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Home / Auto News / Buying an e-bike? Consider a lightweight one you can actually carry

As someone who lives in a walk-up apartment, I often look longingly at the e-bikes that zip around my San Francisco neighborhood. Most have big batteries and motors for powering up hills and riding long distances. They’re also heavy beasts, and can weigh as much as 90 pounds.

But more e-bikes with svelte frames and lighter components are coming onto the scene—good news for those of us who are garage-less. Greg LeMond, who won the Tour de France three times, is behind a new company making carbon-fiber models that began shipping in March. That same month, Specialized added a new “step-through" model, for easy mounting and dismounting, to its “SL" (aka “Super Light") line. Then, in April, Brompton released a slightly updated version of its electrified folding bike, which packs into a tiny shape, small enough to tuck underneath a desk.

They weigh far less than mainstream e-bikes. The caveat? They can’t do all the work for you. You have to put a little more muscle into each pedal stroke. But because of the subtle electric assist, you feel like you suddenly grew another lung. You’re panting less and your legs aren’t sore. You feel like you, but strong—Tour de France champion strong.

I tested three of these carryable e-bikes, toting them up and down my building’s stairs and zipping around the city running errands. If you’re new to e-bikes, I’d recommend reading my guide to picking the right one, before diving into this one.

So, why get a light e-bike? Besides the fact that you can more easily lift them, they don’t look like e-bikes. You’ll have local Spandex wearers wondering, “Is it or isn’t it?" If the battery dies, you can still ride a light e-bike back home without suffering too much. And compared with another electric option, e-scooters, these bikes can go faster, for longer.

There are also trade-offs—one in particular. “You’ll see the price go up as the bikes get lighter due to more expensive materials like carbon fiber and higher-end bike components," said Jonas Jackel, owner of Huckleberry Bicycles in San Francisco.

Performance e-bikes, aimed at cycling enthusiasts, are technically the lightest e-bikes one can buy. But they can cost upward of $7,000. For this column, I focused on models in the $3,700 to $4,500 range, with commuter-friendly accessories such as built-in lights and mud guards.

“For years, we’ve been talking people out of lightweight because you had to compromise on performance especially," said Brett Thurber, co-owner of the New Wheel e-bike shop in San Francisco. That has changed, Mr. Thurber says, because of advancements in motors that draw less power. Still, “it’s not as much of a free ride," he said.

The motors in these bikes are lower wattage, but the specs, when compared with heavier bikes, don’t tell the full story. A 240-watt motor may sound feeble compared with one rated for 750 watts, but the lighter weight of the bike means a smaller motor can provide more assist. Before you buy, test ride different models if possible—light and full-powered options—which will tell you much more than the numbers can. Specialized and Brompton bikes are sold at bike shops throughout the U.S. LeMond, however, is an online-only company, and offers a 30-day return policy.

Specialized Turbo Vado SL ST

The $3,750 Turbo Vado SL 4.0 Step-Through is my favorite of the bunch, because it doesn’t compromise on speed. It provides motorized assistance up to 28 miles an hour, and its mid-drive motor, with sensors to match the power you put into the pedals, provides a smooth, natural ride. The bike also has a sporty riding position that will make cyclists feel right at home.

At 33 pounds for the smallest frame, the Vado SL is more like heavy luggage—liftable but best when rolled. A walk-assist button on the handlebar-mounted controller can help you push it up ramps. I’m hoping Specialized eventually adds the full-powered Vado model’s new antitheft features (a motion-sensor alarm and motor lock) to the SL models.

LeMond Dutch

The $4,500 Dutch is one of the most beautiful upright-style bikes—electrified or not—I’ve ever laid my eyes on. The eye-catching bike is, perhaps, too nice; it practically screams, “STEAL ME!" I would invest in a strong U-lock, like Kryptonite’s New York model, and wouldn’t leave it unattended for too long.

It’s fully carbon fiber, and all the cables are neatly tucked into the frame of the bike. It weighs 27 pounds, the lightest of the e-bikes I tried. The brand’s Prolog model, with a high-top tube and more aggressive hunched-over design, is even lighter, just 26 pounds. Unfortunately, to ride it you need a leg inseam longer than 30 inches, so I’m too short for it.

The Dutch’s electric assist tops out at 20 mph, but it is a joy to ride, in part due to its pleasant gearing for both steep hills and descents. For San Francisco’s hilly terrain, though, I needed to set the motor to its max power to feel it working.

With just one operation button on the bike, you’ll have to memorize a bunch of press and long-press combinations to change the speed or turn on the lights. Instead I relied mostly on the companion app, which works with iOS and Android phones or the Apple Watch.

For such a wonderfully designed city bike, the Dutch’s lack of kickstand, or even a mount to add one, is baffling. A LeMond spokesman said it was an oversight the company is working to remedy.

Brompton Electric

The $3,800 Brompton Electric is the heaviest of the bunch by a smidge, at nearly 34 pounds for the 6-speed model I tested. It certainly looks the silliest, with tiny 16-inch wheels. It also has the least powerful e-assist capability, cutting out at just 15 mph—the legal limit in the U.K., where Bromptons are made—and quirky gear shifting that can’t be adjusted while pedaling.

And yet it’s the bike I found myself reaching for most, because it’s so dang practical. Folded up, it takes up just slightly more space than a big backpack. There are small caster wheels to roll the bike around while folded up, so I could push it around with me at the grocery store instead of locking it up. And if the weather changed, I could throw the bike into the trunk of an Uber to get home. It was also the easiest to navigate up and down my building’s narrow staircase. There’s even a tiny hand pump embedded into the Brompton frame for inflating flat tires.

Learning how to fold and unfold the bike takes practice. After a few weeks, it takes me less than a minute. The battery, which needs to be removed when you pack the bike down, comes in a bag that includes room for its charger, so you can easily top-up at your destination. It’s small, and quickly snaps on and off the bike’s frame.

There are many things I’d improve about the Brompton—upping the max assist speed, for one—but its most urgent need is a better placed front light. It sits low, underneath the battery—fine for illuminating the path ahead at night, but not great for helping drivers see you in their car’s rearview mirrors. Until that’s fixed, I’d suggest wearing a headlamp.

 

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