"The uphills can become the best bits. I arrive with my mind blown"

At the launch of World E-Bike Series, power-assisted racing is touted as the next big thing. But will it capture the imagination of uncompetitive e-novices?

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Words: Sim Mainey

E-volution of the species

Human nature has been finely honed over aeons to make us competitive, to strive to outdo others. While this might have been a vital part of staying alive back when food had to be chased down with spears and clubs it now lingers on as a means of burning off excess adrenaline. This urge to see how we measure up to others means that if it’s possible for something to be raced it will be. So the increasing popularity of e-bike racing on the continent should surprise exactly no one – it’s in our genes.

In nature however there are genetic anomalies, and I’m one of them. While I’m quite happy to watch coverage from the Enduro World Series races and happy to devote half a day to watching World Cup DH I have no interest in participating in any kind of racing myself. Why spoil a good time on the bike with unnecessary pressure? Life between the tapes seems too restrictive and doesn’t really fit with the reasons I ride.

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This, coupled to the fact that my experience of e-bikes is limited to a quick blast up and down the road, is the reason I’ve ended up at an e-bike race series. Maybe with a different type of bike will come some competitive spirit.

A swanky bar on the harbour front of Monaco may seem an odd place to launch a new e-bike specific race series but with Cap d’Ail, home of the first World Cup DH race, looming above it’s not as crazy as it at first seems.

The first year will feature rounds in Switzerland, Italy, Monaco and Spain

While the World E-Bike Series (WES) is being run by a sports marketing agency more used to organising motocross and Rally-X events the man charged with the nuts and bolts of the series is Kieran Page. A Brit who now lives in the south of France, Kieran is no stranger to racing. A professional road racer who represented Britain at the Commonwealth Games he now runs a guiding company as well as working as the Sporting Manager of WES.

Kieran has spent more time than he’d like to admit working out the mechanics of how to make e-bike racing fair, fun and attractive to both e-bike converts and the e-sceptical – no easy task.

With the great, the good and a bunch of bike journos assembled Kieran lays out his vision for how things are going to work. For the first year there will be four rounds to the series in Monaco, Switzerland, Italy and Spain. Each round will take place over a weekend with Saturday being dedicated to pro invite-only Enduro and XC racing and Sunday dedicated to public participation with rides for all abilities. With WES the organisers want to push what is possible, or perceived to be possible, on an e-bike with the pro-only racing but also open up e-bike mobility, not just racing, to a much wider audience. With demo bikes to hand, seminars on the technology involved and more planned for each round it sound like a promising way of getting more people on bikes.

The extra kilos give a reassuring, stuck-to-the-ground feel

The morning after the night before a mix of local riders, journalists and industry assemble just outside the village of Peille to sample some of the trails participants of the first round of the WES Enduro will be racing and riding on. A Lapierre OverVolt with my name on it (well, Simon Mainey’s name) is wheeled out of a van and adjusted to my liking. While everyone else on the ride appears to be well versed with how an e-bike works I’m very much going to be covering new ground in a new way today. Cycling through the power options of the Bosch motor as we set off I settle on Eco, I’ve no idea how far we’re going or how long the battery lasts and running out of juice in the middle of nowhere is the greatest fear on an e-bike. It does make me appreciate how power use and strategy will play a huge part in racing. When do you hit turbo mode, when do you drop into Eco, will a physically weaker but lighter rider be on a more even footing with a stronger but heavier rider? The trail narrows and steepens abruptly and as the riders ahead start to pull away I chance a stab at the power controller, put myself in Turbo mode and get out of the saddle. A brief turbo-wheelie ends with me veering off the trail and into the long grass utterly out of control. This happens on repeat as we make our way up what on an analogue bike would be a long old slog. On our electrically assisted bikes it’s knocked out in 10 minutes. At the top of the hill another journo gives me a few friendly pointers – use the EMTB mode as it’s a bit more measured in the way it dishes out power and try to stay seated on climbs, whatever your instincts say.

With a view down to Nice one way, Italy the other, the Mediterranean in front and the Alps behind it’s hard to argue that this isn’t a great place to ride, never mind race, a bike. This hillside has all kinds of trails on it – old school DH tracks, walker’s trails, wide double track and from where we are they all point downhill. I may not be the fastest descender but I doubt I’ll need any e-assistance on the downs, do I switch it off? Maybe just stick it in Eco? I decide to leave it in EMTB working on the principle that if the trail does level off that will be the best setting. Plus, as with suspension lockouts, I’ll probably forget to change it anyway.

