Strictly speaking, I already did an eBike race at Sea Otter this year, but it was very relaxed. It was great fun and I hope the organisers do the race again, but it was not exactly serious. There were people in fancy dress costumes. There were several bananas, a carrot and a Yeti in the race. There were hecklers all around the easy XC track. The SOC race was like a kids sports day event. My 6-year-old could have easily ridden the track at SOC, on a hard tail, with back pedal brakes. Not to say that’s bad, only that it was an easy track.
The race we did last weekend was intense, to say the least. It was major league. Anybody dressed as a banana would have probably crashed and died. The eMTB race at Leogang saw us riding exactly the same course as the Specialized-SRAM World Enduro racers. It was expert level only. It was essentially 5 trails down the same mountain that the Leogang World cup Downhill event takes place on except that most of the Enduro track was significantly less prepared, rougher, narrower, and twistier than the WorldCup DH track. It was at times, after riding for close to 30 years, some of the hardest Mountain biking I have ever done, let alone the hardest eBiking.
It rained a lot before and during the event, making the steep trails super muddy and there were slippery roots everywhere. The longest of the 5 segments we rode was a non-stop 12 minute white knuckle ride down from 2096m. A large part of the trail would have been pretty much un-walkable. The key was to look as far ahead as you could and try to spot the next place you might be able to find some semblance of traction amongst the roots and rocks to try and slow down. I would like to think I was reasonably fit at the moment, but by the end of the section my legs were cramping, my arms were pumped up and my hands felt like they had been placed in a clamp. It was up there with riding Romaniacs for how exhausted I felt after 2 days, 104km and 7000+ m of elevation. I also consider myself a good-ish rider, but I was really at the limit of being able to ride the track. I had about 5 crashes over the 2 days.
The Haibike AllMtn PRO I have at the moment is an absolutely superb bike, and up until this weekend It had tackled everything I ever threw at it with perfect composure, but at Leogang it felt like I took a knife to a gun fight. It’s a trail bike and what was needed was a Downhill bike or an enduro bike. Either a Haibike NDURO or even better the Dwnhll would have been perfect. A few degrees of head angle make a big difference at race pace. The ideal bike would have had a slack head angle and longer travel. I was really struggling to not go over the bars on the Haibike AllMtn with it’s fairly steep 68 degree head angle, and with 150mm of travel, I felt like I was riding a hard-tail most of the time on those trails! I didn’t exactly help myself either as I forgot to unlock my shock on the first segment, but that’s another story! Anyway, it was still great on some of the less steep sections and it’s still one of the most versatile bikes I have ever ridden, just not the ideal choice for the steep Mountains of Leogang. My buddy Benny I entered the race with was totally stoked with his slacker Haibike 180mm NDURO.
This was a test eBike event, to see if it would be repeated at future UCI Enduro races. The problem was that nothing special was organised for eBikes. We were simply stuck into the existing traditional Enduro race format. There was no advantage to being on an eBike, other than the fact that we rode the entire track, which certainly made for a more enjoyable experience overall but the sections where we pedalled and others walked were not timed. As we pedalled our eBikes past the regular racers who were pushing up the super steep sections that even the pro’s had zero chance of riding, we received the usual ‘Cheater’ comments, but it seemed so ridiculous I had to laugh. For one because we were riding the whole course whilst they were casually pushing up, and secondly, because it was bloody hard work pedalling up hills that steep anyway!! My lungs and legs were exploding as I huffed and puffed past the pro’s pushing their bikes. It was impossible without a motor but even with a motor, we were on the limits of traction and of what we could ride up with the pedal assistance. It was arguably more tiring charging up such steep trails on an eBike than slowly pushing a 12kg regular bicycle! Maybe they were the ones cheating by walking. ha!
Photos by B.Turck during the easy transfer sections!
Ironically the un-timed transfer sections were where the eBikes really shined. On an eBike you can ride things you have no chance to ride on a normal bicycle. There were some nice technical uphill woods sections that would have been perfect as eBike segments. Riding the timed downhill segments we had no real advantages being on 22kg bikes. Personally, I really like the stability eBikes offer when riding downhill, and If I had been on the slack 200mm XDURO DH I would have absolutely smashed the times I set on the AllMtn, but a traditional bicycle would have also been fine. Maybe less tiring even.
