One of the most important decisions you’ll need to make when choosing an ebike is whether you want to go with a pedal assist (pedelec) or throttle-controlled model. These systems determine how you activate and control the bike’s power delivery. The power delivery system plays a role in the ebike’s price, ride quality, top speed, and overall performance. This guide outlines the differences between pedal assist Vs throttle ebikes and lists the pros and cons of each power delivery system. We’ll cover ride quality, performance, efficiency, ease of use, cost, and much more. We’ll also talk about the different e bike classes (class 1, class 2, and class 3) and the differences between them. Hopefully, this guide helps you choose the best e bike for your style of riding.
What is a Pedal Assist (Pedelec) eBike?
Pedal assist ebikes only provide power when you pedal. You activate the pedal assist system by simply pedaling the bike normally. The motor engages automatically and assists you by making pedaling easier. In other words, the motor provides part of the pedaling power needed to push the bike forward. It assists you. When you stop pedaling, the power cuts off automatically.
This is the most common type of electric bike around the world. Pedal assist is also called Pedelec. Some bikes with pedal assist also come with a throttle.
Pedal assist electric bikes use sensors to measure your pedaling input. The sensors then send a signal to the bike’s control unit or computer. The control unit tells the motor when to engage and disengage and how much power to supply.
There are two types of pedal assist sensors: cadence sensors and torque sensors. I’ll outline both in the following sections. For more in-depth info, you can check out my guide to cadence vs torque sensors.
Most pedal assist ebikes also allow you to manually control the amount of assistance that the otor provides. Most ebikes give you 3-5 levels of assist to choose from. You can change between the different modes by pushing a button on a handlebar-mounted display or on the control unit. At each level, the motor supplies a different amount of assistance. The higher the setting, the more assistance the motor provides.
At the lowest assist setting, the motor may increase your pedaling power by 20%. This gives you a barely noticeable extra push that makes riding slightly easier. The highest level of assistance might multiply your pedaling power by 300%. At the highest setting, the bike will give you a massive boost. You can climb the steepest hills with ease. You may barely have to peddle. It feels like you’re riding with bionic legs.
In many regions, pedal assist is the only type of e bike that is legally permitted. This is the case in much of Europe. Pedal assist electric bikes also have a maximum speed. Once you reach the maximum speed, the motor stops providing power. At this point, you can only ride under your own power until your speed drops. In many jurisdictions, the maximum speed is 20 mph (32 kph). Some ebikes have a maximum speed of 28 mph (45 kph). You can also choose to turn the pedal assist off and ride the bike without power. In this case, your pedaling provides all of the power.
Cadence Sensor Pedal Assist
Cadence sensors measure if you are pedaling. The most basic models work like an on/off switch. When you start pedaling, the sensors send a signal to the bike’s control unit. The control unit then engages the motor. When you stop pedaling, the sensor signals the control unit to cut the motor off. You can usually adjust the level of assist manually with the handlebar-mounted display.
More advanced cadence sensor systems can measure how fast you are pedaling and adjust the level of pedal assist automatically. As your cadence or pedaling speed increases, the pedal assist system reduces the motor’s output. For example, when you start pedaling, the motor may run at 100% power. When you reach a cadence threshold, the system decreases the output to 60%. If you downshift into a harder gear and your cadence drops, the motor increases back to 100% until you reach the cadence threshold again. In this case, the cadence threshold is preset.
Cadence sensors use magnets to determine your pedaling speed. A sensor mounts to the bike’s frame. A series of magnets attached to a disc that mounts next to the crank. When you peddle, the magnets spin with the crank and pass by the sensor. When you stop pedaling, the magnets stop passing by the sensor. The sensor detects the movement of the magnets to measure if you are pedaling.
The magnet disc of a cadence sensor usually contains 3-14 magnets. Higher end cadence sensors contain more magnets. The more magnets, the smoother and more responsive the pedal assist system will be.
This is because the computer receives information more frequently when there are more magnets. In other words, a magnet passes the sensor more frequently when there are more magnets. Some higher-end models use an optical sensor instead of magnets.
It takes very little effort to engage the pedal assist on bikes with cadence sensors. You just have to move the pedals a few degrees and the motor engages. To keep the motor on, you just have to spin the pedals. It doesn’t matter if you’re actually applying power to the pedals.
This is the most affordable and common pedal assist system. Cadence sensors are common on lower-end to mid-range ebikes. Almost all ebikes under $1500 come with cadence sensors and a hub motor.
There are some drawbacks to cadence sensors. They can make the ride feel a bit jerky. When the motor engages, the bike can surge forward. Some models also have a lag. When you start or stop pedaling, the motor may take a couple of seconds to engage or disengage. Higher-end cadence sensor systems offer smoother power delivery. Particularly when they are paired with a quality control unit.
Torque Sensor Pedal Assist
Torque sensors measure if and how hard you are pedaling. A precision strain gauge measures the amount of force you are applying to the pedals. The sensor sends this information to the ebike’s control unit. The control unit then calculates how much power to deliver to the wheel.
The motor’s power output automatically increases or decreases depending on the amount of force you’re applying to the pedals. The harder you pedal, the more power the system supplies. When you pedal more gently, the power delivery decreases. When you stop pedaling, the power delivery cuts off. A torque sensor pedal assist system basically amplifies or multiplies your pedal input. Most ebikes have several different pedal assist settings.
Torque sensors can sample your pedaling force 1000 or more times per second throughout your entire pedal stroke. This allows the system to make adjustments to the motor’s power almost instantly. The pedal assist changes in real-time as you change your pedaling force. This results in an incredibly responsive and intuitive ride feel. Pedaling an e bike with torque sensor pedal assist makes you feel like you have superhuman legs.
What is a Throttle Controlled Ebike?
A throttle controlled ebike operates similarly to a motorcycle or scooter. When you engage the throttle, the motor provides power to the wheel and the bike moves forward. When you release the throttle, the motor stops delivering power. With a throttle, you don’t have to peddle the bike at all to ride if you don’t want to. The motor can do all of the work.
The throttle is mounted to the bike’s handlebars. You control it with your fingers. Most throttle controlled ebikes also include a pedal assist system. Some ebikes only have a throttle. The throttle operates independently from the pedal system.
