How Does an Electric Bicycle Work

How Does an Electric Bicycle Work?

Electric bicycles (e-bikes), also known as pedelecs, are becoming increasingly popular. They are a great way to get around, whether you’re commuting to work or going for a leisurely ride. But how do they work?

E-bikes have a battery-powered motor that helps propel the bike. Users are able to choose how much power they want the motor to provide – some people prefer a little help when they’re going up hills, while others enjoy being able to zip along without pedaling.

You still have to use the pedals with an electric bike, but the motor makes it easier. You can also use the engine to get started from a standstill – many e-bikes have a “throttle” that you can use to give the bike a boost of power when you need it.

As well as the motor, e-bikes also have a sensor that detects how hard you’re pedaling. The motor uses this information to provide the appropriate amount of power.

In this guide, we’re going to take a look at how does an electric bicycle work, the different types of motors and sensors that are used, and some of the benefits of riding an e-bike.

In this Guide:

What are Electric Bicycles?

An electric bicycle resembles a regular bike, except that it is also equipped with a motor, battery, and other mechanical parts that enable you to receive electronic pedal assist at will.

Because it also contains a motor and a battery, it is also usually up to 50 or more pounds heavier than a regular bike.

In the 1880s and 1890s, European and American patent offices recorded the invention of electric bicycles. In France, one of the earliest three-wheeled electric vehicles came with a hand-operated lever that controlled the motor’s power without any pedals.

Libbey electric bicycle

In 1897, Hosea W. Libbey of Boston developed the first electric bicycle with two “double electric motors”. The engine was positioned between the crankset axle’s hub and the bike’s center. This type is similar to contemporary mid-drive motors on a few bikes.

The 1990s saw the introduction of the first pedal-assist e-bikes. Michael Kutter in Switzerland built a throttleless eBike with power controlled by pedaling. In 1993, Yamaha produced a similar machine.

Michael Kutter - electric bike

Today, e-bikes are becoming popular as a mode of “green” transportation and for recreation.

How Does an Electric Bicycle Work

An e-bike rides just like a regular bike; however, its motor assists with the pedaling to make operating it much easier, especially when traveling long distances or over steep hills or other challenging terrains. However, it is the bike’s battery that powers it, which you simply charge via a mains outlet to get started.

There are three main components to an e-bike: motor, battery, and controller. The motor is responsible for providing the power to move the bike, while the battery stores this power. The controller regulates the power that is sent to the motor from the battery.

The motor is usually located in the hub of the bicycle’s front or rear wheel, and several different battery types can power it.

Once switched on, the motor will rotate the wheel when you start to pedal. The faster you pedal, the more power is generated, and this helps the motor to turn the wheel more quickly.

You can also use a throttle to give the motor a boost of power without pedaling, which can be useful when starting from a standstill or going up hills. The level of assistance that you receive from the motor can be varied, depending on how much power you want it to provide.

The bike also includes a controller, which lets you choose the amount of pedal assistance you want from the motor as you ride. This is usually done via a simple handlebar-mounted switch.

The motor will then provide the corresponding level of assistance to make pedaling easier, up to a maximum speed that is set by law in most countries (usually 20 mph or 32 kph).

You can still pedal an e-bike without using the motor, and you can even switch it off entirely if you want to ride without any assistance. And then, when you need to walk the bike, you simply select the walk-assist mode to make it easier to push.

The Motor

ebike engine

The position of the e-bike’s motor ultimately determines how it operates.

For instance, a hub motor integrated into the front wheel typically only works with throttle systems, making pedal-assist difficult because it is not part of the main components that push or pull the bike along.

Meanwhile, a rear hub motor located on the back wheel provides both throttle and pedal assist. However, it can make the bike a bit weightier in the back, affecting how it handles.

And then, there is the mid-drive motor, which is located in the center of the bike frame for better balance. It also connects to the crank system instead of the wheels, so you have full use of the different gears on the bike. It also delivers more torque than a hub motor.

The Battery

ebike battery

An e-bike’s range is determined by its battery, with lithium batteries being the most popular for their lightweight, durability, and long-lasting capability. They also offer the largest capacities of all batteries.

Lithium-ion polymer batteries, in particular, are the most affordable of all lithium batteries; hence, they have also become the standard of e-bike batteries. They also support high voltage, fast charging times, and supply lots of power in just a short amount of time, which also makes them a favorite.

