“Dan, it’s Sanjai from Chevin Cycles, what do you make of ebikes?”
“Errrmmm I don’t really know, I guess they’re good for people that can’t ride up hills”
“How about when they’re mountain bikes?”
“I haven’t the faintest idea”
“Would you like to find out?”
And after roping in friend and committed enduro MTB’er Greg in, it was test time again. But before we do that, since we’re dealing with a whole new species of two wheeled transport it’s useful to get a few e-bike FAQ’s out the way first
How do they work?
Just like riding a bike – you pedal, but when you do there’s a load more power behind it. There’s different modes depending on how much of a boost you want and the amount of electricity you care to use in the process. Bikes are limited to a maximum supported speed of 15 miles per hour so anything you gain after that is down to your own work and / or gravity.
Do I press a button and go storming off? Am I in control? Won’t they damage the trails?
It’s supported peddling rather than a skinny moped. You’re as much in control as you would be on a conventional bicycle. Going out of control whilst going too fast on a trail will happen regardless of what you’re riding. As far as trail damage is concerned, inappropriate riding on any bike will hurt the terrain, whether that’s from digging a full-suss in to a wet berm or a weak rider eroding the edges by avoiding going over the rocks etc. If anything you could argue supported bikes benefit the trails. There is always the power to hit any obstacle and little need to ever rely on momentum to get up stuff. Anyone that strays off the official line to damage the surrounding area needs a skills check, but they’d have done that on an unsupported bike as well.
How do they ride?
Surprisingly well. Each bike had its own characteristics as would be expected from a 29″ hard tail vs a 650B full bouncer. Both were pretty well speced for their design – more of that below.
How long do the batteries last for?
Good question. A full lap lasting around 90 minutes ride time of Gisburn’s 8 course left each one with around about a third of their power remaining. We could have been more economical, but in reality when you’re taking one of these out for the first time frugality is not going to be at the foremost of your mind.
Will I face derision on the trails?
Nope, not all. During our trip to Gisburn everyone we chatted to was great – a whole lot of curiosity and a fair bit of longing, particularly for the Haibike. A group of older riders we encountered were particularly excited about the opportunities e-assist technology offers to friends that are facing reduced mobility due to illness or injury.
We did find ourselves apologising a lot as we whisked past people on uphill fire roads, whilst the two girls we tried to impress by casually peddling past them on the climb by the Hope Line immediately sussed out we were cheating and looked pitying rather than impressed as they passed us when we waited at the top; they had a point.
Trek Powerfly+ 5 – A 29″ hard tail with the addition of power assist technology, its motor had a slight lag before kicking in making it less intuitive for hitting technical climbs. Once it found its feet though there was no stopping it. Happiest cruising gently uphill on fire roads; here and on bridle / canal paths is where we’d really see a market for it in the UK. This is the ebike that’ll keep up with the grandkids. It’s a comfortable rolling rider, albeit one that probably performs better than it looks.
In fact, it was also pretty nimble through downhill pump sections where, contrary to established theories of gravity, I seemed to get it moderately airborne. If you are going to get angry on it then it’s happiest being driven through the front forks, as proven by satisfying blasts out of the apex on tight berms and a fair bit of swooping through pump sections. 29″ wheels and bulbous tyres proved highly adept at cruising through black-rated rock garden sections, although the power boost indisputably was the deciding factor here. It also hit steep, rocky descents with ease. On Gisburn’s Hully Gully (the frankly ridiculous roller-coaster path that is hands down my favourite piece of trail anywhere in the UK), its big wheels and weight-assisted momentum threw it high up the gully walls and held firm as it rolled down the now slightly worse for wear skinny sections.
The Haibike SDURO AllMtn RC Electric Bike was, in a nutshell, the beast that everyone lusted after. It’s a 15 cm travel full suss rig that rolls through anything in its path and handles with a nimbleness that belies its extra weight. Where the 29″ wheels coupled with the laggy momentum of the Trek made tight, technical climbs an acquired skill, the instantaneous motor and low-slung agility of the Haibike whipped it around the trails like, well, a trials bike. It rode up and over the technically and physically challenging Whetstone Crag section with barely a thought. Its extra power glided me across the rocky ascent whilst the low-hung ride and super absorbent suspension offered total confidence on the vertiginous descent. Passers-by stared dreamily at it and several riders hanging around at the top of the Hope Line offered to trade their monster full bouncers in there and then. This is the Humvee of the ebike world and an absolute scream to ride.
To call them bikes is a bit unfair – this is hyper reality cycling. They create a world where you are the coolest, most powerful rider in the gang, able to destroy any rock garden and power up any hill. You’ll be keeping up with pretty much anybody yet seemingly losing none of the sensation of riding a bike, or so it seems whilst you’re battery supported and invincible at least. The flip side is that as regular bike they weigh an absolute tonne. When assisted they’re Cinderella’s carriage with hydraulic suspension, but when the clock strikes midnight and the charge goes you really are stuck with a pumpkin. So long as you’re aware of this then they’re both great, fun toys to either extend your enjoyment of cycling with friends and family or to simply enjoy a supported blast around. Just make sure you get home before the battery runs out.
