by Marc Basiliere
February 4, 2014
Is this the future of mountain biking?
With their flashy graphics, angular silhouettes, aggressive component choices, and 120-180mm of travel, Haibike had some of the most eye-catching bikes at last month’s Winter Bike PressCamp. But it wasn’t the colours that had attendees talking; it was the motors. Built around 250W Bosch electric drive systems (350W in the US), the bikes’ drivetrains amplify the rider’s pedaling input by 50-275%, making short work of uphills.
With their jackshaft-enhanced four-bar suspension design and travel-appropriate component spec, the Pro-level Haibike models on show certainly looked the part. The NDURO Pro shown here has a lustworthy SRAM XX1 drivetrain, Fox 36 Talas fork and Float X shock, and Mavic Crossmax Enduro wheelset. Given that a motor and battery are thrown in, the £6,000/$8,600 price almost seems reasonable.
But who are they for?
The president of US distributor Currie Technologies, Larry Pizzi, was adamant that adding a motor to a bike does not a motorbike make. The company sees e-bikes as a way for mountain bikers to share the sport they love with those who, for reasons of age, illness, or lack of time, cannot currently participate in the sport. From his perspective, e-bikes give those riders the boost they need to join us on the trails.
But are 5-8in motorised full-sussers really being targeted at the aged and infirm?
While e-bikes up to a certain output are in many places lumped in with bicycles in terms of (lack of) licensing, on the trail things are a bit fuzzier. Though e-bike output and speeds are capped in both Europe and the US, given the electronics and mountain bike communities’ propensity for tinkering there’s little reason to think that factory limits will stand. After all, here in the States it’s difficult to find a motorbike with its factory emissions or noise controls in place. Given the challenges in gaining and maintaining trail access, an informal poll of attendees found many conflicted about (or outright hostile to) the idea of e-bikes on non-motorised trails.
IMBA, for its part, has issued a position paper drawing a firm line between muscle-powered and motorised vehicles, with e-bikes on the motorised side. The organisation only supports “the use of e-Bikes anywhere that [it] could also support other motorised uses.” In the UK, e-bikes limited to 250W and 15mph (such as those shown by Haibike) are currently legal on those public rights of way open to bicycles.
The people bringing e-bikes to market seem truly to believe that their efforts will introduce more riders to the sport while extending existing riders’ careers. During our discussion with Pizzi, we found our impulse to limit e-bikes to motorised trails in the uncomfortable position of being portrayed as exclusionary and elitist. His position was that that mountain biking would only benefit from broadening its self-image and broadening its user base.
While there may well be a ‘we were here first’ aspect to many mountain bikers’ negative reactions and a desire to defend the physical aspects of the sport, the discomfort among PressCamp attendees to calling anything with a motor of any type or output a “bicycle” suggests that off-road e-bikes will likely not be met with open arms.
While the debate is likely to continue for some time, from a technical perspective the Haibike range is impressive. Some narrow bars aside, the e-models ride well and seem well suited to their intended use. After all, it’s hard not to enjoy the feeling of having one’s effort multiplied by nearly a factor of four and the low positioning of the weighty Bosch battery and motor assemblies does wonders for the e-bikes’ handling.
But we found ourselves asking: are e-bikes a gateway drug for mountain biking or for motorbiking?