Column: To E, Or Not To E?

by Adele Mitchell 8

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.

@adelemitchell

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.

Comments (8)

  1. I’ve got a long term illness that comes and goes which often means that I am not at my best for months at a time. So I’ve recently got an eBike and it is brilliant for keeping me out on the trails when otherwise I would be sat at home on the sofa getting more and more miserable.

    I think the eBike is a great tool to get me out but I really wish I could be riding a proper bike like my Surly Wednesday… .

    I totally agree about the worry that the power available means that you don’t need to worry about technique as much as you do when you are just relying on your own power.

  2. “I totally agree about the worry that the power available means that you don’t need to worry about technique as much as you do when you are just relying on your own power.”

    Once upon a time we said the same about the skill compensation of suspension. But how many folk are riding a rigid bike today?

  3. @mtbfix
    Technology progress is brilliant, I would not want to go back to rim brakes again!

    For me, I hopefully only see my eBike as something I use when I need to. When I was out on the weekend there were a few occasions when I relied on the eBike to get me over obsticals, climbs and even to make up for poor gear selection. I think it’s making me a lazy rider more than just the obvoius not needing to pedal as hard. I fear that I’m go8n* to be in for a big shock when going back to a normal bike!

  4. Having nearly got to my biblical three score and ten, I am envisaging the day, very soon when I have to buy an e-bike just to get up my local hills. This is going to be hard because I have made many STWish remarks about ‘cheat bikes’ which I am fairly sure will be repeated back to me by my so-called friends.
    What does surprise me is the number of much younger people on Es. Obviously it is extending the appeal of mtbing but whether this is a good thing for the long term future of the sport, I really don’t know. Now I am off to flick through catalogues on line to assess the best value FS e-bike!

  5. I have not ridden an e-bike. I get annoyed when they breeze past me on road climbs, but…… The Alps are the answer. For 8-12 weeks a year the ski lifts open for bikes and you can plummet to your heart’s content. But for the rest of the year, well we are talking two hour’s of climbing for a 10 minute descent aren’t we. Now recent E Mtb’s are talking about having the ability to cover 4000m of vertical on a single charge on their lowest setting. That means being able to knock out 4 climbs (still putting in the sweat and tears) before lunch, and then changing the battering and doing another 4 climbs and descents in the afternoon. Now that is cool. Now lets consider how many resorts it would open up to riding in summer and the economic benefit that would confer of a 4 season destination not held hostage the the costs (fiscal and environmental) of running ski lifts?
    I Like to earn my turns (I’m half roadie after all), but I really think they might be an answer to opening up the mountains to more riders in more locations. I don’t even really mind being smoked by one at my local trail centre, provided the rider smoking the smokee is honest about it.

  6. @FOG – this summer I was out on the Pennine Bridleway with a friend. A guy on an ebike caught up with us at a gate; it turned out he was 75 years old and said it was the best thing he’d ever bought. At 70, he’d resigned himself to no longer climbing the steeper hills round here. The ebike got him back on trails he’d previously ridden for decades, and had been very sad to give up.

  7. You forgot to mention that those vehicles are quite cumbersome. Nothing for an active and playful riding style.

  8. Ebikes don’t belong on trails built before ebikes came along. I’ve spent many weekends helping maintain and build trails and we don’t need more riders out here. If you can’t ride a mountain bike, don’t show up. Many multiuse trails in the US prohibit ebikes yet the manufacturers and this magazine don’t mention it. It’s disgusting to me that ebikes will be the new thing because manufacturers have decided it shall be so. Ad revenue (I’m looking at you, Singletrack) should not dictate our future.

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