Feature October / November 2019: E-Bike 101

Words: Tim Brink | Images: Bosch e-Bike systems

E-bikes are here to stay. And that is a good thing, no matter how purist your views are on them. We were avowed anti-E-ers until we rode them, in appropriate conditions.

The bike-shop car park is not the place to form an opinion … but that is true for all bikes, isn’t it? Take a pedal-assist bike out onto familiar trails, and you might surprise yourself with how much fun you allow yourself. Many regular cyclists see the rise of the e-bike as a threat, and this is especially true in South Africa, with our unnatural events- and performance-oriented outlook. This is nonsense, of course: e-bikes aren’t here to rob us of our human-powered way of life. In fact, they may very well enhance it and attract “normal” cyclists who would never have contemplated two-wheeled exercise or exploration. We aren’t the only ones: sales doubled in most markets last year, with America predicting 2019 as a $100-million market, and Europe dwarfing that (e-bikes outsold traditional bikes in the Netherlands in 2018).

So, why would you join the e-revolution? Who should? What are the pitfalls, and what is the promise?

Bulky external batteries are slowly making way for sleek internal numbers.

The make it easy to ride

This sounds obvious, but it warrants unpacking. Generally speaking, e-bikes are bicycles with a battery-powered assist that comes through pedalling or, in some cases, a throttle. When you push the pedals, a small motor engages and gives you a boost. The technical name is pedalecs, and they feel just like normal bikes. Some e-bikes come with a throttle that engages the motor with the press of a button. These belong to a separate class of e-bike that, to our mind, doesn’t offer a pure cycling experience the way a pedalec does. Let’s call them motorbikes …

So are they faster? Yes, to a degree. The harder you pedal, the bigger the boost, the faster you’ll ride, but e-bikes are limited to a speed beyond which the motor stops helping. Off-road, this is in the 25-32km/h range, with a handful of road versions governed to 48 km/h, for a truly terrifying experience. For experienced, fit cyclists, these limits can feel frustrating, but for the target market, it is perfect. It is important to point out that you still have to pedal, quite hard, to reach these speeds on anything but the flattest route. These are not motorbikes. You will save time on your favourite route, or a commute and enjoy the scenery more than ever. You control how much assist you get, too; most e-bikes come with a switch that lets you toggle in a variety of steps from eco (low) to turbo (high), depending on the terrain, and some allow you to set how much assist each of these settings gives, so you can play with the balance between output and battery life.

Riding an e-bike gets riders outdoors far more often than normally-aspirated riding. A recent survey of nearly 1 800 e-bike owners in the USA found that just over half rode daily or weekly. After buying an e-bike, that number rose to 91 percent. It makes sense: Even if you’re fit, you still get tired through your training cycle. If you have an e-bike, you can continue riding while giving your legs a break. You can also go faster
and further, which makes cycling more attractive, even when you’re pressed for time.

It is in the newcomer category, though, that e-bikes make the biggest impact. Starting out, a 20km ride can seem impossible, but with some assist it is a pleasure, especially as it helps with the hardest bits the most; steep climbs. Riding far, as a beginner, grows confidence and keeps you coming back for more. That same survey found that 94 percent of respondents who identified themselves as non-cyclists also rode daily or weekly after getting an e-bike. Think of riding an e-bike as walking, to “normal” cycling’s running – we don’t look down on beginner runners walking, do we?

E-bikes are available in every form imaginable, internationally, but locally, there are three options: basic, MTB and road. The first category covers the rental/commuter market, and involves ridiculously heavy machines that are very good at just about getting from A to B efficiently. They tend to be the most affordable, but the real cost is that they offer a low range, just enough assist and require a crane to hoist them on a bike rack. Pure utility machines. Road bikes belong in our sister publication (which we don’t have, yet). Mountain bikes are where the action is …

The motors you’ll see on today’s e-bikes come in three basic variants: hub-driven, with motors within the front or rear hub; aftermarket e-bike kits (often friction drives, which use a spinning wheel to contact the rear tire for propulsion) that allow you to pimp a regular bike and mid-drive motors, where you’d normally find the bottom bracket. Most pedal-assisted e-bikes use a speed sensor, which regulates e-assist by detecting the rider’s velocity, or torque sensors, which sense how much torque the rider is putting into the
pedals. Most are optimised to produce power between cadences of 80 and 90rpm, so gear-mashers will need to learn to spin. It is possible to gyppo the settings on e-bikes, to get more free speed, but this is not clever; the rest of the bike (and your skill set) is not optimised for this, you will struggle with control and braking and you will crash. Very hard.

Most e-bikes come with a state -of – the – art bar- mounted gizmo to tell you exactly how much oomph you are using and how long you still can.

Nommer, Asseblief

Attempting to compare e-bike power ratings is frustrating. That’s because “rated power,” the metric some manufacturers use, doesn’t equal a motor’s actual power output or maximum potential power output. The power rating might indicate how much power you’re getting for a specific amount of time, although there’s no universal standard. It could be 10 seconds or 30 seconds, or it may only be able to get that for 1 to 2 seconds and the long-term power is far lower. Let’s try to work it out: Power measures how quickly work is done. Torque, a metric listed by some manufacturers, is a rotational measurement of force. To get a motor’s power in watts, you have to know how fast it’s spinning: Torque multiplied by rotational speed equals power. A motor’s power output therefore peaks at a specific number of revolutions per minute. A more
powerful motor means faster acceleration, and better climbing on steep hills. The majority of currently available bikes are running 250W motors, but there are some running massive 800W units, which are muc heavier and (arguably) overpowered. What do these numbers mean, really? Riding up a 10% hill at a gentle pace will require around 200 watts, given an average rider/bike weight. If a third of your power, say, is matched by the motor, you can either ride the same speed for just 140 of your own watts, or 25-30% faster for your same 200W. You can go longer, or faster. In 100%-boost mode, you might even be able to match Nino’s 400+ watts on the climbs, but your battery will probably run out before his … Some bikes run as much as 300% boost, but the reality is that you will never require or justify that much, and your battery will die in minutes.

