Column: To E, Or Not To E?

October 25, 2017

We’ve all met them. Those former non-mountain bikers who have recently purchased an e-mtb and now evangelise about what fun they are having, as if those of us who ride a conventional mountain bike have never had a moment’s enjoyment on a bicycle, but instead choose to beat ourselves with misery sticks as we glumly shred our way around the trails.

‘But I enjoy putting the effort in’, I reply over a glass of crisp, dry Sauvignon Blanc and a vegetable crisp (because e-bike evangelists always seem to pop up at drinks parties – perhaps pedal assist is the new wife swapping), being only too aware that my response is falling upon smugly deaf ears.

focus jam emtb ebike
More eMTB motor systems pop up each year.

Call me old-fashioned, but I like being the fitter, stronger, faster me that has been honed by hours and hours of pedalling. I’m good at climbing. I like hills. So when Bosch offered me a Cube Sting WLS Hybrid 120 e-mtb to trial – and despite the fact that it is a £3000 120mm travel full suspension trail bike, with beefed up 148mm Boost hubs for all that faster cornering and a Bosch PowerPack 500 drive unit for long days in the saddle – I suspected that I wouldn’t really enjoy it.

Of course, I was wrong. There are lots of well-documented advantages to e-bikes, which you will, no doubt, be only too familiar with by now so I wont repeat them here. But there was one that surprised me the most: and that was the glimpse that ‘e-doping’ gives of what it would be like to be a more powerful version of myself.

You see although I can usually meet the challenge of a tough climb, I still occasionally watch the guys I ride with make technical ascents look easy while I struggle. ‘Just lift the front wheel up!’ they shout as they effortlessly pop over huge roots. Seconds later, and due to lack of momentum, I fail to lift anything and topple over sideways. For while I am as fit as the men I ride with, I am not as powerful, and nor will I ever be unless I give up my day job to spend every waking hour in the gym. I am therefore far more reliant on finely tuned technique than a rider who can muscle his way up and over things without giving a second thought to where the wheels are placed or the precise moments he needs to shift his weight.

And sometimes technique isn’t enough, as my frequently bruised left knee will testify.

rocky mountain altitude powerplay ebike emtb
Is this the thumb of a cheater?

On the e-mtb however, and with the pedal assist set to the lowest Eco setting, I discovered that I could still work super hard on the climbs – but the strength in my legs was now creating more speed, thanks to the assistance of the drive unit. In other words, I suddenly had more power.

Soon technique became an afterthought as I effortlessly rolled up and over roots, rocks and step-ups. With speed as my new best friend, lifting the front wheel was a doddle (or at least, a lot easier). I was bounding along like Marianne Vos, thoroughly enjoying finding out what it would be like to be the best version of me, or to be as naturally powerful as those guys I ride with. Frankly it is no wonder they can’t understand how I can falter.

Of course, this e-bike enabled benefit doesn’t just apply to those with willowy lady-limbs. Because most of us, women and men, will never get near our maximum fitness potential, never mind maintain it simply because life (or maybe just feeling like you can’t be arsed) has a tendency to get in the way. But for a few moments I got to glimpse what it feels like to be super fit, strong and powerful and it was amazing – even though I know I was 100% cheating.

commencal meta power ebike emtb shimano steps
The weight and bulk of ebikes are still a downside some of the time.

Clearly though, there are limits to an e-mountain bike’s versatility. Like many of us, I often put my own mountain bike in the back of the car to visit trail centres. It’s light enough for me to lift on my own, and once inside it’s nice and secure if I fancy a post-ride café visit.

Unfortunately there is no way I could do the same with an e-bike: like I say, I’m no power lifter and this bike weighs in at 21.8kg and is just too heavy for me to lift into the car. I think I’d have to build scaffolding to lift it onto a roof rack, and a platform tow-bar mounted bike rack (as recommended for e-bikes) is a pricey spend, plus the cost of fitting a tow bar.

And while we’re on the subject of weight… sadly, the novelty of tearing up hills like Barry Sheen didn’t have quite the happy ending I would have liked. Riding up a stony trail (the sorts that gets more and more steep and loose as you reach the top), the front wheel suddenly slid from beneath me. I tried to hop out of the way as the bike skidded over but my long-suffering left knee took the impact (though thankfully only via the handlebar). This got me thinking that I really wouldn’t want to come off an e-bike while descending fast down a gulley or on a sketchy berm, where you could really get clobbered beneath its considerable weight.

So yes, e-mtbs can flatter your riding ability and are a lot of fun but like any bike, they’re not fool proof. Also they could seriously do with losing a few kilos if they are ever going to be truly practical to own. Pour me another glass of Sauvignon Blanc and I’ll tell that to the evangelists.


cannondale moterra ebike emtb e-mtb bosch plus
There are a lot of eBike haters out there, but the riders they hate can get away quite fast uphill.

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