E-bikes are a touchy subject for many mountain bikers. I get it. In fact, my first memory of seeing an e-bike out in the wild was joy, joy at smashing past the fat, lazy f*cker on a climb. There's something just wrong about an engine on a bicycle, right? The two things are like oil and water, or at least they seem that way at first... We need to talk about e-bikes though. Forget all the chest-beating PR bullshit pumped out by fatbike enthusiasts being the next big thing to happen to our sport. In Wisconsin they may indeed be the "fastest growing segment in mountain biking" as the Fatbike Forum claimed they are, but if you start looking beyond the US, the picture is less rosy. According to the Fatbike Forum's own stats the global market for fatbikes is 80,000 bikes per year right now. In 2015, Cube alone sold 50,000 e-bikes, that doubled in 2016...
The latest figures have the global market at 1.1 million units a year and in Europe they are rapidly poaching sales away from the conventional mountain bike market. My favourite statistic, according to one source is that the Haibike 12,000 Euro e-DH bike outsold the Specialized Demo this year (although I haven't been able to verify this claim). Bike shops in some countries (ie. not in the US) are reporting that customers come in to buy a 160mm trail bike and end up taking the e-version instead. Love them or loathe them, e-bikes are coming and sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "la, la, la" because you don't like the idea isn't going to change a thing. So, what the f*ck is an e-bike anyway?
Before we go any further, I need to nod my head to those of you on the left-hand side of the Atlantic. I haven't lived there, so feel free to tell me I am wrong here, but the impression I get is that your land access is hard fought and maintained. This is not the place to get into why that is so, but it is a time to acknowledge that and say clearly, that if I were in your shoes, I would be protective as hell of my trails too. And yes, e-bikes do raise some big questions and risks for trail advocacy, but we will touch on that later in this piece.
Photo - Ronny Kiaulehn
To be totally honest, the first time I rode an e-bike did nothing to shake my gut feeling that something was profoundly wrong about them. The bike was a weird mess of tubes, wires and controls, with a motor on the rear wheel and a throttle on the bars. Apparently you could wind it right out to 80 km/h if you took the limiter off. While moving fast is always fun, at least it is in my book, there was something just wrong about a bicycle where you don't need to turn the pedals. It felt profoundly uncomfortable to be zipping along, feet ready to pedal, but never to be needed. It's not the same thing any more. So before we dive down this rabbit hole let's get one thing clear: if you want something with a throttle, stop being a pussy and buy a motorbike. The same goes if you want to smash through the countryside at a steady 50km/h, regardless of how you achieve it, that is pure motorbike territory.
The second time I got on an e-bike was one of the Flyer bikes, possibly one of the first full-suspension e-bikes to reach production. With the battery mounted between the seattube and the rear wheel and the motor mounted in the rear wheel itself, it was an abortion of a thing, not the kind of bike you would ever consider riding on anything like a real trail. Yet in the last couple of years the technology has moved forwards and the current crop of e-bikes are more like something most of us would recognise as a bike. My third e-bike experience was one of these. It started with my ingrained prejudice that this was a Bad Idea. An hour and a half, 1,500m climbing and two descents later, I had to begrudgingly admit that I'd had fun. In the time I could normally do one decent trail in, I had done two and all that weight in the frame made the thing hilarious pinballing through loose rock and steep chutes. It was a different feeling to my other bikes, but not so different, and it was undeniably fun. While the engine did change the experience, the heart of the experience is still very close to the mountain biking I fell in love with some 20 years ago.
This brings us onto the most important word when we talk about e-bikes - "motorised." Legally e-bikes are considered motorised and globally the legal situation is convoluted
. In fact, in most of the United States they are grouped in with motorbikes or mopeds by law. A quick look at a state-by-state guide shows differing legislation and restrictions in each state, different power outputs, different power requirements, license requirements and land access issues. Here in Europe it a bit less complicated, thanks to the EU
. There are two types of e-bikes - there are electric pedal-assisted cycles (they have been given the snappy acronym of EPACs by European lawmakers), which are strictly regulated, and then there is everything else which is pretty much covered in my previous paragraph. In fact, anything outside the EPAC regulations is on dodgy ground, much of the time banned from trails for being motorised, but also banned from the roads for being unroadworthy. So from here on in, when we talk of e-bikes, we are talking about these EPACs. EU legislation means they have their power limited to 250W, they are restricted to 25km/h and the motor only functions when you pedal. So long as they comply to these rules, here in Europe they are considered mountain bikes by law and have access to everything mountain bikes have access to.
