It’s been clear that E-bikes were becoming a massively important segment in sales for a long time but, until very recently, I’ve been largely isolated from them on the trail. Sure I’ve seen a few chunkier than usual looking downtubes on the trails and heard the whirr of a motor straining someone uphill faster than their BMI would suggest is appropriate but up until now they were a rarity. That’s probably because I’ve been avoiding the ever more crowded trail centers and better-known riding spots where they seem to congregate but now E-bikes are definitely out there.
Riding a local MTB/gravel route the other weekend 90% of the bikes I saw were powered. Reports from the local trail center this weekend confirmed a ton of people literally ‘charging’ round there, too. In other words, it seems like E-bikes have suddenly hit critical mass on the trails as expected in the future forecasts of most mountain bike manufacturers.
E-bikes are certainly churning up even more emotions than the haters are claiming their rear tires are. But at this point where are you expecting me to go? Do you think I’m a hater or happy to see our hobby becoming electrified?
More riders can only be a good thing
Like most things, it’s a mix of delight and concern. The bottom line is I think it’s brilliant that more people are riding bikes on trails. And to be honest I don’t care whether they’re young riders who would be perfectly capable of propelling themselves or pensioners who couldn’t even dream of heading out into the hills without some sort of power assist.
If they’re out enjoying a version of what we do then that’s more people wanting facilities to ride and more worth in others providing them. Whether that’s more trails being built, more political pressure to create facilities and cater for riders or just more people identifying as riders themselves rather than seeing us as the enemy, that has to make the world a better place to bike in. The additional cost of motor and battery compared to a conventional bike means that E-bikers are dropping serious coin in the shops that help support us, too. They’re also making mountain biking a much more interesting proposition for investment from outside the sport whether that’s in brands like Whyte getting major money behind them to councils or even whole countries seeing us as a group worth attracting with better trails or other initiatives.
I’m not going to get angry if someone pedals past me on a climb, or gets in two descents in the time I do one because that’s their choice. You won’t find me shouting “cheat” either, partly because anyone who’s ever upgraded a component is cheating mechanically on some level but mainly because I know how hard you tend to work on an E-bike. I’m sure there’s a fancy psychology term for why this happens but everyone I know - young and old - still rides as hard as they normally would when they get on an E-bike. When I’ve ridden a Bosch Purion controller or Brose motors with a rider wattage display it always underlines that I’m still charging as hard as I would normally, but just with an extra electrical top-up.
Whatever personal wattage you’re bringing to the party, E-bikes also make climbing faster and more fun so that more of your ride is likely to make you smile or as one of my mates memorably put it on his first powered ride “Everything is downhill now!” This all adds into the way E-bikes can really help break down the barriers to getting out or not. Because you can go further and/or access more exciting terrain in a given time or push through stickier conditions than usual it’s easier to get your kit on and get out of the door. If it’s going to be fun rather than a fight then it’s much easier to ignore weather, tiredness/fitness or time constraints that would normally keep you on the couch. E-bikes are also more likely to be ridden - rather than driven - to local trailheads and they’re less likely to be racked onto uplift trailers behind a diesel belching transit van so while the strategic environmental issues of batteries are definitely an issue, there are definitely some tactical eco/emissions wins. Add the extra workout of heaving a 20kg beast of a bike round turns, through rock gardens or keeping it on line up technical climbs as an extra 250 watts kicks in and I don’t know anyone who’s got an E-bike and lost fitness rather than gained it.
The riders who I’ve stopped and chatted to come in all shapes, sizes and different stories of how they ended up in the dirt. Injured, old or just lapsed mountain bikers who are back in the saddle loving it more than ever. Totally fresh recruits to off-road riding who’ve hired an E-bike as an experiment and are now hitting the trails whenever they can. Couples or groups with mismatched fitness or skill who can now happily ride together. The list of different people who are now out pedaling thanks to power assistance is a much broader slice of society in age, gender and fitness than it ever was before E-bikes.
And again if people are getting stronger, fitter and happier riding a bike - with assistance or not - that means more converts fighting our corner whether it’s sticking up for cyclists when they’re chatting with petrolhead mates or if they’re politicians or investors who can make a real difference. We’re already seeing that start to be noticed by race organizers too, and while the E-bike World Championships and some other televised events have just looked like very rubbish and painfully slow motocross races, there are already noises being made about how stadium-style E-bikes races are a lot easier to package for TV than hours of Enduro segments spread over several mountains.
Trail circuit breaker
So those are the positive as I see it. More people enabled to ride, means more money into the industry to sustain it and more political/commercial value to improving facilities for riding and promoting riding. I’m not so naive that I think that E-bikes are entirely without potential issues though.
Until we get more facilities or more access increases in rider numbers mean more crowded trails. 20kg+ E-bikes with big grippy tires, 200mm brake rotors and 250W of extra power doing double or more the number of runs of a regular bike also create an exponentially higher wear and tear load on the trails. That’s multiplied further by the fact that a lot of E-bikers are relative novices who’ll skid or spin tires more and will often be less aware of access or sensitive surface issues compared to more old school riders. I think the concern that E-bikes are potentially going to let inexperienced riders/outdoor users get dangerously out of their depth in terms of distance into the wild or just the trails they can access has some validity too. Especially if riders get stuck in the middle of nowhere with a motor/battery fault or just the wrong side of an obstacle that can’t drag their bike over. I’m pretty sure the same argument has been leveled at MTBs since they first appeared though as well as innovations like suspension, body armor or even GPS nav units and the idiots getting out of their depth in the outdoor- has been a massive issue all through ‘lockdown’ however they’ve got out there.
While many of us have heard horror stories about E-bike louts terrorizing other trail riders uphill as well as downhill the truth is that legally restricted E-bikes aren’t actually much faster - if at all - than a fit rider on a race bike even uphill. In fact, I like few things more than turning myself inside out to stick with an E-bike just to prove a point, and if it’s a situation where I can raise the speed higher than the legal motorized maximum then you’d better believe I will twist that knife with glee. And at that point, I’ll probably look a lot more frightening to horses or impressionable minors than a fat lad twiddling up in Turbo mode.
Where I think there is definitely an issue are with unrestricted E-bikes what can easily go much faster than any other trail users on flat sections or uphill. There are also serious legal implications if someone causes an accident on an illegally modified machine and that could open a whole can of worms about whether E-bikes get bundled in with other motorbikes and lead to a massive decrease in available access.
For now though I’m staying tentatively optimistic about the electrification of mountain biking and connecting more with the positive side of battery use rather than feeling terminal about the negatives.