Don’t Fear the E-bikes

I first heard about electric mountain bikes five or so years ago. The concept seemed so foreign to me at the time. Why would anyone need a motor on a mountain bike?

It wasn’t until I rode one last summer that I finally began to understand their place.

E-mountain bikes don’t exist to rid the sport of climbing and fitness. Instead, the goal is to broaden the sport and make riding more efficient and enjoyable for those who don’t have the appetite, health, or fitness level for the energy expenditure that is normally involved.

For some, it’s about still mountain biking well into their retirement, or after an injury, or illness.  For others, it’s simply about getting more out of the effort they put in.

To better understand the technology, I spoke with Ian Reid, owner of Down to Earth, a bike shop in Lindsay, ON. Ian rides a “pedal-assist” Norco full suspension e-mountain bike. He bought it after a shoulder injury but now says that he can’t imagine ever going back.

With a pedal-assist bike, like Ian’s, the rider still has to pedal in order for the bike to move and the gearing is essentially the same as it would be on any other mountain bike. The motor simply boosts the power that the rider puts in. As a result, a rider can choose to go the same distance as they would on a traditional bike, using less energy, or expend their normal amount of energy and go farther.

Most pedal-assist bikes have a motor located in the bottom bracket that helps turn the cranks as you pedal. Ian clarified that this is called a mid-drive system.

Mid-drive systems are a better match for mountain biking because they keep the added weight of the motor low and centered. Contrast this against a hub-drive system where the added weight is concentrated over the back wheel, making the bike unbalanced front to back.

There are two classes of e-bicycles that are legal here in Canada, Class 1 and Class 2. In both cases, the assisted speed is governed to a maximum of 32 km/hr. However, Class 1 bikes are pedal-assist only, whereas Class 2 bikes have a throttle.

Class 2 bikes are more controversial for mountain bike trail use since they have been shown to cause greater trail damage due to the throttle-actuation, similar to more traditional off-road motorized vehicles.

Pedal-assist bikes feel remarkably normal, yet they are anything but. Riding one can make pedaling up hills feel much closer to flat terrain and flat trails can begin to feel more like flowy downhills. Downhills, on the other hand, don’t get the same boost since gravity is already working to everyone’s advantage.

There are still some kinks to work out, as Ian explains. The delivery of power can sometimes be a little jerky and doesn’t always cut out at the precise moment when the rider expects it to – something that can make technical sections of trail feel more awkward. They are also costly. Expect to pay $1700-$2300 over and above the cost of a similarly spec’ed non-powered mountain bike.

That said, costs will come down over time and manufacturers will continue to innovate. It would be naïve to think that, as mountain bikers, we all won’t benefit from this technology at some point in our lifetimes. Embracing e-bikes now is just us taking care of our future selves.

This month’s trail tip:

Smooth is fast. Focusing on being a smoother rider will help you ride faster.

A Singletrack Mind by David D’Agostino


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