First go with an Ebike
An Ebike Odyssey to the Brecon Beacons - as a newbie Ebiker – a journey of discovery
The background to this article is having a piece of work to do which involved visiting a place I’d only ever visited twice and spending a week there, at the end of which I had to submit an opinion as to the suitability of the area for basing a reasonably sizeable off-road cycling provision.
That sounds fine – then add in that the work was confirmed late in December, and needed to be completed by the third week in January, and it gets a bit more ‘spicy’. Wet short days with only 5 days to make an opinion…..time to call Martin at RT Cycles and Fishing to see if he has a machine that can help me maximise my mileage in as short a time as possible – an Ebike.
I let Martin know what I was doing, and he promised he’d send me round just the right bike for the job, so I duly went to pick up the bike to find ‘the beast’ waiting for me!
So, a week or so later, I found myself driving down to South Wales with a pile of kit, and a Cube Stereo HPC SL 140 – 29er Ebike in the back. The trip obviously has some ground to cover, but I would also get to try out an ebike as a complete novice and see how we get on.
Not really your average starter bike
If you are fundamentally against Ebikes, then you probably didn’t get this far in the article, but if you’re still reading I acknowledge that there is still quite a bit of scepticism around these bikes. What I was hoping the Ebike would do is allow me to push just as hard as normally, but cover more ground quicker, and also to be able to get up hills quicker if I chose.
I had a clear idea of why an ebike is best for what I wanted to achieve – I knew that I would struggle to keep up the pace on the terrain I’d be on for 5 days in order to ride in the areas I had to visit. A ‘normal’ bike simply would mean I would have to reduce the riding distance in order to survive.
In terms of “is this cheating?” then in this instance absolutely not – I simply only had 5 days to ride in as many areas (or more), but I appreciate this question in terms of choosing to take an ebike ordinarily into the hills. I have to say that I am quite sympathetic toward ebike use on a number of angles:
- I have ridden in family groups and mini-touring where ebikes in the group have been great levellers, and opened the doors to those who might not choose to ride. In many of these instances, the places and the paths and the exhilaration are simply not available unless you are on a bike, and I wanted to share these with them.
- I know that as I get older my power output is slowly (sometimes it feels rapidly) reducing, and so I can appreciate that riders who have injuries or simply just extreme wear and tear will be able to access riding longer with ebikes
- The amount of riding you can get done without as shuttle means that there are a number of pro riders (and not so pro-riders) who use ebikes as a personal shuttle for training. I certainly would not feel great at the idea of going to the top of the Golfie 6 times, but it’s done by ebikers quite frequently.
- Thousands of people in the Alps can’t be wrong – again the ebikes make high passes and alps accessible by those who have the technical skill, but not the power output and duration needed for some of the big days ebikes make achievable.
For much of the riding I was needing to do I was pretty sure that the 140mm full-sussness of the bike would be overkill, but I was keen to see how long I could keep the battery going for, and also hoped that I would have at least one opportunity to use the suspension properly during the trip.
At the point of setting out I was most concerned by:
a) Stiles and gates – the bike is carbon fibre, but it’s still quite a chunk of bike
b) The state of the trails – it’s winter after-all and I didn’t want to be sliding off all the time any more than I wanted to leave a wee groove everywhere – and the bike is heavier than a non-ebike, there is no denying.
c) Getting the electrics wet – and lets face it, it being winter, I was (fortunately) expecting everything to get wet for 5 days.
d) Running out of battery miles from home.
And some of these concerns would no doubt prove to need some careful planning to avoid coming to fruition. I set out sure this wouldn’t simply be a case of point and pedal with no thought.
First Things First – it’s a big chunk of bike
The bike does have some heft (the Bosch battery Pack alone is pretty heavy) so I had to make sure that it was secure in the back of the hire van I had for the job. This is important as not only could the weight of the bike damage other things in the van in case of sudden braking or swerving, but also there are numerous components on the bike which might not have survived an impact, so it needed to be secured carefully for the driving.
The trails were going to be wet and muddy so I grabbed some spare brake pads as I felt the extra weight was likely to be needing some extra braking. It’s fitted with Shimano XT’s – twin pot up front and single out back, so has a good reliable set of stoppers that I’d recommend to anyone asking.
