Many electric bikes look like their traditional cousins, with their motors and batteries subtly hidden inside increasingly sleek frames. So a class system has been introduced to differentiate between the different categories of e-bikes. But what differentiates a Class I e-bike from a Class II, which should you choose, and why?
What is the e-Bike Class System?
When riders started hitting roads, mountains, and dirt trails on e-bikes, it’s fair to say they turned a lot of heads and weren’t immediately welcomed by everyone. However, the introduction of regulations to govern electric bikes on local streets and trails has helped to win people over and seen a surge in the popularity of the vehicles. It’s also enabled more people to enjoy cycling instead of using their car or motorbike.
This move started in 2014, led by PeopleForBikes, the national advocacy group and bicycle industry trade association. Over 30 states have now introduced standardized regulations for e-bike usage using a three-class system. It defines simple classes of e-bikes based on operation, speed, and wattage, regulates the types of permitted bicycle infrastructure, and requires manufacturers to clearly demonstrate the e-bike’s class. And more states are following suit as the system’s benefits in eliminating confusion, enhancing safety, and promoting green transportation methods.
Choosing Between Class I And Class II E-Bikes
With that in mind, let’s explore what the e-bike classifications mean for riders and the differences between Class I and Class II electric bikes. It’s also worth noting that all classes of e-bikes are limited to one horsepower, which means electric motors with no more than 750W. Beyond Class I and II e-bikes, it’s also possible to purchase Class III and IIII vehicles, which may exceed the speed limits regulated by local authorities and may not be strictly street-legal.
What Is A Class I E-Bike?
A Class I e-bike is limited to a top speed of 20 mph and has no throttle. That means the extra kick provided by the built-in electric motor is only activated when you’re pedaling the bike. This system, known as pedal assist, means that the motor will kick into life and help you hit a top speed of 20 mph when pedaling.
Class I e-bikes can generally co-exist alongside traditional non-electric bikes. They add a little assistance when climbing steep hills or extra pace when required. As a result, a Class I e-bike can be ridden anywhere that you’d ride a regular bike, including bike paths, bike lanes, and roads.
What Is A Class II E-Bike?
A Class II e-bike is also limited to 20mph, but the key difference is that these bikes have a throttle. That means the motor provides an additional power boost without pedaling the bike. The throttle feature irks some traditional riders, giving them further assistance up steep hills or trick trails even when they’re not putting any effort in.
An e-bike throttle typically comes via a grip twist, as seen on motorcycles, or a button that sees the bike accelerate without pedaling. However, the throttle is limited to 20 mph to comply with safety regulations.
It’s worth noting that some manufacturers offer Class II e-bikes with uprated throttles that can offer a top speed of 28 mph. Technically, these are “out of class” e-bikes that are sometimes sold as Class II, with the owner deciding how to set it up whether that’s road legal or not.
Understanding E-Bike Road Usage
Before purchasing any electric bike, it’s essential to understand where and when you’ll be allowed to ride it under state laws. The increased popularity of electric bikes is seeing regulations around their usage evolving and generally becoming less restrictive.
In 2002, US Congress passed the HB 727 regulation, which defined a “low-speed electric bicycle” as a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals, an electric motor not exceeding 750W, and couldn’t achieve speeds over 20mph. But local state authorities increasingly have different regulations in place.
For example, Californian rules state that Class I and II e-bikes can be operated by riders of any age on bikeways and bike lanes. While Class III e-bike riders must be over 16, wear a helmet, and can use the vehicles on bike lanes that are part of public roads. Other states typically treat all three e-bike classes as bicycles but have variations around age limits, bikeway usage, and helmet requirements.
Finding The Right E-Bike
Now you understand the difference between Class I and Class II e-bikes, the next step is to purchase the right electric bike for you. This decision depends on how and where you intend to ride it, with a wide range of e-bikes available, from road bikes and hybrid offerings to electric mountain bikes.
But understanding classification is critical before purchasing an e-bike and hitting your local road or dirt trail. It’s vital to check which regulations your state has around e-bikes. We recommend referring to PeopleForBikes, which offers an excellent, frequently updated resource of state-by-state laws.