An Electric Adventure!

by
October 19, 2016

Originally published in issue 98 of Singletrack Magazine. 

Ebikes and Ebike technology has moved on quite a bit since these bikes hit the trails. New bikes are lighter, look more like ‘regular’ mountain bikes and ride better too! Still these early bikes were already proving to be very promising!

Words by Chipps, Jenn and Mark. Pictures by James Vincent.

E-bikes are a polarising issue to say the least. Subscribers have left us for merely acknowledging their existence. There’s a palpable hatred directed towards e-bikes from some quarters rarely seen outside pub rants about new standards. Labels are tossed around – ‘engines’ and ‘motorbikes’. Issues are discussed, like ruined trails and what trail centres will do about them. The fear is great and the anger is quite clearly strong. In fact, there are magazines that have taken an editorial position to shun them completely, on the grounds that they are hateful things. That’s not us. That’s not Singletrack.

The thing with technology is that it only ever moves in one direction. What gets invented can never be un-invented. As soon as someone put an electric motor on a bike, the deed was done and the seed was sown. There’s no going back. Technology appears and makes grand claims and then there’s a backlash of opinion from those who think things were just fine as they were, and yet technology marches on; people adapt, whether they like it or not. And the world keeps turning. E-bikes are here. They are being bought in their thousands, week in and week out, all over the world. Last year’s Eurobike was almost half e-bikes and half everything else. This is a movement that is not just starting: it’s already up to an unstoppable speed and nothing we, or you, can do is going to make any difference at all.

electric adventure
Ebikes till need some effort to get up to the top.

The only thing any of us can really do is try them and then if we decide to rant about how evil or not they are, we can do so from a position of knowledge. We could bury our heads in the sand and just carry on as normal but when we eventually come up for air, e-bikes will still be there and there will be a lot more of them. So, we’ve been riding electric bikes. Not just any old e-bikes but off-road ready, electric mountain bikes complete with full suspension, dropper posts, fat tyres and huge batteries.

Advertisement

electric adventure
Even with 4-inch tyres, this Efatty rolls along nicely!

Facts and figures.

Let’s clear one thing up right now. These bikes are not motorbikes and they don’t have ‘engines’. They have an electric motor that adds to the power that you put in yourself. They are ‘pedal assist’ and you have to pedal them. Not just a tiny bit, but quite a lot. You get out of breath and your pulse increases as you push the pedals. All of the models here work in that way. In the same way that every European, legally approved, pedal assist e-bike works. If you don’t put the effort into pedalling the bike, then the bike doesn’t go – just like a bike with no electric motor. If you decide to run the system in the most powerful setting and put in the minimum of effort yourself, then you won’t get very far. If you work harder, then the motor will assist you and you will go further – much further than you would otherwise have been able to go for exactly the same effort on a non-motorised bike. You will go faster uphill but not down. You don’t get a free ride; you’re still riding a bike.

“It’s heavy. It spoils the feel of the trail. It’s not ‘pure’, it’s cheating. It has no place on a modern mountain bike.”

Those criticisms were first levelled, not at e-bikes, but at bicycle suspension when it first came out. There was a fear, back in the early ’90s, that suspension forks and rear suspension would remove the feel of riding on a trail; would turn everyone into mindless speed demons and add needless weight to a mountain bike that was already ‘perfect’. Well, we’ve seen how that all turned out and most of us now wouldn’t be without our suspension forks, rear suspension and other modern riding aids.
We invite you to read on with the same open mind we tried to keep when these e-bikes arrived at the office.

electric adventure
With superhuman battery power the race was on!

On the hill.

When test bikes arrive at the Singletrack office, they’re normally on the receiving end of a few short’n’fast test rides before they make it out into the wilderness. In the case of two of our three test e-bikes, that handful of rides turned into several weeks of out-and-out thrashing, as curious staff and passers-by were sucked into the electrical allure one by one.

Advertisement

So when the time comes to take our mini-fleet into the hills, we start the ride with even more car park faffing than usual. As well as the normal ‘who fits what bike best’ switcheroo, there’s the small matter of the Haibike Fat Six’s crank case and motor, which seems to be trying to work its way free of the bike. Although we’re all reasonably competent mechanics well versed in the art of the car park fix, we can’t find an obvious way of reattaching what has come loose – not helped by the fact that we can’t actually find what’s loose in the first place. That’s new technology for you, though – it’s never the bolt you think it is…

Advertisement

electric adventure
There’s a small learning curve to E-bikes.

