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How Does an Electric Bike Really Work?

electric bike at the beach

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Electric mountain bikes, also called e-bikes, are becoming more and more popular on trails. An e-bike gives you an extra boost of power to help you ride faster, farther, and climb higher than a regular mountain bike. So how does the electric technology allow these supercharged trail shredders to electrify your ride?

The Motor

The key component that sets electric mountain bikes apart is the electric motor. Most e-bikes have a small but mighty motor located around the bottom bracket (the part of the frame that houses the pedal cranks). There are a few different types of e-bike motors, but they all work to supplement your pedaling.

Sensors in the motor constantly monitor how fast you are pedaling and then provide extra forward propulsion by turning the rear wheel. So when you start pedaling faster or approach a hill, the motor provides smooth, seamless power to maintain your speed or give you a boost to keep climbing efficiently up the hill. This means you can focus on maneuvering over obstacles on the trail without slowing down or struggling on tough inclines.

Some high-end motors even sense the amount of force you are putting into each pedal stroke. This allows the motor to finely tune the power it delivers to match the effort you are exerting for a natural, organic riding feel. Pretty cool!

The Battery

The electric motor isn’t magic – it needs electricity! That’s where the battery comes in. E-bike batteries are usually either mounted to the down tube or integrated into the frame. Batteries contain special lithium ion cells similar to what powers your laptop or phone. But e-bike batteries are much larger to provide enough juice to run the motor for extended periods.

When you engage the e-bike system, either by pedaling or twisting the throttle if there is one, electricity flows from the battery to the motor to provide power. As you ride, keep an eye on the battery level and try not get too far from home before it runs out! Then you’ll need to give the legs an extra workout to finish the ride on a heavy bike with no assistance. Recharging the battery after every ride helps ensure you’ll get full power the next time out.

The Controller

Now here is where the real intelligence comes in. The controller acts as the brain, coordinating the electrical signals from all components and determining how much power the motor delivers at any given moment. More basic controllers simply take input from a torque or cadence sensor and translate that into motor output. But advanced systems feature a suite of sensors tied into cycle computers that provide actual trail data to modulate power delivery for the most natural and efficient ride experience possible.

By gathering information about your pedaling cadence from specialized rotation sensors and combining it with speed, altitude, incline degree, power output, and other data points, high-end controllers can tailor the motor assistance to your individual riding style and the trail conditions in real time. The result is an e-bike ride that feels faster, easier and more connected to the terrain.

Ride Farther and Higher

By adding an electric motor to augment your pedaling, electric mountain bikes let you ride longer with less effort. The motor’s consistent support helps delay the onset of fatigue by reducing strain on your body. No longer will your rides be limited by stamina – you’ll have the power to keep charging all day!

This also means you can explore more epic trails deeper in the backcountry. Technical uphill sections and high altitude peaks that once seemed impossible are now achievable with an e-bike. Motors flatten daunting climbs by providing momentum when your body starts to struggle. Trails that only the fittest riders could summit before are now open to more people thanks to e-bikes.

Enhanced Trail Experiences

Beyond extended range and increased elevation potential, electric mountain bikes deliver trail experiences unavailable on muscle-only pedal bikes. Our controller section touched on how the most advanced e-bikes integrate terrain data to intelligently moderate power delivery for optimal efficiency and handling.

What does that mean for you out on actual trails? Buttery smooth climbs up rock gardens and ledges. Confidence-inspiring traction across loose surfaces. Momentum to float over obstacles. E-bikes almost meld rider and machine so you feel more connected to the trail. It’s easier to focus on picking precise lines and transitioning weight properly rather than fighting to generate constant power output. You’ll carry speed better from the tops of climbs enabling you to rally downhill sections you’ve earned.

In this way, e-bikes unlock more enjoyment from your favorite trails. They allow you to ride with proper form rather than survival mode slogging. Technical sections become more manageable and fun rather than impassable obstacles. You’ll clean challenging climbs with less effort, earning brewing downhill payoffs. It’s amazing how much one ride can transform on an e-bike!

Some people may worry e-bikes could damage trails since their increased weight and power can cause erosion issues or conflicts with other trail users if ridden recklessly. However, studies have shown responsible e-bike use does not negatively impact trails more than a normal mountain bike. As with any bike, following proper trail etiquette and slowing down around hikers goes a long way. E-bikes may allow access for more riders, but the outdoor community embracing “tread lightly” principles helps protect our beloved trails.

The Ultimate Trail Tools

With lightweight motors, long-range batteries and intelligent controls, electric mountain bikes have evolved into highly-capable trail riding machines. They empower you to ride farther, faster and access more challenging terrain. E-bikes open up new possibilities to experience your favorite trails in a whole new way. Once you try one, you’ll be electrified by the performance benefits and enhanced trail connectivity electric mountain bikes deliver. No longer will your rides be limited by your human-powered endurance. With an e-bike, you’ll become the ultimate trail riding machine!

About the Author

Tony K

Senior Technical Writer,

Tony K is a technical editor at He has a focus on downhill bike riding but still loves xc bikes too.

With more than ten years of mountain biking experience and more than 5 years testing mountain bikes, Tony has ridden and tested hundreds of different bikes and products, everything from XC to enduro bikes. Tony regularly competes in mountain bike races while seeing how long those compontents can hold up which gives me a lot of insight.

When he isn't shredding down a mountain or camping out, he is writing reviews for Mountain Bike Experience.

Rides: Surly Lowside, Canyon Exceed