All About e-Bikes
Mountain bikers are a pretty relaxed crowd. Compared with the road cycling fraternity we tend to be far less uptight and worried about what we’re riding or how we look—as long as we’re out enjoying the trails then it’s all good, right?
Well that’s what I thought until I started reading some of the social media posts relating to off-road e-bikes. Sure people can get a bit passionate about their favourite wheel size or some new hub standard but I was seeing a whole new level of hate. A handful of people seem open to the idea but most believe they are pseudo motorbikes for lazy people and they’re going to tear the trails apart.
So what are these contraptions and are they set to be the terror of the trails as many assume?
The term e-bike is commonly used to describe a pushbike that incorporates an electric motor. Like anything, there are a few different types of e-bike and their designation has a major bearing on the nature of these machines.
Currently there are two types of electric pushbike that are deemed legal in Australia. By legal I mean you are allowed to use them on the road as you would with any other non-motorised bicycle. First up is the traditional e-bike; these must have working pedals and the motor can’t produce more than to 200 watts. While they do have a motorbike-style throttle, the limited power ensures that they aren’t capable of pulling massive roosts up the trail.
More recently, bikes that conform to the European EN15194 standard have been declared fit for sale in Australia. These bikes can have a 250 watt motor but they don’t have a throttle at all. Instead the motor automatically provides assistance as you pedal—the harder you pedal, the more it assists. Once you reach 25kph, the power simply cuts out. This newer breed of electric bike is known as a ‘pedalec’.
In addition to the purpose built pedelecs and e-bikes, you can also buy conversion kits to fit to a regular bike. Many of these kits stemmed from the days when there were few dedicated e-bikes available in Australia. With these, the onus is on the creator to ensure that it meets the regulations.
If all this makes you think of that bogan who passes you on the bike path whilst carrying a case of VB on the shoulder, well wipe that image from your mind right now. It’s illegal to ride a combustion engine equipped pushbike on roads and paths in all Australian states and any petrol powered bike is producing way more than the 200 or 250 watt figure that’s allowed on an e-bike.
A 200 watt internal combustion engine (equal to 0.268 horsepower) would have a capacity of four or five cubic centimetres and be about the size of a standard medical syringe—it simply wouldn’t produce enough torque to propel a bicycle. Modern e-bikes cost anywhere from $2,000 up to $15,000 and bear no resemblance to the typical bogan rocketship. By design you still have to pedal when riding a pedelec and you’ll get quite a physical workout, they just allow you to cover more ground and take the sting out of climbing.
Beyond all of this, there’s also a breed of high-powered e-bike that doesn’t even pretend to meet the existing regulations. These bikes are usually promoted as being for off-road use, but it’s usually not that simple—see ‘High Powered e-Bikes’ at the end of this article.
Riding with Power
For the sake of this article, we’ll focus primarily on pedalec bikes. This is where the high-end and enthusiast market is heading, and all of the latest electric MTBs from the major brands are made to meet the EN15194 standard.
Most Pedelec MTBs run a mid-mounted motor; it’s usually integrated into the bottom bracket area with the battery fitted to the down tube. A handlebar mounted control will select the power level. No matter how you set it, you still need to pedal and it’ll always cut out once you reach 25kph. The higher assistance levels will just add more power to your pedal strokes at the expense of the battery life. If you can produce 250 watts of leg power and select the maximum level of assistance, the pedalec will just about double your power output.
Of course this power is tempered somewhat by the added weight. Your typical e-MTB weighs 18-25kg—more than a DH bike. Even so, they still give an average mountain biker the leg power of an elite XC racer and will have you climbing hills much faster than usual (or holding your usual pace with substantially less effort).
So, do e-bikes rip up the trails? So far there haven’t been any formally recognised studies into their impact but once you’ve ridden one, it’s not hard to make some observations.
