Chipps infiltrates the underground world of electric-bike-only riding weekends to discover the secret customs and handshakes of this growing mountain bike world.
Words & Photography Chipps
When you have a ‘special’ hobby, whether it be radio control cars, jigsaws or a rubber fetish, you’re always aware that non-participants don’t really understand what it is you do, let alone why. So you always feel like you need to explain before they ask, or you shy away from saying anything at all.
However, when you’re in a space with fellow-enthusiasts – at the RC car club or the rubber dungeon, you don’t need to explain anything. Everyone is there for the same reason and everyone has had similar experiences to get there. When you’re there, you can just relax and get on with enjoying yourself and your hobby.
And so it is with e-bikes. Despite the crushing tsunami of inevitability, many ‘normal’ riders are wary of them. Many mountain bikers think that e-bikes are cheating, or ‘not real mountain biking’ and are only acceptable if the rider has a visible disability and has exhausted every other avenue of cycling.
E-bikers are aware of this stigma and it’s common for them to pre-empt that cynicism with their excuse or reasoning even before they offer their name. “Hi, I’ve only got one lung! My name’s Bob…” Even on my local trails, I came across a ‘dad and lad’ pairing going the other way. In the half-second that it took us to pass each other, the old boy, in response to my cheery greeting, offered: “You still have to pedal them, you know?”
An electric dawn.
It’s all changing though and the number of unapologetic e-bike riders is growing. In fact, it’s the quickest-growing segment of our sport. E-bikes are popping up on Monday night trail rides, in events (where they’re permitted), under training enduro racers, and spotted four abreast leaning against the local carvery beer garden hedge after a solid Sunday morning of trail riding. For the moment, though, it’s still something that attracts a double take and a shared look among those on ‘acoustic’ pushbikes.
Phill Stasiw (say ‘Sta-zhew’ – it’s Welsh-Ukranian) the chief guide at mtb.wales has had e-bike riders appear on his regular long-weekend trips around the Elan Valley or on the Trans-Cambrian ride for a few years now. Sometimes it’s the less-fit friend, parent or partner, but sometimes it’s just an e-bike-only rider.
Electrically assisted bikes aren’t going to go away, so Phill thought that he’d try an e-bikes-only Elan Valley weekend and see what happened. He didn’t really have any notions about what might happen and many guests were first-time visitors. Given the uncertainty (and the potential for disaster, I love a good disaster), I invited myself along to document the weekend. As it turned out, I wasn’t the only uninvited guest – it seemed that Storm Gareth would be joining us for the weekend, bringing heavy rain, hail and 50mph winds.
As expected, on the first evening, banter was free of the ‘Why e-bikes?’ question and we soon all settled into our fine self-catering accommodation at Glyndwr House in Rhayader. Over the big dinner table, everyone got on with finding out where the other dozen riders came from, where they rode and what bikes they had. And eating food and drinking beer – the essential start to any good mountain bike weekend.
Phill explained the first day’s route – a deliberately longer and harder version of where he’d normally take clients. There’d be the chance of a quick recharge at lunchtime, but the idea for the day was to finish the ride with just enough power left and cruise in on electrical fumes. The weather was due to make things challenging too, with strong winds and lots of rain – perhaps turning to snow on Saturday night.
Given that Phill had met very few of the weekend’s clients before, he really didn’t know what to expect in terms of rider age, fitness or skill level. The only requirements for the weekend had been to own an e-bike and to be up for a challenging weekend of riding in the Welsh hills. The mix of people was interesting. In general I’d reckon we spanned the whole of the modern interpretation of ‘middle-aged’ with the dad and lad combo of Wayne and Ian bookending the mix. Bikes were mostly full suspension: a couple of Giants, a few Specialized Levos, a Focus Jam2, an Orbea and a solitary Trek hardtail. Meanwhile, I was on a brand new Canyon Neuron:ON and guide Phill was on his Orange Alpine-E. The riders had come from nearly all over to this corner of mid-Wales – from the West Country, the Midlands and the South Coast. No one from Scotland or anyone (else) from the North of England. Perhaps there are fewer e-riders there? Or perhaps they’re just happy to ride out of the door and don’t need to come to Wales to find real mountains…
Saturday dawned grey and windy. This would be a ‘start in waterproofs, finish in waterproofs’ ride and, although there were a couple of bailout points, everyone seemed up for the full day out. After the obligatory faff, pressure checking and Phill’s safety briefing, we all set off on the bike path towards the Elan Valley Visitor Centre, leapfrogging each other at the gates. The pace was brisk but the chat was plentiful, despite the wild and woolly weather. Unfortunately we weren’t heading straight for hot chocolates and pies at the centre; we had to earn them first, and that meant a big old loop, starting with a big old tarmac climb through the woods and on to ‘Puke Hill’.
Puke Hill is a staple of Phill’s mid-Wales rides and is best done before lunch. The tarmac hill kicks and kicks again before finally delivering you to the start of the off-road portion of the day. Motors whirred and riders puffed, but rather than a solid bunch of riders ascending at a turbo-assisted 25km/h, there was a spread of them over the hill. This was no carpark whizz-around and all of the riders knew that chucking it into overdrive for every climb would lead to batteries dying at the furthest point. So motors were set to Trail, or even Eco mode in order to preserve batteries. No one here was completely new to e-bikes, but very few had pushed the range in the big hills to reliably know how far they could get in one go. E-bikes are merely amplifiers, so much of the speed and the range of the bikes is up to the rider. Make a hard effort on a ride and you’ll still outpace, or outdistance another rider on an identical machine.
