Article

The Electric Gatorade Single Track Test: Electric Mountain Bikes and What They Mean for the Two Wheeled World

Electric Mountain Bikes are a growing piece of the market in the bicycle world. The technology offers ease of entrance to the sport to a whole new class of people, and while exactly how e-bikes will fit into the picture is uncertain, they are going to be a big part of it.

By Daniel Merino

“It’s a big loop if you go that way, drops you out on the other side of town,” Mike said to the two partially lost riders from over the hill.

“Oh that doesn't matter, we’ve got E!”

It’s hard to say whether calling an electric mountain bike “E” is going to catch on (it’s not), but the technology that the excited, middle-aged, jean-wearing newcomer to the two-wheeled dirt world was talking about most definitely is, and in a big way.

Electric mountain bikes are not a new technology. In fact, the first e-bike patent was filed in the late 1800’s, but until fairly recently an electric assist mountain bike on the trails was a rarity and one scorned when encountered.

But as usual, progress keeps rolling on.

For a lot of people, the electric mountain bike is an incredible opportunity to enter a new world, one of sweeping views, fresh air, exercise, and the joy of a downhill single track.

I recently took a test ride on the Haibike Xduro All Mountain, an electric assisted, full suspension, trail bike with Mike Ahern of Current eBikes. It was a hell of a good time, but the thing that struck me the most was the opportunity for access these bikes can provide, something that may change the face of mountain biking.

To Ahern, an e-bike is an enabler, giving people who otherwise wouldn’t, couldn’t or can't anymore ride bicycles the opportunity to experience the joy of being on two wheels.

“Whether it is mountain biking, commuting or road biking, the electric assist allows [people] to continue doing these things.”

Like the two people we met on our ride through Wilder Ranch on a sunny and muddy spring day, there are many people for whom the upfront physical cost of mountainbiking (otherwise known as suffering) just simply outweighs the fun factor at first. Once someone gets past those first few months the cost-benefit shifts, but many never get in shape enough to really enjoy themselves on two wheels.

Electric bikes take that start-up cost and throw it out the window.

With a number of assist settings that range in feel from “Is it on?” to “High Ho Silver! Away!” there will never be another climb that looks too damn steep or a fire road that makes someone sing “Killing Me Softly” for 3 miles straight. With the right setting selected and legs spinning, a rider gets the workout they want without killing themselves, and the ability to go anywhere with the motor filling any gap that the rider's fitness leaves between the two.

When asked about the responses people have to trying e-bikes for the first time, Ahern said “Virtually everybody starts smiling ear to ear. It's like when you first learn how to ride a bicycle, it's just pure fun.”

As a pedal powered mountain biker myself, I was a little skeptical that I would feel myself “cheating” on one of these bikes and dislike it as somehow impure.

“99% of the time people aren’t racing. What are you cheating at?” Ahern said when I shared my thoughts of shame.

But coming up to a steep hill climb, knowing I not only had energy left in my legs but a motor to help, I must have looked just like Ahern said, smiling ear to ear.

Opportunity Comes Knocking

For people who, through injury, health, or age, are simply unable to ride a traditional bike any longer, but love the sport, E-bikes offer an answer to a formerly impossible problem.

Will Spiegelman is one of those people, and he couldn’t be more stoked on his bike.

“I was helping my girlfriend shop for an e-bike but wasn’t intending to buy one myself until I took a test ride, that did it,” says Spiegelman.

At 74, Spiegelman, a former mountain and road bike racer, stopped riding a few years ago when his life veered away from two-wheeled exercise. When he wanted to get back into the saddle this past summer, he found himself unable to physically.

“My cycle fitness deteriorated so much that it was no fun at all to get back on the bike, even on the road. Riding up a steep technical pitch was completely out of the question. The e-bike changed all that. I am really enjoying riding in the beautiful parks around Santa Cruz and am actually getting back in good riding shape once again.”

For people like Spiegelman, people who for whatever reason lost the ability to ride a bike or even people who never started, enjoyment is the name of the game.

He was quick to note the possibilities e-bikes present to people who never got into exercise.

“There is an even larger group of people who have never experienced the joy of fitness or the adventure and freedom of being able to ride wherever you want to go in nature. The initial effort to get fit takes real determination, sacrifice and frankly, it hurts and takes time. Many people simply have never done it and don't know what they are missing. This technology lowers the initial barrier and adds watts if you need them so you can keep having fun without lactic acid build up spoiling the party.”

For someone who wants to either start or return to cycling, especially mountain biking, making that entry fun is the most important aspect if people are to make it a long term hobby.

The Tech and The Experience

Let me be clear on my experience. I had a BLAST riding the Haibike. It was an incredibly fun day, and after a long wet winter without any riding, my legs were happy for the help.