We rode the full 50km race loop on Saturday to test our batteries and check the track, and had 2 bars of power left over on our XDURO systems, but on the morning of the race as we were about to set-off the organisers told us we had to pedal up to the mid station. We rode up in Sport/Tour mode and at times during the day I either turned the power off or rode in Eco Mode, but I still ran out of batteries 2 stages before the end. I had to pedal/push (HA!) up the last climb and race the final 2 stages with no power at all. On a 22kg eBike pedaling up a steep climb with the motor off is not fun, and both the last stages had a few sections where you needed to pedal so I was screwed without a battery. My friend B.Turck still had battery left as did the only pro in the race, and the eventual winner André Wagenknecht, who somehow had 3 bars left! Either I was not good at managing my power or my battery is not in good shape! Battery management is also a skill in itself I guess, so in this respect, I failed.
We were surprised to be told we had to pedal up 1000m of elevation to the middle station in the morning up the track while the Pro’s took the lift. Cheats! Easiest trail of the day though anyway. Nice Photo by ©bensenpictures.com
So what are my conclusions from the event? Well let’s start with the fact that there were only 3 of us in the race. Yes, 3 people signed up. Myself, my buddy Benny and Cube Pro André Wagenknecht…
Why? Well maybe there was no publicity done so the hoards of eBike racers didn’t hear about the race, but I think it’s down to some other reasons. eBiking is a new sport, bringing in a lot of new riders and the skill and perhaps also fitness level of the average eBike rider is not yet at the same level as conventional mountain bikers so maybe they are not yet ready or willing to compete with each other or ride such difficult trails. Also, the majority of those who are young and fit and into racing are not interested in or have not yet discovered how fun eBikes are so they only ride traditional bicycles, and those others who are race-minded and own eBikes have chipped their bikes out of frustration at the 25 km/h pedal assist speed limit (33km/h like they have in the USA is much better on the flat), thereby disqualifying them from being able to race so they didn’t bother entering.
Talking of which, no tests were done on our eBikes before or after the race, but it actually would have made no difference to have a tuned bike anyway. The trails were so steep it was all about trying to brake less rather than pedal faster. A Chipped bike would have been no advantage on the timed segments, and most of the uphills were too steep to go up in anything but a granny ring anyway. A chipped bike only goes faster on the flat when you can pedal fast enough to go over 25 km/h with the pedal assistance.
Overall was it an advantage to have been riding an eBike? I would say yes because we rode the whole track where the others had to walk, so we rode more, which is always a bonus! I’d take riding an eBike up a steep hill over pushing a traditional bike any day of the week. Call me a cheat but pushing bikes uphill seems stupid to me when you could have an eBike and ride up. During the timed segments, however, it wasn’t an advantage at all. I think I would have had a small advantage on the 200mm Haibike XDURO Dwnhll VS those on 160mm/180mm Enduro bikes but not on the 150mm AllMtn Model I was on.
At the end of the weekend, and when all was said and done, I absolutely loved the whole event. The eBike race could have been a lot better with a little tuning though. Shifting the start and end of the segments to include parts of the track where eBike climbing skills really factored into the timing would have clearly shown what an advantage riding eBikes offer over traditional bikes on technical uphill trails. You can simply ride more technical uphills, and much steeper uphills on eBikes than you can on traditional bikes, and new skills need to be learned in order to do so. The times from segments like those should be included to reflect that and therefore make racing more interesting for eBikers.
The 2016 Sea Otter eMTB race was easy, but really good fun for all of the 100 people who raced. Leogang was hard and much more serious, but like the Sea Otter Classic it also didn’t really show any of the advantages of riding eBikes, namely the technical climbing possibilities they offer.
One thing is for sure, I want to keep racing eBikes! I don’t think the perfect recipe for an eBike race has been anywhere near found yet, but it will be found eventually and in the meantime riding eBikes is bloody good fun so we will keep entering all the races we can until then!
If you have an eBike then hopefully we will see you at a race one day too, and if you don’t have one, what are you waiting for??! Traditional bikes are fun to ride too, but not all the time like with eBikes. It makes more sense having a long travel bike if you don’t have to push up the steep hills!