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Are Pedal-Assist E-Bikes Considered Motorized? What You Need To Know

The law, language, and legislation concerning electric bikes are confusing at best. You may be wondering if your bike is street legal or categorized as “motorized.” So, what’s the verdict?

In 26 states, e-bikes are not considered “motorized.” However, laws vary from state to state, and you should always check before purchasing or riding. You can easily pedal your e-bike without motor assistance, sidestepping regulations when necessary.

With all the confusing laws and regulations surrounding electric bikes, it’s best to stay informed by researching those relevant to your area. Read on to get the complete picture on pedal-assist, classifications, and everything else!

What Is A Pedal-Assist Bike?

Pedal of bike

A pedal-assist bike, also known as a “pedelec,” is typically the most common type of electric bike. Pedal-assist provides motor assistance whilst the rider is pedaling; allowing faster speeds with less effort. Let’s break this down even further. Pedal-assist is a system that generally gives you an easier time while riding. If you have pedal-assist turned on and start pedaling, the motor will kick in immediately and provide more power.

Pedal-assist can typically be activated by pushing a button somewhere located on the bike’s handlebars. Additionally, most electric bikes have various levels of pedal-assist, offering different levels of power.

For the pedal-assist to kick in, the bike pedals need to be moving. To sense this movement, most e-bikes use one or two types of sensors. These sensors are usually placed in the bottom bracket of the bike or found in the motor.

Types of Pedal-Assist Sensors

The two main types of pedal-assist sensors are known as “speed/cadence sensors” and “torque sensors.” Some electric bikes actually use both types of sensors, while other models opt for using just one. Both sensors types have pros and cons, so let’s look at them in a bit more detail.

Speed/Cadence Sensors

With speed/cadence sensors, as soon as you start pedaling, the motor will kick in and provide extra power. You can control the amount of power, usually through the LCD display or buttons on the bike. Sometimes the pedal-assist can be overpowering, causing you to feel as though you’re adding no power physically. But you still have to pedal to engage the motor. Overall it’s much less intensive.

Speed/cadence sensors are typically more common and provide reliability, accessibility, and a less intensive ride. For riders with poor knees or less leg strength, this type of sensor is optimal. Many bikes pair this sensor with a throttle so you can get the bike going before you have to start pedaling.

Torque Sensors

A torque sensor only activates when you apply pressure to the pedals. For this reason, torque sensors are less user-friendly, as you’ll have to figure out exactly how much pressure is required to get the job done. It’s also important to note that you will always be doing a significant amount of pedaling to some capacity with this type of sensor.

Torque sensors are much more intensive. This has obvious downsides for many riders. That being said, riders who want an electric bike that feels a bit more like a conventional bicycle will benefit from this type of sensor.

It’s also important to note; you can get more range and battery life out of your bike using a torque sensor. Since you’re physically providing some level of power during the duration of the commute, the motor doesn’t have to work as hard, saving you battery life.

Are Pedal-Assist Bikes Considered “Motorized?”

The laws surrounding electric bikes can be tricky and a little unclear. As we mentioned, these laws and regulations vary from state to state. As of now, 26 states do not consider pedal-assist bikes to be “motorized.” To see a full list of states that do not consider e-bikes “motorized”, please refer to this list.

The 26 states that define electric bikes as un-motorized are organized under a three-tier classification system. The laws, language, and safety requirements for these states are near-identical but check locally just to be 100% sure.

Classifications of Pedal-Assist

Electric bicycle motor inside the frame

You’ll find most electric bikes falling under the following three-tier classification system. All of these tiers have pedal-assist to varying degrees and speeds.

  • Class 1: Pedal-assist without throttle up to 20mph
  • Class 2: Pedal-assist with or without throttle up to 20mph
  • Class 3: Pedal-assist up to 28mph and throttle up to 20mph

These different classifications help define the bike regarding relevant laws and regulations. Most riders prefer a Class 3 e-bike, as it offers the most power output and highest speed. However, most budget-friendly bikes are going to fall somewhere between the Class 1 and Class 2 levels.

Keep in mind that once you reach top speed using pedal-assist, this feature will turn off. With a Class 3 bike, the pedal-assist will disengage once you get to the maximum speed of 28mph. But, this doesn’t mean you can’t pedal harder to go faster if you desire to. On the other hand, if you reached the max speed then begin to slow down, the motor will kick back in, resuming assistance.

What’s Considered “Motorized?”

According to the Department of Justice, motorized vehicles include “road vehicles, such as automobiles, vans, motorcycles, and trucks, as well as off-road vehicles such as self-propelled construction and farming equipment.”

A bit vague, isn’t it? You would think e-bikes fall under this category, given that they do in fact have a motor. But for the 26 states that use the three-tier classification system, this isn’t the case. These 26 states have defined electric bikes as specifically “motorized bicycles,” thus justifying the creation of the three-tier classification system.

For other states, the laws still vary. Some states haven’t defined e-bikes alone at all, causing them to be shoved into the same category as mopeds and scooters. As always, it’s best to check your laws locally to see where e-bikes fall under before riding or purchasing!

