Racing an E-MTB: Taming the Electronic Beast

Is this guilt I feel, or am I overwhelmed by smugness? I can’t quite work out my emotions, as I’m doing a thing that goes truly against the grain of my mountain biking philosophy. I ride from race village to the first stage of an enduro race, alone. My only companion is the gentle, quiet hum from the Bosch motor as it powers me up the hill on this tricked-out Haibike Xduro machine.

The man and his machine - in this case the Haibike XDURO AllMtn RC.
The man and his machine – in this case the Haibike XDURO AllMtn RC.

”This isn’t mountain biking,” the fitness side of me is thinking… then the opposite side to my persona replies, “but it sure is easy.” I’m sure I can feel the death stares from the other racers as I steam past them (and their regular leg-powered bikes) up the hills. I had given up my top-ten placed ranking for this experiment; just how competitive could a racer be at a regular enduro on an electric-powered bike up against human pedal power?

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From this angle you nearly can't see that Jim's bike is an E-Bike.
From this angle you could be mistaken for thinking that Jim’s isn’t on an E-MTB.

I had tricked this thing out to give it the closest feel to my race bike, but man was it different. Weighing in at 22.5 kg, it actually collapsed my cheap work-stand a couple of times; that’s how heavy it was! I wondered how the hell I was meant to give this thing full pace down some of the more technical stages, and what the hell was going to happen when I hit the max cut-off speed of 27 km/h. Then I would have to pedal her under my own steam; jeez, this could be interesting!

Flat out racing! Crashing the stereotype of an lazy E-Biker.
Flat out racing! Dismissing the stereotype of a lazy E-Biker.

The looks you get are a tad strange, as you pull out an e-bike at a normal bike race, especially in the UK where an e-bike category is non-existent. I felt like that older guy with the beautiful model wife; they can’t understand why she’s with you, but secretly they would love to take her for a ride! Having to bring a charger to a race and keep an eye on the power usage throughout the day was also a bit of a new one on me. During the first day’s practice, I had got a bit carried away with the ‘turbo mode’ (the most powerful of the pedal assist modes) and nearly ended up a fair way from base without power, limping her home on ‘eco mode’.

In case of racing shots you still have to get used to a bike with a big battery.
In case of racing shots you still have to get used to a bike with a big battery.

As I pulled alongside riders I knew, I would slow up for a chat. All of them asked about the unusual bike powering me along – them sweating in the heat of the sun, me fresh as a daisy. The amazing thing was just how interested riders actually were. “So what’s it like in the stages?” was the most common question. Out of the mass of people over the weekend who talked to me about my electric ride, probably only one was negative; to me, this was the biggest surprise. Could folk be warming to them?

A surprisingly big amount of riders was very interested how it went with the E-Bike on the stages.
A surprisingly large amount of riders were very interested how the stages went with the E-Bike.

My result wasn’t to count but was still to be comparable with my usual category. Still desperately competitive and wanting to do well in my usual Veterans’ class, I decided to treat this thing like a regular race. I rode the transitions all twice to repeat the stages; there was no way I was going to try and push this weighty beast back up sections to retry parts of the tracks. The bike park-type stages were the hardest. Most of these were over the bike’s power cut-off speed, so pedaling this thing under my own steam with sticky DH tires was a real tough one, leaving my lungs pumping and over-worked like a hooker’s mattress! In the air, it had the grace and playfulness of a baby hippo – and off the jumps, takeoffs had to be pumped with all my might just to gain enough air. On the tighter turns, it was also quite a beast to haul around, as once your pedaling ceases, so does your drive – instantly!

Jim tried to take this race as serious as every other.
Jim tried to take this race as seriously as normal.

OK, so this all sounds a bit negative and regular e-bike riders must be wondering if I’m here to undermine their choice of rides. Well, it’s not all bad. Firstly, the transitions (no matter how steep) were just ridiculously easy. I could literally get to the top one-handed and talking on the phone without busting a lung or breaking out in a sweat if needed… that was great! Then obviously on the slower, pedally parts of the stages it was just unreal: get your gears and pedal speed right, and you could blast through the tougher bits feeling like the off-road version of Lance Armstrong. Short uphill blasts were just ridiculous too – sit down, spin the pedals, and you were at max speed in no time, grinning like a Cheshire cat. There was also one capability that really came as a massive surprise to me: the bike’s incredible ability on rough and gnarly DH sections. I was expecting it to be a piece of shit on such terrain, but fire it through the roughest of roots, rocks, and holes (most of the time without pedaling) and it holds its line like a train on tracks. Here the heavyweight and fine upgrades were a massive plus when it came to traction.

Shredding the E-Bike without excuses.
Shredding the E-Bike without excuses.

I ended up in exactly the same position I would get at a UKGE race, beating and getting beaten by the same riders, the only difference being that I rode shit on the fast stuff and good on the pedally bits (quite the opposite to my normal ability). It was a hell of an experience, which I will never forget although the drive home feeling like I hadn’t raced was the oddest of all. Sat in the van I felt fresh as a daisy; it was like I had cheated myself out of a proper ride without that feeling of exhaustion and the satisfaction of completing a weekend of tough racing. As for whether I would have one of these bikes, well for sure I would love one as well as my ‘proper bike,’ but only if lots of mates had them too. When it comes to racing on e-bikes, I would say these have no place in enduro…more a future in multi-lap XC, maybe more extreme stuff for the spectators?

Upgrading The Monster

ENVE-Wheels are not only on normal bikes super awesome and good looking!
ENVE Wheels: A heavy bike needs strong wheels, so carbon Enve M60 wheels were added to keep the bulk under control in the corners and add faster rolling past the cut-off point.
Maxxis Highroller II with DH-Casing make sure that there will be no flat tires.
Aggressive Rubber: Coupled to the Enve wheels were Maxxis High Roller 2 DH tires for maximum grip; although they had less rolling speed, I knew they wouldn’t puncture!
The brakes from Hope had a tough job to do because of the bigger weight of an E-Bike.
Powerful Deceleration: The stopping power was done by trusty Hope Tech 4 Evo brakes with big 203 and 183 mm rotors. After all, when you have that much weight to bring to a halt, you need brakes you trust with your life!
You can count on the FOX Float 36! It doesn't depend on if there's a motor or not.
Beefed up suspension: The suspension was taken care of by Fox’s plush 36 160mm forks and the Float X shock. (Fortunately, with a 200 mm eye-to-eye length, the shock was transferable from my race bike.)
Slacken her out with a special angleset for more stability at high speed.
Slacken Her Out: A Works Components angleset raked her out a slacker 1.5 degrees. With 10mm more fork travel, it was then at a much more acceptable 66 degrees for the rougher DH stuff, also gaining more stability at speed.

When it comes to racing on e-bikes, I would say these have no place in traditional enduro races… Riding uphill is so much fun, why not include some timed technical ascents? A multi-lap XC format could also work well, maybe including more extreme stuff for the spectators?

Jim Buchanan checking the results of his special ride.
Jim Buchanan checking the results of his special ride.

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Did Jim’s experience get you curious to try out an E-mountain bike for yourself? Check out the E-mountain bike group test 2016 in the new issue of E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazine.

Words: Jim Buchanan Photos: Isac Paddock


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