So you want to get an e-bike, but you’re not quite sure where to start? One of the first things you should decide in your search is which class of e-bike is right for how you ride. In many states in the U.S., e-bikes are broken into three classes—Class 1, 2 and 3—based on their top motor-assisted speed and how the motor is engaged.
In 2015, California was the first state to define electric bikes in this three-class system. The state now requires e-bikes to show a label stating their class number, motor wattage (a maximum of 750 watts is allowed) and top assisted speed. Now, a total of 28 states use this three-tier system, and a further 15 regulate e-bikes as bicycles. The bicycle advocacy group PeopleforBikes has a great state by state resource for e-bike laws and regulations.
What it is: A Class 1 bicycle is equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when you are pedaling, and stops assisting once the bike reaches 20 miles per hour. You can go faster, but any additional speed will have to be supplied the old fashioned way: by your legs.
Is a class 1 e-bike right for me? Class 1 e-bikes are a great choice for most people. They offer enough speed for most riders to comfortably and quickly get where they want to go. And because power is supplied as you pedal, operation is very easy: just pedal as you would on a normal bike, shifting gears as needed, and the bike will provide a steady boost of power. Pedal-driven bikes will usually offer different levels of assist, allowing you to accelerate faster or ride uphill at a higher speed in say “turbo” mode than “eco” mode—the tradeoff is that you use up battery more quickly in more powerful assist modes.
Look elsewhere if: You want a bike that assists faster than 20 miles per hour.
What it is: A Class 2 bicycle is equipped with a motor that is controlled by a throttle, and stops assisting once it reaches 20 miles per hour. You can go faster, but any additional speed will come from your own power.
Is a class 2 e-bike right for me? If you come from a background of riding scooters or other hand-throttle powered vehicles, and want to keep a familiar feel, a class 2 e-bike could be a good option for you. Some might prefer a throttle because it allows fast accelerations from stop lights. These bikes also let the motor run without pedaling if you want to take a quick break while riding and still move forward.
Look elsewhere if: You don’t want to have to remember to pedal as well as use the throttle when you want power. Or if you want a bike that assists faster than 20 miles per hour.
What it is: A Class 3 bicycle is equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when you are pedaling, and stops assisting once it reaches 28 miles per hour. Again, you can go faster, but any extra speed will come from your legs—although you likely won’t be too worried about going much faster at an already fast 28 miles per hour.
Is a class 3 e-bike right for me? If you have a long commute or like to ride long distances for fun—or just desire more speed—this could be a good option for you. Be sure to check local laws on the roads or paths you like to frequent because class 3 bikes may be excluded from certain paths.
Look elsewhere if: you are new to cycling or otherwise feel uncomfortable at speeds above 20 mph. If you aren’t comfortable riding alongside automobile traffic, you will likely prefer a class 1 or 2 bike because they are allowed on most bike paths, while class 3 bikes might not be, depending on state and local laws.
Many states have also established rules regarding helmet usage, rider age and where the different classes of bikes may be operated. California for instance treats class 1 and 2 e-bikes the same as non-motorized e-bikes when it comes to helmet laws and bike-path usage. But for class 3 e-bikes the Golden State requires helmets for all riders, prohibits riders under 16 and by default prohibits these bikes from bike paths (bike lanes on roads with car traffic are still okay). However, local jurisdictions can decide to allow class 3 e-bikes on their paths.
Given that laws on e-bikes differ by state and even on a local level, it is important to do some research on the laws in the areas you want to ride.
Once you decide which type of e-bike is right for you, all that is left to do is find one you like and get riding!