But...
For all the good electric mountain bikes can do, there are undoubtedly drawbacks that come with the new technology. When something becomes more complicated, there is guaranteed to be growing pains.

And the first, unavoidable issue is the simple fact that they do use motors. Motors make noise, use energy (in this case, electricity) and the batteries and motor are together noticeably heavy. Perhaps sometime in the future the technology will reach a point where it is so seamless that one could forget the motor is there, silent, lightweight, and a battery lasting longer than anyone’s legs. For now though, while very good, those things were all noticeable on the ride.

The noise, while minimal, is audible and for someone used to the regular sounds of a mountain bike ride, seemed to break the sense of being in nature a little bit. Of all the new sensations the bike offered, this one seemed to break the spell the most.

The battery life on the Haibikes we were riding did not come into play, as our ride was a short one, but for people who enjoy the longer rides or have to rely more heavily on the motor assist, it is not uncommon to carry an extra battery in the daypack. Which is easily doable, but does add weight to an already heavy system.

And weight, for me personally, was an issue. When I go on a mountain bike ride I like to get a bit loose on the bike. Jumping off roots, sliding turns, wheelies (mostly just to look cool), a lot of fun is had by simply playing on a bike. That type of riding is not really an option on these bikes.

Clocking in at over 50 lbs for 6 inches travel, these things are HEAVY. And noticeably so when it comes to large-scale handling. The weight wasn’t a factor on the uphills thanks to the engine, and with the Wide Plus tires and long wheelbase, the grip through turns is actually quite incredible, but these bikes were not meant to fly through the air.

Would I recommend one to a downhiller or experienced rider? No, but then again, that isn’t who would benefit or is interested in electric mountain bikes. For a beginning rider, or someone who needs the extra physical help a motor offers, jumps and wheelies aren’t on the menu to begin with and the lack of flickability isn’t really a loss.

Overall the bikes perform wonderfully as long as you don’t mind staying glued to the ground. And for most that is just the way they want it.

Overall the performance and tech is very good, and the areas in which it is lacking will surely improve with time. We will improve them, and I imagine in the near future the e-bike will be truly a thing to behold.

Any problems with the mechanics are small now and will disappear soon, the central issues facing the electric mountain bikes are surprisingly, cultural and legal ones.

Growing Pains

Electric mountain bikes are currently a small market and they are relatively on trails. They are growing in popularity quickly, and have been met with less than enthusiasm from some of the mountain biking community at times. This is very much a small and shrinking group though, and while there is still some resentment from the existing mountain bike community, it is isolated and as with most prejudices, simply caused by a lack of knowledge. The real challenge is in access.

Many places that allow regular mountain bikes ban e-bikes, as they are in a gray area of the law. Some places consider them motorcycles and ban them outright; some give them limited access. Other locations give them full access to anywhere a regular mountain bike can go. Santa Cruz, and California to a certain extent, have been leading the way on access for E-bikes, with all California State Parks, City of Santa Cruz, and County of Santa Cruz land allowing E-bikes on their trails. On federally and privately managed land it is still a patchwork, and with no clear laws on the books it is up to land managers to make decisions on a case by case basis.

Mountain bikers have had to fight long and hard for access rights to trails, with equestrian and hiking communities often opposing them. Electric mountain bikes are facing much of the same issues.

If fears of erosion and disruption of habitat are the main reasons behind bans as many claim, it seems foolish to allow regular bicycles, and in some cases even horses, yet not e-bikes.

As Spiegelman said “I don't think e-bikes pose a greater risk to the environment than a normal mountain bike. The rider is much more a factor than the bike. It’s important that we educate the public and land managers about e-bikes and why they shouldn’t be arbitrarily restricted.”

The two semi-lost riders from over the hill definitely felt similarly to Spiegelman. Before heading up the hill towards greener pastures and skinny trails, they asked Mike and me whether e-bikes were allowed in Wilder. They had been hassled earlier in the day at another county park known for its quality mountain biking. A ranger there had told them, albeit politely and not with a ticket, to leave. These two middle-aged guys, experiencing the joys of mountain biking for the first, are not the problem. In fact, spreading an appreciation of the natural world is the best way to combat its degradation.

Anything that allows more people to get out and experience nature, get some exercise, and do so in a responsible way is, in my book, good for the world. So watch out, because E-Bikes do just that.

Category: 

Field Notes

Plant your flag! Upload a photo, video, field note, nature poem or question for our army of (mostly) amateur naturalists.

 

Land there herb multiply days fowl. Seas gathered. Dominion place open seas great likeness in abundantly image fill, darkness without darkness can't winged. Upon night fish. Divide for shall. Fruit. places to eat near me

 

Land there herb multiply days fowl. Seas gathered. Dominion place open seas great likeness in abundantly image fill, darkness without darkness can't winged. Upon night fish. Divide for shall. Fruit. places to eat near me