Electric bikes are getting more popular among cyclists who want the benefits of traditional cycling, but with the convenience of an electric motor that does most of the pedaling for them.
Even though they look like bikes, and we call them that, electric bikes are not the same as their non-electric counterparts. They are heavier and can go faster, which is why they need more robust brakes.
What Kind of Brakes Should an Electric Bike Have?
Most electric bikes, especially those in the mid-range to higher end, are fitted with disc brakes.
That’s because disc brakes give the best value for the money — they’re capable enough of slowing the bike down without increasing the retail price by too much. Disc brakes also work well in all weather.
As a rule, the bigger the brake rotors, the more capable the brakes. The pads also matter. They can be metallic (also known as “sintered”) for extreme braking, semi-metallic (also called “semi-organic”) for smooth braking, or organic for sharp braking.
All disc brakes consist of a brake rotor and pads, but not all disc brake braking systems for electric bikes are created equal. Bicycle disc brakes fall into one of two categories: mechanical or hydraulic.
Here’s how they differ:
- Mechanical disc brakes are connected to the lever by a metal wire. When you pull on the brakes, the wire retracts, squeezing the pads into the rotor and producing friction.
- Hydraulic disc brakes have fluid running in tubes. When you pull on the brakes, you displace some of that fluid, which fires a piston that presses the pads against the rotor.
Mechanical brakes are cheaper and easier to maintain. They are good enough for most e-bikes. Hydraulic disc brakes are pricey and more capricious, but they deliver the best performance and ease of braking.
Can an Electric Bike Have Rim Brakes?
Rim brakes are the oldest type of bicycle brake, and the type of brake we all remember our bikes being fitted with when we were kids. So it’s not surprising that one of the first brake-related questions newcomers to electric bikes have is whether their e-bike can have the same kind of brakes.
Rim brakes are cheap to buy and easy to maintain. They consist of rubber pads connected with a metal wire to a lever and mounted at a negligible distance from the rim. The wire tightens when you pull the lever, causing the pads to rub against the rim, producing friction that grinds the bike down to a halt.
Rim brakes are okay for lightweight, non-electric bicycles, but they have no place on an e-bike. Even so, electric bikes on the lower end are sometimes fitted with rim brakes. If you’re thinking about buying one, upgrade to disc brakes as long as you have it as an option.
Electric bikes weigh a lot, which means they have more inertia than regular bikes. Rim brakes are just not performant enough to stop most electric bikes quickly and safely. This is especially true in bad weather (when it rains, the pads are prone to slipping instead of sticking to the rim) or in an emergency.
Don’t Forget the Kill Switch
No matter what kind of brakes you end up putting on your e-bike, there’s one feature you’re absolutely and positively going to need. And that feature is the kill switch.
See, every e-bike’s braking system should have a kill switch. When you apply the brakes, the kill switch cuts power to the motor so that you — the rider — can’t use the throttle and the brakes at the same time.
It sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised by the mistakes you can make when you need to brake in an emergency. On an e-bike, these mistakes can cost a lot, like burning out the motor and having to have it repaired or replaced.
The Bottom Line
Because e-bikes are heavier and can go faster, they need more capable brakes than traditional bikes.
Rim brakes aren’t a great option for an electric bike, and disc brakes should be preferred. Mechanical disc brakes are good enough for most e-bikes. However, the heaviest and fastest electronic bicycles warrant hydraulic disc brakes.