Possibly the most polarising invention ever to hit the mountain bike world, the Ebike doesn’t look to be disappearing from bikes shops any time soon. While many might hope that if we ignore them they’ll go away, sales figures and the number of new bikes being brought to market suggests that there’s a demand there. So who exactly is buying them, and why?
The first reaction many have is that Ebikes are for beginners. They’re for people who are too unfit to get up hills, for women who can’t keep up with their husbands, or for holiday makers to hire on their annual holiday trip to the trail centre. But do their ride characteristics really suit beginners? And what are they actually like to ride? Hannah gives some thought to the possible target markets, and whether they really do suit these groups.
The Ride – The Not So Good
So what is an Ebike like to ride? Well, it’s going to depend a lot on the bike, because it’s not just the overall weight, but also the distribution of that weight that’s going to affect the handling. Any mistake can be that little bit trickier to recover, since there’s a lot of momentum in that weight. You’re also likely to be carrying a fair bit of speed. Without very much effort you can easily be cruising along at 30kph, so if you do crash, prepare to land with a bump. And hope that heavy bike doesn’t hit you.
That said, the motor only works while you’re pedalling. Stop pedalling, and there’s a slightly disconcerting disproportionate loss of speed. So, approaching an obstacle, you stop pedalling to keep your pedals level and avoid a rock strike, only to find yourself slowing down in a step, rather than a gentle curve…you need to get used to this to avoid losing balance as you slow rapidly at a tricky section.
This also presents as an issue when riding corners on flat terrain. Conventional wisdom suggests that you should drop your outside foot down and coast through a turn, but you can’t really do that with an Ebike that decelerates as soon as you stop pedalling. Consequently, Ebikes encourage you to pedal through corners to maintain your momentum. That isn’t ideal from a traction perspective, and it certainly isn’t ideal if there are low-lying rocks embedded in those corners that are likely to catch your pedals.
Conversely, on a descent, you’re not pedalling and the motor is idle. Until that is you pedal a half turn to perhaps swap leading legs, or get your outer foot down on a bend. Depending on how much you’ve turned the pedal and how sensitive your model of motor is, you can get a surprise burst of speed – not necessarily what you want on a technical descent. Ideally, you want to teach yourself to pedal backwards at such points, but that’s easier said than done.
The Ride – The Good Stuff
Hills. Technical climbs. Ha! No longer are these lung bursting instruments of torture, but instead they’re pleasure cruises on the way to the fun land of descents. Select an easy gear, engage max assist, and spin. If this doesn’t appeal to you then maybe you need to join the pain cave worshipping Lycra gang on your turbo trainer. With a good quality Ebike you can session your favourite descents without the need for an uplift or a new pair of legs.
Cruising along rolling trails with only a moderate level of assist is also pretty pleasurable. You can cruise along off road, eating up miles that might normally only be achieved on the road, or through the exuding of much sweat. Sit up, take in the scenery, hold a conversation, and enjoy the fact you’re shifting along without burying yourself.
Any mountain biker understands the importance of momentum, and an Ebike delivers momentum in spades. If you’ve got a full suspension Ebike with decently wide or even plus-size tyres, you’ll discover a new found ability to glide over bigger rocks and obstacles that would normally hook you up on a non-motorised bike. That either means you can ride new trails that you’ve never been able to tackle comfortably before, or you can ride existing tech-trails with greater ease and less fatigue.
So, on to the potential users. With the above ride characteristics in consideration, how well do Ebikes really suit different target markets?
So let’s start with unfit people. I think this is probably a fair shout: you’re still getting exercise, but through increased use of the motor on climbs you can get up and over stuff without hitting your maximum heart rate. As you get fitter (and if you keep at it, you will – Ebiking is not a passive activity) you can use the motor less, and continue to increase your fitness. With global obesity rates rising, I’m inclined to think that any activity is to be encouraged. For this category of potential user I can’t think of why Ebikes wouldn’t be a good thing, providing they stick to trails within their handling capabilities.
Well, I fear this is an example of gender stereotyping, and that there’s plenty of women who could keep up with their husbands if they wanted to. I suspect that the barriers to participation are a little more complex than a concern about keeping up. But again, if there’s a cohort of women that feel that an Ebike is going to make the difference between them riding a bike and not, I’m prepared to swallow my misgivings about this marketing angle in the name of Exercise Is Always Good (EIAG).