There are three common types of ebike throttles:
- Twist throttle- These work just like a motorcycle throttle. You twist a section of the grip back toward yourself to activate the motor and increase the power output. The further you twist the grip, the more power the motor produces. To reduce the power, you twist the grip back. If you release the grip, the power cuts off. This is the most common type of ebike throttle control.
- Thumb throttle- This is a lever or paddle that you press with your thumb. The lever is mounted on the handlebars below the right grip. The further you press the lever, the more power the motor delivers and the faster you’ll go. To reduce the power, you pull your thumb back. To cut the power, you release your thumb from the throttle and the lever springs back.
- Push button throttle- This is a simple on/off button. When you press the button, the motor turns on at full power. When you release the button, the motor turns off. With this system, you can’t modulate the power at all. It’s all or nothing. This is the most basic type of ebike throttle control.
Throttle ebikes come in a number of variations. Most throttle controlled ebikes also have a pedal assist mode. You can choose which system you want to use with the handlebar mounted display. Sometimes you can simply use the throttle and it overrides the pedal assist. Some ebikes only have a throttle. Some ebikes have a throttle that only works when you’re pedaling. This system is uncommon. Of course, you can also choose not to use the throttle and ride the bike normally without power.
Most ebike throttles allow you to modulate or fine-tune the motor’s power. Kind of like adjusting a volume dial on a radio. If you just need a little bit of power, you can just give the bike a little bit of throttle. When you need full power, you can open up the throttle completely. If you want a medium amount of power, you can partially open the throttle.
Some throttle systems allow for better modulation than others. An ebike with good modulation allows you to precisely control the motor’s power. If you apply a little more throttle, you get a little more power. If you apply a little less throttle, you get a little less power. An ebike with poor power modulation may deliver power in more of a burst or in an uneven manner. If you apply a little more power, you might get a lot more power. Only twist or thumb throttles can be modulated. Push-button throttles are either on or off.
It’s important to note that throttle controlled ebikes are not legal in some cities and countries. This is the case in much of Europe. In some countries, ebikes that have a throttle are not classified as bikes. Instead, they are considered mopeds and are regulated differently. I’ll talk more about legality later on in this guide.
Classes of Ebikes
In the United States, ebikes are categorized into classes. The class indicates the type of power delivery system the ebike has and the maximum speed of the ebike. There are three classes of ebikes:
- Class 1 ebikes- These ebikes offer pedal assist only. They are limited to a maximum speed of 20 mph (32 kph). After you reach 20mph, the power trails off to zero. At that point, you can only pedal the ebike like a normal non-powered bike. When your speed drops below 20 mph, the pedal assist activates again.
- Class 2 ebikes- These ebikes have a throttle. Most models also have pedal assist. These bikes are also limited to a max speed of 20 mph (32 kph). After you reach 20 mph, the power trails off to zero. You can also pedal without using power. When your speed drops 20 mph the threshold, the throttle works again.
- Class 3 ebikes- These ebikes have a maximum speed of 28 mph (45 kph). They can have a throttle, pedal assist, or both. After you reach 28 mph, the power trails off to zero. You can also pedal without using power. When your speed drops below 28 mph, you can use the throttle or pedal assist again.
If an ebike has a throttle, it is a class 2 or class 3 ebike. If an ebike has a max speed of 20 mph, it is a class 1 or class 2 ebike. Ebikes with a max speed of 28 mph, are class 3. All classes of ebikes can have pedal assist. Only class 2 and class 3 ebikes can have a throttle.
Pros and Cons of Pedal Assist (Pedelec) Ebikes
- Easier to use- Pedal assist ebikes have fewer controls.
- Better range- Pedal assist ebikes can travel 5-15 more miles per charge.
- Legal in more places- Pedal assist ebikes are permitted in most cities.
- Safer- Pedal assist ebikes are slower and easier to control.
- Better exercise- You’ll burn more calories while riding a pedal assist ebike.
- Better ride quality- Pedal assist ebikes feel more natural and intuitive to ride.
- Responsive- Torque sensor pedal assist responds almost instantly.
- More ebike options- Most ebikes come with pedal assist.
- Less accessible- You need to pedal to ride a pedal assist ebike. This is difficult for those with knee issues and limited mobility.
- More expensive- Pedal assist ebikes contain more expensive electrical components.
- You’ll sweat- Because you have to pedal you’ll work up a sweat.
- Can be unresponsive- Cadence sensor pedal assist can lag.
Pros and Cons of Throttle Controlled Ebikes
- More accessible- Those with knee or mobility issues can ride because they don’t need to pedal.
- Cheaper- Throttles ebikes have fewer and simpler parts. This saves money.
- Better for transportation- You won’t work up a sweat while riding a throttle controlled ebike.
- Responsive- The throttle can respond instantly.
- Harder to ride- You have to control the throttle while steering, braking, shifting, and pedaling.
- Less range- A throttle ebike uses more power because you’re not pedaling.
- Illegal in many cities- Many cities outlaw throttle controlled ebikes for safety reasons.
- More dangerous- You may be more likely to injure yoursel with a throttle because the bike is faster and harder to control.
- Less exercise- You won’t burn as many calories while using a throttle.
- Ride quality- Throttles are less intuitive to use.
- Fewer ebike options- Fewer ebikes come with a throttle.
Pedal Assist Vs Throttle Ebikes
Both pedal assist systems and throttles are used to control the power delivery of the ebike. In some situations, one is better than the other. In this section, I’ll outline the strengths and weaknesses of both ebike power delivery systems.
Ease of Use
Pedal assist ebikes are much easier to ride than throttle controlled ebikes. This is the case because there are fewer controls to worry about. You ride the bike normally and the pedal assist system controls the motor for you.
This allows you to focus on pedaling, steering, shifting, and braking. You don’t have to think about the motor at all. If you ride a traditional bike regularly, you shouldn’t have any problem riding a bike with pedal assist. It’s pretty intuitive.
There is a slight learning curve. You will have to select the level of assist that you desire. The ride feel can also take some getting used to. Ebikes ride a bit differently than non-powered bikes due to the extra weight of the motor and battery. Some pedal assist systems work better than others.
Generally, torque sensors are easier to use than cadence sensors. They provide a smoother and more natural ride feel due to the quick response time. It’s seamless.
