Here at Lewis & Clark we get daily questions about the different types of electric bikes and all the various features and components that affect their performance and price. With the explosion in popularity over the last few years, there are now so many different e-bikes available, that it can simply be overwhelming when trying to find the right model that works for you. In this article we're going to look at the two main types of e-bike motor systems: 1) Hub-Drive and 2) Mid-drive motors. The type of motor system is one of the most important factors when shopping for e-bikes, as it plays a huge role in a bike's overall ride performance and cost. There are many advantages and disadvantages to each of these types of motors, so let's look at some of the key comparisons that will arm you with a little more knowledge as you narrow down your list of e-bike models.
In a hub-drive system the motor is installed on the center of the rear wheel (and occasionally the front wheel) and thus the power is applied directly to the wheel as you pedal.
A rear hub-drive motor is mounted directly to the center of the rear wheel.
Most hub-drives use a cadence sensor to determine the rate at which you are pedaling. The motor system then adjusts the level of power automatically based on your pedaling speed. So as you pedal faster, the motor reduces the power output. If you pedal slower, the motor increases output to give you more assistance. Most e-bikes also have several different pedal-assist settings so you can adjust the power via the handlebar controls and customize your ride. Some hub-drive models also have a throttle-only setting, which means you do not have to pedal to engage the motor.
You'll generally find hub-drive motors on less-expensive e-bike models, typically between $1,000 - $2,000.
A mid-drive motor is built directly into the frame, between the pedals. This motor system is integrated with the drivetrain, so it does not directly power the rear wheel like in a hub-drive bike. Instead, a mid-drive motor powers the cranks and chainring and the power is then delivered to the rear wheel via the chain.
A mid-drive motor is built into the frame and is integrated with the drivetrain.
Ok, so how does the location of the motor affect the ride experience? It may seem like the experience would be the same regardless of where the motor is mounted, but there is a very significant difference in feel between these two motor systems.
To put it simply, on a rear hub-drive bike it feels like you are being pushed from behind (or "rocketed" from behind if you have it set in the highest power setting). One downside to this type of system is that it can sometimes feel a bit jerky whenever you start to pedal and the motor engages, although this is more noticeable when riding at higher levels of pedal-assist.
Comparatively, the ride experience on a mid-drive bike feels more "natural," smooth, and closer to the actual feel of a conventional bicycle. This is because the power output is directly integrated with the drivetrain, allowing for more responsive power and acceleration. As a result, this integrated system provides the thrilling sensation that all the power is coming directly from your legs, as you pedal and shift gears. Instead of the slightly jerky, sudden power surge of a hub-drive motor, you don't necessarily feel the motor kick in as much on a mid-drive bike, and you really get the feeling that you and the bike are working as one. In other words... You feel the power!
Now, that's not to say hub-drive bikes are not fun to ride. On the contrary, cruising around the NWA Greenway on a hub-drive e-bike is a blast, and depending on your specific needs and budget, might make the most sense for you.
Most hub-drive models fall between the $1,000 - $2,000 range, while mid-drive models start at around $2,000 (for example the Gazelle T9 City & Momentum Lafree) and go up from there. This isn't because rear hub-drive motors are necessarily lower in quality, but rather because they are simpler designs that contain fewer parts, and are thus less expensive and easier to mass manufacture.
On mid-drive models the frames need to be custom-made to fit the motor, and the motor is more complex with an advanced torque sensor. As a result, you can expect a mid-drive model to cost about $700 more than a comparable hub-drive model.
(There are also $2,000+ hub-drive models that have a more advanced torque sensor and thus provide a more responsive ride, when compared to less expensive hub-drive models. For example, see the Momentum Voya series).
Mid-drive bikes are the clear winner in this category. Because of its integration with the shift system, a mid-drive motor allows you to use the mechanical advantage of the gears for a much more efficient ride and longer range. For example, when you shift down to a lower gear, it becomes easier to pedal and therefore the cranks require less power to turn. So this allows a mid-drive motor to power you up a steep Ozark hill, much more easily and efficiently than a hub-drive motor.
