Training with an E-MTB

Photos: Mark Hunter

First up, a quick re-cap on what e-MTBs are and aren’t. Most of the commercial e-bike offerings from the big manufacturers are ‘pedal assist’ bikes, meaning that for the motor to engage and propel you forwards you must pedal. This means that you don’t have a throttle and you do actually have to put in some effort (albeit sometimes not very much) to give you a boost. Legally their assisted speed is capped at 25km/h, which is quite frankly plenty for out on the trails. Obviously, you can go faster than 25km/h but that has to be under your own steam or downhill.

Here in the Hunter household we have just invested in a new addition to the toy cupboard, a Specialized Turbo Levo. We did procrastinate a fair bit about this purchase, but the two-pronged argument of it enabling you to spend more time doing the things you love (i.e. mountain biking) and a substitute for the hubby’s daily car commute won the day. Just recently I posted a photo of the new Levo on social media, as was quite surprised with how divisive this was. My friends were polarized into lovers or haters! What I can say to those haters out there is that don’t pass judgment until you have ridden one, you may find yourself jumping the fence pretty rapidly!

The e-MTB has so many uses, and applications for all types of riders, so in this article I am going to cover how you can train and ride with an e-MTB and get the most from your investment.

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1. More time on the downhills
Your own personal shuttle service. For riders who goal is to get as much downhill practice as possible during a session, it makes perfect sense to use an e-MTB. Typically, you will be able to climb twice as fast as you would under your own pedal power, which should translate to twice as much time descending with a massive smile on your dial.
Yes, the bike will feel different to your regular MTB, it will feel heavier underneath you, but the added weight of the bike will actually make it faster on the downhills, so improving your reaction times. The bike really only is as fast as the technical skills of its rider, so the ability to ride downhill for longer really will pay dividends if your aim is to improve the technical competence of your riding. Do note that when you switch back to your normal rig, it will feel very responsive and lively, so I wouldn’t exclusively ride the e-MTB for prolonged periods of time if your aim is to improve your skills on your regular rig, otherwise you’ll get quite a shock when switching over. Once or twice a week on the e-MTB should give you the right mix in addition to a few rides on the regular MTB.

The extra weight of the e-MTB will also give your upper body quite a bit of a workout if you are riding hard on the downhills, don’t be surprised if you back and shoulders feel like you’ve done 10 rounds with Mike Tyson the next day! I view this as a real positive, mountain bikers need strong upper bodies to control the bike in technical terrain, and as some of the trails being built are getting more and more gnarly a strong upper body is becoming more and more important to getting the most out of your riding and racing.

2. Returning from injury
Many e-bikes have different levels of assistance. If you are allowed to ride but are limited by doctor’s orders then the e-bike might be the perfect solution to getting out of the house, and doing a little bit of exercise. As your recovery progresses so you can reduce the assistance level on the bike, or perhaps use the full range of the battery to ride for longer. Either way the battery assistance provides a fantastic graded return to riding. Note that there is one small caveat to this – bear in mind how much the bike weighs; all are 20kg plus, so be wary of lifting it, the last thing you want is to put your back out by lifting it into the car!

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3. Getting off the couch and returning to regular exercise
Some people view the road back to fitness as so insurmountable that they don’t know where to start. When riding an e-bike you are still exercising, but at much lower effort.
In 2018 there was a systematic review of all research paper related to the health benefits of e-bikes. It concluded that there was moderate evidence that riding an e-bike can improve cardiorespiratory fitness in physically inactive individuals.
The intensity of these rides was classed as moderate, which was less than conventional riding, but more than walking; so it’s still working out, but at a manageable and achievable level. I see the e-MTB as a great way to keep mountain bikers riding even though their fitness levels may have lapsed considerably over time. There is nothing better than seeing the smile on the dial of a rider’s face after a fun day of mountain biking, when before they loved the downhill but dreaded the uphill, had to stop multiple times on the way back up and generally felt terrible, this has been replaced by cheesy grins and fun factor through the roof for the whole ride.

4. Enabling different fitness level riders to rider together ‘leveling the playfield’
This is, by far and away is my favourite application of the e-MTB. What I have noticed as we get older is the group of buddies that used to ride together have drifted apart in terms if fitness levels. Once we were all pretty similar, but now some have got fitter, some less fit and riding together doesn’t happen as much as it used to, because its too slow for some and downright unpleasant suffering for others.
Here the e-MTB comes into its own and makes for a great level playing field for a wide range of riders across all fitness levels.

5. Group rides – pacing for you mates
Two riders, two different goals for a ride they want to do together. How many times has this happened to you, you want to ride with your best mate, but they are training for some crazy MTB race with 3000m of vertical climbing, and you’re not. Jumping on the e-MTB will enable you to ride the uphill sections as ferociously (if not more) than you mate. The 5 hour training session they have planned will be a breeze for you. If you want to up your effort level on any climb then you have the controls on your bike to dial back the assist and work harder, no longer do you have to think about the uphill sections and whether you can make it to the top. You can also become the pace setter for them if they’d like, set your level of pedal assist and off you go, able to shout words of encouragement to your mate along the way as well.

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6. Recovery rides
A recovery ride by its definition should place little to no load on the body. The level of effort involved in the recovery ride should so little that you can complete the ride whilst breathing easily through you nose. If at any point you find yourself switching to mouth breathing, then you are going to hard. For many of us we don’t have the luxury of terrain that enables a pure recovery ride, and there are always sections of hills which make true recovery rides very difficult. Enter the e-bike, suddenly you can ride your bike every day without the worry of overtraining. Tired, sore legs are still able recovery whilst getting out and feeling the wind through your hair (or to be technically correct the wind through your helmet)!

7. Your daily commute or second car substitute
Having invested big dollars in an e-MTB, means you want to get the most out of your new toy, right? Even though it’s a mountain bike, it doesn’t mean you can’t ride it on the road or cycle paths. Using the e-MTB to commute to and from work will make your daily commute a breeze. Yes, it might be a wee bit annoying with the motor cutting out when it reaches 25km/h, but you’re not out to win the commuter cup.

If you want more of a workout on one of the rides to or from work, try switching the motor off for a couple of low cadence intervals of 3-10 minutes, then recovering in between efforts with the motor assisting. I can assure you your legs will get very strong pretty quickly with this training.

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