Cadence sensors can make the ride feel a bit jerky. They can also lag. This can make the bike a bit harder to ride. This really depends on the quality of the sensor and its implementation. Most modern cadence sensors are very smooth
Throttle controlled ebikes introduce another control that you have to think about while riding. That is the throttle. You have to think about when to engage the throttle, how much throttle to use, and when to let off the throttle. It’s not complicated but it requires some thought. Operating the throttle can also take your mind off of pedaling, steering, and braking.
It also takes some practice to learn how to use the throttle safely and efficiently. Particularly if you’ve never driven a motor vehicle, such as a motorcycle or scooter, before.
Some ebike throttles are easier to use than others. If the modulation is good, you can easily control the power delivery and enjoy a smooth ride. If the modulation is poor, riding in traffic or crowded areas can be difficult. You have to anticipate a surge of power when the motor engages.
Winner: Pedal assist systems are easier to use than a throttle because there are fewer controls to worry about. You just pedal and the pedal assist system controls the motor for you.
Pedal Assist Vs Throttle eBike Range
Pedal assist ebikes offer more range than throttle controlled ebikes. Assuming the motor size and battery size are the same on both bikes, you might be able to travel 10-20 miles further per charge on a bike with pedal assist than a bike with only a throttle. For example, an e bike with a quality pedal assist system may have a range of 40 miles. A comparable throttle controlled ebike may only have a range of 25 miles.
Pedal assist ebikes achieve a longer range because the motor doesn’t have to provide all of the power. You must provide at least part of the power by pedaling. As a result, the motor doesn’t have to work as hard and the battery doesn’t drain as fast. You can ride further on a single charge when you supply part of the pedaling power.
With a throttle, the motor supplies all of the power. This uses more energy. The motor has to work harder and the battery drains faster. As a result, you can’t travel as far on a single charge.
Most pedal assist ebikes also feature an eco mode that is designed to maximize the bike’s range. This mode is usually the lowest level of pedal assist (level 1 on most electric bikes).
When you’re using eco mode, the motor may operate at 20% power. The bike may also be programmed to slow down the acceleration and limit the top speed to save more power. On an efficient ebike with pedal assist, you may be able to achieve a range of 50+ miles if you ride carefully.
There are ways to increase your range on a throttle controlled ebike. You can selectively use the throttle only when you need an extra boost and ride under your own power the rest of the time. For example, you could only use the throttle while climbing hills. You could only use the power to help you accelerate from a stop then start pedaling. You can also use just a little bit of throttle. It isn’t necessary to ride at 100% power at all times.
It’s important to note that some pedal assist systems are more efficient than others. Generally, ebikes with torque sensors get more range than ebikes with cadence sensors. This is because torque sensors force you to apply power to the pedals for the motor to engage. They have to measure some force or the motor will cut off.
Cadence sensors only require that you move the pedals for the motor to engage. While the bike is moving, you simply can spin the pedals without actually providing any pedaling power. In this case, the motor must do all of the work. This drains your battery faster and reduces your range.
Torque sensors can also automatically vary the speed of the motor. If you pedal gently, the motor may only operate at 25% power. When you pedal normally, the motor may operate at 70% power. With cadence sensors, the motor always runs at 100% power when it’s engaged. It’s either off or on.
Of course, the power delivery mode isn’t the only factor that determines your ebike’s range. The battery size and motor size also play a big role. A larger capacity battery extends your range. A larger motor uses more power and reduces your range. Rider and bike weight are also important factors. A 100 lb rider will get more range than a 200 lb rider.
The motor placement is also an important consideration. Ebikes come in hub motor and mid-drive options. Most throttle controlled ebikes have a hub motor. These are less efficient because they can’t take advantage of the bike’s existing gears. The gearing is fixed.
Higher-end pedal assist ebikes come with a mid-drive motor. These motors mount near the crank. They are integrated into the bike’s drivetrain. Mid-drive motors can use the mechanical advantage of the bike’s gears to keep the bike in the optimal RPM range. This improves efficiency while climbing hills or riding at speed. This improves range.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes achieve better range than throttle controlled ebikes. On average, pedal assist increases range by 5-15 miles.
The legality of Pedal Assist and Throttle eBikes
Many jurisdictions regulate ebikes. Oftentimes they have their own specific regulations. Sometimes ebikes are treated like mopeds or scooters. Sometimes ebikes are treated the same as regular non-powered bikes. Some types of ebikes are simply illegal in certain cities. Sometimes they are completely unregulated.
Before buying a pedal assist or throttle controlled ebike, it’s important to check your local laws to make sure the bike you want is street legal where you plan to ride it. The rules vary greatly around the world.
Pedal assist ebikes are legal in more places than throttle controlled ebikes. They are less strictly regulated. This is because they are considered to be safer because they are easier to control.
European countries tend to have the most strict regulations on ebikes. There are fewer ebike regulations in North America. For example, in the U.S, throttle controlled ebikes are legal in most cities. In much of Europe, bikes that can be operated without pedaling are illegal. There are exceptions so it’s important to check your local rules.
Ebikes are usually regulated by class. Ebikes come in three different classes. Class 1 ebikes come with pedal assist only and have a max speed of 20 mph. Class 2 ebikes come with a throttle that can operate independently from the pedals. They also have a max speed of 20 mph. Class 2 ebikes can also have a pedal assist system. Class 3 ebikes have a higher max speed of 28 mph. They can have pedal assist, a throttle, or both. When the bike reaches its top speed, the power automatically reduces to zero. At that point, you can only pedal.
In some places, electric bikes are regulated by motor size as well. For example, in many countries, the maximum motor size is 250 watts. In other places, 500-1200+ watt motors are allowed.
A class 1 pedal assist ebike with a 250 watt motor is legal in most parts of the world. These bikes are often treated like regular bicycles. You can ride them anywhere that bicycles are permitted in most cases. This includes bike paths.
Class 2 and Class 3 ebikes that have a throttle control that operates independently from the pedals are not permitted in many jurisdictions. This is common in many European countries.
In some places, throttle controlled ebikes are allowed but are regulated like a moped or scooter. This may mean that you may have to have a license and insurance, wear a motorcycle helmet, mount a license plate, pay a registration fee, etc. in order to make the bike street legal. For example, in the U.K, you need to get a special license for a throttle controlled ebike. Check out this article for more info.
