How do electric bikes work?

Electric bikes work by having an electric motor for propulsion and a rechargeable battery for power.

Riding an electric bicycle is very much like riding a regular bicycle. Indeed, they have almost identical components. The addition of a motor simply makes hills and strong headwinds more manageable and allows you to travel greater distances with less effort.
If you can ride a traditional bicycle you will quickly be comfortable on an electric bike.

There are two basic types of electric bikes. Most of the bikes you see on the streets in Europe, Australa and New Zealand are ‘Pedelec bikes’. In the US and Canada there are a mix of electric bike types.

Pedelec Bikes

The term pedelec (from pedal electric cycle)  describes a bicycle where the electric motor assists your pedaling.  Electric assistance increases as you press down on the pedals. If you stop pedaling the motor will cut out.

There is no need for a throttle on a pedelec bike. However, they usually have a controller mounted on the handlebar to let you select the level of assistance you want.

In most jurisdictions, a low powered pedelec electric bicycle is subject to the same road rules as a regular bicycle. As a result, you can use them on cycle paths in most areas.

Components required to make pedelec electric bikes work

  • Electric motor – mounted in the front or rear hub or on the bike frame.
  • Rechargeable battery.
  • Assistance selector – to let you set how much motor assistance you require.
  • Speed sensor – to ensure the amount of assistance reduces as speed reaches defined limits.
  • Brake sensor – cut off the motor assistance when you engage the brakes.
  • Pedal torque sensor –  measure how hard you are pedaling and add power proportionally.

Non-pedelec electric bikes

Throttle-based controllers use either a twist-grip handlebar controller or a thumb-press type. With a throttle, you simply pull back or press the throttle to receive as much electric assistance as you require. In this case, you do not need to pedal.

In many regions, eBikes that do not require pedal input are subject to the same road rules as mopeds or motorcycles.  As a result, they may not be permitted on cycle tracks and they may need to be licensed,  registered, inspected and insured.


Electric bikes are not new,  the first designs appeared in the 1880’s.

Recent advances in battery technology have seen a rapid growth in their popularity in most parts of the world. In particular, growth has been strong in mainland Europe and China.

Electric bicycles can be purpose-built or motors and batteries can be added to a traditional bicycle.

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