Opinion » The Outsider

The inconvenient truth about Ebikes



Over the last two to three decades, mountain bike technology has made several large leaps. Despite how beneficial these technological steps were, some were met with vehement resistance. Take suspension, for example. Springs have existed on bikes for over a century, but in the 1980s they weren't taken seriously by the at-the-time-very-young mountain bike community. When Paul Turner (with the help of Keith Bontrager) unveiled the first full suspension mountain bike at a Long Beach bicycle trade show in 1987, the industry sneered. Cycling purists saw suspension as a bastardization of their hallowed rigid, steel frames, taking away the true feeling of riding and by some accounts, making it too easy. For better or for worse, we now find full suspension on mountain bikes at every price point, from Canadian Tire Specials to $10,000 carbon frame bikes with Gucci builds.

Another was the re-introduction of 29-inch wheels. Most mountain bikers laughed at the idea at first, but after a few years of the 27.5-inch wheel working its way to becoming the industry standard, bike companies slowly but surely caught up their 29er-friendly frame designs. The move up to 29er isn't nearly as scary for people now, as people have begun to realize the benefits of gained traction, and climbing advantage outweighs the incrementally reduced ability to corner and handle the bike.

The latest resistance to the progress of mountain bike technology—and by far the most controversial—is the electric mountain bike. These Ebikes have battery-powered motors that provide extra torque to the cranks, alleviating the effort required to ride uphill. This allows people to ride further, longer and more often, as long as they have the opportunity to charge their Ebike battery in between rides.

Ebikes have been mostly embraced in Europe, but North American mountain bikers, trail advocates and diggers are quick to criticize the notion of Ebikes on their local trails (author guilty as charged). And fair enough. Ebikes are heavy (weighing in excess of 23kilograms), which, combined with the ability to ride further and more often, translates to more impact on the trail.

But there's no shortage of Ebike enthusiasm on the industry side. Seemingly every big mountain bike manufacturer has a model now, but they aren't all sure how to market their Ebikes around the controversy, especially in North America.

I personally think Ebikes are an excellent utility. Trail builders can tow bob trailers full of tools, photographers and videographers can access zones much faster with their debilitating heavy backpacks. On the more road-focused commuter models, Ebikes can and will (hopefully) start replacing cars on the road, or at least help to limit households to one vehicle. Some mountain bikers who are disabled or have suffered permanent injuries can again ride with their able-bodied friends.

On the issue of the everyday-Joe-cyclist rocking up to the local trails on an Ebike, rather than just finger wag the opinion, I thought I'd actually try the exercise out for myself as a sort of social experiment. I had access to an enduro-style electric mountain bike recently and decided to hit up the quite popular trails around Quest University in Squamish. Here's what I found:

Uphill is fun. Mountain bikers tolerate climbing and some even enjoy it for the lung-busting workout. But it's rarely considered fun—unless you're on an Ebike. That goes for singletrack climbs and fire roads both.

Downhill is definitely not as fun. The sheer weight of an Ebike makes it much more cumbersome when cornering and handling. The exception to this was on smooth flow trails, where a pedal stroke coming out of the berm gave me a moto-like boost, which was a whole lot of fun.

The dog hates it. The creature that rides with me more than anyone else, my dog Link, was not able to keep up to the uphill speed as well as the downhill speed for very long. He had to sit out the second lap from exhaustion.

The trail impact is real. Slowing down a 50-pound Ebike required significantly more braking power than my carbon enduro bike, which led to more skidding before corners. The singletrack trail I rode was dry, but I can only imagine what damage would occur if the trail was wet and muddy.

It's lonely. While a great experience solo (that includes leaving the dog behind), Ebikes don't play well with regular mountain bikes. If you do try to make it work with your friends, you'll be waiting at the top of the climb for half an hour on your own anyway.

The trails seem more crowded. This is more about visual effect, but when your average speed on the climb is 20 to 30 km/h faster, you run into far more people (usually passing them) than you would at normal pace.

There's all sorts of reactions from other mountain bikers, but you tend to remember the negative ones. This will vary globally, regionally and even locally depending on who you run into. I experienced everything from cheeky smiles to dirty looks to, "Oh, my friend has one of those and I can't wait to try it." The reaction seemed to be a function of how hard those other mountain bikers were working when I passed them to the tune of my whining electric motor.

The Ebike—and its controversy—is not going away any time soon. Despite vehement opposition by said trail advocates, the industry momentum is like a locomotive train chugging across the 19th century American West. Relegating Ebikes to motorized trails is a Band-Aid solution at best. Constructing Ebike-specific trails will take funding and man hours away from expanding current mountain bike trails. There'll be plenty more discussion as Ebikes come down in price, the technology gets lighter and the battery duration improves.

It won't be this year and perhaps not even this decade, but there will come a time when electronic pedal assist will be as subtle as a suspension link in the frame or a slightly bigger wheel. At that point, we'll wonder how we ever rode without it.

Vince Shuley can see the writing on the wall. For questions, comments or suggestions for The Outsider email vince@vinceshuley.com or Instagram @whis_vince.