Hopping on an e-bike is like strapping on some Nino Schurter legs. An average recreational mountain biker might be able to sustain 200 watts if they’re pushing it. Put them on an e-bike and they’ll produce 550-watts; it’ll feel great but it doesn’t in any way compare to riding a dirt-moto. If you do lose traction and spin the back tyre, you cease applying torque through the pedals and the assistance stops—there’s no continuous roosting along the trail with a 250-watt pedelec.
People often suggest that the added weight will increase the damage to our trails. With a typical e-MTB sitting at 23kg, they weigh around 10kg more than a regular MTB. As it stands, riders can vary from 50kg up to 100kg or so; that’s a far bigger difference than you get between the bikes. If weight is such a concern, then maybe we should be excluding bigger riders from our most fragile trails. If anything the added weight of an e-bike makes it more ‘planted’ on the trail and less inclined to lose traction and slide around. That’s my observation having ridden a few different e-bikes but we also spoke to Nick Bowman to get an expert opinion on the potential for impact.
Nick is a long-time trail advocate trail builder and was the founding president of IMBA Australia. He also has a background in conservation and park management—he knows his stuff when it comes to sustainable trail building. He suggests that, “e-bikes may not have significantly more impact at an individual level, however they could lead to more people riding and more people riding further on naturally surfaced trails.
“While there are positives to getting more people on bikes, an influx of newcomers and generally more people riding further will mean more impact. Many trail systems in Australia don’t have formal trail maintenance programs in place. So, on one hand you’ll have volunteers working hard to keep trails in good shape while the bike manufactures make sizable profits with little regard for where these machines will be used—a situation that hardly seems fair.”
For another view we got in touch with Glen Jacobs, director of the renowned trail building company World Trail. He loves the idea of e-bikes and has ridden a few of them previously, stating, “I’ve always been an advocate for innovation and evolution but I don’t believe in anything where you’ve got to twist a throttle for MTB trails. With pedal assist e-bikes, I think they are a great idea. It’s not a great idea for me personally or 95% of the current MTB population but it’s got the potential to engage a whole bunch of new people.
“As for damage to the trails; if you’re looking at a pedal assist e-bike, I can’t see them being a big problem, although there is the potential for them to travel faster on the flatter and climbing sections of trail. Being power limited to 25kph may seem slow if you’re riding across an open field but it’s pretty quick on a narrow singletrack. We design a trail to be ridden at a certain speed and pedal assist bikes will have you approaching uphill corners at a higher speed than you normally would. This could lead to some additional abrasion on the trail, as riders may end up skidding into corners.
“In the right hands, I don’t think an e-bike poses any problem; it’s like anything really whether it’s guns or cars. I think we just need to give them a go – maybe just on the fire trails to start with – and see how they fare. They may not be the boogie man that everyone fears, or they could be worse than we think—we really don’t know. At the end of the day, if they’re not doing damage and nobody is riding them too fast, then I think it’ll all be okay.”
Elephant in the Room – the bigger issue of trail access
Looking past the kneejerk reactions, it seems that riding a pedalec style e-bike in the bush mightn’t be all that cataclysmic when it comes to their physical impact on the trail. There is a bigger issue however, and that is how we are perceived as mountain bikers.
For many years, MTB groups have struggled to gain access to trails because your average non-cycling land manager didn’t know what a mountain bike was. Their only exposure to the sport may have been a 20 second clip of some ‘extreme’ riding action on television. With this and little else to go on, it’s pretty easy to draw the conclusion that we’re a bunch of crazies in search of a massive adrenaline fix. With fat knobby tyres and a bunch of suspension, a mountain bike is only a hop skip and a jump from a motocross bike in the minds of many diehard bushwalkers.
MTB advocates have spent decades educating government organisations, land owners, community groups and environmentalists on what a mountain bike is and how it differs from a motorbike. Much of the rhetoric revolved around mountain bikes being human powered—like bushwalkers with wheels.
As much as things have progressed, we’re still a in a relatively tenuous spot and the idea of MTB trails still meets a great deal of resistance in some areas. The risk with e-bikes is that they stand to reaffirm the ill-informed view that mountain bikers are just the same as moto riders. Sure we can start explaining the complexities of pedalecs and how they are just like a pushbike but the argument may fall on deaf ears.
