Words: Imogen Smith     Photo: Mike Blewitt

This journey from disdain to endorsement took a lot of thinking, a bit of time and, most of all, a ride. But given that a rival mag’s recent overview of e-biking in Australia drew passionate responses, many of them angry, I have been a little bit worried at what letters my review will attract, and I’ve also had to ask myself: why are e-bikes so hard to accept?

Trails, motors, and beginners
The first argument is always that they wreck our trails, but I wonder what evidence there is for this. Sure, trail bikes might tear up dirt tracks, but e-bikes are not motorbikes, and conflating the two is usually the result of a straw-man argument that an e-bike is a motorbike, because it is a bike with a motor. They have cassette gears and a rear derailleur to change them. They run on electricity, not petrol, and only if you pedal. There’s no throttle. Unless an e-bike has been hacked or home-made, the motor cuts out at speeds of around 25km/h. People who want to go attack trails with the kind of torque and throttle of a moto will just go and buy one and probably for about the same price – you won’t be getting much ‘braaaap’ on an e-machine.

But what about those trails – apparently e-bikes skid uphill! We’ve come a long, long way since I started mountain biking in the early 2000s, when most of my riding was done on illegal, handbuilt trails overgrown with scrub and prickly things and which quickly became rutted and eroded. Now, we have councils, resorts, and tourism boards all clamouring for singletrack and much of this is thanks to sustainable trail building techniques from IMBA and construction outfits around the world. Trails are now demonstrably environmentally friendly and durable – they cope pretty well with downhill skidding under thousands of less-experienced riders’ tyres, metres of precipitation, and service as race courses. As an inexperienced e-biker I skidded once or twice in days of testing. I have a feeling skidding will not be a problem, but my main point is that even if e-bikers do skid occasionally, it shouldn’t matter. If our trail designers and builders have been equal to the challenge of bringing mountain biking into the mainstream, surely we are equal to the arrival of e-bikes.

I’m also not convinced, anyway, that e-bikes are for beginners. In fact, I disagree with the argument that e-bikes will serve as some kind of life raft to rescue elderly, female, pregnant, injured, or otherwise ‘incapacitated’ riders from their lack of fitness or otherwise. I hope all these groups of people get out and experience the trails any way they can, but e-bikes aren’t there just to make up for lack of fitness or ability – they provide us all with a different experience to choose from. The cost of e-MTBs must also be a barrier to beginner purchases: with an entry-level e-MTB at around the $5000 mark, I suspect anyone investing in one will already be an avid rider of pedal powered (or as I like to say, p-bikes) anyway – I don’t know many beginners who drop 5k on their first bike, no matter how unfit they are.

Don’t overtake me
I never hated e-bikes because I thought they’d ruin our trails. I hated e-bikes because they’re faster and being overtaken by someone cruising along at a cadence of 40 doing 25km/h up a mountain sucks. I still hate it. Having been that e-bike rider myself, I do know that what I mistook for a look of insufferable smugness was probably a barely-concealed smile at the sheer pleasure of flying up a climb without exhausting physical effort. It’s really, really fun.

Are e-bikers lazy? Well, less so than all those people you can’t see sitting at home on the couch, or throwing beer cans out of their car windows at you. On the surface, e-biking represents a seismic shift in how we view cycling, which has hitherto relied on human power… But has it? Downhillers have long depended on ski lifts and shuttles to get their elevation. Mechanical assistance isn’t as new as you think, and if the range of e-MTBs coming into Australia for 2017 is anything to go by, it’s this gravity market they’re coming to serve. As someone who’s eaten many kilos of dust riding behind shuttle FWDs over the years, I know what kind of mechanical-assistance I’d rather passes me next time I’m slogging up a firetrail climb.

Achievements
But then there’s Strava. I can guarantee your Strava QOM is under some threat if e-bikes appear on your local hills. Downhill they present absolutely no advantage, but uphill? 200 watts or so of assistance is definitely going to see some records tumble. This raises questions not about e-bikes, but the human ego, the value of Strava’s leaderboard, and the meaning of the times we post in the virtual world. Is it good enough to own what you know to be the fastest p-bike time on a particular segment or hill, even if several e-bike riders might be in front of you online? If no, why?

I wonder if we’ll see a bit of a shift in how we feel about our Achievements. For those who want their names up there in lights, perhaps getting to a race and shooting for an achievement there might be the best option. After all, these can never be superseded or erased and you’ll be competing against real people and under the same circumstances – your tailwind is theirs as well. Strava is subject to the imprecisions of our GPS devices, which anyone who’s ever played Pokemon Go knows, are considerable. E-bikes will have their own category and the finish line will stay put... Could e-bikes possibly spark a renaissance in Aussie MTB competition? I’d love that, but I’m a dreamer.

Us and Other
But I still get annoyed when I get passed by an e-bike (or a Segway or a hoverboard for that matter), and I think that’s because they are different. Is there anything more potent in dictating human tastes and prejudices than our natural aversion to ‘otherness’? After all, defining ourselves as different from particular practices strengthens who we are. We are mountain bikers after all. We fought hard to get access to trails, to forge our culture of relaxed, irreverent, flow-seeking freedom. We don’t need a new breed of e-bikers to mess this up, and especially not bikes with motors.

Maybe, but consider this. Not only will people move fluidly between e-biking and p-biking, most likely owning one of each at least, but an e-biker, however they came to be on the trails, is another advocate, another volunteer, another enthusiast, another pro-bike human. In a country where bike riding (in contrast to the rest of the world) is increasingly marginalised through legislation and a rampant and ridiculous anti-cycling driving culture, surely it’s another one of ‘Us’, we’re gaining when someone picks up an e-bike, rather than a rival or a foe – and the more of Us there are, the stronger we become.

Just try it
E-bikes aren’t coming. They’re here already. And if you’re somewhere like I was a couple of years ago, I can only implore you to withhold your judgement and ride one before you make up your mind. There’ll be plenty of demo days and hire fleets coming to your local store. Then maybe drop AMB a line and let them know what you think.