The electric motor is one of the most defining features of an electric bike; hence, many cyclists (veterans or casuals alike) tend to puzzle over the type of motor they want for their new E-bike. If you’re in the same situation, you might be thinking: Can I go for a mid-drive, or is it better to stick with the usual hub drives for now?
Although you can use electric bikes with either motor for everyday use, there is no clear-cut winner when comparing the two. Both types of motors have their ups and downs.
Understanding the difference between these two motors, along with their pros and cons, would help you figure out which is the best for you in terms of performance, maintenance, and budget. Picking the wrong type of eBike can affect your riding experience, creating more problems than a regular bicycle.
So in this article, I’ll talk more about hub drive vs mid drive electric bikes with topics such as:
Hub VS Mid-drive electric bikes: how to choose?
With that said, let’s drive into these topics.
Hub Drive vs Mid Drive Electric Bikes: How To Choose?
If you already have a slight understanding of hub motors and mid-drive motors but still have trouble figuring out which type of electric bike to invest in, this quick comparison of hubs VS mids based on several factors will help you make a better decision.
Price Points: If you’re not willing to spend a couple of thousand dollars on a well-built mid-drive, then a hub motor will be your only option. Hub motors have been around for a long time and have a (relatively) simple construction, meaning they can be manufactured for cheaper.
Mountain Biking/Off-Roading: If you engage in a lot of mountain biking and cross-country trails, you definitely need to get your hands on a mid-drive electric bike. The center position of the motor, inside the bottom bracket, makes it very easy to control the E-bike when climbing steep hills, rocky terrain, and rapid descents.
Commuting/City Cruisers: If most of your cycling involves riding to your office or workshop, especially in the city where the roads are flat and smooth, you can get by with a hub motor E-bike. Besides, the throttle function is very handy when accelerating from a complete stop. (Many commuters use this to push through as soon as the traffic lights turn green.)
For Seniors or Rehabilitation Purposes: Speaking of the throttle function, seniors or other users who may need to lay off the pedals from time to time would have a more comfortable riding experience if they use E-bikes with hub motors. (Mostly because mid-drive E-bikes do not offer the throttle function.)
Bikepackers/Touring Cyclists: When the maximum range is your primary concern, an electric bike with mid-drive motors is your best bet. Mid-drive eBikes are generally more stable and efficient thanks to the accuracy of the torque sensor. They are also more powerful and can take you through hilly terrain, even if you’ve got pounds of equipment.
Customizability: Unfortunately, you cannot fit a mid-drive motor into a regular bicycle. Electric bikes with mid-drive motors need special tools and dedicated frames built to accommodate the electrical motor on the bottom bracket. On top of that, mid-drive motors attach directly to your drive chain; hence, they apply force on your bicycle chain. Therefore, converting a regular bike into a mid-drive electric bike is not a viable option.
Hub motors get their name because the motor is inside the hub of either the front or rear wheel. Hub motors resemble an enclosed frame with only the power cables sticking out. Most often, the enclosure of the hub drive has a water-resistant (not entirely waterproof) IP rating such as IP54.
Most eBike conversion kits usually come with the spokes and rim fitted onto the hub motor, but you can also purchase the individual hub motor when shopping for replacement parts.
When powered, the hub motor (be it a rear hub motor or a front one) rotates the spokes and lets the bicycle wheel forward; hence, it does not connect to the bicycle’s drive train/chain and can operate independently.
Because of this feature, eBikes with a hub motor can accelerate via a throttle, and most hub-drive eBikes (especially class 2 and some class 3) come with a twist throttle or thumb throttle on top of the pedal assist feature.
A hub motor can be found on either the front or rear wheels, and they also come with their own gear system or work directly with the hub.
Front Hub Motors VS Rear Hub Motors
In electric bikes with a front hub motor, the bicycle gives off a distinct “pulling sensation” when you push the throttle or pedal using assist mode. Since it’s on the front wheel, which is used to steer the bike, it can come off a little “wobbly,” especially when steering at higher speeds. (Luckily, you get used to it after riding around for a couple of weeks.)
Also, the cadence sensors installed on the front wheels are less accurate than those on the rear, and since it’s lighter than the rear wheel, it has less traction.
Meanwhile, hub motors on the rear wheels give off that familiar scooter/motorcycle experience where you feel like you’re getting pushed along. A rear wheel hub motor is generally more stable since the rear wheel is also where the chain gives off power during a pedal stroke.
Although neither of these could come even close to mimicking the experience of riding a traditional bicycle, a rear hub motor will always feel more responsive and organic than a front hub. That said, front hub motors are relatively affordable and easy to perform repairs on; you don’t need to remove the drive chain to get to the wheel.
Geared Hub Motors VS Gearless Hub Motors
Apart from the front and rear wheel placement, hub motors work in two different gear configurations: geared and gearless.
Geared hub motors rotate at much higher RPMs; hence, they need a gear system to translate this speed to one that matches the eBike, while gearless hub motors (also called direct drive hub motors) “directly” rotate the hub without any gears in-between.