Martin also cunningly fitted it with a Crudcatcher XL which I thoroughly approve of – no mud splattering from the front at least.
Lots of Ebikes of this type are fitted with very aggressive tyres (as they know you have extra power now), but this bike is sensibly fitted with Hans Dampf front and back, which while on the aggressive side, in 29er guise and with plenty of air in them, roll very nicely, but were still be available to do the business if I end up on anything a bit more gnarly.
Obviously with the extra weight, I'd not planned to be firing down any thin lines in the forest – My initial thoughts were that in the wet with this weight, traction might be an issue on the steeper stuff – that’s maybe for another time, although I admit that the wide rims on the shimano 29er wheels meant that I could safely lose some PSI and gain quite a lot of traction if needbe.
The main and obvious feature of this bike is Cube’s choice to encase the battery for a smoother line. This apparently means that the downtube needs more strengthening (as it’s U shaped in cross section) and leads to a pretty bulky (but yes, smooth lines) down-tube, and it gives it a really hefty look.
Having looked into it, then 130-140mm is seen as the ‘perfect’ general amount of travel for an ebike. Certainly for a trail bike, I’ve settled as 140-150mm working really well on a non-ebike, but I am keen to see how much of this travel is eaten up simply suspending the bulk of the bike.
So, pack the van, and then we’re off to Wales to find my nice warm home for the week…
I was staying at Absolute Adventure near Craig-y-nos in the Western Brecon Beacons. The plan was to ride gravel trails and some easy flowy but more adventurous trails over the hills to the West end of the Brecons. I’m looking for the ability to ride in beautiful places that despite being close to the Swansea Valley give a remote feeling and a feeling of journeying and adventure too. I'd need some progression, so there is national cycle route there, as well as lots of estate track, and a good set of bridleways criss-crossing the hills which I hoped would prove to be worthwhile on a bike – but there really is only ever one way of knowing!
I deliberately avoidied the Black Mountain Bike Park, Afan and Glyncorwyg, and Bikepark Wales as these are all too technical for my use – and also don’t use the ebike to it’s fullest in terms of exploring, which is why I borrowed it in the first place.
Planning over, it was time to pack the van and go.
MONDAY – Big ride out, which started as a climb up a fairly steep road to the head of the valley. As a first ride this was a great way to get a feel for the bike, not much assist needed, it’s a pull up a hill anyway so I kept it in Eco most of the time with a short bit of ‘Tour’ on a steeper bit just for momentum. Once of the road then in increasing wind it was a 6km wind up to the top of the hill on good quality estate track. Again, pedal assist was a great asset, keeping me moving noticeably faster than I might normally, and certainly with less breaks for a breather, which was good as it was starting to ming and the wind was picking up.
By the time I’d got to the top of the hill I was leaning into the wind and working hard to stay on the windward side of the track so that the gusts wouldn’t blow me off it. On a lighter bike (even some DH bikes are lighter lets face it) I would have struggled with this wind. It was starting to be a godsend that I didn’t need to stop.
The descent from here was a descent on a gravel track on a mountain bike – nothing remarkable, or perhaps was remarkable that it felt this way. The suspension is clearly well tuned as it felt like my normal bike, although I was still aware of the weight and the surface and puncturing.
The only significant thing about the ride from here was the speed at which I was progressing. I realised that my temperature regulation was easier as instead of sweating profusely, I was able to regulate my work effort with the motor (whilst keeping an eye on the ‘range’. Still mostly using ‘off’ ‘eco’ and ‘tour’ on occasion.
I was a little concerned over the depth of some of the puddles on the return loop, still a long way from home, but the bike seemed to fare fine hitting some shin deep water on occasion and plenty of mud.
The pedal assist did shine on two more occasions on the return loop; once on a pretty rocky section (fist and double fist sized rocks) it was good to have a little ‘tour’ on the upward stuff and on a 50m section of steeper broken rock a quick burst of ‘mtb’ was very welcome – it was also great to have ‘tour’ on the road section as it rose and fell steeply, just for momentum’s sake.
