You might think adding a motor to a mountain bike is cheating, but hitting that ‘turbo’ button on the trails can actually boost your aerobic fitness and full-body strength more than a regular MTB.
There’s never been a better time to be a mountain biker in the UK. Major new trails and centres – such as as Dyfi Bike Park – are being built all the time, and MTB technology is advancing at a rapid pace. So much so that even how you pedal is being transformed.
Electric mountain bikes used to be a fringe idea, but now they’ve gone mainstream, with the big manufacturers putting electric motors from Shimano and Bosch into their off-road rigs. You often have to ride an e-MTB to ‘get them’, but once you do, their advantages become clear, often in surprising ways.
It’s not the case that an e-MTB will give you an easier ride. In fact, take one to your local trails and you’ll discover that they allow you to ride harder, for longer, up and down trails that you may have shied away from in the past.
How electric mountain biking can improve your bike fitness
Regular mountain biking is really one big interval session of long climbs that tax you aerobically (and anaerobically when steep enough), followed by burly descents, hopping over boulders and dodging trees, which demands a lot from your muscles.
There’s not much low intensity in that interval pattern, which inevitably leads to you not being able to bring either your full fitness or strength to bear.
“The default kind of pace for those rides tends to be in that middle ground, where it’s too fast to really get aerobic training benefits, but also too slow to really get the high-intensity training benefits,” says The Strength Factory’s Ben Plenge, who trains pro MTB riders such as Santa Cruz’s Fergus Ryan (pictured here riding his Bullit).
“That limits your ability to adapt and become a better rider. An e-bike, on the other hand, gives you absolute control over how hard you work.”
By using the power of the bike, you can keep your effort in the low-intensity bracket at 50-70 per cent of your max heart rate, which is handy for getting that health-boosting aerobic training in.
“It’s called base training for a reason, because the broader that base, the higher you can build your fitness on top of it. You can ride e-bikes as recovery, too, which is why I recommend them to my pro riders,” says Plenge.
They also leave you fresh to shred the descents…
Boost downhill confidence with e-MTB
The fitness and strength demands of descending down a trail are often massively underestimated.
“You can still be getting up towards max heart rate without turning a pedal once,” says Plenge, and that’s on a regular mountain bike – e-MTBs are much heavier, at around 20kg. Imagine being out of the saddle, holding a strong body hinge position (like a deadlift) with your upper body over the bars, to actively drive the bike.
“Everything from your grip, to your forearms, to your chest and back – it all gets worked harder on an e-bike compared to a mountain bike,” says Plenge.
Neil Hope runs the Electric Cycle Company in Edinburgh. He has seen e-MTBs boom over the last six years, and agrees with Plenge:
“Imagine doing 200 squats and 120 press-ups in ten minutes – that’s what riding down steep descents is like. Even though you’ve got 150mm of travel, you are still working your core, your arms your shoulders – it’s a real workout!”
Many dedicated trail centres now offer Land Rover uplift services so you can focus on dialling in your descents. But e-MTBs remove the need for that, allowing you to run your own ‘uplift’ service in your local woods, and maximising your downhill runs.
“Even if you just have an hour, you can get in six downhill runs compared to the two you would have with a regular MTB,” says Plenge.
That gives you the ability to pack more training and more skills into a single session, making your mountain biking more efficient.
Use electric mountain biking to ride further and faster
Something that any adventurous mountain biker craves is to ride massive loops out from the trail head, through the woods, up airy climbs and down rocky chutes, all while never riding the same ground twice.
However, it can be physically and mentally daunting to ride 15 or 20 miles across hard terrain.
Not so with e-MTBs, and as their technology has developed the battery life has extended out to allow for all-day epics.
“The battery I use now is 625KW hour, which is twice as big as they started at, for not a lot more weight,” says Hope. “With that I can get around the 22-mile Black Route at Glentress on a single charge, no problem.”
For Plenge, one of the biggest advantages of e-MTBs is their ability to inspire you to get out for a quick blast on a wet, miserable day.
Electric mountain biking’s secret weapon is simply that it’s good fun – with fitness and strength boosts a welcome bonus.
Here are six good reasons to try e-MTB:
1️⃣ Experience complete control
“An e-bike gives you absolute control over how hard you work,” says mountain biking strength and conditioning coach Ben Plenge, who recommends e-MTBs to fine-tune your interval training and include valuable low-intensity work – which even the pro Santa Cruz riders he coaches have trouble including otherwise.
2️⃣ Attack ‘impossible’ climbs
It’s surprising what you can get up on an e-MTB; so much so that technical, steep and rocky climbs that would normally have you walking can be negotiated. But don’t expect an easy ride: you still need a good level of strength and fitness.
3️⃣ Lap up the descents
The most fun you can have on any mountain bike is going down the trail, and on an e-MTB you can whizz back up the hill faster and with less energy – leaving more time for downhill play.
4️⃣ Add more intervals
With power-assisted pedalling, you can really tailor the effort to your heart rate, to provide a good active recovery between timed, flat-out efforts – whether downhill, or on a steep climb in Eco mode.
5️⃣ Extend your range
New, larger batteries mean that you can go much further than in the past on a single charge. And small, additional range-extender batteries are being produced, which are about the size of a portable water bottle.
6️⃣ Get out more
Plenge says that all the electric mountain bikers he knows agree the main benefit is simply that you’re more likely to get an e-MTB out and go riding, even if you’re short on time.