As a specific example to draw from within our own office, our latest staff member, Wil, has experienced the merits of Ebikes first hand after his wife purchased one last year. With the help of a 250W pedal-assist motor, they’re now able to ride together. Previously Suzie wouldn’t have ever entertained the idea, and she was highly intimidated by riding steep or long hills. Since getting an Ebike, she’s now able to ride a lot more, and in her words, cycling is now a fun activity. Tying back to my previous point, Suzie has also improved her fitness significantly, despite many Ebike critics suggesting the opposite.
Bike Hire for Beginners
Now here, I’m divided. Yes, the EIAG argument is valid, but I think certain caveats are needed. Firstly, if you’re intending to tackle a gentle cross country double track with rolling hills and a picnic type trip, then go for it. The same goes for a pootle round the blue route at a trail centre. However, head towards the more technical trails I’m not convinced an Ebike is the best option. Yes, you can cruise up the ups with relative ease, however what goes up must come down – and even a very high end Ebike is going to prove harder to handle than a normal bike.
The weight distribution on most Ebikes means that they’re not as easy to handle as, for example, a full-sus plus bike. The weight itself means that if you get something wrong, it is generally harder to recover the position – there’s a lot of momentum in that weight and – particularly for lighter people (women maybe?) an Ebike is, in my opinion, more likely to go once it’s going. And once it’s gone, that weight is going to hurt if it catches you. So, while the ‘point and shoot’ of an Ebike – especially the plus tyres options – might have its appeal to beginners less good at picking a line on a climb, I suspect there’s a risk that getting up that tough climb might just put day trippers at the top of something they’re going to struggle to get down.
The Ageing Rider
So you’re getting on, your riding buddies are waiting for you at the top of every climb and you feel like you’re holding them back. An Ebike might seem like a good solution to this problem, and I’m inclined to agree. If you’re an experienced rider, you can probably handle the peculiarities associated with weight and weight distribution, although the consequences if you do get it wrong may be exacerbated by a heavy bike landing on your aging bones.
But then again, you’ve probably already accepted the risk of crashing and breaking a hip when you’re riding a standard bike, so the risks are not so different. On balance, EIAG probably applies again, and by keeping active and in touch with friends you’ll be doing yourself, your family, social services and the NHS a huge favour. I suspect there’s a good argument for being able to get an Ebike on prescription.
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The Injured Rider
If you’re a keen rider, enforced time off the bike through injury can be pretty tortuous. The higher cadence lower power riding style of an Ebike can suit people recovering from certain types of injuries. There’s no need to put a lot of force through tender joint and bones on big climbs – just boost the assist and go. But don’t get too carried away – you don’t want to be falling off at speed and injuring yourself again. For the recovering rider, an Ebike might prove a head saver, but it’s a big expenditure for what is (hopefully) a short period of use.
The Practical Rider
Maybe you’re a photographer who wants to get ahead of the group despite carrying a massive pile of camera kit? Maybe you’re a racer who wants to get a look at the course, but not tire your legs out for the main event? Maybe you live up a big hill but want to ditch the car for the commute to work? An Ebike will help you do all these things.
Arguably the racer who has the funds to have an Ebike and a race bike has an unfair advantage over those that don’t, but there’s always someone with lighter, faster, better kit in the arms race of racing. Other than that, I can’t think of a single reason why people in this group wouldn’t benefit from a Ebike.
One of the most interesting recent examples of the practicality of an Ebike comes from the partnership between German bike manufacturer Cube and the Enduro World Series (EWS). For the 2016 EWS race season, accredited media representatives have been offered a Cube long-travel Ebike for getting around the racecourse. Given how remote some of the stages can be at an EWS race, having motorised assistance for journalists and photographers makes a lot of sense.
Well, why not? You’ve got a hardtail, a 140mm travel bike (aluminum), a 140mm travel bike (carbon), a titanium bike, a retro bike, a plus bike, a race bike, a road bike, a cross bike, and one that you’ve not quite got round to selling but maybe one day you will…No one will notice another, right?
During heated online forum debates, Ebike haters often suggest that E-curious riders should just bite the bullet and buy a motorbike instead. While that’s certainly an option, an Ebike has a lot of advantages over a petrol-powered motorbike. For a start, they’re a lot lighter and a lot easier to handle for those who are used to riding a mountain bike. They’re also significantly quieter, and you won’t have to worry about dirty exhaust fumes and tearing up trails. Oh, and no need to go out and buy a motorbike helmet, boots, armour, gloves, jackets…
So, what do you reckon, the work of the devil or something that might find its way into your shed?