E-bikes use sensors to determine the proper amount of motor output by measuring how much torque you’re applying to the pedals. To go faster, you must pedal harder, although this can get confusing as in this circumstance, harder often means at a higher cadence – mashing a huge gear doesn’t get you anywhere on an e-bike. Torque sensors offer riders more control over the application of e-assist: You don’t want heaps of power all at once, for example, when negotiating a tricky section of trail. The big manufacturers let you adjust these minor metrics through their apps – how power is transferred and when, how much assist for each level, and more.

The final number to look at is the battery capacity. Most decent bikes are coming with a 500Watt-hour battery, which will give a 40- 100km range, depending on power mode and how much climbing you do. There are 700W/h (and similar) options available, and they make a huge difference – 40% more range means you see a whole lot more countryside. Quality e-bikes will have a decent bar-mounted gizmo that will tell you exactly how far you can still pedal, in the various modes, and they tend to be fairly accurate. There is a sick thrill, though, in seeing whether you can make the last bit home on the final bar of power… the penalty for not doing so is self-powering a 25kg beast, not unlike pushing your car to the petrol station as a student.


But it is cheating!

If anyone tells you they are cheating, they haven’t ridden one beyond the bike shop car park.

Even if you’re very fit, you still can get exercise by e-biking. A lot of it. E-bikes do some of the work for you, but not all of it. Even in full turbo mode, they match your input, so if you slack, so does the bike. In reality, some of our hardest rides when the e-bikes were in our test fleet were spent trying to stay ahead of the assist.

Many people are not fit enough to ride long enough to get meaningful health and fitness benefits from biking, and an electric bike means they can go out and ride for an hour and get a significant amount of exercise. They have become a stepping-stone for many, not just into our sport but into better health.

The biggest plus of the e-bike revolution is that it allows riders to re-ride singletrack sections multiple times in a ride – assisted up the hill, hammer and learn on the downhill, repeat (because you can for a change) as often as the battery will allow. The gravity gurus are already embracing this. Us normal Joes can, too – that 20-minute climb to get back to the top of the trail, too broken to see straight, becomes an infinitely repeatable 10-minuter, and you get there on a long-travel bike, equipped to get the most out of you and the trail. A great skills-developer, for all.

E-bikes will take you places you would never have reached without the little bit of help they provide.

The Cons

Okay, so they’re not cheap, but they can save you money. We just said that to help the negotiations at home … realistically, few e-bike-buyers in South Africa will commute on them – yet. You can’t really get a cheap e-bike just now. But if you keep the car in the garage more often, you’ll save cash on maintenance and petrol money, not to mention the added health benefits and potentially fewer sick days from getting more exercise. Prices vary widely, but you should expect to pay at least R25 000 for an entry-level e-bike, and considerably more (R45 000-R150 000) for a quality bike with a motor system from a major manufacturer. These prices drop every year, as volumes increase and tech catches up.

The first thing many people do when checking out a new bike is give it a lift to gauge the weight. You’re in for a shock if you try that with an e-bike. The battery, motor, heavier-duty components and reinforced frame make e-bikes inherently heavier than standard bikes—by at least 10 kilos, more often 15. Modern geometry and engineering help them handle well despite their weight, and obviously the motor-assist makes the extra hef disappear when you start to pedal. But you’ll need more muscle to get them on your bike rack or up stairs.


With power come responsibility

E-bikes are different – and kinda scary. Even if you are an experienced cyclist, you need to proceed with caution until you have got the hang of the thing – it will accelerate out of corners on the singletrack, leaving you scrabbling for grip. Braking for corners going uphill will become a thing. Because they’re heavier and faster, your braking becomes a bit of a rollercoaster. That road e-bike is a frightening proposition in traffic, and in a bunch – you are so much faster and beyond the norms of even racing cycling, that you will get into trouble in a heartbeat. Restraint is required, full-time, even on the MTB versions. Brake earlier, think ahead, anticipate.


Don’t be that guy

We have all heard that funny (because it is based, in part, on brutal truth) sound file of the Jozi China “apologising” to the e-biker he had a rumble with in Tokai Forest. E-bikers remain a subject of controversy in mountain biking circles. So, do many “normal” mountain bikers, to be honest – segment-hunters bullying people on the trails far outnumber the e-bikers. But … it pays to be sensitive to other users. Shouting for track on the uphills is just going to create kak. There are already problems in the US, where e-bikes have been banned from trails because riders can’t put away their tape measures. Apply the most basic rule of mountain biking; don’t be a doofus.


The Final Test

You can’t ride an e-bike without smiling. True story. And that is, to be honest, the biggest reason to embrace e-bike, and e-bikers. Any way to get new converts to the joy cycling has brought us, should be welcome.

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