E-Bikes are a contentious topic. If you’ve read this far chances are you either have one and like it or are e-curious. Others will have ripped out these pages and stuffed them into a pair of damp FiveTens. It’s this resistance that’s meant it’s taken a while for people to come round to the idea of an e-bike race series. Things are still not clear cut though with countries, notably the US and UK, still vocally sceptical despite sales of e-bikes being on a steep rise. Changing opinions on e-sports is one of the WES missions, something they hope can come about via top tier racing and education.

Feeling the flow

My e-bike education is on steep curve. Getting a boost on the way up is the most obvious advantage of an e-bike but where they surprise you is on flatter trails that contour and would otherwise be a bit stop-start. Here they give a subtle but welcome shove and help you maintain momentum that would be lost on small awkward climbs or obstacles. Just pick your moment, add a few pedal strokes and carry your speed. Over the limestone rubble that litters the trails it’s laugh-out-loud brilliant.

E-bike racing on the continent is nothing new. Currently there are a handful of pro e-bike only racers but plenty of pros use an e-bike as part of their training plan. Earlier this year the UCI announced that it will host the first World e-MTB World Championships next year in Mont Sainte Anne, Canada. This will be run alongside the regular mountain bike world champs, although the details of what kind of race it will be have yet to be revealed. With a world series and the chance of a rainbow jersey riders who currently race in other disciplines might be tempted to transition over by the lure of a new type of racing or pushed over as sponsors see the need for a greater presence in this new sport.

Tellingly our group ride has as many industry representatives as journos. With brands seeing huge growth in e-bikes they are looking for a showcase and proving ground for their bikes, a recognised and international race series makes a lot of sense.

The uphills can become the best bits. I arrive with my mind blown

A perfectly sculpted piece of trails winds down the hill at a gradient that requires no assistance at all. Regardless of what bike you’re on this is fun. One thing I’d been worried about was the weight of the bike, but on a swooping downhill the extra weight gave a reassuring, stuck to the ground feel that felt like it was helping rather than hindering things. Our batteries still had plenty of kilometers in them but our stomachs don’t and this being France that meant baguette time.

E-biking may be in its infancy but it’s already a broad church. Looking about the car park that is our picnic stop there’s everything from lightweight short travel full suspension bikes to beefy trail bikes with 170mm bikes and triple clamp forks. So with such a range of bikes and motors, and the potential for some clever tweaking, how are WES going to regulate racing?

The starting point is the European law that defines what an e-bike is – it must not offer any assistance over 25kph, must have a maximum 250kw continuous power output and have a walk assist no faster than 6kph. Competitors must provide a constructors certificate to show compliance with the law and a diagnostics readout for their bike. This will be compared to baseline figures for the motor allowing scrutineers to check that nothing has been tampered with. Bikes that have been chipped are easy to spot for those who know what they are looking for. Rules will no doubt adapt and change as technology and the series progresses, this is relatively new territory and there’s still much to learn.

Fromage et jambon finished it’s time to sample what Kieran describes as some spicier trails. He’s not kidding. The trail clings to the hillside with little room for error without a long fall to the bottom of the valley. The trail traverses boulder fields that a bike should have no chance of getting over, but with some extra power at the cranks and some commitment we do. I’m constantly on edge, cautious of putting in a pedal stroke at an inopportune time and propelling myself off the trail and down the hill.

Lot to learn

I put in a pedal stroke just before a rocky right hand corner and overshoot the point I want to turn in, I’m hard on the brakes hard fighting with the bike to get the speed right while trying to turn. It’s safe to say I’m still very much getting used to this e-bike thing. This is brought into focus when I get one steep drop wrong and find myself skidding face down in the dirt with a very heavy bike somewhere in the air above me. I wait for the inevitable and for the bike to land on top of me but thankfully it doesn’t arrive. Bum, neck and ego bruised I get back on the bike, switch off the motor and descend unassisted/unhindered. And I thought e-bikes were supposed to be easier.

At the bottom of the valley and with the finish at the top I imagine we’re going to whizz up the road. Wrong. The trail we do ride up would make an awesome downhill – rocky, lots of ledges, loose corners. This is the moment it clicks. This bike lets me ride up what would be impossible on an ordinary bike, potentially opening up a whole new way of looking at rides. With an e-bike the uphills can become the best bits. I arrive at the top lungs gasping and mind blown.

So has this trip opened my eyes to e-bikes and given me an appetite for racing? I’m certainly keen to spend some more time on one, get to grips with the nuances of riding a bike with some assistance and to see how it changes what and where I ride. While the trails we’ve ridden are fantastic and will certainly test and reward anyone who takes to them against the clock I can’t see myself putting a number board on the front of my bike. You can’t fight your genes after all.