How Far Can You Go? A myth busting e-MTB adventure

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In association with Canyon Bikes UK

This is not how I imagined it. I’m pedalling hard, e-assist off, into a rain-bearing headwind, downhill. Not pedalling downhill in a full-enduro race-face way, but in a the-wind-is-blowing-me-up-the-hill kind of way. And my face is more of a ‘lips pursed against the spray of rain and sheep shit’ face than a race one. No, this is definitely not how I imagined it.

WTF happened to summer?

Planning this ride at the start of the May heatwave, I’d envisaged a big day out in the sunshine. Mark and I would chat our way up the hills, admiring the scenery, maybe flapping away an occasional fly in the still, warm, air. We’d stop for lunch, and maybe a couple of refreshing half beers, and probably an ice cream. We’d get sunburn in silly patches, and we might have a sweat rash somewhere by the time we got back to the office, bike batteries depleted, but souls recharged.

Headwind riders’ own

This was to be a long ride. A challenge for the batteries of the Canyon Spectral:On bikes we’d be riding – though not necessarily for the rest of the 150mm travel trail machines. I got out my map and highlighted all my favourite descents, and then all my least favourite climbs. Next I did my best to string them all together into a saw toothed route of gratuitous climbs and rapid descents, with a few local eating and drinking gems thrown in. The result was a possible 88km with just over 3,000m of climbing, although that did contain a ‘bonus 10km’ for if we’d not emptied our batteries by the 78km mark. While the numbers were big, the technicality was fairly low – nothing a cross country whippet with a good pair of legs couldn’t handle, although maybe not all in one ride. But there would be plenty of views, a variety of trails, and hardly any tarmac. What’s not to like about that?

LoFi navigation aid. Never needs charging.

Through May and most of June, the sun shone and the trails dried out. Even once the initial heatwave was over, the weather stayed fine and Mark and I looked forward to our Big Day Out. Well, mostly we looked forward to it. There were a few concerns – like the fact that neither of us had spent a lot of time on a saddle for some time. And that Jack, from Canyon, who would be bringing the bikes, would be joining us, is rather handy. In fact, we did contemplate getting Jack to ride something fast, light and cross country – but not e-assisted. But hey, we would have the battery power of a Shimano Steps system to help us keep up with him, so really, what did we have to worry about except for the well-being of our derrieres?

Climb 1 = Jelly Baby stop

Shorts chosen with care, chamois cream deployed, jelly babies stashed. We lined up to start our ride. Immediately it was clear that the day wasn’t going to go quite to plan. I had a cold, and there was an hour or so of rain forecast, and the bikes were indicating a range of 77km, So that was the bonus 10km off the cards then. But the rain was warm, and only an hour of it was forecast. So off we pedalled, with jackets on, because riding an e-bike, you never quite generate as much heat.

Halfway up the first climb we stopped to remove our jackets.

With such a big day ahead, we were riding in Eco mode, conserving as much battery power as possible. So instead of slamming it into boost mode and cruising effortlessly up the hill, Mark and I were experiencing something close to being Lance Armstrong. Our hearts were pumping as we pedalled our way up the hill; but a high cadence with a helping hand from the motor gave us that sustainable super-human feeling of actually getting somewhere for our efforts. Or maybe I just had a temperature?

Reaching the top, the wind and rain stepped things up a notch. We put jackets back on, and swooped off down the classic packhorse descent in the direction of what looked to be sunny breaks in the cloud. Indeed, we briefly rode through that sunny patch, and then straight up the other side of the valley and into more, heavier rain. Photographic opportunities thwarted, on we pedalled. And stopped for a gate. And pedalled. And stopped for a gate. Mutterings started, some jelly babies were deployed. E-bikes, with their greater weight, do make gates harder, especially when those gates are being caught by the wind and whipped out of reach just as you’re trying to waddle through the gate or balance your bike against a wall. More jelly babies. More gates. It was almost as if I’d tried to string together as many gates as possible. And it was still raining.

This is part of the Mary Towneley Loop, renowned for its gates.
Jackets in June? This can only be Calderdale.

An e-bike might make you feel like a fitter rider, but it won’t make you a better one.

Mark and I were also discovering that e-bikes are not necessarily a leveller, if the fitter and more talented rider is also on an e-bike. Jack was managing to power ahead of us, apparently without effort, on every climb – occasionally while wheelie-ing – while Mark and I struggled to keep chins on bars and tyres on the trail over slippery rocks and tricky step-ups, despite occasionally risking a spot of battery life on ‘trail’ mode. An e-bike might make you feel like a fitter rider, but it won’t make you a better one. ‘We’re down to four bars!’ squawked Mark and I at the same time. ‘I’ve still got full power’ said Jack. Mark and I exchanged grunts.

Climbs for the sake of them aren’t quite so much fun in the driving rain, when there’s no scenery to look at, and anyway your glasses are covered in spray and you can’t see anyway. But my legs didn’t feel so terrible as I had feared, and I was pretty sure I was feeling perkier than Mark, who was beginning to look a bit wide eyed. Pausing before another climb, he mentioned he’d not had breakfast. I sought out a posh fruit and nut based cycling nutrition bar – something that wouldn’t have looked out of place alongside a macchiato in an italian cafe somewhere. Among the verdant and lush (marketing speak for wet) greenery of the woods, we had to settle for washing it down with a swig from our mud splattered water bottles.

