MTB eBikes - Devil’s Spawn or a Gift from the Gods?
The Only Constant is Change
Every now and then, a significant change comes along to the MTB scene to rock our world one way or the other. And every time it happens, riders are divided, vocal and opinionated about it. Not so long ago, 29 inch wheels made an appearance, and a few, forward thinking riders immediately embraced the new wheel spec while others stubbornly stuck to their old 26 inch wheeled steeds. Many of the 26’ers were very vocal about how 29’ers were a fad, the geometry didn’t work, they belonged on the road, it was cheating bla bla bla. Try to buy a competition level 26’er these days, especially if it’s a cross country or all mountain/trail bike! The 29’er thinking later spawned the 27.5 (650b) wheel size and soon the 26’ers were a rarity. Is the same thing going to happen to non pedal assisted mountain bikes now that MTB eBikes (pedal assisted) have arrived? I wouldn’t bet against it myself.
A Speedy Evolution
In a very short time, MTB eBikes have become a common sight on many trail rides at most popular locations around Australia and other places in the world. In that very short time, MTB eBikes have begun evolving and improving. What will they be like in 5 years time? 5-7 kgs lighter is a good bet I suggest. Much improved battery life another probability maybe. Maybe… even as common or more common than the bikes most of us ride today. Time will tell. Uninformed opinions today could well be tomorrow’s verbal egg on faces. So then, let’s explore what an MTB eBike is, what the advantages and disadvantages are and why someone would even want one.
What Is An MTB eBike?
What it’s not is something you climb on, twist a throttle, put your feet up and hang on while it does all the work. An MTB eBike is the same as a normal mountain bike in almost every way. You still have to have many of the the same skills (and a couple of new ones) to ride it well. You still have to change gears in the same way you do on a normal MTB. Same goes for brakes although they are usually a tad larger and stronger to handle the weight of an MTB eBike.
The main difference of course is the electric motor tucked down around the bottom bracket. There’s also a big ass battery to run it, some sort of handlebar mounted control/display unit, a pedal sensor and a bit of extra aluminum or carbon to accommodate it all. And, of course, when you pedal forwards, the motor kicks in and helps you drive the bike forwards. This ‘pedal assistance’ varies depending on the settings you choose from ‘not very much’ to ‘sit down, shut up and hang on!’ Especially when the rider has had the eBike's software fiddled with to give more than legal 25 kph allowed in Australia. In this writer's opinion, 25 kph is way too slow. Rider's on standard MTB's can easily surpass that speed while pedalling. Canada's 32 kph is probably more like it.
So, that’s an MTB EBike in a nutshell. Like most things MTB, there’s always pros and cons to consider so let’s look at some of the advantages and disadvantages of riding one.
The MTB eBike Advantage
With pedal assistance comes some very handy advantages for those interested in such things.
- Less Energy - Overall less energy is required for several aspects of MTB riding due to the pedal assist from the electric motor. Having the ability to maintain momentum or to instantly accelerate, for instance, aids greatly in getting over obstacles.
- More Speed - An MTB eBike provides the ability to maintain a faster average speed than most standard mtb mounted riders, especially your own standard MTB riding self. The combination of pedal assist and your own energy saving make this possible.
- Pinches and Long, Steep Climbs - These are made easier, and in many cases, doable when they weren’t before for many riders on a standard mtb. Set the assist to ‘Turbo’ and then concentrate on your technique and up you go.
- More Distance - Unless you are already an ultra distance rider, the ability to ride further is again achieved through the saving of your own energy and the use of the motor’s energy converted into pedal power.
- Lower Centre Of Gravity - Although the overall weight of an MTB eBike is a disadvantage in itself, where it’s placed on the bike also makes an advantage. A rider’s weight is mostly focused in their body’s ‘trunk’ region (and fat heads for some <snicker>) making us a bit top heavy. A lot of technique is required to offset this oversight in the almighty’s creative thinking when he/she/they designed us. Having a heavy motor and much of the battery weight low on the bike helps to lower the overall centre of gravity and keep the weight low slung. This aids in driving more weight into the tyres more directly and helps with traction.
The MTB eBike Disadvantage
On the other side of the coin, there are some distinct disadvantages also.
- Weight - The most obvious disadvantage is they are heavy… really heavy. At time of writing, most are over 22kg. This makes them very heavy to lift over fences etc or onto the roof of a vehicle. Its even heavy to lift onto a tow-ball mounted rack or into the boot of your car. This extra weight puts more load on tyres in corners as well. Currently there are some manufacturers claiming sub 18kg models coming soon, so this may be a temporary disadvantage.