Sometimes ebikes are regulated based on their top speed. Class 1 and 2 ebikes have a top speed of 20 mph. Class 3 ebikes have a top speed of 28 mph. These are also called Speed Pedelecs. In some cases, class 3 ebikes are only allowed to be ridden on roads. They are not permitted on sidewalks or bike paths.
There are also a wide range of ebike configurations available. Some ebikes offer both Class 2 and Class 3 settings. The bike may come from the shop as a Class 2 but you can simply push some buttons on the display to turn it into a Class 3 bike. This allows the manufacturer to sell the bike in countries where class 3 ebikes are prohibited. Some ebikes have a throttle that can power the bike up to 20 mph. From 20-28 mph, only pedal assist functions.
A number of different throttle systems are available that may or may not be legal. For example, some ebikes have throttles that can only be used while you’re pedaling. This system is sometimes permitted in cities where purely throttle controlled ebikes are not allowed. It is considered pedal assist. This system is pretty uncommon but it exists. Some ebikes have a throttle that only operates up to around 5 mph. This is designed to make it easier to accelerate up to speed from a stop. Sometimes this type of throttle is allowed because it makes ebikes more accessible to riders with knee issues. Ebikes with cadence sensors can also be prohibited in some areas.
In most cities, it is unlikely for you to get stopped for riding an illegal ebike. The laws aren’t strictly enforced. It’s difficult for a police officer to identify an illegal ebike by just looking at it as you ride by.
If you are caught riding an illegal ebike, you could get ticketed or your bike could be confiscated. For example, New York City, police have confiscated illegal ebikes before. If you are involved in an accident while riding an illegal ebike, you could be held liable, even if you weren’t at fault. For these reasons, you should always stick to the law when buying an ebike, even though the laws don’t always make sense.
As you can see, there are lots of different ebike configurations and regulations to consider. If you’re confused about the rules, try asking a local bike shop that sells ebikes. They can steer you in the right direction.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes are legal in more places. They are less strictly regulated than throttle controlled ebikes.
Pedal Assist Vs Throttle eBike Safety
Pedal assist ebikes are considered to be safer than throttle controlled ebikes. Safety is the main reason that pedal assist ebikes are often legal while throttle controlled ebikes are often outlawed. Lawmakers believe throttle controlled ebikes to be more dangerous and have prohibited them in many cities, as outlined in the previous section.
Whether or not pedal assist ebikes are safer, in reality, I do not know. I have not been able to find any safety statistics proving or disproving the danger of throttle controlled ebikes. It seems that lawmakers are making rules without having any evidence to back them up.
The most common claim is that cyclists tend to ride faster with a throttle because they don’t have to pedal. Faster speeds increase the risk of injury-causing accidents. If you crash at a high speed, you’re more likely to suffer a serious injury. You’re also more likely to run into somebody. Faster bikes are more dangerous for both the rider and pedestrians.
Others argue that the speed is the same regardless of whether you used a throttle, used pedal assist, or pedaled. 20 mph is 20 mph. It doesn’t matter if you physically pedaled up to that speed or if a machine accelerated you. The result of a collision will be the same. There is no safety difference.
Another argument as to why throttles are less safe is that rider error may be more likely. An unskilled rider could easily give the bike too much power and lose control. A rider could also accidentally twist the throttle while parked. A throttle can make the ebike harder to ride because it is another control you have to think about. Riding an ebike with a throttle is more similar to riding a motorcycle than a bicycle. You don’t need any training or license to ride throttle controlled ebikes in cities where they are allowed.
Throttle systems with poor modulation can also make the power delivery unpredictable. It’s easy to accelerate too quickly or in an uncontrolled manner if you don’t know what you’re doing. A sudden burst of power could cause you to crash. While riding on a slippery surface, you can lose traction. In rare cases, the throttle system could also get stuck. This can all reduce safety.
Some riders argue that having a throttle is actually a safety feature. It allows you to accelerate quickly and easily whenever you need to. This can come in handy if you find yourself in a dangerous traffic situation. For example, maybe you’re waiting at a busy intersection. With a throttle, you can pull out ahead of the cars when the light turns green. There is no lag. Drivers are more likely to see you when you’re in front of them. Maybe a driver starts to merge into your lane. With a throttle, you can quickly accelerate and move out of the way. With pedal assist, you can’t accelerate quite as quickly. You can also precisely control the power delivery with a good throttle.
Pedal assist ebikes are much more intuitive to ride. Particularly when they are equipped with torque sensors. You simply pedal and ride like you would any other bike. You don’t have to think about how much power you’re using. The power delivery is smooth and natural. The bike responds quickly. It’s more like riding a regular bike. This may increase safety.
Low-quality pedal assist systems can create some safety issues. For example, ebikes with cadence sensors can be a bit hard to control. When the motor kicks in, the bike can surge forward in an unsafe manner.
For example, maybe you stop pedaling to coast and the motor cuts off. If you need to start pedaling and make a turn to avoid an obstacle, the motor can kick in during the maneuver and propel you off of your line. This can put you in a dangerous situation if you’re riding through traffic or in an area with lots of pedestrians. It’s possible to lose control of the bike. The surge when the motor kicks in can also be an issue if you’re riding on a loose or slippery surface. You can lose traction when the motor kicks in.
Some pedal assist systems also have a lag. When you start pedaling, the control unit takes a moment to engage the motor. When you stop pedaling, the motor may continue running for a couple of seconds. This is common on bikes with cadence sensors. Torque sensors are much more responsive. They cut off power immediately when you stop pedaling. As you can imagine, it can be a safety issue if the motor keeps going when you want it to stop.
One safety feature that all modern ebikes come with is safety switches built into the brake levers. The brakes are wired to the control unit. When you squeeze the levers, the motor automatically and instantly cuts off. This reduces your stopping time. In many jurisdictions, these safety switches are required for the bike to be street legal.
To stay safe while riding an ebike, you should take some precautions. Always wear a quality helmet. Use front and rear lights and reflectors so drivers can see you. You may also consider using turn signals if you’re riding a fast ebike in traffic. Wear quality footwear. Mount mirrors to your bike or helmet so you can see the road behind you. Obey the rules of the road.
