We put the leading systems to the test

Controversial they may be, but with 1.1m e-bikes sold in Europe in 2014, they are hard to ignore.

In association with JE James we’re going to guide you through the process of buying an electric mountain bike, all the way from explaining what they do and don’t do, through to recommending specific bikes.

Electric mountain bikes

Mountain bikers love to moan. If we’re not complaining about the advancing tide of new standards, then we are bitching about never having enough time to ride our soon-to-be-out-of-date bikes. Talk about First World problems!

And with the rapid pace of current tyre and wheel size development, the discussion about standards is unlikely to abate any time soon.

What if, however, there was a First World solution that enabled you to ride more? We’re not talking about stretching the space-time continuum, knocking off early from work or making mountain bike orphans of your children every weekend… even if the solution is just as socially unacceptable to some. No, we’re talking about electric mountain bikes!

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Power assist motor

With an electric mountain bike (or e-MTB) that gives you assistance up to 25kph, it’s possible to pack twice as much riding into the same amount of time. Those five great trails that you normally ride after work can now be ridden twice. That boring singletrack climb on your lunchtime loop suddenly becomes the highlight of your day. With the extra push from the motor it’s easy to double the distance covered, or do the same ride in half the time.

You’re probably thinking that if you can pack twice as much riding into the same amount of time, then surely the bikes are going to wear out twice as fast? The short answer is, yes! And if you’re always riding the same trails, that means more wear and tear on Mother Nature.

The environmental impact of battery production and increased electricity consumption can’t be ignored either, but if owning an electric mountain bike means that you no longer need to drive to the trails, they could prove to be the greener option.

All of these are legitimate concerns, but they are a topic for another article. The purpose of this test is to find the best electric mountain bike, not to debate whether the category is an inspired idea, or the most evil development in the history of mountain biking.

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Motor options

There is no denying that e-bikes bring a whole new dimension to the term drivetrain, and with them come new players to the world of mountain biking. Bosch, Brose and Yamaha are vying for pole position in this burgeoning category, so for this test we selected three full-suspension bikes from the biggest conventional players, albeit each with a different motor.

First up, we have the Giant Full E+ 1 at £3,199 with the Yamaha X94 Motor. It’s the only bike on test not to have Plus-size tyres, so it’ll be interesting to see if that works in its favour.

Brose is represented by the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie at £4,000. With its integrated approach to design, it’s undeniably one of the best looking e-bikes to date.

The final bike in our trio is the Bosch-equipped Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus. At £4,350 it’s the most expensive bike in the test, but it also has what looks to be the best specification and sizing.

So, three new electric mountain bikes; each guaranteeing to turbocharge your ride and provide electrical assistance to ease the miles, but which one will light up the trails? Let’s find out…

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Giant Full E+ 1

Price: £3,199

Score: 6/10

It wouldn’t take much to bolster the Giant’s rating. A shorter stem, wider handlebar and some thicker casing tyres would be all it would take. If, however, Giant wants to turbo charge the Full E+ 1 and compete with the likes of Specialized and Trek, it’s going to need a compete overhaul. The length of the frame needs to be increased, the gear range needs expanding and that old square taper crank spindle on the Yamaha motor really needs to be put back in the museum. As it stands, the Full E+ 1 is more of a towpath power-house than a genuine singletrack slayer.

Read the full review of the Giant Full E+ 1

Buy Now: Giant Full E+ 1 at J E James

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Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie

Price: £4,000

Score: 8/10

If this were a beauty contest the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie would have wooed the judges with its stunning aluminium frame, dazzling LED control pad, clever design and easygoing personality. It helps too, that it’s the most robust design in this test. Get past its devilish good looks, however, and you quickly realise that the Turbo Levo isn’t without fault. Power delivery from the Brose motor can be a little erratic, especially if you prefer to spin rather than mash on the pedals, and the frame sizing isn’t as generous as the Trek.

Read the full review of the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie

Buy Now: Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie at J E James

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Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus

Price: £4,350

Score: 9/10

Trek’s latest e-bike isn’t simply about climbing higher, riding further or exploring more; it’s also about having a total blast in the process. With dialled geometry and great sizing the Powerfly 9 LT Plus lets you reap all the benefits of its 150mm travel ABP suspension on the descents, while the Bosch Performance CX motor gives you the control you need to attack the most technically challenging climbs. Yes, the battery rattle is annoying and the mount for the Bosch Purion display could be more robust, but neither were enough to distract from what is a truly capable bike.

Read the full review of the Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus

Buy Now: Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus at J E James (including 10% back in points)

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Notes on the numbers: Geometry

We’ve established that it’s not motor size that matters on an electric mountain bike, so let’s take a closer look at what really counts… the geometry.

All three bikes have slacker head angles than normal and that’s critical for providing a controlled steering response when bombing along at 25kph.

They all have relatively long chainstays too, which further boosts stability. While this is normally related
to tyre size, the orientation of the motor plays an even bigger part, which is why the Giant has the longest chainstays, even though it has the smallest wheel size.

It’s the issue of sizing that ultimately separates these three e-bikes though. The reach on the Trek is 33mm longer than the Giant and 20mm longer than the Specialized.

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Conclusion

At the outset of this electric mountain bike test we were convinced that the deciding factor would be the performance of the motor. Could a small independent company like Brose compete with a household name like Bosch, and what, if anything, would Yamaha — with its wealth of experience in motorcycles — bring to this e-bike roundtable?

We genuinely thought the best bike would be the one that had the smoothest power delivery or provided the best range on a single charge. The test crew bandied around new terms like grunt, torque, resistance and revs, in an attempt to describe the subtle differences between each system.

As it turns out, what makes an e-bike tick isn’t really that different to a regular mountain bike. Sure, e-MTBs are a lot heavier and unless you’re taking performance-enhancing drugs, it’s unlikely that you’re blasting up every trail as quickly as you normally bomb down them.

Still, once the novelty of having power assistance wears off, it’s the basics like sizing, geometry and balance that take precedence. If anything, these fundamental attributes that influence handling are even more pertinent on an e-MTB as the suspension becomes less of a focus; the steady power supply from the motor eliminating pedal-induced bob, while the extra weight of the battery and motor on the frame ensures that the suspension is working overtime to iron out even the smallest creases on the trail.

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With this in mind, the Giant Full E+ 1 is constrained by its sizing and build kit. It doesn’t help, either, that the gear ratios are more focused on blasting along fire roads, when it’s actually technical climbing where e-bikes really get most riders charged up. Yes, it is the cheapest bike in test, but the long stem, narrow bar and square-taper cranks are more fitting of a sub £500 hardtail, and have no place on a modern electric mountain bike.

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With its integrated approach to design, no e-MTB looks more contemporary than the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie. The sizing is a little dated, though, so our large test bike felt too compact to really open up the taps on the descents, while making it more prone to looping-out on steep climbs. And while we never felt the need for a handlebar-mounted display, a small remote for toggling through the three power settings would be a bonus. Brose also need to iron out the bugs in the motor, so it delivers seamless power.

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So that just leaves the Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus… What a bike! Yes, it’s the most expensive on test, but it’s also got the best parts adorning it so there’s no disputing its value. It just looks right, too. Perfectly proportioned and with more travel than the others, it’s probably the first mountain bike that genuinely lets you climb faster than an XC bike and still bomb down every descent. And who can argue with that?