With the rain now sheeting down and the wind picking up there was no time for standing around, so stops and instructions were kept to the minimum as riders kept on with the trail ahead.
With the first chunky climb over and the trail now contouring ahead, the bikes were due to be tested next. Our route to the bottom of Claerwen Dam followed an old sunken way, which today (and to be fair, on many days) was literally sunken, with the wide trail indistinguishable from the swollen river next to it. All thoughts of dry feet were gone as riders splashed and splooshed through the flooded track. A couple of sections were knee depth and prompted some off-piste navigation, only to find boggy marsh of similar soppingness. Ahead lay the enormous dam itself, with water thundering down its face.
The final piece of this trail usually involves the crossing of a river tributary, but Phill decided that losing clients downstream wouldn’t be good for business, so we walked over the footbridge, passing the farmyard, where farmhands wrestled with wet sheep. Farmhands and riders looked at each other and wondered who was the more stupid.
Food and more… climbing.
The public toilets at the base of the dam formed an unlikely location for a rest and snack stop, but it was the only shelter for miles. The wind and rain showed no signs of letting up so we all wolfed a snack and those who’d packed an extra layer, added it. One unseen thing about e-bikes is that the overall effort tends to be lower, so less body heat is generated.
Snacked-up, we were keen to make our date with lunch, a large mug of hot chocolate and, for the paranoid, our battery chargers, which Polly, Phill’s partner would be bringing to the Elan Valley Visitor Centre for us to use.
With the next climb and long, exposed moor-top, the relative energy levels of the riders were evident as the pack strung out along the trail. Electric power, though, does at least give you the motivation to just get your head down and get on with it. We soon left the blustery hilltop with rain sheeting in from the sides to reach the relative shelter of a long, wooded descent. And while the relatively high weight of an e-bike can help force those tyre knobs into the soft dirt, that same weight, unless corrected, can commit you to directions you weren’t particularly planning on. Unscathed and elated at the bottom of the slick descent, we hightailed it for lunch, warmth, and an hour of recharge for the batteries at the visitor centre.
With 26km in the bag Phill revealed that we were a little over halfway, which prompted a couple of extra pudding orders. All too soon we were putting on wet jackets and gloves and heading back out to the rain we’d been watching through the window.
More climbing and more epic ‘here’s where there’s usually a great view’ as we took on the second half of the loop. With riders starting to flag, the ‘More Power’ buttons on the bikes started to be mashed more. Wayne was starting to slow down and had run his battery into the red with too much ‘turbo’, so his son Chris gamely swapped bikes with him as his own bike still had plenty of juice. This evened things up somewhat as young Chris rode on ‘meat-power,’ while his dad was back in the green on his son’s bike. To be fair Wayne reckoned that with two metal knees and a metal shoulder from years of motorbike riding, without an e-bike he wouldn’t be riding at all.
Back to base.
With the final descent being taken with a surprising amount of daredevil spirit, even in the cold and wet, riders were soon burning batteries for the final couple of miles back home to Glandwr House and thoughts of hot showers, dry clothes – and perhaps even a dip in the hot tub in the rain, or the steam room out of it. There would definitely be beer.
Bikes were put on charge and clothes were washed and hung to dry while attention turned to the rugby on TV (we were in Wales after all), or the tea and cake on offer in the dining room. We’d covered 48km, with over 1,200m of climbing, on what was possibly the wettest weather I’ve ever ridden in. While the e-bikes didn’t make the weather go away, it was harder to come up with an excuse not to ride. Had I been on an ‘acoustic’ bike weekend, I know I’d wouldn’t have ridden as far or for as long. Or at all.
Our second day was no less committing, with a 40km loop (and another 1,100m climbing) planned that started by going straight up the fun final descent of yesterday. Normally, this would have been met with sour looks at the guide, but with full tanks of ’leccy and rested, though surprisingly tired, legs, we all took it as a chance for a social spin up.
The overnight rain had turned to snow on the tops, greeting us with a vast white vista. Even the sun made appearances between the clouds that were still being whipped around by the breeze.
The views were stunning – and more extensive than in the clouds. With bigger views of where we were going, and where we’d been – and perhaps a little less worry about whether we’d ever make it home again, the speeds went up as riders settled into the Welsh terrain and the limits of their bikes and bodies.
Phill had slipped a bunch of climbing and descending into the ride; one minute we were peering over dam parapets and marvelling at the logistics of getting Birmingham’s drinking water to Birmingham, and the next minute we were high above the reservoirs, motors quietly whirring as we gained more and more height.
All that height had to be lost somehow, and there were some corkers in store. The heavy rains had made the sheep-cropped grass unreliable for traction, especially in corners, which led to a bit of girly-scream sideways drifting on the faster descents, while the wet Welsh bedrock carried similar uncertainty, but greater penalties.
We rolled back into town again for final showers and snacks before the riders scattered back to their corners of the country, already planning a return.
I’d had my mind opened to a part of the mountain bike world that’s currently rarely seen, but which is only going to become more prominent. There’s no uninventing e-bikes and they’re just going to keep getting better and cheaper and lighter and more efficient.
There’s no particular ‘type’ of e-bike rider. Most are pushbike riders too, some came from motocross or even touring, some ride one to keep up, and others ride to see just how far they can go. All are mountain bikers though and this weekend brought home that pedalling knobbly tyres on dirt is still a universal language that appeals to all.
You might already be in the club, you might be curious or you might be appalled by it all. Judging by the smiles at the end of each day, this lot are just going to keep on doing it.
For more info, check out mtb.wales/emtb
Disclosure: Chipps’ accommodation was covered by mtb.wales