit your needs.
Can you convert a bike into an ebike?
Yes, you can convert a bike into an ebike. There are an increasing number of electric bike conversion kits available, which enable you to add a motor to a non-assisted bike.
These kits are often a more affordable way to electrify your riding, compared to buying a whole new electric bike.
Electric bike conversion kits will include a motor as well as a battery to power it. They will also have controls so you adjust the power output on the motor. The controls often mount to the handlebar of a bike.
Conversion kits tend to come with sensors to detect speed and the level of power input required to ensure the motor matches your needs.
One of the most popular ebike conversion kits in the UK is the Swytch kit, which uses a hub-mounted motor.
Other kits use ‘mid-drive’ motors but some of these kits are compatible only with specific bottom bracket standards.
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Paul has been writing about bike tech and reviewing all things cycling for almost a decade. He had a five-year stint at Cycling Weekly and has also written for titles including CyclingNews, Cyclist and BikePerfect, as well as being a regular contributor to BikeRadar. Tech-wise, he’s covered everything from rim width to the latest cycling computers. He reviewed some of the first electric bikes for Cycling Weekly and has covered their development into the sophisticated machines they are today, on the way becoming an expert on all things electric. Paul was into gravel before it was even invented, riding a cyclocross bike across the South Downs and along muddy paths through the Chilterns. He dabbled in cross-country mountain biking too. He’s most proud of having covered the length of the South Downs Way on a crosser and fulfilling his long-time ambition to climb Monte Grappa on a road bike