Eventually we’re on our way, having done the best we can to at least reassure ourselves that none of the bikes are going to fall apart, even if we haven’t managed to stop the rattling. Unfortunately the e-bike we attempted to source for photographer James hasn’t arrived as expected, so he’s on his own Yeti, which is decked out nicely in several grand’s worth of kit, but still entirely man-powered. Unsurprisingly he’s already bringing up the rear by the time we leave the road, despite sporting the legs and demeanour of someone who spends much of their time slogging up and down hills in the Lake District, i.e. clearly much fitter than any of us. Chipps takes pity on him and swaps bikes for the first climb. Meanwhile Mark is revelling in Turbo mode, while Jenn gets to grips with the bizarre quandary of e-bikes actually being just as arduous to ride as normal bikes, if that’s how you choose to ride them…

We’ve chosen the Howgills as our test track for the day simply because it features exactly the kind of terrain we’re concerned e-bikes might not do well on: long and unrelentingly steep climbs, in a committing situation, where there are definitely no options for mid-ride recharging. With the epic singletrack descent of Bowderdale as our target, we slog our way over the flank of Brant Fell towards the first of many false summits – and it is still a slog, despite our electric assistance. E-bikes don’t offer a free ride; when you stop pedalling, the motor cuts out, and they are heavy, so if you’re not pedalling, then you’re left pushing 50lbs or so of metal, plastic and rubber uphill under your own steam.

electric adventure
Nope the battery isn’t flat, a lack of traction on this super steep climb is the issue.

Dicking about.

As the ride progresses, it becomes apparent that there are a couple of different approaches to riding an e-bike. Chipps and Jenn are both being fairly conservative with their battery power, opting to run in Eco and Tour modes, with the occasional burst of Sport and Turbo to get them up the steepest sections (and some of this climb is very steep indeed). Mark is rather more gung-ho, charging ahead in Turbo mode and clearly revelling in the superhero oomph it gives him as he makes a solid attempt at getting the fat bike up the unclimbable ramp up to Calders. With the extra grip of the 4in tyres, he almost makes it too. The rest of us watch from below as we begin the long trudge upwards – you still need traction to use your power and we’ve run out, so are reduced to pushing (though funnily enough James is not so keen to swap bikes with Chipps now…).

The slog also provides timely proof that you’re not going to be taking one of these e-bikes on a ride where any proportion of portage is required; a fact confirmed by James, who nearly slips a disc attempting to assume the position…

electric adventure
A short breather before the descent.

On the summit we pause to regroup, scarfing down pies at a rate that is definite proof of the fact that we have had to put in a fair amount of our own energy to get here. There are already some tired legs, and after swapping notes on our various levels of remaining battery charge and available range (all handily available on the bikes’ control units), we abandon our plan to ride the whole 40km loop in favour of a quick scoot into Bowderdale to test the singletrack ability of the e-bikes, before returning the way we’ve come.

electric adventure
The look on Mark’s face says it all!

The electric learning curve.

The descent into Bowderdale is – not to put too fine a point on it – a corker. A flat-out blast from the trig point along the well-made and undulating path is a misleading beginning; the character changes in seconds as the trail drops over the edge of the hill and into a loose and rocky, steep rut-fest. Once again Mark and the Fat Six are charging ahead, despite its tyres barely fitting into some of the ruts; the batteries get a breather as gravity takes hold and we wrestle the unwieldy weights and tall bottom brackets of the e-bikes down the hill.

There’s no denying the fact that these don’t ride like ‘normal’ mountain bikes. They’re heavier, longer and taller than the bikes we’d normally be riding in these sort of conditions; deft and flickable, they are not. But they’re not as weird to ride on technical trails as you might expect them to be; surprisingly, it’s mostly just like riding a heavy ‘normal’ mountain bike, with the requisite adjustment period to the different weight shifts and exaggerated body English that entails.

We get another pleasant surprise when the time comes to turn around and retrace our steps. Climbing back up the way we’ve come, scattering rocks to left and right, we discover that steep and technical climbs we would definitely be walking up without battery assistance have become hilarious fun. There’s nearly no limit to what we can scrabble our way up, although grip is a bit of an issue – on wet and slippery sections, trying to put the extra power through the rear wheel at high torque means we find ourselves often slipping out. A conscious effort to use a higher gear than we’d normally select is the answer – again, just something which takes getting used to.

We wind up our adventure with a last Turbo blast along the tops. Of all three bikes, Mark is the lowest on battery – with just one mile on Eco mode remaining in the tank, he’s judged his day out to perfection. Chipps and Jenn have fared better thanks to their gingerly treatment of the controls, with six or so miles range left – though that still wouldn’t have been enough to get them through the full day’s riding. After a bit of creative thinking though, the answer becomes clear: although 13 amp sockets are in somewhat short supply out on the fells, we can take the charger units with us and stop for a leisurely lunch while topping up the juice levels at a friendly pub, mid-loop. So the scene is set for our next electric adventure – now all we have to do is find a bike for the photographer…

electric adventure
So are Ebikes the future of mountain biking?