- Limited Range - Although some MTB eBikes are getting a decent run-time out of their batteries already, get into the mountains and start using ‘Turbo’ mode too much and you can find yourself suddenly pushing a non-pedal assisted 22-24kg bike up some very long climbs. This is a recognized area of improvement and already some advances are being made.
- Price - Currently at time of writing, MTB eBike’s are, of course, more expensive than a standard MTB. However, the demand for MTB eBikes is such right now that manufacturers and retailers are struggling to keep up, and failing. Popularity will bring the prices down once they become mainstream and sold in larger numbers. Current growth suggests this is very likely.
- Charging - If you’ve run your MTB eBike’s battery low, and don’t have a spare, then you can’t just ride whenever you want. If you are away from civilization and have no power-point available, then charging isn’t possible, or least a challenge. Batteries then are at least a minor disadvantage in themselves, especially considering the cost of a spare/replacement currently.
- Nimbleness - With the current weight of MTB eBikes, it stands to reason they aren’t as nimble or as easy to lift or jump as a standard MTB. However, the pedal assist definitely takes a lot of the perceivable weight out when you are pedaling at least. Doesn’t help when you are trying to drag the thing over a big log or getting your ‘hop’ on though. More effort and technique required then to pull off those manoeuvres than a standard MTB. For now at least, until the weight thing is rectified.
- Governed - MTB eBikes in Australia are governed to a maximum pedal assisted speed of 25 kph. After which, the motor drops out and you are on your own pedaling your 22kg+ bike. In tighter single track, in a situation where you need to pedal, it’s uncommon to need more than 25kph anyhow. Same goes for climbing. But out on the open trails like fire roads, gravel, forestry roads or even open single-track, a fit rider on a standard MTB is going to ride away from you. Although, in reality, you’ve probably left them way behind on other parts of the ride so maybe they are still way back behind you… in a different postcode. But you get the point.
- Limited Fitness Gain - I put this in to appease those who insist you don’t get physical benefits from riding an MTB eBike. You do so! However, it is arguable as to how much, and if you only do the same riding/distance on an MTB eBike that a friend does on a standard MTB, then it’s likely they are more fit for riding a bike than you are. However, an MTB eBike perhaps gives you the ability to ride further, tackle steeper terrain if you choose, so it comes down to where, how, what modes you use and when, and how long you ride your MTB eBike for. Or, why you ride it?
Why Ride An MTB eBike?
At the time of writing, the catch cry from the MTB eBike haters is “cheaters”. With no fear of what they think of me… all I hear is “I’m an ignorant fool who has..." a) "never ridden one" and/or b) "can’t afford one and I'm therefore jealous" and/or c) "am only capable of viewing the world from my own narrow perspective". I should mention at this point that I do not own one. Currently, at time of writing, I don’t want one. And I have ridden several different brands and models this year. I can see why an MTB eBike is not only a good thing for some riders, it’s the right thing for them.
Take my wife. Anyone? Offers? No really… willing to swap for 2 younger models. Nobody? Oh well… consider my wife’s predicament then. She doesn’t have an MTB eBike either… we can't afford one to be perfectly candid, but she hopes she will before too long. The reasons you ask? How about Rheumatoid Arthritis so bad she needs regular injections into various parts of her body to keep it at bay and at a pain level she can manage for daily chores? What about Fibromyalgia, an autoimmune condition which causes similar issues. A Hypothyroid condition which again produces a host of problems she has to deal with. She’s also Asthmatic. She also has Diverticulitis which reduces her food intake inventory to a handful of items making energy something very difficult to obtain. Decent sleep is a thing of the past with so many medical conditions battling against her. AND old age… she’s old… over 50!! Yeah I know right? Almost dead to some younger readers!!
So then, when she’s on an MTB eBike and some tool rolls up and tells her she’s “cheating”, one of you lot can explain to him/her when he awakes why I head butted him. Thanks. I’ll be off riding with my wife… because she'll still enjoy life on a bike… because it’s an MTB eBike.
There are many reasons why someone would want an MTB eBike, other than being ridiculously sickly that is. "For better or worse" I said, so I have to keep her. I signed the certificate.
Lets look a list… we all love lists.
- Medical Conditions - as described dramatically (but truthfully) above, there are many medical conditions that may make an MTB eBike not only a great choice, but the only choice for someone to get into, or continue riding MTB.