20 years ago, as a grubby teenager, I was the proud owner of a clapped out 1972 Hillman Imp. To be honest, they didn’t come any more clapped out than my particular imp, but it had wheels, an MOT and an engine, meant freedom and critically, was mine. Step forward a bit and Dan and I have very kindly been offered the loan of a Haibike SDuro RC 650b and a Trek Powerfly 5+ 29er for a day. We set forth to Gisburn to see what this is all about and answer the all-important question asked by everyone’s inner engineer: “Is it any good?”
The two bikes were designed for different purposes entirely – the Trek is a competent machine, its 29” wheels rolling and gripping nicely on the superb Bontrager XR3/2 front/rear tyre combination. It remained at its happiest pootling along fire roads, maintaining high speeds with next to no effort from the rider. The Bosch powerpack offering 4 levels of assistance, (or 5 if you include ‘Off’ upon which you discover that hardtail or not, a 20kg+ bike is heavy going. ). The Haibike was an altogether different and frankly, more cohesive beast – packing 150mm Fox TALAS CTD forks, Fox CTD 200mm rear suspension and 2.35” Nobby Nic rubber. Furthermore, the Haibike has a Yamaha battery and drivetrain which was more easily managed with less lag in the drivetrain than the Bosch system on the Trek.
At this point you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with shoddily built rivals to the Mini? Well fact fans, whilst both these bikes pack more – more weight than your normal mountain bike (to be honest, I pack more weight than I did in 1995 as well), they also both have more torque than that car. Slice it up any which way you like, this makes for entertaining cycling.
Draggy trail centre climbs are a breeze. One particular one was very pleasant as I was able to wave hello at a couple of elite looking xc riders, sauntering past and expending little effort for my 22kmh up a Cat4 climb, saddle down, 22kg bike battering the terrain into submission. The Trek was similarly at home but for me, the laggier power delivery of the electronics and lack of high speed cut out just made it feel more off road mobility scooter than ‘mountain bike with benefits.’.I have not laughed out loud on technical climbs before, but then I’ve never railed a berm going uphill before either.
On the downside: The weight….oh man these things are heavy. You don’t feel it in the corners, but those little rollers you can pop the bike over with a bit of air? Forget it. Both bikes are seriously aerophobic. Those tight hairpins where you take the weight off the rear wheel and flick the bike around with your hips? Nope. These babies (especially the Trek) like momentum and lots of it. To maintain smooth progress you really have to pump it and ride the fork. Traction on the Haibike was amazing and the whole electrical assistance made a lot more sense on this. The Trek to me, just felt like a cut & shut. If my Dad wanted to go for a ride and keep up with my bike-mad 6 year old then it’s a good tool for that ride. I just hope he doesn’t drop it or have it land on him as I think the aforementioned Hillman Imp wasn’t a lot heavier (it had the odd rust spot too).
We spent a lot of time debating what these things were for. Was it just because the engineers could or is there a real market? The Haibike is thoroughly entertaining – little effort and 85% of the reward. However at no point in the ride did I get to the end of a section and think ‘I really nailed that’. I remember ripping everyone’s legs off up a climb with a heart rate at 110. The descents were fun but the Haibike remained what it was, secure, planted and heavy. Ditto the Trek, just harsher. I really enjoyed the day out, the Haibike was a great trail centre machine with the Trek being most at home on fireroads and swoopy singletrack. The Haibike at its best battered everything into submission.
Reflecting on the mental checklist for a good day out on the bike:
Legs hurt? No.
Hungry as hell at the end of a good ride? Nope.
Feel like I’ve earned a beer? Not remotely.
Stretched myself, physically or technically? No.
Fundamentally though I came home with a smile on my face. Different bits of the trails made me smile, I could see the appeal. But something within me sat ill at ease on the whole question of electric bikes and it wasn’t the ethics of it (lets not start that debate). It was a really good laugh but something wasn’t stacking up. All became clear the following evening. At precisely 8:34pm I was astride my trusty Cube Reaction 29er, descending the red line in Stainburn. As I tipped it into the first Left/Right sequence I was back on a bike that was just SO agile and communicative by comparison, every pedal stroke rewarded with the right amount of forward momentum. There it became clear – the electric bikes were entertaining, but frankly…all torque and no action.
Thank you to:
The Gisburn Forest MTB Trail Development Group on Facebook for their thoughts and for the trail building team for crafting a phenomenal trail centre.
Sanjai and the staff of Chevin Cycles, that incidentally have an e-bike demo day on the 15th August 2015 – we’d seriously recommend booking on it.