During a visit to the Specialized bicycle company headquarters in 2017, I met with a Global PR Manager named Sean Estes while reviewing the Turbo Levo Comp Fat. Our discussion evolved from focusing on one model to electric mountain bikes in general and Seah began sharing his own insights on why they’re allowed in more places. I thought his rationale was particularly insightful and included great data points so I recorded it and have posted the video below for you to watch. In short, most of the Class 1 products which use mid-drives were designed to function within the realm of potential human performance. They only deliver power when you pedal and strive to match and multiply vs. acting on their own. These ebike products do not have throttles, do not damage trails, and may actually distribute riders across more locations and reduce parking lot congestion vs. overwhelming the single best spot because they make climbing less of a chore and can be ridden to the trail more easily.
I thought Sean made some excellent points and presented a fair assessment that didn’t come off as marketing BS. I perceived him as more of a Bro, someone who wouldn’t naturally be accepting of electric mountain bikes, the type of rider who likes to climb and find some peace and separation from low level riders. And it’s true, people who are empowered by electric assist may ride further and more frequently, but perhaps more riders means more trails being built and maintained in the long run? As someone who loves cycling but suffers from knee pain due to an injury, I find them to be empowering and have included some of Sean’s more detailed thoughts below.
- There’s no throttle, no tailpipe, and these bikes produce very minimal noise. I would rank the quietest mainstream ebike mid-drive motors as Brose, Bafang Max Drive, Yamaha, Shimano, and then Bosch (although Bosch has a range from the quiet Active Line through the high-torque Performance Line). Most electronic whirring noise that is produced is obscured by the sound of your tires on the terrain
- Sean compared the power being produced by a 250cc gas powered motorcycle (he converted 40 horsepower to watts which is roughly 33,000) vs. electric bicycle motors that generally offer 250 watts nominal up to 550 watts peak. The legal definition of a Class 1 ebike motor rating in the USA is up to 750 watts which equates to roughly one horsepower and was set into law during George Bush Senior’s Presidency… so we’re talking about well under one horsepower most of the time with little peaks of power depending on how hard you work and what the terrain is like
- Between the maximum power being produced, usually between 50 Newton meters and 90 Newton meters of torque, and the limited 20 mile per hour top speed, these Class 1 e-bikes are designed to perform within the realm of potential human performance. Albeit, the top-end performance is similar to a very skilled and fit human (the watts per kilogram weight performance is similar to a skilled athlete). The lowest level of assist basically makes up for the added weight of the motor and battery pack while the upper levels give you a zippy and sustained feeling of power as if you were fully exerting yourself
- Even though these products can help you ride at a higher maintained speeds, because of consistent help, they aren’t powering riders much faster than human powered bikes and in some cases, they may even descend slower because they aren’t as nimble to maneuver… I have experienced this myself, braking more as I enter turns and steering more steadily vs. twitchy. I have also struggled to pedal faster than 20 mph due to the added weight most of these ebikes have
- An average electric mountain bike with Class 1 performance will weigh between 45 and 55 lbs and use the same tires as non-electric bikes, they don’t cause any more wear or damage to trails than someone riding with a 20 lb backpack or someone who weighs 20 lbs more than another rider. Sean said that he has seen cheap department store bikes and older downhill bikes that weigh in this same range. The wheels on Class 1 ebikes generally do not spin out, the biggest wear that any cyclist can cause on mountain bike trails is skidding and braking hard or riding when the trail is wet and muddy. This is why many mountain biking trails are closed temporarily after rain and snow
- I was surprised to discover that many traditional mountain bikers and motocross riders use ebikes to cross train and recover (because the heart rate zone is similar), it’s a way to keep riding and get cardio while allowing muscles to heal. Other unique applications are riding in snow and other difficult weather, and performing trail maintenance and building where you have to carry heavy tools and go way back just to get started on work
- Sean compared electric bikes to Tivo and other digital video recorders that allow you to “skip pasts the parts you don’t like as much” and focus more on enjoyment. With mountain biking, that refers to long steep climbs that can be difficult and even boring if the terrain isn’t especially interesting
- The fancier electric bike systems are designed with torque sensors in addition to cadence and speed, and they attempt to match and boost your power, so you still get a workout. For someone who is concerned about cheating themselves physically, you tend to ride further and maintain a high steady heart rate with an ebike which is less exhausting and can be very effective at burning calories and losing weight… you have to pedal these bikes to make them go and you’re still getting balance practice and upper body workout
- For someone like me who has a knee injury, electric bikes can be a way to train back into regular cycling or ride with friends who might otherwise outpace. This is applicable to people who are new to the sport, aging, have limited time to ride like a weekend warrior, or those with injuries
- Some trails have a low work to reward ratio, they have long steep climbs and average declines, but the reward goes way up if you can make the ascent quicker and possibly go further. There are usually some trails within riding distance but if you exhaust yourself getting there, you might drive your car more frequently… but with an ebike, you can get to the trail by bike more easily which saves time, gas, and parking spots
- If you’re limited by daylight for part of the year, an ebike can enable you to get two laps in before dark vs. just one because ascents go at 7 to 8 mph vs. 3 to 4 mph without assist
As always, I welcome feedback and alternative perspectives on this topic. It seems like the resistance to electric bikes in general has calmed down in recent years. I don’t have anything against electric cars or motorcycles but agree that there should be an etiquette and limit around what is received as a bicycle. For some people, that includes any sort of assist, but I have found the Class 1 level, especially when implemented by the major motor manufacturers like Brose, Bosch, Shimano, and Yamaha to strike a healthy balance. Here’s a short guide for those wishing to learn more about ebike classes but the basics are that Class 1 offers pedal assist up to 20 mph, Class 2 offers assist and throttle operation up to 20 mph, and Class 3 offers up to ~28 mph assist and is designed for commuters on roads. In Europe, Class 1 can reach 25 km/h which is ~15.5 mph and they don’t generally have Class 2, and their Class 3 ebikes usually require a moped license of sorts.