Pinkbike is running a week-long focus on eMTBs. We’ll be sharing reviews, news, and opinion pieces all week in addition to our regular coverage. Read our stance on eMTBs here
The South of France has always been influential in the mountain biking world. Some would argue that this is where European mountain biking was born, with the Roc D'Azur festival establishing itself in the region right back in 1981. Enduro has its roots in area rallye freerides such as the Roch’Abadie or the Rémylienne, dating back to the 1990s. Marathon XC events still measure themselves against the monster that is the Transvésubienne, organized by George Edwards, the man behind the iconic Megavalanche. These legendary races are overshadowed only by the success of the many riders that cut their teeth racing them. Names like Nicolas Vouilloz, Fabien Barel, and Yoann Barelli should need no introduction, but did you know that all three of them originate from one small road in a tiny village called Peille?
These days, however, Peille is also home to many eMTBs. Has that proven a problem for trail access? We can't say that what's happening in Peille will happen everywhere, but in this corner of the world the local community has truly welcomed eMTBs into their trail community. The mountains have a lot to do with that. The difficulty presented by living at the foot of a 1,200m-high mountain without access to a chairlift won’t be lost on anyone that has ridden in an alpine environment. When your only option is to climb a relentless grade or beg for a shuttle, all for maybe ten minutes of descending, the advantages of an eMTB start to make sense. Being able to do a thousand meters of climbing and descending in under one hour is a solid enough argument on its own for many riders here.
As a community, Peille really embraced eMTBs in 2015, starting a non-profit association to offer eMTB tours of the local area with a qualified guide. The initial idea was to boost tourism, by creating a setting for people to more easily discover the territory around Peille. eMTBs were a perfect way to take the edge off the challenges that the terrain presents for people not blessed with elite athlete-level fitness. It was a big risk for the community: Nobody knew what would happen or how it would develop, but the technology offered a chance of success where previous projects had failed.
It soon became apparent that eMTBs were a game-changer here. The advantages of a pedal-assist motor resulted in a much larger cross section of riders than anyone originally imagined. What's more, in two years I have seen no discernible negative impact on existing trail users. From young kids, to adults with learning difficulties or physical restrictions, to retired couples; eMTBs have meant that they can enjoy big rides, some over 30km with
1000 meters of climbing. Without eMTBs only a tiny fraction of that would have been possible. Since 2015 the project has provided 187 full days eMTB and 432 half days guiding, or roughly 24,000km covered by as diverse a cross section of users as it is possible to have. The local riding community has grown as a direct result. Core riders are now accompanied on the trails by a much larger cross-section of people than before.
Initial resistance to this eMTB experiment was probably strongest from those within the local MTB community, mainly through indifference and misunderstanding. Within these two short years, though, those concerns have largely subsided. Now eMTBs are accepted here alongside traditional mountain bikes. Many factors have contributed to its acceptance. One very important factor has been Nicolas Vouilloz. He has publicly been a strong advocate for eMTBs. It is one thing to have someone with Nico's status and experience express a positive opinion on something new, but when you see him flying through the most technical of sections on his own rides and not just for sponsor-driven media projects, preconceptions are blown to pieces.
The trail network itself has expanded in response to the characteristics of eMTBs. Before, our trails were limited to only descents for all but the hardiest of users as they were just too steep to climb. With more people riding in new ways the ancient trails have been given a spring clean to fulfill their original role as cross-country community links, albeit with a very modern twist. These new
trails aren’t for the fainthearted though, nor are they for those with a limited skillset. While eMTBs open up the possibility to try your hand on singletrack to a far greater number of users, in reality, many of those that aren’t capable of riding technical trails try it once before returning to fire roads, or progress with other local riders and guides.
The possibilities opened by eMTBs on the trails around Peille have meant that there are very few usage conflicts. Those that have fully embraced the potential tend to ride further, higher, and into more remote areas are leaving the low-hanging fruit of "regular" MTB trails to unassisted riders. Trails which offer the possibility of two-way traffic are few and far between here, and as they are already shared with hikers and horse riders, meeting the occasional eMTB is more an occasion to chat than foster animosity. In the many cases MTB riders are stunned by the sight of an eMTB riding what are generally National Cup enduro or EWS-level descents.
Local bike shops are the litmus test for eMTBs, and here in the South of France, the numbers are clear. eMTB sales are outstripping those of MTBs by significant margins and showing no signs of slowing down. Reports of shops selling 20:1 ratios of eMTB against MTB per year are no longer surprising to hear. Those numbers may not be sustainable, but there is clearly a product vacuum. Riders are voting with their wallets and not comments on the internet. Industry figures show that there has been a 72% increase in eMTB sales
in France in 2016 compared to 2015, with 15,300 units sold nationwide. The government has also understood the importance of ebikes in getting people out and mobile, whilst leaving the car behind, implementing a subsidy of up to €200 per person until January 31st, 2018 for people buying ebikes.
Now that the genie is out of the bottle here in the South of France, I believe eMTBs are here to stay. In Peille we have found that harmony with regular bikes is possible. Of course, they aren’t a silver bullet, and cannot be a perfect solution for every environment. Here, however, eMTBs are stimulating growth in the numbers of riders and contributing to more and better-kept trails. All that while being great fun to ride, what's not to like?
About the Reviewer Stats:
Age: 34 • Height: 5'8 • Legs shaved: yes • Weight: 67kg • Industry affiliations / sponsors: Lapierre and Formula test rider • Instagram: kieran_page_Kieran Page is a former world-class road and track cyclist, until he saw the light and embraced proper bicycles in 2009. These days he is based in Peille in the South of France where he runs a guiding business and works on local programs to get kids into cycling.