Also, take some time to learn how to ride your ebike safely. Ride around an empty parking lot and perform some maneuvers before you ride on a busy street. This will help you learn how the bike behaves in different situations.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes may be safer than throttle controlled ebikes.
Accessibility/Ease of Motor Activation
Electric bikes allow people to ride who otherwise wouldn’t be able to. They improve accessibility to cycling. For example, ebikes allow older riders, overweight riders, those with certain disabilities, and those with certain injuries to all ride a bike.
Throttle controlled ebikes take less effort to ride than pedal assist ebikes. You just have to push a button or twist the grip to engage the motor. You don’t have to pedal at all. This makes throttle controlled ebikes ideal for those with knee problems or other medical issues. You can ride without putting any strain on your knees.
Pedal assist systems require that you put some force on the pedals before the assist kicks in. With cadence sensors, you may have to spin the pedals a few degrees. Once the bike is moving, you can simply spin the pedals to keep the motor on. Some riders struggle to get the bike moving. Once the bike is in motion, you can simply spin the pedals without applying any pedaling force.
With torque sensors, you have to actually apply force to the pedals to engage the motor. You also have to continuously apply force to the pedals to keep the motor engaged. Those with knee issues may have trouble creating enough force to make the pedal assist engage and keep it engaged.
Some pedal assist ebikes come with a throttle that only functions up to about 4 mph. This feature makes it easier to get the bike moving from a stop. For riders with knee issues, starting from a stop is the hardest part of cycling. Once the bike is moving, it’s easy to pedal gently in a low gear. This system is an excellent solution.
Winner: It takes less effort to activate the motor on throttle controlled ebikes. This makes the bike easier to ride for those with knee issues or other medical problems. Throttle controlled ebikes are more accessible.
Cost of Throttle Controlled and Pedal Assist eBikes
Throttle controlled ebikes are the most affordable type of ebikes on the market. This is because they use simple electronics. Most throttle controlled ebikes come with a basic hub motor. These are much cheaper than mid-drive motors.
There are fewer parts as well. For example, there are no pedal assist sensors. A throttle is also much easier to implement than pedal assist. Installation is easier. No complex software is required. This makes throttle controlled ebikes cheaper and easier to manufacture. The final price is lower.
Pedal assist ebikes with cadence sensors are comparably priced. In fact, most ebikes that come with a throttle also come with some form of pedal assist. The sensors add just a little bit to the cost and complexity of the bike. A basic 12 magnet cadence sensor costs around $20. The technology has been around for quite a while. It’s easy for manufacturers to implement basic pedal assist. Many entry-level to mid-range ebikes come with basic pedal assist system in addition to a throttle.
Pedal assist ebikes with a torque sensor and a mid drive motor are the most expensive. The torque sensor adds around $150 to the price of the bike. Torque sensors also require a more powerful controller that can process all of the data that comes from the sensor. The system also needs to be programmed. There is a cost involved in writing the software that controls the more complex pedal assist system. This all adds to the cost of the bike.
You can buy a decent ebike with a throttle and cadence sensor pedal assist for $1200-$1500. Electric bikes with mid-drive motors and torque sensor pedal assist start at around $2000-$2500. The price of torque sensors and mid drive motors do seem to be coming down.
If you’re on a tight budget, it is possible to convert your existing non-powered bike into an ebike. A decent hub drive conversion kit costs around $250-$300. These are available in pedal assist and throttle options. Some kits have both power delivery systems. You can build a battery for around $200.
If you’re willing to put in some work, you could convert your existing bike into an ebike for less than $500. If you don’t have a bike you want to convert, you could buy an older mountain bike for a couple of hundred dollars. This is the cheapest ebike option.
Winner: Throttle controlled ebikes and pedal assist ebikes with cadence sensors cost around the same. Pedal assist ebikes with torque sensors cost $400-$500 more.
Riding an ebike can be great exercise. According to this scientific study from the Translational Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine, ebiking raises the heart rate enough to be considered a moderate form of exercise.
If you’re buying an ebike to ride for exercise, you’re better off choosing a model with pedal assist. This is because pedal assist requires you to pedal while you ride. The motor won’t engage unless you pedal. Your heart rate will climb as you pedal and you’ll burn calories.
With a throttle, you don’t have to pedal at all if you don’t want to. You can be lazy and just sit there and let the bike do all of the work for you if you choose. This doesn’t really give you any exercise. Of course, you can pedal if you choose.
If you want to ride for exercise, you should turn the pedal assist down to a low level of assist such as level 1 or 2. The more pedal assist the bike provides, the less exercise you’ll get. At high levels of assist, you don’t have to put in enough effort for the ride to be considered exercise. The physiological response is too mild.
For the most exercise, you should choose an e bike with torque sensor pedal assist. This system requires you to actually apply force to the pedals for the motor to engage. The pedal assist system amplifies the force that you put in. You still have to overcome some resistance while you ride. This gives you more exercise.
With cadence sensors, you just have to spin the cranks to make the motor engage. If your pedaling speed doesn’t match or exceed the speed of the rear wheel, you’re just spinning the cranks without any resistance. In other words, you can just pretend to pedal. This doesn’t really give you any exercise. It takes very little effort to spin the cranks while the bike is at speed.
Winner: Pedal assist gives you more exercise because you have to pedal
For some types of riding, exercise isn’t important. In this case, a throttle may be preferable. For example, maybe you ride your bike strictly for transportation. Having a throttle is better because you don’t have to work as hard to ride. You’ll arrive at your destination less sweaty and tired because you don’t have to put in any effort to ride the bike. The motor can do all of the work for you.
This may be preferable when you ride to work or school. Sometimes you just want to get from point A to point B cheaply, quickly, and efficiently. You don’t want to show up sweaty and smelly every day A throttle controlled ebike is perfect for this type of riding.
With pedal assist, you have to put in some effort to ride. You have to spin the cranks for the motor to engage. If you ride for more than a few blocks, you will work up a sweat, even if you’re in good physical condition.
Winner: Throttle controlled ebikes can be better for transportation because you can ride without working up a sweat. You won’t arrive at work with sweaty clothes.
