Electric bicycles are wonderful devices for getting around; they are quick, convenient and great fun.
But what happens when the motor (normally through modification or retro-fitting as a kit) assists the rider beyond the legal speed limit for motor assistance (generally 20mph in the USA and 15.5 mph in Europe).
Whilst it might sound tempting on the simple basis it gets you from A to B more speedily, it can easily mean riders of such e-bikes and other road users they come into contact with may find themselves in situations they don’t want to be in, and all too quickly…
What are Superfast E-bikes?
You’ll most likely know already that in the US (Class 1 & 2) 20mph is the legal limit at which the motor can assist the rider on a e-bike and in Europe it is 15.5mph.
Beyond this limit are so-called ‘speed’ pedelecs or s-pedelecs (Class 3 in US), capable of pedal assisted (no throttle) speeds up to 28mph.
Are these e-bikes? Really they fall into a class of of their own between e-bikes and motorbikes and mopeds.
Whilst they can resemble e-bikes if pedelec in design (giving you the benefits of exercise when you pedal – especially at lower power levels and giving a bike like riding experience) they are unlike ‘regular’ 20mph e-bikes in that they come with some legal requirements to enable them to be ridden in public bike lanes & roadways. In many jurisdictions they are banned on low speed pedestrian/bike specific pathways.
With the right regulation in place they can be useful tools for getting some of the benefits of e-bike riding and getting to where you want to go faster or travelling further than with a regular e-bike.
Any ‘e-bike’ traveling above the 28mph limit is not an e-bike in a legal sense and brings much much fewer of the exercise benefits and simple bike riding experience that comes with regular e-bikes.
What we are really talking about with many superfast models of ‘e-bike’ are more akin to electric mopeds or electric motorbikes.
Other designs may fall into one of the many other classifications of electric vehicles that are emerging currently.
Kinds of Superfast E-bike
Superfast illegal e-bikes generally fall into three categories.
1. Chipping / tuning. On some older models of e-bike all that was required to remove the speed limiter was to turn the speed sensing magnet on the rear wheel spokes sideways to disable it. E-bike manufacturers soon got wise to this design weakness and designed the speed limit into the bike so it was much less easily ‘accessible’ to the end user.
This involves fitting a small electronic device to a legal e-bike to make it run illegally fast, known as chipping or tuning. Usually it means some degree of disassembly of the electronic internals of your e-bike, most likely negating any warranty and potentially causing expensive damage to it.
Whilst the resulting bikes may get no faster than the 28 mph allowed for speed-pedelecs this doesn’t make the bikes speed pedelecs – to be safe they should be designed from the ground up as speed pedelecs and registered accordingly with the authorities. Of course some chipped bikes may also be able to exceed 28mph.
2. Off-the-shelf models. Some companies advertise themselves as selling complete, ready-to-ride ‘e-bikes’ with superfast speeds (ie more than 28mph), in an attempt to draw attention away from the fact that in no legal sense can they be considered e-bikes. They are implying they have all the legal advantages that e-bikes get i.e. no or very little red tape, without drawing attention to the fact they exceed the speed limit imposed on e-bikes for safety reasons.
3. Retro-fit kits. These are mainly hub kits, so the means of making them go illegally fast may have to do not just with the software but with the gearing of the motor itself. As hub motors are not ‘downstream’ of the bike’s own gearing system (as mid drives are) their top speed is largely determined by the gearing ratios of the motor itself. Hence illegally fast hub motors may be geared to achieve an illegal top speed. They may also put greater stresses on the ‘donor’ bike than it can safely handle. In our article on retrofitting kits we look at the care needed to fit legal kits. With illegally fast kits the pitfalls and associated risks are magnified.
Why are the companies that sell such goods often not prosecuted? Many sellers of products that are illegal when used on public roads simply say ‘for use on private land only’.
Obviously the vast majority of illegally fast e-bikes will not be used in this way, but it introduces a ‘paper’ defense that puts the legal onus on the riders of such machines.
Why are Superfast E-bikes So Dangerous?
This can be simply summed up in two words – speed kills. It’s simple, inescapable physics.
In other words a bike travelling at 30mph will do 4 times the damage of a bike doing 15mph and at 60mph (yes there are illegal e-bikes out there that can achieve this speed) you will have 16 times as much energy as at one quarter of the speed.
Add into this the facts that superfast bikes often carry very large heavy battery packs to achieve a reasonable range and that increased mass also contributes to the kintetic energy – and therefore force suffered in any high speed collision – and you can see how the impacts in a high speed collision are very likely to be many, many times greater than you might at first really appreciate.
Excess speed is not just a huge danger should a crash occur but much more likely to lead to one.
The e-bike rider has less time to react as do others around him or her and the rider may also not appreciate that braking distances, as with the energy of the rider and bike, increase at a much greater rate than the extra speed alone might indicate.
One particular problem in relation to superfast e-bikes is that other road users will most likely assume you will be doing a conventional bike-like speed i.e. approaching them fairly slowly.
This is a particular problem if a very fast e-bike is viewed head on. Anyone crossing its path would likely assume it will take far longer to reach them than it actually does; a recipe for disaster.
It only takes a quick search of the internet to see that there have been documented cases of superfast e-bikes being involved in serious and fatal incidents, and some of these are in countries where e-bikes are still only really just beginning to take off.
If the problem is not taken seriously now it could easily leave much more destruction behind it in the future.
There is also the possibility of component failure if the bike has not been built for the forces being exerted on it by superfast motors.
This is also the reason why on speed pedelecs limited to 28 mph many jurisdictions specify higher standards for many of the non-electric components such as frame strength and rims than for lower speed e-bikes.
They just have to be stronger to stand up to the potential forces involved.
What are the Wider Problems Superfast E-bikes Cause?
Even if you are involved in crashing an illegal e-bike and don’t suffer serious injury or worse, you are likely to find other serious consequences if the authorities find out, as this page on Bosch’s website makes clear.
There is also a wider danger that too many incidents of whatever severity involving superfast e-bikes will unfairly damage the rest of the industry, acting responsibly, with the same brush.
As this Telegraph article demonstrates excessive behaviour on e-bikes can lead to a strong backlash in popular leisure cycling areas.
On a national level it could increase calls for mandatory insurance, licensure, helmet wearing, and banning e-bikes from all cycle paths.
Not a Plea for Banning Fast E-vehicles
Faster electric vehicles have their place of course, but they must be well regulated.
Traditionally the gap between bikes (and now e-bikes) and motor cars was filled by mopeds and motorbikes.
The boom in electric vehicle technology promoted in part by the e-bike boom and advances in electric motor system technology has allowed great potential for the development of vehicles that fill the gap and could be a great boon to a more convenient and greener transport future.
Speed pedelecs are a case in point; in countries like the Netherlands and Belgium where thoughtful regulations have recently been introduced sales are starting to grow in this ‘faster than traditional e-bike’ sector.
But electric vehicles that fall outside the legal definition of e-bikes shouldn’t seek to call themselves e-bikes and those tempted to buy such machines should be aware of the potential harm they could do, not only to themselves but to other road users and to the reputation of legal e-bikes and to the many thousands that ride them.
Stay tuned for more e-bike news and reviews and thanks for reading!
P.S. Don’t forget to join the Electric Bike Report communityfor updates from the electric bike world, plus ebike riding and maintenance tips!