On this section I learned that there is much more effective work done by the motor when you are at about the 80rpm point in your pedalling (which is relatively fast), so dropping gears to get into that rage got me more assist earlier, which was useful to know. I also started to get a feel for how nice the ‘heft’ was when going through rock gardens. 41km 2 ½ hours 650m climbed, battery remaining 70%
I finished early enough that I then tried a different track – riding up a moorland bridleway that looked good as a ride down (and it was). This used more battery power as I used ‘Tour’ and bursts of ‘Mtb’. The weather got horrendous part way through so I only completed a 350m climb and 15km out and back, but this was sufficient to see that the bike rode upland path just like any other bike, but with the added advantages that if I looked up a path I didn’t need to steel myself, just pop it into ‘tour’ and go for it – it made hills fun! And again that in the ming, I could just get out of there. 75% battery remaining from a fresh battery at the swap-over.
TUESDAY – in short was horrendous – at one point I actually debated whether I should be out in it at all. Storm force winds and driving rain – I have never seen so much water running everywhere, out of everywhere, into everywhere.
Today I learned, properly, that water isn’t an issue. I also learned that you definitely don’t want to push or carry too much as it is hefty, but that again this is handy in the wind. Due to the wind I used pedal assist a lot more, just to keep going (even though I was stopped in my tracks using ‘tour’ twice by gusts). The bottom of the downtube mounted battery was definitely underwater at points and spend most of the day being assaulted by running water.
Not a great deal learned other than a little more comfort about running pedal assist throughout the day and about the waterproofness of the bike (and again how nice it was to not have to stop for breaks in the biblical weather).
WEDNESDAY – much better weather, but cold, so I pre-warmed the battery in the van wheel well with the heater on the way to the start. A shorter ride so I used ‘tour’ a little more, and found that I could do stuff one handed while riding uphill which was a novelty (Map reading while riding uphill). More comfort on a 35km and then 15km ride ride and for exploring just great heading down a track with no worries about riding back up if it didn’t pan out. Had a couple of lifts (getting buff now) over gates, but more a confirming day. Did have one awkward moment at a gate where I was attempting to rest it against me and open the gate at the same time – it really does like to fall over. Remembering that most of the components are mtb components I’ll be making sure it’s well secured in the future as like a greyhound it does like to lie down when it’s resting – one simple fall over was enough to put the bar squint enough that I had to get the multi-tool out to straighten them – it’s quite hefty!
Oh, and I had my first puncture – I thought it was the rocks, but the 30mm rims and 2.6 inch Hans Dampfs at high pressure hadn’t succumbed – I had picked up a thorn. No difference to sorting this out on any bike except a little comedy getting the bike upside down.
THURSDAY – well Thursday was another wet and windy one, but due to the amount of trail I’d managed to get round so far I was able to scout from the warmth of the van cab. I know I know.
FRIDAY – A big day rounding off the week. I was able to ride a big loop which would have been a day ride option, but in the morning, with more than one quick shoot down a bit of track to see where it went knowing that getting back up and onto the main trail would be easy. I changed the route I’d planned part way through too, which allowed me to follow a more technical trail along an old Roman road that I hadn’t planned on riding, and which ended up being mind-bendingly wet too, rounding off the testing of the bike vs water situation as well as some short very technical climbing testing. Getting back from this allowed me to go for another loop up and over onto the Afan bike trails from the wrong side of the valley and to sample some of the skyline trail before returning by a different route back to the start (or centre of the figure of 8 I’d been riding)
I thought it best to bullet point these for easer of reading:
· The rear suspension allowed the rear wheel to track really well, which really allowed best use of the full capability for technical climbing in the higher power modes. It was shockingly good at technical climbing.
· The weight meant that in the one or two places which were really rough (more or less rock gardens), then the bike’s additional weight and the dialled suspension meant that it kept to a straight line and ploughed through – it was almost like riding a mini-trials bike it was so planted.