Of course while this may be the letter of the law when we talk about motorisation, the feel of the thing is another matter altogether. There is, of course, a very clear argument for them being considered motorised - they have a motor. Nobody is going to argue with you there, but it's how that motor works where the moral dilemma of the whole topic hangs. You see, you car and motorbike are motorised - they are designed so that you get in/on, start the engine and go. No fitness or manual input required. If you sit on an e-bike and do nothing, aside from falling over, you're not going to move an inch. The motor on these EPAC bikes only works when you turn the pedals. The motor works by amplifying your pedal input. So is motorised the best word to describe these e-bikes? Surely the word "assisted" is a better fit?
Photo - Ronny Kiaulehn
If you've got this far and are thinking, "Well that's not mountain biking any more," you wouldn't be wrong. It is not true to say it is the same thing, but how different is it out on the trail? To begin with, let's break down the stats on an e-bike to put the motor more closely into context. How much power is 250W? Not much is the short answer. It is about the same as 25 hairdryers... When we talk of cycling wattages, 250W is pretty small beans. If you stop and look at your Strava stats, you will see that somewhere around the 200W is more than achievable for an average rider to put out as an average over several hours of riding. Adding the average human and the bike together, 500W sounds significant? Well, not really. Top Enduro World Series racer, Greg Callaghan, has measured his max power output at over 1,600W. This is a max output, so it's not sustainable for more than a few seconds, but it puts 500W in perspective quite nicely. If you are worried about this power being unleashed on your local trails, do you also want to ban Greg from riding there too?
Then, we need to think about how fast is 25km/h? On a fireroad drag it's quite a bit faster for sure, but the way the motors work is by responding to your pedal input, so when you get onto technical singletrack that difference is much smaller. On steep, technical climbs, the reality is that you are more likely to see e-bike riders pushing their bikes up than blitzing through. It is not easy to maintain your cadence, causing the bike to stall and the rider finding themselves the proud owner of a 25kg trail anchor that is going to suck pushing up to the top. Going down it is much the same story, on the straights you can reach 25km/h fairly quickly, but you would be surprised how often you pass that mark and find yourself hauling the bike down the trail unassisted as you have passed the limiter's top speed for assistance from the motor. When you get to the corners, the motor is no help - at least for now they are not quick enough to react instantly as you try to get that perfect pedal stroke out of the corner. And it is certainly less damaging than punters dragging their brakes through a corner on a regular bike. You find yourself muscling a 25kg bike down the trail, which takes more strength and skill to do than a regular bike. Maybe Specialized Sean Estes' description of an e-bike is the most fitting - it's like a fast-forward button for the less exciting parts of the ride, but when it comes to the bits most of us cherish most, the difference is not as big as you might think.
In case you are wondering how fixed this is - these limits are set by EU law, so to see them overturned would take the best part of a decade of lobbying and political negotiation, they are going nowhere any time soon. Some naysayers worry that this is going to turn into an arms race for faster engines, but talking to engine suppliers it is clear that they are not interested in this. Companies like Bosch are currently working with the EU to look at how they can help enforce the regulations out in the real world. Why you may ask? Simple. Because by keeping the bikes within the legal definition of a bicycle opens up a whole new market for them and, hopefully, entices people to buy bikes who are put off by the physicality of mountain bikes and the perceived danger of motorbikes. If you step outside mountain biking, this is even more crucial for the commuter market, as they want a product that offers the convenience of their motors, but is allowed to use existing cycling infrastructure. They are not locking themselves into these laws out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they can see much bigger opportunity this way - they see mass appeal for this well beyond the bounds of either the bicycle or motorbike market
An ebike, recently.
Of course, we then reach the inevitable question of trail erosion. Some people have suggested that an e-bike may be less damaging to the trail, because the power is delivered more smoothly, eliminating some of the harsh acceleration that digs into the ground, but there is no evidence to support this right now, so let's consider this bullshit until someone proves it otherwise. However, any argument that e-bikes cause more trail damage is pretty much sewn up with IMBA's 2015 findings of their study on trail erosion
: "Results from the field experiment show that, under this set of conditions, soil displacement and tread disturbance from Class1 eMTBs and traditional mountain bikes were not significantly different, and both were much less than those associated with a gasoline-powered motorcycle." And that is coming from IMBA, who have recently clubbed together and decided that e-bikes are a Bad Thing, so hardly a biased source.
Hopefully by now you have a clear picture of what we are talking about when we say "e-bike." If we know what, then the logical next question is: why? At this point a lot of people roll out very earnest arguments about helping old or infirm people onto the trails, and as commendable as that may be, f*ck that. These are not the majority of people that are buying e-bikes right now, and that is not the main reason they are being sold. While many probably don't want to hear this, the main reason people are buying e-bikes is because they are fun. One stereotypical image of the e-bike user is lazy, but this doesn't seem to tally with the reality of the people who buy them. Certainly one major European bike brand noticed that their team who were focusing on e-bikes actually got fitter because they meant they were riding more than they were before.
