The e-MTBs are coming - take your moral standpoint now

Electrically assisted mountain bikes: a triumph of inclusivity. Or a work of pure evil. Or something else entirely

There are a lot of ‘next big things’ at the moment, with plus-sized wheels, longer front triangles and 12-speed cassettes being some of the biggest in every way.

As you may be aware from reading other columns I've written, some see this as a good thing: it’s progress. Others view it as a bad thing: it’s a conspiracy to force new stuff on us and spoil what we’ve already got.

Yet if anything, e-bikes are even more contentious – more so, even, than wheel sizes. My time editing magazines taught me just what a hot-button topic they are.

E-bikes have mostly been aimed at city commuters, who just want to get to work without pumping sweatstains into their suits

In fact, the only thing that ever prompted an angrier response than e-bike reviews was the time I accidentally insulted hipsters on fixies. And when I say ‘insulted’, I asked if a hipster doing a trick was cool or not. Threats of legal action followed.

The bike industry, which as we all know operates from an evil moon crater and has regular meetings next to an evil suggestion box, is very keen for e-bikes to take off. And actually, they’re already doing very well. Even by 2013, e-bike sales were above 600,000 units a year in Germany and Holland, which meant that over 50% of total adult bikes sales were battery-operated. That’s a pretty big market.

Shimano is among the brands getting on the e-mtb gravy train: shimano is among the brands getting on the e-mtb gravy train
Shimano is among the brands getting on the e-mtb gravy train: shimano is among the brands getting on the e-mtb gravy train

Shimano is among the brands getting on the e-MTB gravy train

Of course, most of those bikes were aimed at city commuters, who just want to get to work without pumping sweatstains into their suits or getting on trains with other people who smell like sweatstains. Commutes are predictable in length, time and terrain, so battery charges are easily managed. Crashes are rare, as is mud. And commuter bikes are for utility, not recreation – handling, weight and looks don’t really matter when you’re pedalling towards your daily hell.

Incidentally, is there a single black 4x4 out there that isn’t driven by a murderer?

The hard sell

Obviously the designers and manufacturers understand that e-powered mountain bikes are a much, much tougher sell than commuter bikes. The question is, do the (evil) bean counters understand anything beyond those impressive spreadsheet numbers? Do huge European sales really indicate a market for off-road e-bikes, or are they just a chimera, a mirage created by the clamouring desires of, say, Dresden’s worker bees to arrive at the office with an un-humid arse crack?

Inclusivity for the unfit, impaired or severely unaerodynamic is hard to argue against – and certainly e-bikes make getting up into the hills easier

It’s down to the marketing departments to convince us we really want e-bike mountain… bikes. My God, they could start with a snappy name.

E=MTB Squared? Dirt-E-Bike? MountainE-ers? You can have these awful suggestions, bike industry, for free. For now, the marketing path they’ve chosen is inclusivity. These are bikes not just for elitist riders with arrogant stuff like fitness and skills (you scum!). These are bikes for all.

There are 1036 things to hate in this picture. can you find them all?: there are 1036 things to hate in this picture. can you find them all?
There are 1036 things to hate in this picture. can you find them all?: there are 1036 things to hate in this picture. can you find them all?

There are 1036 things to hate in this picture. Can you find them all?

It’s a clever move. Inclusivity for the unfit, impaired or severely unaerodynamic is a hard thing to argue against. And certainly e-bikes make getting up into the hills easier.

I once rode a Focus e-bike clear across Wales, from Knighton on the English border to Machynlleth in the west, across the Trans-Cambrian Way. Machynlleth is actually 10 miles short of Aberdovey and the sea, but hey – what a town.

The bike made mincemeat of steep climbs, helped me keep up with much fitter riders, and descended surprisingly well (the extra 20lbs actually seems to help basic suspension and cheap, hard tyres work). It only threatened to break down once, which was several times less than me.

Ah, say the haters, but did you REALLY ride the Trans-Cambrian Way? Well, yes. I remember doing it. On a bicycle. Yes, but did you REALLY ride it…? they counter, with an existential prod of a finger. It’s an excellent argument, and one for which the only answer is: shut up and kiss me.

A moral minefield

Because, if there’s a pro-camp that’s chosen inclusivity, there’s an anti-e-bike camp that’s chosen something even bigger – morality in general.

E-bikes are not motorcycles – they have no throttle, provide no power unless you do, and are limited to 15.5mph

E-bikes rip up and damage the trails, they say, as they’re motorcycles. E-bikes are cheating. E-bikes are simply not ‘real’ mountain biking. In essence, they’re immoral.

Balls. They’re not motorcycles. They have no throttle, provide no power unless you do, and are limited to 15.5mph. If you tried to sell me a motorcycle like that I’d punch you square in the face. Also, e-bikes don’t tear up trails, or at least no more than any fit rider who produces decent torque. And as for cheating… who are they cheating? Who is the victim?

Bosch currently supplies a lot of motors. currently. geddit?: bosch currently supplies a lot of motors. currently. geddit?
Bosch currently supplies a lot of motors. currently. geddit?: bosch currently supplies a lot of motors. currently. geddit?

Bosch currently supplies a lot of motors. Currently. Geddit?

The only victim of a successful e-bike is somebody who can’t afford one, because they’re generally very expensive. The Scott range begins at £2400 in the UK, for instance, while price tags two or three times that are common across the board – including Haibike's downhill e-bike.

And that’s why they’re not really inclusive. They’re only inclusive if you’re rich.

But then, you’re unlikely to get much sympathy from me by complaining you can’t afford the latest completely unnecessary toy. Neither can I.

So am I sold on e-bikes, or even arguing the case for them, in my capacity as a conspiracy-installed, paid industry shill (I didn’t realise I was one, but previous comments have convinced me)? No.

It’s not a moral choice I've made though (and if you pretend yours is then we’re not going to get on, which is really awkward after that kiss). It’s not even because e-bikes are nice, but expensive and not really necessary. It’s because I’ve decided to become a hipster and do tricks on fixies, because that’s cool.

Or… or is it?

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