Further, mid-drive motors are designed to run most efficiently at the average cyclist's natural cadence (cadence simply refers to how fast or slow your pedals revolve as you ride). So using your bike's gearing while pedaling at a steady, natural cadence keeps the motor running at peak efficiency and ideal RPM range. This means the motor will use less electricity, thus improving your range. A mid drive motor typically operates at about 70 - 80% efficiency, compared to about 30% for a rear hub drive. For that reason, we'll see comparably equipped bikes where you'll get upwards of 80-100 miles of pedal assistance on a mid drive, compared to 50-60 miles on rear hub drive. Also, the battery and motor will be lighter on the mid drive.
This is where it gets a little tricky as there are advantages and disadvantages for both motor systems, in terms of maintenance. Hub motor e-bikes can sometimes be cheaper to maintain than mid-drive models, because they have less moving parts and are not integrated with the gear shift system. Because mid-drive motors transfer power through the drivetrain, they tend to put more wear and tear on the chain, chainrings, and cassette - so these components will require more frequent maintenance.
BATTERY LIFE / COST:
Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub-drives, so the batteries on a mid-drive bike tend to last longer. As batteries degrade over the course of a few years and several hundred life cycles, the cost to replace batteries over the life of your e-bike can be less expensive on a mid-drive model.
CHANGING REAR FLATS:
The clear advantage goes to mid-drives in this category. For mid-drive models, changing a rear flat is the exact same process as on a regular bicycle. Changing rear flats on a hub-drive bike is more complicated. Since you have to remove the wheel in order take off the tire, you will usually have to first disconnect the motor from the electrical system. The added weight from the motor (up to 20lbs) also makes the wheel more cumbersome as you remove the tire, while being careful not to damage your hub and motor.
Since e-bikes are heavier than normal bikes, weight may be an important factor for you, if you are going to be frequently lifting the bike on and off your vehicle. In general, mid-drive models are slightly lighter than hub-drive bikes. Since hub-drive motors are less efficient, these bike models often come with larger, heavier batteries and motors in order to be able to provide a comparable range. On average, hub-drive bikes can weigh anywhere from 2 - 10 lbs heavier than comparable mid-drive models.
When E-bikes came out, there were a lot of nay-sayers who said it was cheating. Since then, there have been several studies showing one can get as good of, to almost as good a workout on an E-bike compared to a conventional bike, depending on how it's used. While there have been no studies done comparing the two, our experience shows one can get a wider range of benefits from a mid drive bike. If you want a very light workout, you can get that; If you want to mimic a conventional bike, you can do that as well. That's tougher on rear hub drive bikes. You can get a good workout, but not to the extend of a mid drive bike, as the bike is always pushing you along.
Which kind of e-bike should you choose? It depends!
The choice between these two types of e-bikes really depends on your budget, along with where and how far you'll be riding. For casual commuters and paved-trail riders who are just looking for a simple bike with fewer maintenance issues, a rear hub motor is a great option. On the other hand, if you have a slightly higher budget, need a bit more range, or really like the added performance and ride quality, a mid-drive bike might be a better option.
Whichever choice you make, the bike that enables you to go out and play more, while having fun in the outdoors is the right choice!
All this being said, the absolute best way to understand the main differences between these two types of e-bikes is to visit our Springdale shop and try them out! We have several demo models available of each type, which you are free to take for a quick test ride around the shop. All of the info in this article will immediately make more sense once you hop on a bike and ride!
FREE LIFETIME TUNE-UPS: As with all Lewis & Clark bikes, these models come with professional assembly and our Free Lifetime Tune-Up plan. Any time your bike isn’t shifting gears or stopping like it should, just bring it in, and we’ll take care of it. This includes our Standard Tune-up and adjustments. If you bring an E-bike for us to build that came from elsewhere, we charge $150. So the difference between buying a direct to consumer bike and one from us, is about $150 cost to build, then another $100 to $150 you’ll save in tune ups each year.
30 DAY TEST RIDE: It’s hard to know which bike you like until you’ve ridden it. Lewis & Clark has a 30-day test ride program with every bike you purchase. That means you have 30 days to see if it’s the right bike for you. If not, you can bring it back to trade for any other bike we have. Plus, if you’re a rebate member, you’ll get 5% back on E-bikes in store credit (10% on everything else).
Get 0% interest for 24 months when you sign up with our partner, Unify Federal Credit Union, or get 0% Interest for up to 18 months through Synchrony Financial.