Pedal assist ebikes can offer better ride quality than throttle controlled ebikes. This is because a quality pedal assist system makes the bike feel more natural and intuitive to ride. Pedal assist ebikes can feel smoother and more balanced as well.
Electric bikes with torque sensor pedal assist have the best ride quality. Torque sensors make the bike ride like a regular bike. The sensors can react instantly to changes in your pedaling power. When you pedal harder, you go faster. It feels like you’re riding with bionic legs. When you pedal softer, the power reduces.
This is possible because the sensors can take up to 1000 torque samples per second and adjust the power delivery accordingly. When you change your pedaling power, the motor reacts almost in real-time. This greatly improves ride quality.
Throttle controlled ebies aren’t quite as intuitive to ride. You have to learn how to use the throttle. There can be a learning curve. Operating a throttle smoothly and safely takes some practice. Particularly if you’ve never driven a motor vehicle before. If you’ve ridden a motorcycle or scooter before, you will be familiar with throttle operation.
It also requires some thought to use the throttle. It is an extra control that you have to deal with. This takes your mind off riding. Sometimes you have to focus on the throttle instead of pedaling, steering, braking, or taking in the view. This can take away from the ride experience.
Throttle controlled ebikes with poor power modulation can produce a jerky ride feel. When you hit the throttle, the motor may produce too much power. Sometimes the power delivery isn’t smooth. You may experience a surge of power. Sometimes the throttle is too sensitive, making the bike hard to control. A small movement of the throttle can result in a large change in power delivery. This can all make the ride quality poor.
Some pedal assist systems don’t offer great ride quality. For example, a basic pedal assist system with cadence sensors and a hub motor can fee feel a bit jerky. When the motor engages, it can cause a surge of power that pushes you forward. This happens because the motor only has one speed. You may feel this same jerky motion every time the motor disengages and re-engages.
The motor placement also plays a big role in the overall ride quality of the ebike. High-end pedal assist ebikes come with mid-drive motors. This means the motor is mounted to the bike’s frame in the center of the bike, near the bottom bracket. Most mid drive ebikes only offer pedal assist.
There are a number of benefits to this motor placement. Mid motor placement improves weight distribution. The bike’s center of gravity remains near the center of the bike. A well-balanced bike has better handling, traction, and stability. The weight of the motor is less noticeable. This makes the bike easier to control.
Ebikes with mid drive motors also transmit the motor’s power through the chain. This gives the bike a more natural ride feel. This is the way you power the bike while pedaling. As an added benefit, you can also utilize the mechanical advantage of the bike’s gears. When you shift, the motor responds.
Additionally, most mid-drive ebikes have a suspension system. The weight of the motor is suspended because the motor is mounted to the frame. Suspension smooths out the ride and improves comfort. The suspension absorbs shocks and vibrations. It can also improve traction while riding on rough surfaces. A quality suspension system can greatly improve ride quality.
Most throttle controlled ebikes have a hub motor that applies power directly to the wheel. This gives the bike a different ride feel, kind of like you’re being pushed or pulled (depending on whether the motor is in on the front or rear hub). You can also feel the weight of the motor more as you ride due to the motor’s placement near the front or rear of the bike. Weight distribution isn’t as good. Generally, hub motor ebikes don’t have as good of ride quality as mid-motor.
It’s important to note that most pedal assist ebikes have a hub drive motor as well. Mid drives are really only available at the high-end. There are also a few mid drive pedal assist ebikes that come with a throttle.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes usually offer better ride quality than throttle controlled ebikes. The power delivery system only plays a small role in the ride quality of the bike. Motor placement and suspension are also important considerations when it comes to ride quality.
Responsiveness and Power Delivery
Pedal assist and throttle systems can both be responsive and smooth. Responsiveness and power delivery really come down to the quality of the electrical components. Some systems respond more quickly and operate more smoothly than others.
A quality throttle system responds instantly. When you twist the throttle, the motor immediately supplies power to the rear wheel. You have access to all of the motor’s power whenever you need it. This allows you to accelerate quickly.
A Throttle controlled ebikes usually allows you to accelerate faster than a pedal assist ebike. This is nice while riding in traffic. You can pull ahead of traffic at stoplights. If you get into a potentially dangerous traffic situation, you can quickly accelerate out of the way. It’s also fun to accelerate quickly off the line.
A quality throttle system also offers smooth power delivery. As you give the bike more throttle, the motor increases the power in a controlled and predictable manner. You can precisely control the power delivery with your hands. This gives you a lot of control over the bike.
Lower-end throttles respond quickly but often don’t offer as smooth of power delivery. Some basic ebikes throttles are a simple on/off button. These deliver a surge of power when you press the throttle button then the motor cuts off when you release the button. This system is responsive but not smooth.
A quality pedal assist system with torque sensors reacts instantly to changes in your pedaling power. The sensor system can measure your pedaling input up to 1000 times per second and make adjustments to the motor’s power. The system responds to your inputs almost in real-time. This gives you incredibly fast and smooth power delivery.
Cadence sensor pedal assist feels less responsive because the sensors measure your pedaling input less frequently than torque sensors. Depending on the number of magnets, the sensor may only send data to the control unit 8-14 times per rotation of the cranks.
You must rotate the cranks a certain number of degrees before the system senses that you’re pedaling. For example, if there are 12 magnets, a magnet passes the sensor every time you rotate the crank 30 degrees (360 degrees/12 magnets = 30 degrees). This means the system can’t sense your pedaling as quickly and can’t respond as quickly to changes in your pedaling input. It’s not as responsive.
Most cadence sensors also only measure if you’re pedaling. They don’t measure pedaling speed. They engage the motor when you start pedaling and disengage it when you stop. Ebikes with this kind of pedal assist system feel much less responsive.
Higher-end cadence sensors measure your pedaling speed and vary the level of assist based on that measurement. You must speed or slow your cadence until you reach a threshold where the system increases or decreases the motor’s power. For example, maybe when you reach a pedaling cadence threshold of 60rpm, the power reduces from 100% to 70%. Once your cadence drops below the threshold, the motor powers back up to 100%.
Cadence sensors can also lag. Due to the spacing of the magnets in the sensors, there are fewer points of engagement. As outlined earlier, you might have to spin the pedals up to 30° before the sensor can measure pedal movement and turn the motor on. You don’t get power instantly when you start pedaling. After you stop pedaling, it can take a couple of seconds for the motor to shut off. This makes the bike feel less intuitive to ride. You can’t control the power delivery as precisely. It can also be a safety issue.