Wet weather and long grass – not a terrible dose of ticks.
Tiny little trolls?

Conscious that the first scheduled local eatery wasn’t until the 40km mark, we pushed on – in Eco mode – with me occasionally feeding Mark with a little something extra to keep him going. When hunger strikes, we all return to our five year old selves, unable to make rational decisions and happy to lie on the floor until someone makes things go your way. As we pedalled downhill into a headwind, the anticipated views lost in low cloud, and my e-assist switched off in order to preserve battery, I reflected that perhaps Mark might get his way. We were down to two bars (Jack had only just dropped a notch off full power), and had another climb to get in before we’d be at the 40km pie stop. We were definitely not going to be doing the 77km route, nevermind the bonus 10km.

Mid-ride Cointreau anyone? May’s shop has EVERYTHING.

Thoughts firmly on pie, we pedalled with power off – quite an acceptable experience until you hit an incline – to May’s shop. This is something of a local legend, situated on the Pennine Way, and stocking a huge array of unlikely products. ‘Tractor and Machinery’ magazine in the rack, small batch Icelandic vodka and (my favourite) blood orange gin on the shelf, and a glorious array of pie, cake and obscure fizzy drinks in the fridge. Slightly overcome by choice, we staggered about looking at the many items on the shelves while our pies were warmed. With a ping of the microwave, piping hot pies were handed over, and we stepped outside to find that blue skies were appearing, and the sun was peeking through.

The sun came out, and then things were better.

By the time we’d inhaled our pies and our fizzy drinks were hitting our bloodstream, the sun was definitely out. Jackets drying in the breeze, we debated what route to take next: we clearly weren’t going to do the whole thing, but with our bikes suggesting we still had a range of 24km (let’s not talk about what Jack still had left in the tank), Mark and I reckoned we could risk another big climb that would put us within striking distance of a roll down the hill to the office. Also, halfway up the big climb was a purveyor of ice cream, which sounded like something worth risking some battery life on.

Diet of athletes. Even Jack had a pie and Vimto.
Hannah was unimpressed with the eating action shots.

Revitalised by sun, sugar and saturated fat, we whooped wildly down a rocky trail, dappled shade blinding us to its obstacles until gulp inducing last moments. Another range check, a push of a button and a check of the odometer. Just shy of 50km done – we really wanted to break that barrier, and we looked to be in good shape for it. Onwards then, up a climb where height is gained quite startlingly, offering up a classic view over Hebden Bridge, before trees obscure the view and give way to a strip of farmland before hitting the moors.

Look! A shadow!
Happiness is a ride in the sun. Or is that Hannah wincing at nettle stings?

In this Goldilocks zone – above the dark and damp of the valley but below the moorlands’ exposure and wind – farms eke out a largely sheep-based existence. Three fat hand fed lambs poke their heads through the fence to where the grass is definitely greener. They’re quite happy to accept my offering of grass, though they also seem keen to taste the bike we’ve propped against their fence. We suspect they’re used to being fed extra bits of tasty snacks – they’re right next door to the Honesty Box. Mark’s delight at discovering its existence is obvious, and he’s straight into the freezer to choose between many different flavours of high quality ice cream within. Homemade victoria sponge cake, a kettle, herbal teas, hot chocolate, fresh free range eggs and even suncream all sit inside this shed, where passersby are trusted to leave their payment in the old safe that sits inside.

You still need to replace calories, even on an e-bike.

This is starting to feel much more like the adventure we had planned: sun, lambs, ice cream, local flavour. If we can just squeeze out two more climbs, there’s a great final descent all the way to the office. And the second climb will offer some really gorgeous views over a reservoir that’ll be reflecting the blue skies above. But first there’s this really steep section of the first climb to get over before cresting the hill and dropping to that reservoir. Almost in unison Mark and I receive warning beeps: we’re down to one bar and we’re now in ‘get home’ mode – ie restricted to Eco-mode whether we like it or not.

The Red Screen Of DOOM.

There’s about a climb and a half left…range check…4km…hmm. That’s going to be cutting it fine. We do have a spare battery, but there are two of us. In fact, at this point it would make sense to be the first to run out and bag that battery. But we’re both now in ‘get home’ mode, so there’s no option to go frivolously turbo-ing off. And we’ve got just over an hour before we need to get back (there are children who need collecting). We head off along flat moorland, agreeing that we’ll see what the range says before heading over the final section of climb that will leave us committed to one more proper climb between us and home. More beeps, and our range has dropped to 1km. Decision made, we’re heading down towards the office, pronto!

Downhill all the way home is good when you’re in the red!

We’ve made it off the hillsides and down to the canal, and we’ve still got a range of 1km. Mark and I that is – Jack reckons he could do another 25km on the canal before his battery runs out. What are his legs made of? They don’t even look that big! He’s doing wheelies again as we near the office. Mark and I are definitely not watching and hoping he might fall into the canal. Definitely not.

