My First Pedal Assisted Mountain Bike Ride

All photos courtesy of Irmo Keizer

A handful of friends who work in the bike industry have been nudging me to try out an e-bike for the last couple of years. Their pleas go something like, “try it once and you will be hooked,” and “it is a totally different sport, and a different machine.” My personal favorite has to be, “you can train more with the electric motor.” I took all of this into consideration on my first assisted spin.

Every chance I’ve had to test a pedal-assisted bike came along when I had my pedal bike with me and had already planned a ride for the day. I recently dropped that excuse and decided to ride the next e-bike I was offered. While traipsing around the Roc d’Azur event, in Fréjus France, I stumbled upon Shimano’s demo tent and was invited to ride a bike with their new STEP E7000 series motor. Knowing that the tracks around Fréjus are technical and rocky in all of the best ways, I figured it was a perfect time to get a feel for the electric option.

The bike

Before I share my personal experience riding an e-bike for the first time, I’ll mention a few details about the bike and the new motor for context.

The bike I rode is an alloy Merida 120 500, outfitted with 27.5+ tires and the new Shimano STEPS E7000 electric motor. I would have preferred a bike with 2.6″ or narrower tires to limit the number of variables that were different from my pedal bike, but Shimano only had plus-size rubber on hand.

The new motor is a mid-level offering for consumers who don’t want or need the added power and price tag of Shimano’s flagship E8000. The motor offers three drive modes: Eco pushes the lowest amount of power and uses the least battery, Trail mode sits in the middle with slightly more power, and Boost mode is the max-power, battery-draining option.

At maximum speed, the motor’s assistance tops out at 25kph (15.5mph) which is quite fast when spinning up a steep climb.

The actual bike weight was not available, but it felt very heavy.

Fortunately, there are no shots of me from the ride, but these other folks ripped!

The ride

The ride, led by professional guides from H&I Adventures, took us away from the multitude of events at Roc d’Azur, and onto some tracks favored by locals. The guides made sure we had the opportunity to test all of the features of the new motor on steep technical climbs, lined with roots and rocks to finesse the bike over. We also hit a couple longer descents that gave a good indication of how the bike rides with the added weight of the motor and battery.

Everyone on the ride was instructed on the particulars of riding an e-bike, in contrast to a pedal bike. The short version of that story is that you want to spin more and let the motor get you up and over things. Mashing and sprinting doesn’t work so well on e-bikes. Additionally, they advised us to trust that the bike would climb nearly anything we wanted it to, and that once we learned to trust the bike we would be climbing things we would never dream of on a pedal bike.

The trails, instruction, and overall ride made for a fantastic test of the new motor and would be a great spot to test any bike. The site of a massive volcanic event, Fréjus’ trails are rocky and loose in every direction. I enjoyed the loop enough that when I returned to camp I mapped it out on my phone for a future pedal.

The feel of assistance

So, I tried it once, but am I hooked? Does the e-bike need to be looked at as a totally unique animal? Can I train more with pedal assist?

If asked to sum up my first e-bike experience in one word, I would choose “underwhelmed.” While the bike pedals like any other, and nearly all bikes can be fun in different ways, my overall experience of riding an e-bike was that it removed many of the things I love most about mountain biking.

I love the challenge of cleaning a technical climb, and the pedal assist made rocky steps feel like flat road climbs. As long as I was spinning, and had my weight close to the right balance point, the bike would just go up nearly anything. Balancing properly was also less challenging, as the bike itself is so heavy that you can essentially center your mass like you are on a motorcycle. The added tread patch of the 27.5+ tires may have played a part in this “endless traction” feeling.

I can see why folks with less time to ride or less interest in climbing might not care much about grinding through techy ascents, but the descending sensation of the e-bike is just as particular as its climbing prowess. The higher weight of the e-bike keeps it glued to the trail, and provides a noticeable plowing sensation through rougher sections of trail. The 120mm bike I was on felt more like a 140-160mm bike because I could point it at anything and it would bulldoze its way forward.

For my personal tastes, this plow sensation was not appreciated. I like a poppy bike that I can throw around and pump from one side of the track to another. For this reason, I typically keep my personal bikes as light as possible, with respect to their intended use. With the low-slung heft of the e-bike I felt stuck to the ground without a choice. The lively and playful characteristics of my pedal bike were replaced with a dull blundering sensation. Again, I can see where some riders may prefer to stay glued to the ground, and able to plow, but I will shred a pedal bike downhill over an e-bike any day.

Should the e-bike be approached from a different perspective entirely? This point I largely agree with. It is a bike, with two wheels, cranks, shocks, and all the other important bits, but from my experience, today’s e-bikes are designed for a different crowd of consumers. They require their own style of riding and rider mindset. If you approach a pedal-assist bike with a desire to push your own physical and mental limits to their breaking point you may also find yourself — underwhelmed.

Can you train more with an e-bike? This one doesn’t completely make sense to me. On the most basic level, the harder and longer I pedal, the more fitness I will gain from a given ride. Provided I rest, eat, and sleep properly, of course. How does a motor help that equation?

Arguably, you can do more laps downhill on an e-bike without using a gas-chugging shuttle, but you are on a bike with drastically different descending characteristics. I prefer to train on my race bike so I know how it feels at speed. Additionally, the batteries on these bikes only last 1.5-2hrs of hard riding in full assist mode, and some folks who are training seriously will want to ride a lot longer than that.

E-bike owners could fork over €350+ for a backup battery and throw that in a pack for resistance training. I climbed on the e-bike for about 15 minutes with the power turned off, and it was a painful experience. The added weight of the battery and motor make the assistance they provide necessary. If I owned this bike I would be concerned about blowing through the battery far from home and having to drag a boat anchor back to town.

Another side

I’ve made it clear that e-bikes are not my current jam, but I am happy to report that they provide heaps of stoke for a lot of people. Shimano has created an innovative product that is getting more people off of their couches and into the forest, now for less money. That is fantastic!

E-bike innovations have come a long way in the past several years, and virtually every company on the market is racing for the next step in that evolution. The E7000 motor recognizes when you put more power down and adds more power from the motor to match your input. With this new machine, riders can blast up climbs with aplomb, and don’t have to train heaps or have the highest level of fitness to do it. I can see why these innovations appeal to a wide variety of people.

These bikes are the right choice for somebody, and the 20+ e-bike riders I see on every rip in Finale Ligure indicate that they are here to stay. As pedal-assist prices continue to drop, the number of riders will inevitably grow.

For now, none of my ride partners has gone electric, but once they do, I’ll probably be the one gaining the most fitness trying to keep up on the climbs.

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