The rise of the e-MTB

Ultimately, mountain biking is about having fun. It’s about getting outside, freeing up your body and mind, riding until you can ride no more. An e-MTB has the potential to enhance this experience for many, or to open it up completely to those limited by time or health or who’ve previously found the idea of riding up a mountain daunting.

Since their introduction into the UK trails, e-MTBs have been a hot topic of discussion and polarised opinion like no other issue. Perhaps shunned initially and looked upon as ‘cheating’, e-MTBs are cementing their place in the UK market and acceptance is beginning to replace the reluctance.

HMRC figures estimate around 62,500 e-bikes were imported into the UK in 2016, the majority of which fall into the leisure and commuting category. These types of e-bikes have and will likely continue to make up the majority of sales in the UK, however, e-MTB sales have seen a significant growth in recent years. This is likely down to a number of factors. One is the continued improvement and development of e-bike technology, where once an e-MTB was completely distinguishable from a ‘manual’ bike – now, the differences are more subtle. Component and battery integration has vastly improved to give a much more aesthetically pleasing end product. E-MTBs are growing in popularity among groups of riders – when one rider makes the jump to electric, their friends are significantly more likely to follow close behind.

When riding an e-MTB, the level of assistance depends on the power of the motor and which of the various modes is engaged. The power only kicks in when you’re pedalling, and the power supplied can be controlled by a handlebar-mounted computer. All e-bikes sold in the UK provide power assistance up to the legal speed limit of 15.5mph before the motor cuts out. Most e-MTB motors are housed centrally around the bottom bracket to form the hub of the drivetrain and batteries located on the down tube – often integrated.

E-MTBs inevitably carry more weight than a standard MTB and therefore require heavier and more robust components. Manufacturers are constantly investing to make lighter parts where possible and e-MTB specific components such as wheels, tyres, forks and shocks are evolving to become better and more affordable.

Who are they for?
In the past, e-MTBs were likely to be marketed towards non-cycling customers looking to get into the sport, those perhaps put off mountain biking by the idea of slogging up a massive hill for 40 minutes in exchange for three minutes of hair-raising descending, just to then slog back up another climb. The customer demographic has changed considerably from that and now e-MTBs are sought out by a much wider range of consumer.

There’s the returning mountain biker – those who rode MTB in their teens and 20s religiously before retiring their rig to the back of the garage and starting a family or going head-on into a life-consuming career. For these riders, an e-MTB offers a route back into the sport, with time limitations and reduced fitness, they can return to past glories with the help of a motor.

Then there are the enduro riders. If you’re training for a downhill race and you’re waiting on an uplift or grinding up a hell of a climb at the end of every descent, an e-MTB has the potential to double the downhills in the same amount of riding time. There are many pro riders who advocate using an e-MTB for this purpose and it’s difficult to argue against them. And finally, there are the go further riders – those who’ve been limited for whatever reason previously. An e-MTB opens up the opportunity to venture further, to step out of the comfort zone and ride that previously unconquerable climb or to take on that extra five-mile loop. These go further riders face time restrictions from workload or family commitments. Instead of doing a loop in that two hours of free time on Sunday morning you can double the distance and take on an extra couple of ups and downs. Or maybe it’s been a long, stressful day in the office and you just want to clear your head for a couple of hours in the evening. You’re knackered but you jump on an e-MTB and take to the hills, that long day is soon behind you and you’re in that happy place.

Looking ahead to 2019…
Each year we’re seeing manufacturers expanding and improving their e-MTB offering. Ever-evolving technology means the bikes are getting lighter and more reliable with better and more integrated components. With an expanding market, more bike brands are introducing new ranges and models to the e-MTB category with many replicating their manual bikes with an electrified version. As demand and production increases, prices are coming down, opening up the market to a lot more riders.

With the additional power of a motor and the increased weight of an e-MTB comes the need for a tough, capable tyre. Taking a steering from motocross, manufacturers
are developing e-MTB specific tyres to cope with fast accelerations on the steep stuff and increasing tyre widths for a bigger contact patch for faster stopping under powerful braking.

The supply of motor systems is becoming more competitive. German manufacturer Bosch is leading the way but faces improving competition from Shimano’s Steps system, Specialized’s own Brose motor and newcomer Fazua. Downtube integration improves aesthetics and mode adjustability is becoming smarter. The Bosch CX motor comes with an e-MTB mode which fluctuates between sport and touring intuitively, gauging how much power the rider needs and delivering when necessary.

…and beyond
Although opinions will continue to be divided and there will remain detractors, it’s widely agreed that e-MTBs are here to stay. Just about every MTB brand now offers an e-MTB in their line-up and the vast majority of retailers are fully on-board. Trail centres are beginning to develop e-MTB specific routes and it is surely only a matter of time before they’re hiring replacement batteries and housing electric charging stations. Many retailers already offer an e-bike charging service in their stores, e-bike hire and full e-bike servicing.

Sales of hardtail e-MTBs will continue to provide the bread and butter of sales among retailers, as they offer a gateway into mountain biking for customers looking to steer off the tarmac and onto bridleways and take on some light trail riding.

The improvements in integration and developments towards making e-MTBs look more like their non-motorised counterparts are certainly making inroads in winning over the initially reluctant mountain bikers. There are many out there still to convince, but it’s only a matter of time. Technology will continue to improve and bikes will become lighter and leaner. Lower price points will open up the market to a wider customer base.

By bringing more newcomers into the sport and keeping existing riders going for longer, e-MTBs are beginning to cement their place in the UK market. At its heart, mountain biking is fun, about having a good time and seeking out adventure. E-MTBs can enhance this experience for many and introduce it to many more, and that surely has to be a good thing. 

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