Under a bridge, over a spillway, under another bridge. We’re nearly back at the office. Nearly there, after more than 50km of riding. Our bums don’t even hurt – pretty impressive given the amount of sitting you do on an e-bike, we reckon there might be something in the e-bike specific saddles (with a funny lip on the back to stop you sliding back on steep climbs). Given the miles we’ve done, and almost all of it off road, our bodies don’t feel broken either – a bonus of being able to take a 150mm trail bike for such a distance with relative ease.

We made Jack play a bit to try and use up some battery.

I can almost smell the office coffee when with a thunk my e-assist drops out. Literally just a couple of hundred metres from the door, I’ve expended the final juice in my battery. Luckily the canal is flat and it’s no great shakes to pedal the final few metres under my own steam. Mark makes it all the way back, Jack still has a couple of bars – about where Mark and I were at way back at our lunchtime pies.

Jack saves battery by front endo-ing everywhere.

We’ve survived. We’re not even that broken. Tired certainly – we’ve not touched the boost setting once – but nowhere near as broken as we would have been if we’d attempted such a ride without e-assist. In just under four hours (plus pie and photo and ice cream stops. Oh, and gates) we’ve ridden 54km and done 1,567m of climbing. We’ve had a taste of being faster and fitter riders, although the experience is tempered somewhat by the presence of an actual faster and fitter rider who has perfectly demonstrated that the classic ‘how far can you go’ e-bike question doesn’t really have an answer. You get out what you put in, plus a little bit more. Maybe if we want to get that last climb and descent in – and those pub stops we didn’t quite get to – we just need to try a bit harder. Looking at what we have achieved though, we’ve managed a lot and I think we’d both admit we’re feeling pretty good about the world. And that, surely, is the point of riding bikes – whatever they are.

The grass is always greener when someone is hand feeding it to you.

Mark, Hannah & Jack were riding the Canyon Spectral:ON 8.0

Canyon Spectral:ON 8.0
  • CASSETTE// SRAM XG-899, 8S


This article was produced in association with Canyon Bikes UK


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Author Profile Picture
Hannah Dobson

Managing Editor

I came to Singletrack having decided there must be more to life than meetings. I like all bikes, but especially unusual ones. More than bikes, I like what bikes do. I think that they link people and places; that cycling creates a connection between us and our environment; bikes create communities; deliver freedom; bring joy; and improve fitness. They're environmentally friendly and create friendly environments. I try to write about all these things in the hope that others might discover the joy of bikes too.

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Comments (7)

    Great read and good stats! Nice looking e-bicycle too actually.

    Last week I borrowed a mate’s Focus Sam e-bike and I did 40 miles and a gnat under 6.5k feet of climbing with the two batteries that it had fitted.

    same as you, I kept it in Eco all the time save for a couple of cheeky uphill helps, and I really did feel fully knackered at the end!

    Good fun though but as you say, couldn’t do it on the regular bike.

    Well written Hannah, very enjoyable read.

    I’m confused! (not unusual tbh)

    Pedal assist ebikes add a proportion of extra electric power to that which your legs are making. The harder YOU pedal, the more the bike assists. So how did one member of the team use so much less ‘lecy?

    either (given that you all did the same route at i assume a similar speed, ie stayed as a group)

    1) they were using the lowest assist mode ALL the time and you guys were selecting one of the higher assistance modes

    2) They are a much lighter rider (meaning for any given speed / incline, less power is needed


    (or 3, they had a bike with a bigger battery?? <<< this is my suspicion…..)

    @maxtorque,as an e-bike owner I feel I should help explain your confusion,although my bike uses a different system (Yamaha PW) my display features a power meter and your statement is the exact reverse of what actually happens.As you pedal harder the level of assistance lessens because your cadence is measured and the assistance is tailored accordingly.

    The question I would have is how easy one of these bikes would be to lift onto a roof mounted rack or to manoeuvre into the back of an estate/hatchback? Not all of us have good riding from the door. My wife can struggle with the weight of some bikes.

    Assistance ultimately “lessens” as a ratio, because once the system has hit it’s maximum torque, it cannot add any more torque. However, as an absolute, which is what the energy storage system cares about, then consumption always increases with rider effort…. (which is the entire point of ebikes…..)

    What the “Modes” do is to modify the multiplication ratio. So in “eco” for example, for every Nm of torque the rider puts into the cranks, the motor might add 0.1Nm. In “normal” perhaps it’s 1Nm/Nm, and in “turbo” perhaps 5Nm/Nm.

    As ebikes don’t use regenerative braking, one way you can get less “range” is of course to accelerate harder and brake more!

    So does riding an e-bike in the same manner as you would drive a car to conserve petrol conserve battery power – i.e. smooth accelerations and carrying momentum rather than accelerate / brake / accelerate / brake?

    Lifting one into the back of a 4 x 4 isn’t that much harder than a normal bike. Easier if the battery is easily removable.

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