Winner: Both pedal assist and throttle systems can offer responsive and smooth power delivery. Responsiveness depends on the quality of the electrical system. Pedal assist ebikes with torque sensors are extremely responsive and offer smooth power delivery.
Most ebikes on the market today come with some form of pedal assist. Cadence sensors are the most common. Torque sensors are a bit less common due to the higher cost. Many models come with both a throttle and pedal assist. Throttle only ebikes are less common.
Pedal assist ebikes are more common because they are legal in more places. Manufacturers design and sell more because there are more customers. Demand is higher. Most people also tend to prefer riding pedal assist. It’s popular because it’s so easy to use.
You’ll have far more ebikes to choose from if you go with a pedal assist model. If you absolutely need a throttle, your options will be a bit more limited. If you want a throttle-only e bike for some reason, you may have trouble finding one that meets your requirements. Fewer options are available.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes are more common than throttle controlled ebikes. You’ll have far more options to choose from if you go with a pedal assist model.
Handling and Maneuverability
The power delivery has a major effect on the handling and maneuverability of the ebike. Ebikes with smooth and predictable power delivery offer the best handling and the most maneuverability.
Both pedal assist and throttle controlled ebikes can offer smooth and predictable power delivery. It really comes down to the quality of the power delivery systems. Rider skill also comes into play. A skilled rider can ride faster and corner harder without losing control.
A good throttle system allows you to control when the motor engages and exactly how much power the motor delivers. This can improve your handling. For example, Before taking a hard corner, you can let off the power and then accelerate after passing the apex. Having complete control over the power delivery allows you to corner a bit harder and faster than pedal assist. This is nice if you like riding fast.
A throttle can also make the bike easier to maneuver while riding through crowded areas, in traffic, and on technical trails. For example, while riding down a crowded bike path, you can ride safely under your own power. When you reach an open spot, you can hit the throttle and cruise at a higher speed for a while. When the path becomes crowded again, you can let off the power.
Low-end throttle systems can make the bike difficult to maneuver. Sometimes the power modulation is poor. The power delivery can feel uneven and unpredictable. You may experience a surge of power when you barely manipulate the throttle. A small change in throttle can result in a large change in power delivery. This can make the bike harder to ride safely. Handling suffers when you can’t control the power.
Some pedal assist systems offer better handling and maneuverability than others. Torque sensor pedal assist offers excellent handing and maneuverability because the power delivery is extremely smooth and predictable.
When you start pedaling slowly, the motor just supplies a little bit of power. There is no sudden surge of power. This allows you to maneuver safely through traffic and crowded areas. You can ride with precision. As you pedal harder, the power smoothly increases. This allows you to corner confidently. Even while riding on loose surfaces. There is no surge of power to throw you off your line or spin the rear wheel out.
Ebikes with cadence sensor pedal assist don’t handle quite as well. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the cadence sensors can engage the motor at inopportune times. For example, if the motor kicks in when you’re taking a corner, the surge of power can throw you off your line. The system can also create a jerky motion or surge of power when the motor engages. This makes the bike harder to control when the motor turns kicks in. Handling and maneuverability suffer. You have to be careful about when you start pedaling while riding near traffic or pedestrians. You also have to be careful while riding on loose or slippery surfaces.
Of course, all ebikes allow you to turn the power delivery off and ride under your own power. While riding through an area where you need to steer with precision, such as while riding through a crowd, sometimes it’s best to disengage the pedal assist to be safe.
The power delivery isn’t the only factor affecting handling. The motor and battery placement also plays a big role. Ideally, you want the weight on your bike to be distributed 50/50 between the front and rear axles. Having a low center of gravity is also preferable. Ebikes with a lower center of gravity tend to be more stable.
Mid drive ebikes offer the best handling because the motor is placed in the center of the bike near the center of gravity. This distributes the motor’s weight evenly. The motor is also mounted low on the bike, lowering the center of gravity.
This weight distribution makes the bike feel more balanced and natural to ride. You don’t notice the weight of the motor as much while maneuvering a mid-drive ebike. The lower center of gravity improves traction and stability, allowing you to corner harder.
Most mid drive ebikes are pedal assist only. Mid drive e bikes with a throttle exist but they are rare.
Hub motor ebikes can feel less balanced because the motor moves the bike’s center of gravity toward the front or rear of the bike (depending on the motor placement).
This makes the weight of the motor much more noticeable. You can feel the weight of the motor as you maneuver. You may not be able to turn quite as hard. Most throttle controlled and cadence sensor pedal assist ebikes have a hub motor.
Suspension also plays an important role in handling. Most ebikes feature a suspension fork. Some offer full suspension. A good suspension system keeps your tires on the ground while riding over rough surfaces, allowing you to corner harder without losing traction. For more info on suspension, check out my guides to fork suspension and rear suspension.
Winner: Both pedal assist and throttle controlled ebikes can offer good handling and maneuverability if they have smooth and predictable power delivery. Mid drive ebikes offer better handling than hub motor ebikes. A mid drive ebike with pedal assist will offer the best handling.
Damage to the Environment
Electric bikes, in general, are a very environmentally friendly mode of transport. They use very little power and do not release harmful emissions into the air. Ebikes create very little environmental impact.
There is one exception. While riding an ebike, it is possible to damage soft surfaces, such as trails, grass, dirt, and gravel. This can cause some environmental damage.
Most throttle controlled ebikes are powerful enough to break traction and spin the rear wheel out. Pedal assist ebikes generally don’t create enough power to break the rear wheel loose because the power doesn’t come in big bursts. It’s more controlled.
The problem with spinning your wheel out is that it can damage some surfaces. Using a throttle causes more wear and tear than using pedal assist or simply pedaling. If one rider spins out and tears up the ground a bit, it’s not a big deal. If hundreds of riders do it, it can cause some serious environmental damage.
Over time, spinning out on trails can create ruts. This can ruin mountain bike trails. Particularly if the trails aren’t regularly maintained.
Tearing up a trail leads to trail expansion. If the trail is full of ruts, riders will ride next to the trail. Over time, the trail becomes wider. Wide trails affect plants and animals and the environment more. They’re not natural.