Direct drive/gearless hub motors are bulky and generally reserved for high-torque electric bikes since they are less likely to burn out. Gearless hubs are also easiest to maintain since they (basically) have no internal moving parts.
Geared hub motors are lighter and more efficient. But unfortunately, geared hubs cannot put out high amounts of torque; hence, they are very prone to burning out. On top of that, the internal gears tend to wear out faster.
Advantages of Hub-Drive Motors
Maintenance-Free: Hub drive motors require basically little or no maintenance. The hub drive motor is completely sealed off and includes very few moving parts that rarely need to be maintained/repaired. (Unless you get a flat tire.)
Less Strain on your Drive Train: Since the hub drives only exert force on the bicycle spokes, there is less strain on the bicycle drive chain; improving its lifespan and minimizing the chance of snapping.
Weight Distribution: This is sort of a mixed bag since it mostly depends on the frame design and user preference. However, looking on the bright side, a hub motor can help balance out the weight of your batteries or pannier bags, exclusively when you have the batteries in the back and the hub motor in the front.
Affordable: Hub drive motors are more affordable than mid-drives and can be installed in traditional bicycles using eBike conversion kits.
Disadvantages of a Hub Drive Motor
Only offers a single gear ratio: The hub drive motor can only run on a single gear; hence, you can only rely on the electrical motor when accelerating from a stop or breezing through flat roads. If you push too hard on the throttle during hill climbing, there’s a higher chance of burning out. Also, because of this ratio, hub drives cannot generate high amounts of torque. (Compared to mid-drives.)
Weight Distribution: Apart from the off-chance of having your eBike balance out the weight on the front and rear wheels, there are also numerous instances where the weight of a hub drive motor can negatively affect the overall weight distribution. Hub drives can put more weight on the suspension system, thereby making a ride more uncomfortable than it has to be.
Difficult to replace the wheel: With a hub motor eBike, it is more difficult to find a replacement bicycle wheel since you need to make room for the width of the hub motor when deciding on new cassettes, rims, and tires. Most often, your choices are limited since you need to consider the spacing of the dropouts. (Most often, you are limited to 7-speed cassettes.)
More wear and tear on the bicycle wheel: With hub drives, there’s a higher chance of broken spokes, flat tires, and wearing down the treads on your eBike.
Mid drives (as the name suggests) sit in the middle of the eBike, inside the bottom bracket. Mid-drive motors connect directly to the bicycle’s drive chain, including the pedals.
Since mid-drive motors directly interface with the bicycle chain and the pedal inputs, the motor can only engage when the rider is pedaling. Therefore, mid-drive eBikes are pedal-assist only and provide a riding experience that is more akin to the natural feel of a regular bicycle.
Apart from that, the mid-drive motor can make full use of the bicycle drive chain, meaning you can utilize the motor’s power more efficiently to climb up steep hills at lower gears (without burning out) and breeze through open roads at a much faster pace.
Benefits of Using a Mid-Drive Motor
More balanced weight distribution: Compared to hub drives (that output the same watts of power), mid-drive motors have a much lower weight and take up less space inside the bottom bracket. Also, because they are located between the front and rear wheels, the weight distribution of the bicycle’s frame is fairly even, making the bike more stable and easier to control. (Very handy for mountain bikers.)
More effective gear ratios: As a mid-drive E-bike makes use of the existing gear system of the bicycle, the motor can operate more efficiently, allowing the rider to climb steep hills and gather momentum more effortlessly when pedaling from a complete stop. I.e., the motor power of the mid-drive is well-utilized to maximize range when riding on any gear ratio.
More responsive: Thanks to torque sensors, mid-drive eBikes can detect not just your pedaling but also how much effort you are putting into each pedal stroke. As a result, it provides just the right amount of power (at the right time) to help you go further without straining yourself.
Drawbacks of Using a Mid-Drive
Puts a lot of pressure on the drive chain: Unfortunately, the mid-drive motor can stress out your bicycle chain, and since a bicycle chain has more points of failure, it can easily snap at the wrong place and at the wrong time. Therefore, I recommend carrying an extra bicycle chain (one built specifically for mid-drive motors) and being mindful when changing gears; don’t shift when you’re pedaling and while the motor is engaged.
Difficult to switch gears: In most mid-drive e-bikes, you can’t shift gears when the bicycle is stationary; hence, you need to stop pedaling but still keep moving to shift gears successfully. So if you come to a stop but forget to downshift, you will have to pedal harder with the top gear ratio. (And gain some momentum before you can downshift again.)
Difficult to repair and replace: Since there are a lot of moving parts involved, mid-drive motors require constant maintenance. Repairing or replacing a mid-drive motor is way more expensive since mid-drive motors require special tools owing to their complex construction.
When deciding on a mid-drive VS hub drive motor, you have to consider factors such as the upfront costs, maintenance costs, performance under different conditions, and how efficiently it works with the battery.
Although mid-drives may look like the best option overall, it requires a lot of maintenance and upfront costs; hence for many casual cyclists and commuters, hub drives are still the better option.
Andrew Strider is an electric bike enthusiast. He currently owns 5 electric bikes and is an active member of his local electric bike club where he is able to test many other models/brands a few times a month.
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