Differences Between Mopeds and Electric Bikes

Telling the difference between a motorized vehicle and an electric bike seems like a no-brainer. Mopeds and scooters physically look nothing like bikes! Here’s an example assuming you live in one of the 26 states that have classified electric bikes.

Take, for example, this 2000W Electric Moped (on Amazon). Even with its unconventional design, it looks nothing like a bicycle or e-bike. It has no pedals, different tires, and a completely different design. Now, if we take a look at a standard e-bike (on Amazon), we can see a clear difference. It looks like it has pedals like a bike and rides like a bike. Telling the difference is plain as day.

Now, this example only applies to those who live in one of the 26 states that have the aforementioned three-tier classification system. So for those people; if you were wondering what laws would apply to your bike based on looks alone, now you have a better idea. In general, for the 26 states, if it looks and functions similarly to a conventional bicycle, it will be classified as an electric bike.

Can You Still Manually Pedal Electric Bikes?

Young man riding ebike in the park

You may be worried about laws and regulations about using your e-bike with the motor turned off. Can you use it that way? Yes, of course, you can! It’s a bike, after all, right? That being said, there are some considerations to be made.

Keep in mind; e-bikes are much heavier than traditional bicycles. Some e-bikes weigh upwards of 80lbs. The average weight of a conventional bicycle is around 18lbs! This difference is huge when it comes to pedaling the bike without motor assistance. That’s why it’s best to get the most out of your range and battery so you aren’t left high and dry.

For example, take a look at The Roadster by Vintage Electric. Although it comes with a pedal-assist system, this bike is meant to be used in full throttle mode nearly all the time. The Roadster weighs 86lbs! Imagine If your battery ran out in the middle of a commute; pedaling this type of bike would be a nightmare.

Different Types of Pedals

The type of pedals used on an electric bike is going to change how it rides and how it feels. Different pedal types have different pros and cons. Assuming your bike has changeable pedals, what types are best?

Clipless Pedals: The name “clipless” is relatively misleading. Clipless pedals contain a clip for your shoes, allowing you to securely connect your shoes to them, much like a set of skis. These pedals offer more efficiency and control. However, they can take some time to get used to.

Platform Pedals: These are the most common pedals for all bicycles. They can be used with nearly all types of shoes. This pedal offers good support and stability. Recreational riders tend to prefer these pedals, as they’re a bit less complex and generally more standard.

There are other factors to consider too; grip, the number of holes, your type of shoes, and the type of riding you do. This is a bit advanced for recreational riders. That being said, it’s good to keep in mind throughout your e-bike journey.

How Fast Can Pedal-Assisted Bikes Go?

As mentioned earlier, pedal-assist will offer motor assistance up to the bike’s maximum speed. These max speeds are based on the three-tier classification system and are 20mph and 28mph.

That being said, you can still go faster on an e-bike even when the pedal-assist isn’t engaged. Going downhill is a great example. Say you reach a speed of 35mph going downhill, the pedal-assist would disengage but wouldn’t stop you from going that fast. Once you get to the bottom of the hill and slow down under the max speed of your pedal-assist, the system would reengage, offering more power.

Typically, electric bikes with pedal-assist can use different levels of power. You can find systems ranging between 1-3, 1-5, and so on. An example of a 1-3 pedal-assist system would like:

  • Low Assistance: 30% power
  • Medium Assistance: 60% power
  • High Assistance: 100% power

Advantages of Pedal-Assist

Whether in the form of speed sensors or torque, pedal-assist can offer many significant advantages. Pedal-assist can extend your bike’s battery life, offer you more power, and aid you in your fitness goals.

One of the significant benefits of pedal-assist is how it can extend your bike’s battery life.
Compared to a throttle, a pedal-assist is much less intensive on the battery and motor. Whether your bike uses a speed or torque sensor, adding your own power during commutes takes a huge load off the battery. This reduced load is especially true when riding using the lower levels of pedal-assist.

To add to that, using pedal-assist in the lower settings can aid you in your fitness journey. There are many proven health benefits of conventional bicycles. Although e-bikes have motor assistance, they can still offer quite a workout. Pedaling using lower levels of pedal-assist can improve your leg strength, endurance, and cardiovascular health, just like a traditional bicycle.

We can’t forget, pedal-assist can offer you more power than a throttle. Sure, throttle means you aren’t going to have to put in much effort, but, the throttle can only reach a max of 20mph as opposed to the 28mph max of pedal-assist.

It may not seem like a lot, but this added power and speed make a significant difference. 28mph compared to 20mph is nearly a 50% increase!

Final Thoughts

There’s a lot of variety when it comes to the electric bike market and pedal-assist systems. For new riders, we recommend e-bikes with speed sensors, as they’re generally more accessible. A Class 3 electric bike will give you the most speed but they’re not the most budget-friendly and can even lack a throttle.

Additionally, the laws surrounding electric bikes and pedal-assist can be challenging to wrap your head around. As of 2021, 26 states have recognized and defined e-bikes. These 26 states do not consider e-bikes to be “motorized.” However, different states have different regulations, so always check locally before riding or purchasing.