Tearing up land with a powerful ebike can also cause a number of environmental issues. It can kill vegetation. It can destroy insect and animal habitats. In addition, it can change water flows during rain and increase erosion. Some types of soil are surprisingly fragile.
To avoid causing unnecessary damage, it’s best not to use the throttle in areas where motor vehicles are not permitted. If you’re in doubt, ask the land managers. They can tell you where you can and where you can’t ride an ebike and what kinds of ebikes are allowed.
Winner: Pedal assist ebikes are more gentle on the land. They don’t damage trails as much. Throttle controlled ebikes can dig ruts in trails if you use too much throttle.
A Note About Gearing
Mid-drive pedal assist ebikes can use the mechanical advantage of the bike’s gears. This is possible because the motor transmits power through the bike’s drivetrain. In other words, the motor turns the cranks, just like you do when you pedal. When you downshift, the cranks require less force to turn. This makes it easier for the motor to turn the cranks. When you upshift, the cranks become harder to turn. This allows you to reach higher speeds.
Being able to change the gear ratio comes in handy if you live in a hilly area. You can shift down so the motor doesn’t have to work as hard while climbing. You can power up steep hills efficiently this way. In addition, you can also use the bike’s gearing to keep the motor’s RPM in its optimal range. This increases efficiency, improves range, and allows the motor to produce more power and torque.
Most throttle controlled and pedal assist ebikes use hub motors. These have fixed gearing. The motor and drivetrain are separate systems. This means you can’t take advantage of the bike’s gears.
If you live in a hilly area this can cause issues. A low powered 200 or 250 watt hub motor may have trouble you up a steep hill. Particularly if you’re a heavier rider. In this case, you’re better off going with a mid drive pedal assist ebike.
Some hub motors are geared. Geared hub motors use internal planetary gears to reduce the RPMs of the motor. The gears allow a smaller motor to produce more power, improving efficiency and allowing you to climb steeper hills. These motors are more complex. They are common on higher-end hub motor ebikes. They can be less reliable due to the extra gearing. Mid-drive throttle-controlled ebikes are also available but they are less common.
Who Should Choose a Throttle Controlled Ebike?
Those who use their ebike for transportation or commuting often benefit from having a throttle. The throttle allows you to ride almost effortlessly because you don’t have to pedal. A throttle also allows you to accelerate quickly to get yourself out of traffic situations that you may encounter.
Throttle controlled ebikes are also ideal for those with knee issues or reduced mobility. The throttle makes it easy to accelerate from a stop. Once you’re moving, you can peddle gently or use the throttle to keep the bike in motion. If you start experiencing knee pain, you can stop pedaling and continue riding under the motor’s power.
Those who want higher performance may also enjoy having a throttle. With a throttle, you have complete control over the bike’s motor. You can use all of the power with a twist of the wrist. This allows you to accelerate quickly off the line. You can ride quickly through twisty mountain roads. You can also ride at higher speeds in some situations. Riding a throttle controlled ebike is kind of like riding a motorcycle.
Those who are on a tight budget may also be better off with a throttle controlled ebike. Many entry-level to mid-range ebikes in the $1000-$1500 price range come with a throttle. You can also install an ebike conversion kit on your existing bike and save some money.
Who Should Choose a Pedal Assist Ebike?
Those who need a longer range will be better off with a pedal assist ebike. The pedal assist system increases efficiency, allowing you to ride further on a single charge. This is nice if you have to ride further than 25-30 miles in a single day. Some torque sensor pedal assist ebikes can achieve a range of over 50 miles. With a large battery, it is possible to achieve a range of over 100 miles.
Pedal assist is also great for those who want a bike that is easy to ride. You can simply start pedaling and the sensors and controller tell the motor when to engage, how much power to supply, and when to disengage. All you have to do is pedal. There is less of a learning curve.
If you’re buying an ebike for exercise, you’re also better off with a pedal assist model. Even though the bike does part of the work for you, you can still get your heart rate up and burn some calories while riding a pedal assist ebike. Some riders end up getting more exercise than they would on a non-powered bike because they ride more frequently and ride longer distances. Ebiking can be great for your health.
Those who live in an area that strictly regulates ebikes may also be better off with a pedal assist model for legal reasons. Many cities simply prohibit any ebike with a throttle. You don’t want to get fined for riding an illegal ebike. In this case, pedal assist may be your only legal option.
Ebikes with Both Pedal Assist and a Throttle
Some ebikes have both pedal assist and a throttle. In fact, most ebikes that come with a throttle also have a pedal assist system. Probably the most common configuration for these bikes is cadence sensor pedal assist and a hub motor. Ebikes with torque sensors and a mid-drive motor often do not have a throttle. There are exceptions.
The benefit of having both power delivery systems is that you can choose which system you want to use during your ride. You may start off with pedal assist then get tired and switch to the throttle for the rest of your ride. Maybe you only use the throttle to get the bike moving then switch to pedal assist. It’s always nice having a choice.
Final Thoughts About Pedal Assist Vs Throttle Ebikes
When it comes to choosing an ebike, the best power delivery system depends on a number of factors including the distances you ride, the local laws where you live, your cycling experience, the type of riding you do, your budget, and personal preference.
In most situations, pedal assist provides a better ride experience. The system is easier and more intuitive to use. The range is also better. In addition, pedal assist ebikes are also legal in far more places. You’re less limited in where you can ride. When buying an ebike, you’ll also have far more options if you choose a pedal assist model.
Throttle controlled ebikes also have their place. Riding takes less effort because you don’t have to pedal. They also offer excellent performance. A throttle allows you to accelerate quickly and control the motor’s power precisely.
The power delivery system isn’t the only thing you’ll need to consider when choosing an ebike. You’ll also need to decide between a mid drive and hub motor option. If you choose a pedal assist ebike, you’ll also have to decide between torque sensors and cadence sensors.
Before buying an ebike, it’s a good idea to take a couple for a test ride. Try out both pedal assist and throttle power delivery systems to see which one you prefer. Whichever you choose, I hope this guide has helped you decide.
Do you ride a pedal assist or throttle controlled ebike? Share your experience in the comments!
More from Where The Road Forks