However, there are also Nickel-metal Hydride (NiMh) batteries, Nickel-cadmium batteries, and lead-acid e-bike batteries.

Choosing the Right Electric Bike

Now that you know how ebikes work, you may be wondering which one is right for you and what electric bike to buy.

When choosing a battery for your e-bike, one of the most important things to consider is the capacity, determining how far or how long the bike will go before running out of power.

The capacity is expressed in ampere-hour (Ah), and you also need to consider the Watts and Watts per hour (Wh), which also help determine the bike’s speed.

The size and position of the battery also affect the bike because it can make it even heavier, so keep this in mind.

Electric bikes come in two main types: pedal-assist and throttle-only. As the name suggests, pedal-assist e-bikes only provide power when you are pedaling, while throttle-only e-bikes can be powered without pedaling.

Each has its own pros and cons. Pedal-assist e-bikes are generally more expensive than throttle-only models, but they are also more versatile and you are able to choose how much power you want the motor to provide.

Throttle-only e-bikes, on the other hand, are simpler to operate since you don’t have to worry about pedaling. However, they can be less comfortable to ride since you cannot use them without the motor.

The type of terrain also affects your choice of electric bike. If you will be riding on mostly flat surfaces with little incline, then you can get away with a lighter and smaller battery.

But if you plan on riding on hilly or mountainous terrain, then you will need a battery with more capacity to help the motor power the bike up those inclines.

The distance you plan on riding also matters. If you only need an e-bike for short commutes, then you can get away with a smaller battery. But if you plan on using your e-bike for longer rides, then you will need a battery with a larger capacity to give you the range you need.

Finally, consider the cost of the electric bike and the battery. E-bikes can be expensive, so make sure to factor in the cost of the battery when making your decision.

How do I Operate the E-bike?

E-bikes are easy to operate. The first thing you need to do is charge the battery. Once it is charged, you can connect it to the bike and turn it on.
Next, select the mode you want to ride in. If you are using a pedal-assist e-bike, then you will need to pedal to get the motor to provide power. If you are using a throttle-only e-bike, then you can just twist the throttle and go.

Be sure to start off in a lower gear so you can get used to the bike and the power it is providing. You can always shift to a higher gear if you need more power.


Any e-bike can become a pedal-only bike simply by shutting the motor off. This way, it will function as a regular bike, such as if you prefer maximum resistance while riding or if the battery is dead.

You can also switch the pedal assist function to zero to pedal normally. However, when riding an e-bike in pedal-only mode, it will be much heavier than a traditional bike, so keep this in mind, especially when traveling long distances.

Pedal-Assist (Sometimes Called Electric-Assist)

Pedal-assist e-bikes enable the rider to pedal the bike like a regular bike while the motor powers the back wheel for assistance, thus making the bike easier to ride, even in high gears. It also makes pedaling over steep terrains more effortless.

The user can also adjust the setting to control the amount of assistance they receive. However, in some countries, the bike cannot provide assistance over a certain speed to be considered safe for use on roads and paths where regular bikes are allowed.


Electric-only e-bikes allow the motor to operate the bike with no help from you.

On most bikes, to engage the electric-only mode, you simply twist or press the throttle button located on the handlebar, or you can press down on the pedals, and you’ll feel the motor kick.

Then, to come to a stop, or if you wish to pedal, release the throttle.

Do Electric Bikes Require a License?

In many countries and states, e-bikes are classified as regular bicycles, which means you can ride them on public roads and off-road in any of these locations without a license.

However, in most cases, this is provided the bike does not exceed 20 mph.

Otherwise, they cross the line into motorized bikes, which means you will need a license to operate them. In fact, e-bikes are categorized into three classes based on their motor power and level of assistance.

Class 1 and Class 2 bikes both enable the rider to pedal the bike along with the motor and go up to only 20 mph, so they can safely be used on the same paths as traditional bikes.

However, Class 3 e-bike motors can reach speeds of 28 mph, and many also include a speedometer, so they are commonly not allowed on the same paths as regular bikes. Therefore, they require a license in some countries and states.

But, in the end, each country and state classifies e-bikes differently, and they also each have their own laws and regulations regarding how to use them and if they require licensing, so be sure to learn the vehicle codes and public street rules in your area before operating your e-bike to ensure you comply.


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