The future now.

Having a trio of electric bikes in the office has been an interesting experience. And a very surprising one. For a start, there’s a lot of curiosity about them. Despite the beautiful diversity of test bikes we get in, the comedically burly Haibike Fat Six has probably been our most booked-out test bike ever.

We’ve taken the bikes with us on trips as disruptors. We’ve lent them out to people that we reckon needed a go on them, whether they knew it or not. One rider got to borrow a bike for our Monday night ride and his enthusiasm at the end was infectious. He’s a big lad, loves bikes but doesn’t get time to ride enough to keep up with the skinny waifs we sometimes ride with. “I got to open a gate!” he beamed. “I’ve NEVER opened a gate on a mountain bike ride before… I’ve never ridden at the front of a ride before.” Another rider enjoyed seeing her fit friends out of breath on a climb. Usually they’re fully recovered and ready to move on by the time she catches up with them; she can finally ride with them, rather than behind them.

Advertisement

electric adventure
Still juice left in both bike and rider!

It’s novel experiences like that that have made us open our minds to the potential of e-bikes. While the detractors and the fearful are scared that e-bikes will enable fast riders to go faster, our experience is that it allows slightly slower riders to keep up.

Michael Kelley, the co-founder of IMBA, the US mountain bike advocacy association, spoke at a Bosch e-bike presentation at this year’s Sea Otter. He told the gathered audience that he loves mountain biking but that now, at the age of 72, he was always so far off the back that it was no longer any fun. But now he has an e-bike, he can go riding with his son, and his grandson, just riding mountain bikes in the hills – and he can keep up, and be part of a ride. IMBA itself is still working out what its stance is going to be on e-mountain bikes, but that’s partly because, in the US, there’s different legislation; full-electric, twist grip bikes are possible, and legal, whereas in the UK we have a very finite definition of a 250W motor, pedal assist and a maximum speed of 25km/h.

electric adventure
Remember an Ebike isn’t an Electric Motorbike.

With time and the incessant march of technology, batteries will only become smaller, motors more efficient and both will become more affordable. If the temptation can be resisted to increase the maximum speed limits and the focus is kept on making the existing bikes lighter and more efficient, then we’re only going to see more e-bikes on the trails. Assuming that they’re always going to be more expensive than ‘normal’ mountain bikes, they’re unlikely to be bought by the cheap-thrill brigade and more by the ‘love mountain biking but can’t keep up’ riders – whether it’s age, illness, or even just not-enough-time-to-keep-fit that means they can’t keep up on a normal bike.

The electric mountain bike has great future potential. And while it’s probably not for you and me at the moment, one day, it just might be.

Haibike Fat Six

 

electric adventure
The future of fat bikes?
  • Price: £3,900.00
  • Weight: 50.5lb
  • Motor: Bosch Midmount Performance 36 Volt, 250 Watt
  • Battery: Lithium ion 400Wh PowerPack 36
  • Fork: RockShox Bluto 100mm
  • Shock: n/a
  • Drivetrain: Shimano Deore XT
  • Brakes: Shimano Deore XT
  • Wheels: Alex 26in fat, Formula hubs
electric adventure
Display shows all the important Ebike data.

Haibike XDURO ALLMTN RX

electric adventure
Haibike’s Enduro Ebike
  • Price: £4,400.00
  • Weight: 49.5lb
  • Motor: Bosch Midmount Performance 36 Volt, 250 Watt
  • Battery: Lithium ion 400Wh
  • Fork: Fox CTD LV 200mm
  • Shock: Fox 32 Talas CTD 120-150mm
  • Drivetrain: Shimano Deore XT
  • Brakes: Shimano Deore XT
  • Wheels: 26in DT Swiss 533d rims, XLC EVO hubs
electric adventure
Bosch motor sits below a very normal looking suspension design.

Scott

electric adventure
Scott has taken a different approach.
  • Price: £3,700.00
  • Weight: 46.5lb
  • Motor: Bosch Performance 250w System
  • Battery: Lithium ion 400Wh
  • Fork: Fox 32 Float Evolution CTD 120mm
  • Shock: Fox NUDE/Scott custom CTD
  • Drivetrain: Shimano Deore XT
  • Brakes: Shimano Deore
  • Wheels: Syncros X37 27.5in rims, Shimano Deore hubs
electric adventure
Bosch motors are proving to be a popular choice.
Premier Partners

Categorised as:

Premier throwback thursday