Land managers may also hold concerns with the potential for future development. Electric bikes are currently limited to provide very modest performance, but what’s to say that these regulations won’t change to allow much higher speeds and more power? If e-bikes are excluded, who is going to regulate this at the trailhead? The last thing we want is all forms of MTB being kicked out because a land manager isn’t capable of policing the regulations.
Nick Bowman reaffirms these fears, “Many MTB trail advocates have worked hard to ensure mountain bikes are accepted in Australia’s public reserves and open spaces. There is still a fair way to go in order to achieve this goal. Most of the urban areas on the east coast are only just getting to the point where new purpose built and fully funded trails are being rolled out. It’s still early days in many ways.
“A core argument in advocating for singletrack in conservation areas is that riders are seeking an experience in nature under their own power, just like a hiker—this part of the argument falls down with e-bikes. Powered bikes are not what I’ve been advocating for over the last decade and a half, that’s for sure.”
It’s certainly a valid concern and the US is currently facing the same dilemma. Like us, they’ve endured a long battle with strong resistance from groups like the Sierra Club and adding motors to the mix doesn’t help our public image.
The US based International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) offers this view on e-bike; “Electric bicycles are a welcome addition to the cycling community … however, the use of a motor whether internal combustion or electric would require changing the classification to a motorised use. IMBA would support the use of e-bikes anywhere that we could also support other motorised uses.” In short, IMBA doesn’t support the use of e-bikes on MTB singletrack.
European nations take a far more liberal view on e-bikes. Initially the attitudes in France and Spain mirrored the US but now they have also jumped on the e-bike bandwagon. French DH and enduro legend Nicolas Vouilloz uses an e-bike in training, as it helps him get a few extra runs in without needing a shuttle or ski lift. Ride some MTB trails in Germany or Austria and at times there can be as many powered bikes as unpowered. Despite this popularity, their MTB communities haven’t imploded and everyone still manages to get along.
e-Bikes on Aussie Trails
So what about Australia; are you actually allowed to e-bike on our MTB trails?
Unfortunately there’s no simple across the board answer to this. It all depends on where you want to ride and the policies that apply to your particular patch.
Some reserves that are managed by Queensland Parks and Wildlife (SEQ office) have signage that excludes ‘motor vehicles’, but this signs refers to petrol, diesel or LPG powered vehicles—they were installed prior to electric bikes being available in Australia. QPWS has confirmed that you can ride an EN15194 approved pedalec or an electric-assisted bike (of not more than 200 watts) on QPWS-managed mountain bike trails and on other trails where bicycles are allowed. QPWS expects to publish an information sheet soon to help the public understand these rules.
Hop across the border to NSW and it’s a different story. NPWS redid their cycling policy in 2011 and their definitions are as follows; ‘Cycling means riding a bicycle in any style. Bicycle means any pedal powered vehicle with wheels, including mountain bikes, road bicycles and tricycles. This does not include motorised bicycles, which are defined as ‘motor vehicles’ under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974.’ As a result, you can’t ride an e-bike on any NPWS singletrack and even gated off management trails will be out of bounds (like the Oaks trail in the Blue Mountains near Sydney for example).
With reserves that fall outside of NPWS jurisdiction, it depends on the local land management policy. Look to Stromlo Forest Park in the ACT and the statement on their home page makes it pretty clear; “No motorised vehicles of any kind or remote control devices are permitted.”
Nick Bowman believes that, “e-bikes should only really be allowed in specific bike parks or designated areas. Shared use trails, national parks and other sensitive areas should only allow for human powered vehicles and the more traditionally accepted forms of physical activity.”
“Legal trails all around the country are feeling the pressure of high use,” says Nick Bowman. “More funds are need for trail maintenance to cater for the expected growth. It would help if there was an easy way for companies (like bike manufacturers) to sponsor individual trails or whole trail programs. We need to look at new models rather than expecting state governments to keep handing out tax payer funds.”
