Turning mountains into molehills
We guide you through the process of buying an electric mountain bike, from explaining what they do and don’t do, through to recommending specific bikes.
Electric mountain bikes
Mountain biking is all about having fun, right? About getting out there, enjoying the great outdoors, exercising your body and freeing your mind. So what if we told you there was a type of bike that lets you ride further, faster, and have even more fun? One that even made you LOL on the climbs? You’d still have to work for your rewards, but by assisting your efforts, it allowed you to wring every little drop of enjoyment out of your rides.
Of course we’re talking about the e-bike, or, as it should be called, the don’t-judge-it-until-you’ve-tried-it-e-bike.
As all our lives get busier, and we increasingly struggle to juggle work and family pressures, the e-bike is the perfect solution. In just a few hours you can ride the same route that took you all day. And it winds back the body clock too; we defy you to ride one and not spend the whole time giggling like a school kid.
It’s true that the early e-bikes were heavy, ponderous and, once you’d got over the novelty factor of the motor, hardly engaging to ride. But the pace of development has been, well, electric, and the latest models ride and handle every bit as well as their assistance-free relatives.
With more and more compelling reasons to experience the benefits of e-bikes, we’ve put together this special issue packed with information on how to get the most from an e-bike, a guide to the main motors and batteries and a showcase of the latest models on the market. So read on, watch the accompanying videos on our YouTube channel and book a test ride to try one for yourself. We guarantee you’ll be hooked.
If there’s one category in mountain biking that polarizes opinion more than any other it’s ebikes. It’s a complex debate that charged further because of issues with land access, trail sustainability and even the legislation governing the maximum speed of the bikes.
Seeing as you’re reading this, chances are you’re one of a growing number of riders that have fully embraced the new technology and the riding possibilities that pedal assist mountain bikes have opened up to both young and old riders alike.
Regardless of which side of the fence you’re on there’s one thing we can all agree on and that’s ebikes are a hotbed of technological development.
Progress is so rapid that in many ways it’s feels like the dawn of mountain biking once again. Geometry is all over the map, new bands like Bosch are entering the mix, and MTB household names like Fox, SRAM and Shimano are all scrambling to develop bespoke ebike components.
We also have new metrics with which to compare bikes, toque, power and battery life, not just travel, geometry and weight. It’s an amazing time to be testing bikes and this month we have four of the most exciting ebikes on the market.
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!
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.
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, Shimano, Brose and Yamaha are vying for pole position in this burgeoning category.
Our current favourite electric mountain bikes
We’re reviewing e-mountain bikes more and more these days. Every edition of mbr magazine has an electric bike review or two in there somewhere. Here are our latest favourite ebikes reviewed…
Rocky Mountain Altitude Powerplay 70
With most ebikes the choice of motor defines aspects of the frame geometry and to a lesser degree the suspension characteristics of the bike. Not with new Rock Mountain Altitude Powerplay. With its bespoke motor Rocky has been able to design an ebike that reflects the ride quality of a highly evolved 150mm trail bike. With instant power pickup, extended battery life and streamline proportions it’s not just the handling of the Rocky that will get you charged up for riding. It’s the best bike in this test by some margin, but we had an issue with the motor momentarily cutting and raising questions over it’s reliability.
Merida EOne-Sixty 990E
Merida has done an amazing job with the EOne-Sixty 900E. It has a fun, playfully ride quality that few ebikes can match, and the price is simply unbeatable. It’s also the only sub 50lb bike in this test, and that’s without a single strand of carbon. It could be even better though. With a two degree slacker head angle and a little more power from the Shimano motor the EOne-Sixty would be able to keep up on the climbs, only to drop the competition on every descent. The biggest issue though, is actually getting hold of one.
Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus
Last year, the Trek Powerfly 9 LT was one of the only ebikes with geometry and handling that came close to a modern enduro bike. For 2018, Trek has built on that winning formula with new frame. It’s lowered the battery in the downtube, while adding a stiffer Fox 36 fork, more powerful SRAM RE brakes and a stronger Bontrager wheelset. All welcome improvements to a really capable bike. The price has also crept up to reflect the changes. The biggest transformation however, is that Rocky Mountain has raised the ebike bar to a new high with the Altitude Powerplay.
Vitus E-Sommet VR
E-enduro bikes aren’t as different to regular bikes as one might imagine. All of the fundamentals are the same and by nailing the geometry and sizing Vitus has produced an amazing e-bike with the E-Sommet VR.Sure there are a couple of little things we’d probably change, like the STEPS Di2 mode shifter and rear tyre, but that’s about it. And given how much cheaper the Vitus is compared to the competition, you can easily afford to make these changes and even buy a spare battery. The E-Sommet VR is no golf buggy, but Vitus has it’s certainly hit a hole in one with this bike.
