What are e-bike classes? | TechRadar

Any new or evolving technology involves some degree of vagueness, especially when it comes to legislation. This has certainly been the case with e-bikes, which have often fallen into the legislative happy medium; not classed as real bicycles, but also not judged as real motor vehicles. Everything was a bit blurry. The same can be said about where e-bikes should or should not be used due to the presence of a battery and an electric motor.

The situation is improving, however, as most e-bikes now fall into one of three different classes. In 2020, the e-bike industry decided to come together and come up with a plan, which resulted in the creation of Class 1, Class 2 and Class 3 categories.

Simple, right? Well, not quite because although the class system is now recognized by more than half of the US states, it’s still not a truly definitive classification system.

The continued growth of the e-bike market adds to the confusion. With more and more manufacturers making e-bikes and more bike retailers stocking them, the potential for continued confusion seems to be everywhere. It’s a step forward though, but shouldn’t be seen as the last word. If you’re unsure if the e-bike you’re interested in falls into one of the three categories outlined below, you might want to do a little more research before purchasing.

Falling foul of the authorities and facing legal issues if you ride in the wrong place, or even worse, if you have an accident, all of this should be kept in mind, no matter how e-bike you like looks cool.

Class 1 Electric Bike

Class 1 electric bikes have a speed limit of 20 miles per hour, and the classification is simplified by the fact that the electric motor only assists the rider when pedalling. You may find that the e-bike has a throttle, usually mounted on the handlebars, but this will only provide a boost. The basic configuration can obviously vary depending on the brand and model of electric bike.

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As a result, Class 1 e-bikes generally enjoy all the privileges given to regular pedal bikes, which means general access to designated bike paths and lanes. It is also the only type of e-bike that is not classified as a moped in the UK and EU.

The VanMoof S3/X3 models are good examples of this class, as well as the rather good Cannondale Quick Neo SL.

Man on a Cannondale Quick Neo SL electric bike

The Cannondale Quick Neo SL is a lightweight Class 1 e-bike (Image credit: Cannondale)

Class 2 Electric Bike

Class 2 bikes come with the same 20mph speed limit, but can supply power from the battery and motor combination using a throttle, even if you’re not pedaling. Some e-bikes in this class can do a mix of both, with the motor doing all the work, a combination of motor and pedal assist.

Just like the Class 1 category, many countries allow you to ride a Class 2 e-bike on bike paths and lanes. Look for models like the Aventon Pace 350 or the Wing Freedom 2 as two great examples.

Woman riding Aventon Pace 350 electric bike

The Aventon Pace 350 is an example of a class 2 e-bike (Image credit: Aventon)

Class 3 Electric Bike

Class 3 e-bikes make things a bit more complicated. Class 3 e-bikes are likely to have a throttle setup as part of the design, their speed allowance is over 28 miles per hour, and their motor limit is 750 watts, but that’s not so clear where you can drive them.

The exact rules will depend on the country and city you are in. For example, you don’t need a license to ride one of these bikes in the United States, but you do need to be careful about where you ride the two-wheeler, like on the regular roads and designated cycle paths. However, they are generally not permitted on multi-use trails or bike paths.

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It is definitely worth checking the city and state rules before buying a Class 3 bike, to make sure it will comply with local regulations. Remember this point if you also take your e-bike out of the state. The excellent Specialized Turbo Vado SL equipped is an excellent e-bike in this category, but the Trek Domane + HP is also a very valid alternative.

Specialized Turbo Vado SL equipped e-bike

The powerful Specialized Turbo Vado SL equipped is a class 3 electric bike (Image credit: Specialized)

Attention buyer

If you take a look at our guide to the best electric bikes, you’ll find that the ones included should fit the bill in at least one of our categories. Anyone buying an e-bike, however, should be aware of the variations on the theme. Specifications can change, models can be updated, and some manufacturers err on the side of caution and release bikes with more horsepower than they actually need.

In fact, some vehicles sold as e-bikes are actually electric scooters or mopeds, rather than e-bikes. This can mean that even though they have pedals, they can go much faster. There are plenty of imported bikes that have more horsepower than is wise for something that looks like it could be ridden on a bike path. Also, while this guide is aimed at potential e-bike buyers in the United States, the rules are different overseas.

Things are improving, but it’s an evolving situation that may not be as clear-cut as we would like. If you’re new to the world of e-bikes, playing it safe might be the best way to go, with a class 1 or class 2 bike far less likely to give you headaches than those found in the currently rather murky world of class 3.

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