The (Electric) Shock Of The New

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The air was sludgy and oppressive, dragging at every weary crank rotation as progress dropped to a crawl.  Salt crystallised on my heavily creased brow and flies mercilessly circled, pointless to swipe and too slow to outrun. Glancing left I no longer drew strength or inspiration from the stunning vista a thousand metres below, the crystal blue waters of Lake Garda taunting me with their instant refreshment. I prayed for the heavily stickered signpost indicating the Skull DH turn-off, the reason for this excessive suffering, and a chance to recover composure before the incredible thrill ride down.

My semi-conscious sixth-sense became suddenly aware of a presence on my shoulder, the hum of rubber on melting asphalt. Turning sluggishly, I expected the ghost of Pantani to drift past, tanned and muscular, smoothly churning out the wattage on a featherweight carbon masterpiece. Instead, I recall physically swerving at the sight of the moderately obese, middle-aged woman who breezed by on what looked at a glance like a cheap shopper with a biscuit tin balanced on the down tube.  With a cheery ‘guten tag’, she was gone, and in my shock, I failed to even respond, before returning to my purgatory. I’d just been ‘e-biked’ for the first time, it wouldn’t be the last.

There were the tennis shoe adorned Italians in pristine white lycra who humiliated me on the loose ascent to an Alpine hut, their effortless style juxtaposing my sweaty grubbiness. Then the uplift avoiders in Finale Ligure, reducing hour long drags to the valley heads to twenty minute cruises, conversing happily as they ascended with barely a pedal stroke. Finally, my seventy-year-old Dad, belying a lifetime of nicotine abuse to drop me on an impossibly steep gradient, to the gathered amazement of a sizeable crowd.

mark beach ebike emtb focus jam
This is not Ian’s 70 year old dad.

E-bikes are everywhere on the continent, filling trade show footages, magazine column inches and all grades of trail. Yet here in the UK many view them with the same suspicion we reserve for David Hasselhoff’s music and the two-hour lunch break – a foreign mix of craziness and laziness. Now we’re probably right on the Hoff, but I’m intrigued as to the longevity of our parochial viewpoint on future developments of mountain biking within our shores.

We’re rightly proud of the British and Irish biking scene, in many ways a dictator of style, punching way above our weight in virtually every competitive two-wheeled discipline and home to many leading figures of the MTB world.  Yet despite successfully exporting athletes and product, in many aspects we remain rather backwards and insular, aware of developing trends but sticking our fingers in our ears, or two fingers firmly up and rejecting the inevitable until it becomes, well, inevitable.

Consider the homegrown furore over 29” wheels, a lively debate that continues to this day sparking genuine message board vitriol over something as trivial as selected rim size. Fatbikes are another example, where it seems a neutral opinion is impossible – you have to be a full convert or an outspoken hater. But e-bikes take it to another level, where raising a head above the parapet and highlighting their obvious advantages and future prospects is tantamount to social-media suicide.

Haterz gonna hate.

I’m going to put in a caveat here to protect myself: in their present guise, I have no wish to own one. Despite obvious attempts to normalise the aesthetics the majority are still ugly, afflicted with a huge down tube and clunky motor. Likewise, as an international athlete I’m still a lover of the suffering associated with ascending, I like to climb, to hurt, to train and to earn the buzz of downhills. And yet, I can feel my objections weakening. As the designers and technology inch closer to producing battery-powered bicycles that handle like purely human-powered ones, my resolve gradually dissipates.

Battery technology is rapidly improving, as is the ability to completely enclose a motor within the frame. As with drug development, the cheats were at the forefront of some cutting-edge advances, managing to disguise miniature drive systems totally undetected within only slightly modified frames. If rumours were true, then this ‘mechanical doping’ was brewing for years before the UCI decided to catch Belgian cyclocrosser Femke Van den Driessche red-handed and dish out a ban to a rider who was famous enough to fire a warning shot, but not recognisable enough to embarrass the World Governing Body.

With the Tour De France organisers subsequently making loud noises about a comprehensive testing procedure, the game is probably up for that particular strain of deception and so technology is likely to take a sideways step towards profitability and mainstream development. I can’t imagine that a decade ago the likes of Bosch were anticipating the proportion of their profits that would emanate from e-bikes but with over two million sold throughout Europe in 2016, accounting for around 30% of total bicycle sales, they’re rapidly increasing market share and are clearly here to stay.

So, returning to our back yard, when will we witness this revolution ourselves? What are my objections and what would it take to overcome them? I can honestly say that if a company produced a bike that was visually almost identical to a standard bike, with an enclosed motor capable of adding a boost that doubled climbing speed, without diminishing the effort required, then I’d be sold. If the charger plugged directly into a well-sealed port on the frame itself then even more so. I don’t think the spurious argument about trail damage holds water, these aren’t motocross bikes and if people are so worried about erosion then they should initially stop riding in the wet.

Can’t see the video? Click here.

All it takes is a few trailblazers to transform public opinion. Greg Callaghan – a rider I greatly admire and who at time of writing sits on top of the Word Enduro rankings – uses one for training, simply to maximise downhill practice time. Specialized Bikes recently produced ‘Skeptical’, an inspirational edit featuring the Coastal Crew making e-bikes jump and flow in a way the majority of us can only longingly aspire to. The opposition is gradually weakening, fuelled by a combination of functionality and capitalism.

I wholeheartedly believe that when the average rider begins to consider the obvious upsides, particularly in our time-poor society, and realises that they’re still fundamentally mountain bikes and not a sinister offshoot, then the days of the human-only powered drive train will be numbered.

Future advance is inevitable; I look forward to referring back to this article in a decade.

Comments (7)

    “then the days of the human-only powered drive train will be numbered.”

    This makes me genuinely sad! Nothing against e bikes at all happy days if that’s your choice of bike. But I hope that they are “an option” rather than “the option” if that makes any sense!

    “time poor society” wtf!!! i have an inner rage with ebikes god help the first one to pass me on the trails 🙂

    I can’t see that there’ll be any e-bikes in the Olympic XC races in this lifetime. So there’ll always be a place to beat yourself up with pure human power!

    There will be one in my future. But I’m only 65 and as long as I can drag myself and my Jekyll up the hill it won’t be just yet.

    Bloody hell, are there really so few people out there that enjoy riding UP hills on their bike that “the days of the human-only powered drive train will be numbered”?

    Meh, I’m with Dave Turner on this one.

    ebikes hold no interest to me apart from seeing them as a freakish act of satan and all of his tiny fireish imps.

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