Specialized Turbo Kenevo Expert
Before this test we thought more travel on an e-bike would obviously be better. After all, with the motor flattening out the climbs, why not have the extra suspension firepower to smooth out the descents? Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But in the case of the Specialized Turbo Kenevo Expert, the extra travel and weight make the bike less effective and less engaging on all but full-on downhill tracks. And if that’s your bread and butter, the Kenevo could well be the perfect topping. Here in the UK though, the Vitus proved more versatile, just as capable and way better value.
Canyon Spectral:ON 8.0
For Canyon’s first e-mtb the Spectal:ON 8.0 hasn’t simply hit the trail running, it’s power up it in Boost mode. The geometry, sizing and handling are all on point, and details like the adjustable geometry, odd wheel sizes, tyre specific rim widths and short cranks make Canyon a market leader rather than a brand that’s simply playing catch up. With a Fox 36 Fit4 fork the Spectral:ON 8.0 would probably have won the test, the more basic Grip damper never having the measure of Canyon’s superb rear suspension.
Focus SAM2 Pro
With 170mm travel, aggressive angles and Shimano’s superbly calibrated STEPS motor, the Focus Sam2 is an enduro bike with a built-in shuttle. With the bolt on TEC pack you really can climb to new heights, but without it the smaller capacity internal battery means you need to be ultra economical with your energy use. It’s also frustrating that the internal battery can’t be removed easily for charging. By far the biggest frustration with the Jam2 though is that the sizing isn’t very generous and standover clearance is limited. It’s still a great e-bike, but when you’re spending this much money, you can afford to be fussy.
Orange Alpine 6 E Factory
The extra grip a 50lb e-bike normally helps to prevent overshooting corners when on the brakes, and bring pure DH-bike-like fun factor on the steepest trails. This electric Orange, however, rides more like a ‘standard’ enduro bike with a motor, which could be good or bad, depending on your expectations and riding style. It’s built tough and delivers stacks of fun in less time than any regular bike can. Adding a motor hasn’t upset Orange’s superb geometry.
Having a motor bolted to the bottom of a mountain bike that provides pedal assistance is an amazing leveller. The constant torque it applies to the chain rounds out the squarest of pedalling actions, which in turn helps stabilizes the rear suspension and counter pedal induced bob, seamlessly shifting your focus from pedalling efficiency to battery life.
With different degrees of assistance at your fingertips, riders of varying fitness levels are easily accommodated on the same ride too. Which, depending on who’s setting the pace, can bring a social aspect back to big days out, because you can all ride together and the assistance from the motor makes it that much easier to string a coherent sentence together even on the steepest climbs.
There are less obvious advantages too. Like the extra weight of the battery and motor increasing the unsprung mass which makes even the most basic suspension components that much more effective at ironing out bumps.
Even with these common factors though, there’s still a gulf between the performance of a good enduro e-bike and a great one.
Weight isn’t anything like a critical as one would assume. Weight distribution however is a different matter and this is where geometry, specifically the ratio of the front centre measurement to the chain stay length really comes into play. Battery placement is important too, and smaller batteries give an edge in the handling stakes while robbing the bike of range.
Ultimately the best mountain bike e-bikes mirror the geometry and handling of their non-motorised relatives. And that’s because the rider is still the heaviest component part in the system, so it’s imperative to get the geometry dialled.
Vitus has done this better than anyone else with the Vitus E-Sommet VR, and while it was a close call with the new Canyon Spectral:ON 8.0, the price difference between the two really sealed it for Vitus.
Motors and batteries explained
Bosch PerformanceLine CX
Bosch’s flagship mountain bike system uses a mini drive ring with internal gearing to send its power to the drivetrain. There’s some resistance in the system over 25km/h, but when you first press down on the pedals there’s an impressive surge of power, and it offers good support over a wide cadence range. Its size has an impact on the width of the cranks (the Q-factor) as well as the chainstay length of the frame, and it’s not the lightest system on the market at 4kg for the motor. On the other hand, Bosch is the most established player on the market, and its system has proven itself over many years.
Bosch produces three display units of varying sizes. The most common units fitted to mountain bikes are the compact Purion and larger Intuvia. Should you want to stay in touch on epic rides, there’s even a Nyon unit that links to a smart phone, records data and displays navigation, texts and e-mail.
Bosch offers four ride modes (Turbo, e-MTB, Tour and Eco) with a single walk mode. The e-MTB is the intelligent mode, offering tailored assistance from 120 to 300 per cent, depending on cadence and pedal pressure.
Two external batteries (400 and 500wh) are available and there’s a 500wh PowerTube battery for internal use. Charge time for the 500wh battery is 4.5hrs.
Giant SyncDrive Pro
Giant’s drive unit is based on a Yahama PW-X motor, but at 3.1kg, it’s a little bit lighter and also produces a whopping 80Nm of torque in all five modes and more assistance on full power.
The RideControl Evo display features a button control on the grip and a readout on the stem, giving you control over ride time, distance and cadence. Best of all, it gives you as very accurate percentage readout of how much battery is remaining, so no excuses for running out of juice! The five rides mode are Eco, Basic, Active, Sport and Power and there’s also a walk assist button.
The Q-factor (distance between the pedals) is 168mm, which mimics a standard mountain bike. The motor features fully sealed bottom bracket bearings, which are covered by a two-year warranty.
Giant’s Panasonic-produced lithium ion fuel cell doesn’t have a memory (so you can charge it as little or as often as you like) but Giant did say it should be full discharged at least once every three months.
The STEPS motor from Shimano has quickly become the go-to option for most manufacturers. Not only is it very light at 2.8kg, it’s also one of the most compact, with a standard q-factor and it gives frame designers the option to run short chainstays.
STEPS offers really good support throughout the cadence range, builds power really progressively and, once over the 25km/h threshold, doesn’t see a big increase in friction. Functionally it’s also very intuitive to use, especially the Trail mode, which automatically adapts its power output and support to rider inputs.
The STEPS display and Firebolt switch unit also take up very little space on the handlebar and are well protected, so you can actually flip the bike upside-down without damaging the screen or having to remove it.
Shimano produces a shorter 165mm XT crank for the STEPS, which mounts to a standard Hollowtech II bottom bracket.
Currently Shimano only offers a clip-on 504Wh lithium-ion battery, but several manufacturers are using their own internal option.
If you want to carry a spare battery with you on a ride here are some of the different sizes, shapes and prices.
- Giant EnergyPak 500, lithium-ion internal. Weight: 3.36kg, 500wh. £540
- Bosch PowerTube 500, lithium-ion internal. Weight: 2.8kg, 500wh. £699.99
- Focus T.E.C., lithium ion external. Weight: 2.2kg, 378wh £459
- Shimano Steps BT-E8010, lithium-ion external. Weight: 2.65kg, 504wh. £599.99
The future for e-bikes
In our view, e-bikes are approaching a crossroads in concept and design. Heading off in one direction are longer travel, enduro-style e-bikes, which are largely designed for cruising up and then blasting back down. Plotting a slightly different course is the idea of a lightweight model that rides much more like a normal mountain bike, but requires more work from the rider. Of the two approaches, both have their benefits, but it’s the latter that gets us the most excited. Once the overall weight falls into the 16-17kg range (the lightest bikes are currently19-20kg) it’s going to be really hard to tell the difference between an e-bike and a regular trail bike on the descents and the flat, but you get the benefit of a gentle push up the climbs.
Modular batteries will really help this evolution, allowing you to tailor the number of batteries, and therefore the weight, depending on how far you plan to ride. Once you combine this with more efficient and lighter weight motors (we suspect Bosch and Shimano both have lighter designs coming) it will add up to significant weight savings.
If you really want to see the future take a look at the Fazua Evation, with a battery and motor this system weighs an incredible 4.7kg! The battery only has 250wh, but at 1.3kg you could easily carry a spare in a pack. The really interesting thing about this system though, is the motor and the battery can be removed from the frame, so you really do have two bikes in one.
Previous e-bike reviews
For one of our earliest e-bike group tests back in August 2016 – in association with JE James – we selected three full-suspension bikes from the biggest conventional players, albeit each with a different motor…
First up, we had the Giant Full E+ 1 at £3,199 with the Yamaha X94 Motor. It was the only bike on test not to have Plus-size tyres, so it was interesting to see if that worked in its favour.
Brose was represented by the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR Comp 6Fattie at £4,000. With its integrated approach to design, it was undeniably one of the best looking e-bikes to date.
The final bike in our trio was the Bosch-equipped Trek Powerfly 9 LT Plus. At £4,350 it was the most expensive bike in the test, but it also had what looked to be the best specification and sizing.