Injuries - what about chronic injuries? I myself have past injuries that limit how long I can ride for. An MTB eBike would allow me to enjoy doing rides of longer distances thereby enjoying more time on the bike with friends. Other people have legs missing, or least part thereof. An MTB eBike allows them to keep at and again, gain more distance in the time they have available to ride.
- Time - Time poor? Can only manage to squeeze in 10k’s in a ride? An MTB eBike could allow more distance and therefore more trails to be enjoyed by those constrained by time.
- Extra Enjoyment - Going uphill can be fun on an MTB eBike! Imagine that! For many, hills are a necessary evil to enjoying the 'downhilly' bits. A bit like having a girlfriend or boyfriend right? You have to put up with the stuff you don’t want to enjoy the stuff you do. An MTB eBike can be fun up, down and on the flats.
- Extra Distance - Even if you are fit and healthy, an MTB eBike gives you the ability to go for longer distances… assuming your butt can deal with it… and you didn’t give your wife a time you’d be home by. Don’t do that by the way. Just tell her “I’ll be home at half past” and never add which half past you mean. She’ll ask… just ride away smiling and say, “Love you”. You will always be home at least 30 mins early that way. I pioneered it in the 80’s… it works, trust me… I’m a doctor.
- Gravity Runs - Riders who normally need to organize a shuttle driver to do more than a run or two on a standard MTB, are buying MTB eBikes so they can pedal up the big climbs and enjoy multiple runs down the downhill/flow track.
- Keeping Up - Can no longer keep up with your fitter, younger, healthier friends? Well, if they have MTB eBikes they might still get away, but if they are still on standard MTB’s, you can. If they are on MTB eBikes then at least you should be able to save some energy while chasing them. I know someone in this predicament. Various reasons conspired to slow her up in recent years, and just a month ago, was going to sell up her MTB life and give it away. Today (literally at time of writing) she was out on her new MTB eBike for the 2nd time since getting it a few days back, having a ball. Plenty of years of MTB enjoyment lies ahead for her.
- Old Age - Imagine being over 60 as an example, and deciding you want to try mountain biking. Again, I know someone in this position who knew that, in her mid-sixties, had little chance of keeping up with the ‘in crowd’ on a standard MTB. Add one MTB eBike and now she not only enjoys a plethora of social rides with riders of all ages, she constantly enters multi-day charity events! Plenty of us are getting to this more mature age group ourselves and have been wondering how long we’d last before having to hang up the cycling shoes. MTB eBikes have extended that outlook.
- To Fit In - like it or not, the day is coming when you might just need an MTB eBike to fit in or just simply keep up your mates in general.
- Because I Can - It’s your life, your money… if you want and can afford an MTB eBike then to hell with the haters, go get one. Then when they call you a “cheater”, flip em the bird and ride away… because you can… probably faster than they can chase you.
- To Catch People Who Flip You The Bird - <laughs> Ok, maybe not the best reason the world but I’m using it as a way to say there’s all sorts of reasons and motivations for owning an MTB eBike. You may have one I’ve missed. I’m not perfect, not in every way at least.
Fitness and Skills
If you buy an MTB eBike and then go out do the same rides (same tracks and distances) you did on a normal MTB then you will definitely not get the same exercise. Essentially you've turned a good workout into a bludge on a bike. However, do more laps or take on steeper stuff more often on a ride... and suddenly you can work just as hard as someone on a standard mtb.
With increased speed on the flats and climbs, you now need to up skill to handle that increase. Trail awareness becomes a most important tool, as does line choice. Then, while climbing, you need to learn and understand uphill braking as well as dramatic and rapid body shifts. Pulling front wheel lifts and short manuals going uphill can even become a thing to name a few changes in your skill usage.
So then, with a bit of luck, a few giggles, a few facts, some rambling (do I ramble? Some say I ramble. I don’t think I ramble but it’s possible I ramble I suppose) and a host of viewpoints, I’ve hopefully given those not seeing the big picture a bit more to think about, and those who really knew very little about MTB eBikes, a bit more insight to them. I’ve hopefully made the point that…
- MTB eBikes are not cheating. They offer a new experience on an MTB,
- MTB eBikes cater to a wide range of physical and social needs,
- MTB eBikes are suitable for all age groups,
- MTB eBikes are suitable for various riding situations/types,
- MTB eBikes are likely to continue to grow in popularity,
- MTB eBikes are likely to continue to evolve and get better,
- calling someone a “cheater” is narrow minded, immature and makes you a stupid doodeyhead!
So then... MTB eBikes, devil’s spawn or a gift from the gods? Guess it depends on your point of view... and all that stuff above.
Hope that helps.