Electric bikes are slowly picking up speed. Already booming in Europe and Japan, these bike-path legal bicycles combine a normal drivetrain with an electric motor, which is usually embedded in the rear hub. You decide how much to juice your pedaling with the motor, allowing you to fly up steep hills or commute to work without huffing and puffing, then push it manually when you want a workout. There are two types of electric bikes: a "pedal-assist" that kicks in only while you are pushing the pedals, and a throttle-actuated motor that works without pedaling. Electric bikes aren't light (typically more than 50 pounds) or cheap ($2,000 to $4,000 for a model with a 36-volt or 48-volt motor and a lithium-ion battery good for 500 to 1,000 charges). But they're far cheaper than a moped or motorcycle and are invaluable for anyone who wants the joys of cycling with less of the sweat.
Currie Technologies eFlow E3 Nitro: Throttle-drive 20-speed from Simi Valley-based company has a 500-watt rear hub motor, a battery pack housed in the seatpost, and a top speed of 20 mph with no pedaling.
Likes: It's powerful. With no pedaling, it held a steady 20 mph against the wind. The ride is smooth and balanced due to a 1-inch-travel suspension fork and the central location of the battery pack, which is removable for remote charging. The stem-mounted LCD console shows speed, distance, battery charge and level of selected power assist. Battery life is extended by regenerative braking. Quick-release hubs and a simple watertight motor connector make wheel removal easy.
Dislikes: At 52 pounds; it takes a while to get up to speed with unassisted pedaling.
Price: $3,995. http://www.currietech.com
Pete's Electric Bikes eMotion City: Spanish-built "Pedal-assist" bike (meaning you have to pedal to make the motor kick in) with a unique mid-drive, 250-watt Japanese-made Panasonic motor. It includes a step-through frame with a rack, battery pack placement behind the seat tube, a suspension fork and an unlimited-gearing NuVinco hub.
Likes: Great handling, comfort and hill climbing because of the central location of the battery and the relatively small engine, which the company claims is as efficient as bigger engines due to its placement on the crank, rather than the rear wheel. It has a claimed range up to 65 miles on flat terrain in economy-assist mode. It's relatively light at 48 pounds. A full battery recharge takes five hours.
Price: $2,300 to $3,200 depending on options. http://www.petesbikes.com
Prodeco Outlaw: High-performance model of Pompano Beach, Fla., maker of lower-cost electric bikes. The eight-speed hardtail mountain bike has a 48-volt rack-mounted battery, a gigantic 750-watt rear hub motor, suspension fork and a thumb throttle.
Likes: Beautiful, bargain priced, great handling and blazing fast, topping-out at claimed 28 mph and 18-25 miles per charge. Pedaling manually, it feels like a regular bike when you get it up to speed. Its thumb-actuated throttle is the most comfortable of the throttle bikes, allowing you to control speed without hyperextending your wrist.
Dislikes: Weighs 62 pounds, so getting up to speed takes a while. Has no kickstand, like the other bikes, or speedometer (only an empty/full battery indicator on the right-hand grip), so you can't verify the speed. The battery is on the rack, so it can't hold cargo.
Price: $2,199. http://www.prodecotech.com
Pedego Trail Tracker: Throttle-drive single-speed cruiser from Irvine-based company has massive 4-inch-wide tires that can handle beach sand and dirt roads. It includes a powerful 48-volt, 600-watt rear-hub motor, rack-mounted battery and an unassisted top speed of 20 mph.
Likes: No limits; tackles the beach, mountains, you name it. Comfy padded seat too. On a full battery charge, the giant engine can take you 15 to 30 miles at 20 mph with no pedaling (depending on rider weight and terrain), and 30 to 50 miles with pedaling.
Dislikes: Porky at 68 pounds.
Price: $2,975. http://www.pedego.com
Wallack is the author of "Bike for Life: How to Ride to 100."Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun