Learn how to increase control and power on your e-bike, with one of the world's best trials rider as your coach - Chris Akrigg.
Chris shows us how to set up your e-bike, pick the best power mode, explains when to go easy and how to use those watts to maximum effect.
The coach: Chris Akrigg
Chris has set a new benchmark for what’s possible with a motor. A unique, powerful and controlled rider, he’s one of the best bike handlers out there. Our recent Bike check: Chris Akrigg’s GT Force E-Amp feature is well worth revisiting for tips on how to achieve the best electric mountain bike set-up possible.
The most significant difference between electric and normal bikes is, guess what, extra assistance from a small battery-powered motor. With a lithium-ion battery bolted to (or inside) the bike, the motor adds drive with a boost to the crank axle when you push on the pedals. On top of this basic concept of making your legs feel more powerful, e-bikes also handle significantly differently to an equivalent-travel unassisted mountain bike. This is because fitting a motor adds well-positioned extra weight of around 10kg, which also affects the ride quality in many other ways including boosting suspension performance, tyre grip and overall stability.
To resist the extra forces and loads imposed by all the extra weight and grip, e-bikes need to be built tough and solid, something that’s even more important when you’re clocking up more miles and knocking off climbs in a fraction of the time. This means there’s often a more solid and flex-free feel than with a regular mountain bike, a sensation that makes e-bikes feel closer to a downhill rig than an XC machine.
Keep on pedaling
When you first get on an e-bike it seems like a normal bike in many ways, but start delving into the intricacies of it and there’s a lot more than meets the eye. As soon as you stop pedalling, you lose assistance, so you’ve got to really concentrate and anticipate threading your pedals through any obstacles. You’ve also got to learn how to use the motor to your advantage, the same as you’ve already trained yourself to do over years on a normal bike – to ease off the power on slippery roots and loose surfaces to increase traction. On an e-bike it’s a bit different and more like you have to always try and keep power consistent to increase traction. You need to sense through a process of trial and error where the edge of the power actually is, which gears work best and how to manage the power smoothly to avoid any chance for a wheelspin or traction loss. Don’t worry, you’ll get used to the overrun giving you that little extra tickle once you ease the pressure off the cranks, too.
You find yourself in some crazy positions on an e-bike (and positions you’ve not been in before on a normal bike) to try and best manage grip and consistent traction for climbing. You don’t want to be too far forward as it just doesn’t work, you need to load up the rear tyre to get it to stay biting thanks to that extra power. Putting the seat much lower than on a regular bike for climbing helps too, and when it gets really steep you find yourself in what I call the Crouching Tiger position, where you really squash your centre of gravity as low as you can, push your head really far forward to load the front tyre, and at the same time push back at your core and bum to keep enough weight over the back tyre for grip.
Boost isn’t always best
If you’re just riding up a normal hill or trails, or on fire roads or tarmac, it’s obviously fine to put the bike in Shimano’s Boost setting (or the most powerful setting on other motors) and get on with it. But there’s a lot more to think about when trying to get up a complicated technical section. Your approach angle, spotting your line, your gearing and your power mode settings all come into play. A lot of people assume at first that just whacking an e-bike into its most powerful mode will be the best way to climb and that the resulting boost is going to help them surge up anything. But it needs a lot more finesse than that to get through a technical section, especially if it’s wet or loose. Often, I try to stay on the underside of power and use my legs more, because Boost can hinder you by putting too much torque through the cranks and ultimately robbing you of traction – any wheel-spinning or surging, when you need a delicate consistent power delivery, stops you dead. As soon as an e-bike spins out at the rear tyre, the power cuts and you’re left without any assist at all on a bike that weighs double that of a normal bike; it’s then going to be impossible to get going again. I tend to use Trail mode most of the time for this reason.
Descending – flow don’t slam
With all the weight and the way the suspension is so ground-hugging, e-bikes can feel very different to normal bikes descending. I quite like it, but I think you almost need to work on e-bike suspension a bit more as you’re not going to be going out and bunny-hopping over stuff as much because of the weight. You need some pop to bounce around and hop to change direction, but you’ve got to play to the advantages of the system and a softer, duller suspension set-up means you can maximise traction. To me, coming from a motorbike trials background, it’s a bit more like coasting a motorbike downhill – you take advantage of the ridiculous grip for holding off cambers and lines through flat corners. I have the Force set a bit softer and deader than a normal bike, but I’m lucky to be able to use the EXT suspension and benefit from how supportive and sensitive it is. But then I don’t really ride a lot of fast downhill stuff – I’m more of an uphill rider or trials rider really, so my set-up is mainly tailored to that.
One of the unique features of e-bikes is the overrun – the way the motor delivers extra power for a moment after the cranks stop turning, to smooth out power delivery and give you an extra nudge if you stall on a technical section. This means even with your cranks level there’s a brief burst of extra power to prevent stalling. I’ve learned that you have to stop a fraction of a second before you want a surge and trust that the motor will give you that extra nudge – it’s a bit like using the flywheel on a motorbike to push you over the end of stuff. It’s a really nice feeling that you can have your pedals level when you want them, and rather than a tickle of throttle, you’re relying on the overrun to give that little boost.
Use your back wheel’s power to get up steps
One area where I approach obstacles differently with an e-bike is climbing up big steps or ledges; rather than a see-saw motion, I just go straight up on the back wheel. On a normal bike, you don’t have enough power to do this move, so it’s always more of a rocking-horse weight-shift thing where you get your front wheel up and then use the forward motion and a sudden rider weight shift to kick the back end up to meet it.
On the e-bike it’s more of one fluid motion where I just wheelie up the face of things; even if they are vertical. I’d describe it as almost slapping it into the bottom of a step and then pedalling through it – so long as the front tyre clears the obstacle, there’s enough power to drag you up quite big faces or edges. This is one of the most useful e-bike techniques, and once you get used to your weight balance it’s really effective. It doesn’t work for everything if it’s undercut or totally square, but a lot of times you can get away with it powering up or through rocks rather than hopping up them.
Practice makes perfect
A big part of my riding is constantly repeating loops and sections until I get it clean and exactly as I picture in my head – I’m a real perfectionist for things to look ‘right’ and I’d rather not do (show) something at all unless I can get it to my liking. I think this constant repetition of small sections and puzzles is the best way to improve your skills. You’ll never do anything new or more precisely when you’re riding something blind, but by repeating the same thing over and over and sensing exactly the ground, the grip levels and minute balance points, you can build up new skills that will translate to other scenarios later on.