Of course fun doesn't really cover the magnitude of what e-bikes represent. Let's start with a small example. How much time do you have to ride each day/week/month? And let's go on to assume that what most of the people reading this article enjoy most of all is going downhill as fast as they can. So if you introduce a bike that means you can get the climbing done faster and get more time doing what you enjoy most, logically, is that not more fun? Certainly from personal experience I know I am lucky enough to be able to find about an hour and a half most days to ride. Normally this means one climb and one descent. With an e-bike I can double this. Of course this leads to the question of fitness and we have to go back to how the motor works. If you want to climb 1,500m in an hour and a half you're going to have to work hard, the motor simply means you get more ground covered for your time and calories. The mistake most people make when thinking about e-bikes is thinking that it makes what they do now easier, rather than asking how much more they could be doing. The next obvious moral question is, is this any better or worse than taking a shuttle or a chairlift?
There is some cynicism right now because the industry is pushing e-bikes hard, that it is just another hype like Boost axles or metric shocks. If you step back and consider the bigger picture, what you find with e-bikes is the potential for mass participation, this is no incremental change, it is the possibility of expanding the boundaries of our sport. Among mountain bikers, we quickly forget that even a middling biker has far more fitness than most of the general public. If you don't believe me, go into any office building for a day and spend your time with people who do 40 or so hours a week at a desk.
If you've worked in an office for any length of time, you will probably have had to endure someone collecting to run a marathon. Earnestly going from desk-to-desk, to raise money for whatever good cause is in fashion this week to raise enough sponsorship to fulfill a lifetime goal of running a marathon. Yet if we as mountain bikers take a step back and consider what a marathon actually is, the simplest answer is around four hours of cardio. Now think of a four-hour ride, that's four hours of fairly comparable cardio. Most of us would be pretty tired afterwards, but it's not a lifetime ambition for most mountain bikers, it's merely a good day's riding. In our little bubble we forget that most people find the idea of doing an hour of sustained exercise deeply intimidating - something as simple as a 10km ride round easy trails may look like an ordeal to a good percentage of the general population. In steps the e-bike. By vastly reducing the fitness barrier, that opens the door to more and more people coming to do what is pretty much mountain biking (certainly they won't give a crap about our moral concerns of whether it is motorised or not). Think this is pure theorising? It is to some extent, but seeing as virtually every major manufacturer now sports an e-bike in their range, it seems to be a theory some smart people are buying into too...
Photo - Ronny Kiaulehn
One, valid, concern some riders have expressed when we have discussed this theory is what will happen to their trails. Certainly some of the less legal options out there wouldn't survive an onslaught of many times more traffic. However, there are problems and there are problems. Surely how to deal with potentially surging popularity is a good problem for the sport to deal with? Yes, there are risks, and some people are definitely going to get it wrong, so it's not necessarily going to be great for everyone, any major upheaval will inevitably have casualties. But some people will also get it right, we will need good trail advocates, land access negotiators, entrepreneurs who can see how to harness this, trail builders who can make trails both sustainable and fun. Places like 7 Stanes and Rotorua prove that mountain biking can have a massive positive impact for the whole community, and it's a pretty safe bet to say the people behind those destinations are starting to think about how to add e-bikes into their mix. They will tell you very clearly that anything that brings more money into their communities is only a good thing.
So what are we left with? No, e-bikes are not quite mountain bikes, but they are far closer to them than many of their detractors would have you believe. They are not that much faster when it counts, they don't do much more damage to the trail and they are only 10kg heavier than a normal mountain bike (and still slightly lighter than a Karpiel Apocalypse). Certainly anybody who cannot tell the difference between an EPAC and a motorbike should not be allowed to ride either. Yes, they bring challenges and risks that we will need to face, but at the end of the day, they are a way to get more people doing, what as far as they are concerned is mountain biking, and surely that is a good thing? On a personal level, if this doesn't do it for you, fine - nobody is suggesting for a second that they will replace our bicycles. Even if my collection maybe expands to add an e-bike in the future, I'm certainly never going to sell my good old-fashioned leg-powered bicycles. You can pry them from my cold, dead SPDs. But I do believe we should welcome these people and bikes, as a bigger sport will bring better things for all of us in the long-run.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Pinkbike.com. For an alternate take on this contentious topic, you can read Mike Kazimer's opinion here.