Existing exclusions don’t mean e-bikes will be banned for eternity in these areas. It’s just that policy will need to change if pedal assist users want access that parallels that of an unpowered MTB. This could be on the cards if lots of people take up e-biking (as we’ve seen in Europe) and the people that I spoke to at QPWS and NPWS certainly seemed open to the concept.
While they hold no prejudice against e-bikes, they were also well aware of the distinction between this new technology and regular mountain bikes. It seems their main concerns rest with risk and liability and whether the trail network can handle the additional traffic if e-bikes attract newcomers as anticipated.
An influx of new riders may sound scary but more bums on bikes could be beneficial for advocacy efforts. It may take us from being a minority group to a larger one with more political weight but only time will tell.
Whether you are for or against them, it seems that a sizable portion of the bike industry will be supporting e-bikes and shops around the country are already selling them—sticking our heads in the sand won’t make them go away. We need to accept their existence, educate ourselves and develop an approach that doesn’t place current MTB trail access at risk.
Why Go Electric?
Electric assist bikes can appeal to a broad spread of people; from lifelong mountain bikers to complete newcomers.
• Making the fitness side of the sport less daunting can draw newcomers.
• They allow those who are injured, older or less physically fit to ride at a level that makes the sport appealing and enjoyable.
• Couples who face widely varying fitness levels can complete a long ride together without the weaker rider being crushed.
• Even fit riders can benefit; an extra 250w will make a brutal two hour alpine climb more manageable.
• You’ll ride further for the same effort, experience more trail and won’t shy away from big climbs.
• For gravity riders, they can negate the need for shuttling (something that often angers local residents).
• They make a good (albeit expensive) N+1 bike. The added weight makes them less agile when descending but the climbs become fun instead.
If you like to crank up massive mountains under your own power and bomb down the other side, these points mightn’t strike a chord. Of course they will appeal to others and pedalec style e-bikes are relatively silent low-impact machines. Sharing the trail with them won’t hurt you so keep an open mind about this. Of course they raise other issues as outlined elsewhere and that’s why we need to manage this new trend appropriately.
A number of brands already sell e-mountain bikes in Australia with some major labels arriving soon. Specialized will have their Levo Turbo, which is expected to be available in the first half of 2016. French MTB brand Lapierre will be bringing in their Overvolt for 2016 as well. Both of these are high-end machines aimed at MTB enthusiasts and a long way from the commuter e-bikes that we typically envisage. Trek also has a couple of e-MTBs in their line-up but don’t plan on selling them here—not at the moment anyway.
Currently Focus, Scott, BH Bikes, KTM, Lombardo (Italy), Gepida and Haibike sell proper off-road-worthy e-bike models in Australia. Haibike mightn’t be a name you are familiar with but the German brand was the first to hit it big on the European e-MTB scene. Curious to see how these things sell Down Under I spoke with the local Haibike distributor. I was told they can’t get them fast enough and each shipment gets pre-sold. The stock goes straight out as soon as a container load arrives, and these are all bikes in the $6,000 to $8,000 price range.
Based on this, it’s pretty easy to see why the major brands would like a piece of the action.
High Powered e-Bikes
In addition to the legally approved electric bikes, there are a number of high-powered e-bikes being sold in Australia—some are locally produced while others come in as kits that are bought on-line. They can be absolute beasts, often looking like a motocross bike and producing upwards of 5,000 watts.
As this is clearly beyond the legal power restrictions, they are typically pitched as being for off-road use only. When you look at the Road Transport (Safety and Traffic Management) Act 1999, this generally means private land. It certainly doesn’t include state forests, fire trails, national parks or any other areas that are open to the general public.
Ride a high-powered e-bike on the trails and you risk being charged and fined for riding an unregistered vehicle. Of equal if not greater concern is the fact that by being unregistered, you could be personally liable for any damage or injury caused if you are involved in an accident.