I relocated from the Midwest to the Northwest and was excited about riding new trails. Most climbs in the Northwest are steeper, longer and more technical. After a long stint of riding and racing mountain bicycles I knew I could adapt. Turns out I couldn’t. It was the hills. I traded my Midwest bike and got a very nice 3×10 ‘29r. On a good day, I made it up three quarters of the climbs. I tired of walking and decided to try a bike with electric power to help me make the climbs. Here’s how I went about it and what I learned:
E-bike “motors” come in various forms. The two most prevalent are wheel-hub mounted drive packages and assistance-only frame-mounted systems. For mountain biking applications the clear choice is assistance only frame-mount. This package keeps electrical apparatus out of the occasional water, works only when the rider pedals and is less prone to a variety of headaches caused by the actual drive unit being exposed to contamination. There are a number of fine e-bike systems. Most have a “best” application. Several large companies have new bicycle-specific drive systems in development and will be worth a look.
I looked at batteries, the powerful heart of e-bikes. They are expensive. They present e-bikers the same problems they do Elon Musk at Tesla. Weight in relation to output. This ratio impacts their range.
Thus, my first cut at selecting an e-bike would be maximum range balanced against output and weight. I also stuck to e-“assisted” drive trains for which pedaling is required to generate “assistance.” This allows me to pedal if power dies. “Throttle” controlled e-power is seductive but frequently dangerous, can be imprecise in the woods and tempts the rider to run the battery down more quickly.
Manufacturers provide “ranges” for battery life on e-bikes but these are all based on, “conditions during use.” It is therefore difficult to predict actual battery life in real riding conditions. Even headwinds affect distance. I was careful to choose a battery and assistance motor made by a high quality electric products manufacturer.
One of the “conditions” within the rider’s control are tires. Many trail riders run tubeless tires and low pressure which markedly improves handling, performance and flat-resistance. This combination also creates a condition unfavorable to battery life since at low tire pressure friction (resistance) at trail contact is higher and acceleration lags somewhat. I chose tubeless tires and inflated them to the recommended high pressure stamped on the tire sidewall.
All of the brakes I saw on e-bikes were discs. I briefly considered Avid mechanical discs based upon my experience, their simplicity and documented performance. When calculating the “riding weight” of the e-bike I stayed with the standard discs. Now, after determining the potential speed of the ebike on the trail I have even considered upgrading the brakes supplied to the next performance level. It takes a lot of brake power to stop the heavier e-bike package.
The e-bike designs generally provide low center of gravity and good weight distribution. I would definitely not ride one without active front forks and find my full-suspension choice preferential to a hard-tail.
In terms of cost, as in other instances, you get what you pay for. I would recommend doing a careful personal skill-set analysis. Be honest about what you can or cannot, will or will not, do. An e-bike will generally make any number of your current skills more pleasurable and exciting. It is better to choose a conservative pace of improvement than an aggressive one. To take your time progressing to a higher riding plateau is less painful than a trip to the Emergency Room.
As far as riding pleasure goes I will say one thing. My e-bike can be as fast on tight single track as my Ossa Desert Phantom motorcycle was years ago when I competed in many motorcycle enduros. That, my friends, is plenty fast enough for me. And there’s no noise, no pollution. What’s not to love?
It should go without saying the more technical a machine the more advisable it is to do business with a knowledgeable seller. This is not a required distribution path for every e-bike sold. Just be aware you are jumping into some fairly deep technology and all parts and pieces are not created equal. Neither are those who provide service. There are already “hacks” and other enhancements developed, like acceleration and top-end speed, which carry risks. I watch for a “rescue battery” pack to get me out of the woods without hauling around a full-size backup. I am told by a friend who makes “battery packs” this can be accomplished. I expect we will see a lot of these accessories as the sport grows, the players entering the market are proof of growth to come.
So, since lists are a popular information format, here are seven things to consider when evaluating any of the new ebikes:
- Motor / Assistance package; Best way to get the power to the ground
- Batteries: ability to take a charge – range
- Tires: rolling efficiency and traction
- Brakes: Longevity and power
- Platform: Hardtail, full suspension
- Cost: vs function: intended use
- Dealer/source: Price, service, technical knowledge