Now that everyone’s afraid of busses and subways, electric bikes are exploding in popularity. It’s easy to see why. They’re a quick way to get around cities and suburbs, and it’s easier to maintain a safe social distance from other folks. But for those of us without high-paying jobs, there’s a problem: A decent ebike usually costs more than year’s worth of bus tickets. It’s not that they’re explicitly designed to be toys for Arnold Schwarzenegger or Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s just that quality parts and construction are both necessary and expensive.
Take any good quality “normal” bike—the kind with a frame and components that can withstand the superhuman torque of an electric motor with powerful enough brakes stop a very heavy bike—and add about a thousand bucks for a battery and motor. That’s about what the e-version will cost you. For most people, that’s an unjustifiable amount of money, especially during a pandemic.
That’s why I was ecstatic when I unboxed Propella’s 7-speed, 250-watt road bike. It has name-brand components, like a Samsung-cell battery, Shimano shifters and disc brakes, and an all-aluminum frame, but retails for a (relatively) dainty $1,200. After a couple of dozen miles (with a mask on), I’m happy to report that there’s finally an affordable ebike I’d trust with both my life and my wallet.
After a few years of riding, I’ve gone from prioritizing specs like battery size and power to having a more nuanced view of what makes a great ebike. Outright performance doesn’t always translate to rideability. The most powerful, long-distance ebikes are often so heavy they require a bulky mountain bike frame, which means they can start to feel more like a moped than an actual bike.
And if you’re anything like me, you might start to miss the real thing. Before I went electric, I zipped around on a single-speed Felt cyclocross bike. It’s super light and responsive, and I love how maneuverable it felt when riding around the neighborhoods of Portland’s east side. The Propella is the closest I’ve come to that zippy, rider-to-road experience with a battery-powered bike.
Much of that feeling comes from how cleverly the 250-watt motor integrates with your hard-earned muscle. Unlike most other affordable ebikes—many of which have inferior pedal-powered drivetrains in place of outright motor power—the Propella doesn’t come with a throttle button for pedal-free performance. Instead, it has a cadence sensor, which reads when your pedals start rotating and kicks power in accordingly.
There are five different levels of assistance to choose from on the simple LED display, but none of them kick in too early or stay on too long after pedaling. Instead, you’re given the feeling that, after about half a rotation, you’ve gained superhuman strength. The Propella doesn’t ride like a crappy bike with a throttle-driven motor attached; it rides like a real bike, but your legs are many times stronger.
Light and Inconspicuous
Road racers will gasp, but I’d actually call the Propella very “lightweight” at 39 pounds. Most ebikes I’ve ridden have 10 pounds on this one, and what weight the Propella has is centered in the bottom middle of the frame, where a rounded battery pack hugs the bottom rail.
I like the battery pack itself for several reasons. It’s just the right size for the distance you’d want to ride a non-suspension, 250-watt commuter (25 to 40 miles, depending on how high you set the pedal assistance). It’s also removable, which makes it easy to charge inside between rides (I’m looking at you, VanMoof). And, finally, it looks like a fancy water bottle.
The lack of an overt “I’m an ebike” battery hump and obvious motor makes the flashy, blue-accented Propella one of the stealthier models I’ve tested, too. I love that because it sucks to be an out-of-the-ordinary rider when you don’t want to be. I’ve never wanted to be the e-scooter, One Wheel, barefoot shoes, recumbent bike person. More and more ebikes are starting to look and feel like normal bikes.
Sometimes, I just don’t want to drive my car, but I also don’t want to carry a bag of groceries up a big hill without a little e-assistance. It’s odd to say, but riding more obvious-looking ebikes can come with a shocking amount of judgment in Portland, from those on two wheels and otherwise.
But I never felt any eye rolls when puttering around on the Propella. In a few days of riding, what I got asked about most was the suspension seat post my review unit shipped with—a $199 accessory that helps make bumpy roads a bit more comfortable. Even if you’re not ebiking, I’d spring for something like this if your butt’s been hurting on longer rides. It has encouraged me to ride farther than I normally would.
This ebike requires minimal setup and can be shipped directly to you. I was able to put it together on my bike stand using the included bike tool in about an hour. If you need help, you can check out this tutorial video from Propella or try your local bike shop (if they’re open).
My main gripe is that you can only get the Propella in one size. It’s a medium-sized frame (Propella doesn’t use traditional frame sizes), and it fit my 6’2″ body OK, but if you’re much taller than me, you may want to consider something else. I also wish it came with built-in lights. After all, it already has the battery to power them.
Propella frequently updates its bikes to tweak performance and parts. The version I tested is the 3.2, but the company is already on version 3.4, which is currently available for preorder. It’s almost identical, with the only difference being slightly wider and lighter tires.
Take a Ride
Sure, the Propella won’t take you a hundred miles away, and you won’t get up to lightning speed—I only ever got it up to about 18 miles per hour on the flats—but this is an ebike I can see most everyday riders hopping on. I love puttering around with it to the store, to socially-distanced gatherings, and meandering around town on days with nice weather.
You may be wondering about the cheaper single-speed model, which costs $1,000 ($200 less than the 7-speed). If you’ve got a lot of hills to tackle, the 7-speed is the better choice as the extra gears help you get going. For flatter areas, the single-speed might be a solid option, though I found myself usually leaving the bike in 5th gear when not climbing.
In either case, it’s hard to imagine you won’t have more fun jetting around town than you would be riding the bus, and both of these models only cost about a year’s worth of public transport passes. If you want an ebike on a budget, this is the best you’ll find.