Much like creeping taxation, quinoa everything in restaurants and mobile data pricing, the ebike draws our collective ire. Judgement is absolute and crushing. ‘It’s not a bike. It’s a motorbike… If you can’t ride, go spin on a Wattbike at Virgin Active. Get fitter… They’ll ruin trail access for all of us’.
A year on, from the first proper e-mountain bikes (e-MTBs) becoming available in South Africa, has sufficient time passed for reflection, and perhaps, appraisal? Well, before Pravin’s next budget, where ebikes could quite possibly become another tax revenue item, instead of an incentive - as they are in Europe, my feelings toward them have altered.
I should be the prototypical ebike hater. My mountain bike is a South African brand single-speed 26. Crisis. Could I be more fundamental in my traditionalism? Yet I’m conflicted about these battery mountain bikes.
They’re not motorbikes
Obvious for some. Less so for others. If you use the most sophisticated e-MTB available in South Africa, which is Specialized’s Levo, it’s categorically obvious that they’re not motorbikes. Mopeds would be a more plausible correlation, but without a throttle, and cranks which turn, the motorbike/motorped association is plainly false. And facetious.
These are mountain bikes with pedal assist battery motors. They’re not off-road motorbikes with single-crown forks. Components are sourced from the bicycle industry, instead of motorcycle supply chain.
The hate, though, is real. Online polls register disapproval numbers in excess of 80%, damning the e-MTB’s existence. But we all know the internet, with its self-appointed crusaders, is rarely within a margin of reflecting reality. In Europe, where cycling sources its history and hosts its most credible events (road/XCO/DH), e-MTB sales are near surpassing those of non-assisted – dare I say ‘conventional’ - mountain bikes. I’d always table sales statistics as the truest representation of acceptance and trend. With e-MTBs, there’s no invalidating the numbers: in parts of Europe, e-MTB sales are 50% up year-on-year.
Are they moral?
The primary salvo of criticism against e-MTBs has been ethical: if you work less, how dare you have access to my realm of adventure. Earn your turns.
In racing, certainly, there’s no argument that as e-MTBs become more sophisticated, there’s a risk of BB-battery motor solutions becoming sufficiently compact, to be near undetectable. Especially at races where organisers don’t have the sophisticated X-ray equipment.
E-MTBs don’t belong anywhere near a mountain bike race. Not even in a separate category. And if you analyse Specialized’s Levo, that’s hardly its purpose. This is a trail-bike: dropper seatpost, Pike fork. It’s not meant for stage racing. At all. It’s meant to enable those who have perhaps past their peak or are burdened by schedule or health issues, to recapture the thrill of trail exploration and riding.
It’s why I struggle with the enclave argument of having to earn your turns. There are riders in their 60s who are in great shape, examples of life-long discipline and training commitment. Age is a real keeper of ability, though, and why shouldn’t they have the privilege of participation on those fantastic five-hour Sunday trail rides? They’re the founders, with great stories, still chasing the thrill. Why deny them? Perhaps more meaningfully: why deny the unqualified excitement of a 60-year old refamiliarizing themselves with off-road cycling after four decades away from bikes?
Kids. Partners. It’s a similar logic. If your partner or offspring wish to join on a weekend ride, yet are petrified of the discrepancy in endurance between yourselves, why isn’t the e-MTB a great solution? It enables a thoroughly testing training ride for you, without risking the frustration of waiting at the top of each gradient for ten minutes.
They’re interested in this world unfamiliar to them, yet so beguiling to you, with its tremendous gatekeeping function of fitness. Is allowing family or a non-biking friend this glimpse of access, to aid understanding of your training commitment, really an unethical sacrifice before the mountain bike Gods? I struggle to think it could be the case.
Do they destroy trails?
Beyond the issues of ethical pedal assistance, trail destruction is the e-MTB-hater’s most vocal objection. The belief being that e-MTBs will enable riders so many runs, on a heavy bike, they’ll accelerate trail wear beyond all reasonable expectations.
It’s an absolutely rubbish claim, revealing an issue around trail wear and maintenance that’s conveniently ignored in South Africa: mass and bike set-up. Heavier riders, will harm a trail more. Heavier riders on relatively narrow, stage-race width tyres (at high pressures), will do this even more so.
Granted, The Levo is far heavier (22-and-a-bit-kg) than an aggregate South African rider’s bike, but the diversity in rider physiology rebalances this. How many rides have you been on where there are both 70- and 90kg riders? Exactly. The combined mass is what matters and most Levos, with rider, would equal the weight on many larger, fit, South African riders on their carbon marathon bikes. On a Levo, that mass contacts the trail through a much wider 27.5 plus tyre, which means less damage and potential brake lock-up.
Seeing the wood for the trees: e-benefits
As a purist, the concept of pedal assistance grates me. But I don’t live in an isolated Karoo valley all on my own. The momentum of trail access is empowered by participant numbers and people of influence – and they’re mostly mature stakeholders, unlikely to threaten Nino in a VO2 max test. If there are bikes that make these influential stakeholders ride more frequently and further, they’ll chair the negotiations for greater, lasting, trail access.
The burden of time, distance, and family are real. If your sanity and balance of zen depends on that specific singletrack descent, which is just too far from home within the time constraints of your scheduling, an e-MTB is not a tool for the lazy. It’s salvation for the committed.
Of all the unconsidered benefits of e-MTBs, safety is the outlier. Imagine a member of your riding group has an off in technical terrain, and you’re at the bottom of a valley, with the nearest mobile phone signal at the drop-in point you’ve just descended from. You have a problem. The ability of an e-MTB to get back up faster than anything else, and make that emergency call for help, might gain those crucial few minutes between a manageable evacuation and the delirium of an emergency evacuation.
Family. Kids. Dogs. Businesses which operate on weekends. I have none of these things in my life, but some of my friends do, and I’d like for them to have fewer excuses not to ride. It’s the reason I can’t bring myself to hate ebikes. Except when a 60-year old on a Levo is chatting away, whilst I’m close to exhaustion near the crest of a climb. Guess I need to train harder. eBikes make me a better rider. And I don’t even have one.