· While I certainly didn’t test the bike on really technical terrain, it rode singletrack graded red at Afan really smoothly with no lack of grip on the trail and flowed with the power enabling me to fly along the uphill sections as well as the level and downhill ones, giving more smiles per mile than ordinarily
· Balance-wise then the bits of jumping I did showed me that it was really well balanced front and back and could be jumped like any other bike (there was some concern that it would be front or back heavy, but it was completely balanced)
· Jumping-wise, then I didn’t do much, but the suspension was definitely set up for ground hugging! – having reflected on it I am sure that with a little more rebound and a slightly firmer base (like any other bike) I could have got more air. It certainly left the ground though, when asked to
· Manualling I found to be a bit of hard work as my weight shift felt a little less effective – I managed it fine, but my arms ached a little more than usual from the pull (might have also been from the carrying on occasion too)
· The range was brilliant. Although I borrowed two batteries and often changed mid-day (because I could) which relieved my nerves about draining the battery in the middle of nowhere, on reflection I never used a whole battery. I rode efficiently as I would when normally out, and used the higher draining modes only when I needed them and for as short as possible, but certainly wasn’t shy to use them, and I would say even on the longest and biggest day (7-800m climbing over about 52km) I had about 15% battery remaining.
· The cold did seem to drain the battery a little. Having said to warm the battery in the morning before heading out, I tried it cold on two occasions to see what would happen. I found when started cold it seemed to lose the first 10%-15% quite quickly as it warmed itself up. Also when I spent a day riding in 1-3 Degree temperatures and snow, I felt that it reduced battery life a bit too.
· Being able to modulate my work levels so that I was effectively working as hard while pedalling, whatever I was going up or down meant that in cold and wet weather I was able to clothe myself for the ride and not be continually putting layers on as I got cold, or taking them off again on the climbs, and certainly this meant less faff time. In addition I didn’t get soaked in sweat, so less faff again getting dry layers on, much better comfort, and of course more enjoyment – this was an unexpected benefit.
· The bike did have an understandable (but no less annoying) wish to lie down whenever I got off it which I found myself fighting quite frequently.
· Turning the bike upside down to fix a puncture (from a thorn – no problems with big rocks at speed) was a bit of a comedy moment
· Winding up for lifting over gates reminded me of watching Olympic weight lifters (only in a much more puny way)
Other Noteworthy Discoveries
· The big one was how much water it was able to deal with. The weather was some of the worst weather I have ridden in for a duration. Sure I’ve ridden in squally showers, but not for 3 days on the trot.
· In addition to this but related was the depth of water it could handle. When I got it back I did suggest Martin crack open the motor to check it was okay, but out on the trails it was definitely hub depth on several occasions (so the bottom of the battery was underwater, and definitely below bow wave height)
· I didn’t use boost all week.
· Once I shifted from the ‘Range’ screen to the ‘Battery remaining’ Screen I was much more able to manage the charge remaining and to judge whether it was safe to use the higher power modes.
So then, bottom line – would I recommend or even buy one?
Well, I now believe construction and battery technology mean we have a practical bike with a high level of power and length of battery life and speed of charging that this bike is now a viable alternative rather than a niche item.
While not being the most technical of riding the bike was certainly robust enough and stiff enough to be properly trail worthy.
The bike I borrowed costs £4200 when new, making it currently priced out of my range, (but still within the range of many) and there certainly are lower priced alternatives in the full-suss ebike category (which aren’t carbon fibre for a start). At just over £2.2k there are very nice and capable hardtails for the price of an enduro bike that seems to be affordable by many, so in this guise they are becoming more affordable. (NOTE:there are interest free loans available specifically for buying ebikes)
People I met have spoken of riding with their mates who were doing an uplift day, but they were riding an ebike, and they were getting as many runs in a day done – so at £25-£35 a hit there are some savings, and certainly for training the mileage in a day that’s available may be worth the investment for some.
I guess I’m dodging the question though. Would I?
If I could afford one – I’d get one. There I’ve said it. Why?
· I can ride more in a day than I could normally – height wise. You still need to be careful if you are heading out for a 60km ride!
· I can ride faster – riding wise and faff-free wise – which means I can get more out of limited time – especially pertinent in the winter
· I can ride hard day after day, rather than having to think about the state of my back and knees after multiple days on hard routes (this is an age thing I think)
· And, I can see a time where I want to ride stuff that I physically can’t any more, and an ebike would let me do it – so longevity of a riding ‘career’ might be a good reason.
Thanks very much for reading – if you want to see more of the bike, then there is a video to accompany the article on the youtube channel.