Not too long ago if you rode an electric mountain bike there was a good chance that a fellow mountain biker might call you out for “cheating” if you passed them on your local trails. Time has moved on. Now e-MTBs join the list of fastest growing e-bike categories and eMTB racing has just made an appearance on the scene in Australia. But will it be exciting?
UCI vs FIM
This growth in electric mountain bikes hasn’t been overlooked by both the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the world governing body for bicycle racing) and the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme, the world governing body for motorcycle racing).
The first UCI E-Mountain Bike World Championships will be held in Canada later this year, and several E-bike events have been registered on the UCI's mountain bike calendar.
The FIM announced a rival series, the inaugural FIM E-Bike Enduro World Cup that will take place in France in June.
The UCI has adopted strict regulations regarding the electric motors on E-mountain bikes which must not exceed 250 watts. Pedalling assistance is only permitted to a maximum speed of 25kph.
FIM's Enduro 1 events allow motors to produce more than 250 watts with pedalling assistance allowed up to 45kph.
The UCI has taken a strong position when comes to the future governing body of e-MTB races and has threatened to ban athletes who ride in events governed by the FIM.
So which body should govern future electric mountain bike events?
From my perspective it seems pretty straight forward. If you have to pedal (even with an electric motor present) then it should fall under the UCI.
If its throttle only with no pedalling involved, then that’s sounds like a good fit for the FIM.
What about higher powered e-bikes, S-Pedelecs, and 750 Watt USA standard e-bikes?
If we’re happy with the pedals (UCI) vs no pedals (FIM) categorisation, we then have the added complication of power.
The UCI has adopted the EN15194 standard for its e MTB races. As we know this means that nominal power cannot exceed 250 Watts, and the assisted speed with pedalling can’t exceed 25kph.
This is where I think the UCI and the wider industry could learn from their motorsport counter parts.
I fully understand why the UCI have adopted EN15194. It makes regulation and scrutineering straight forward, and creates a level playing field for competitors and manufacturers.
But will it be exciting?
Don’t get me wrong, I love the fact that e-MTBs flatten out the hills, and allow riders who aren’t race fit to ride further and faster than they would do otherwise.
However, my fear for the UCI events is that rider fitness will still be the determining factor.
That’s how it should be you might be thinking? Sure I understand that point of view, but one of the benefits of competition is to push the limits of both rider and technology. Adopting the EN standard doesn’t allow room for privateers and entrepreneurs to showcase what they can achieve if the shackles are removed.
In the world of road cycling Andre Greipel had his peak power measured at 1,903 watts during a sprint finish in the Tour Down Under this year (almost 8 times the UCI eMTB limit) with his peak speed measured at 76.8kph. This makes for exciting viewing, attracts fans, crowds, sponsors and lots of media (all good news for the industry, the athletes and the event host).
The current UCI regulations for eMTB racing state that competitors must ride with no modifications and with only the original battery attached to the frame of the bike. This sounds more like an exercise in managing economy and power consumption, rather than exciting wheel to wheel racing?
The electric motor bike industry is at least 10 years behind the ebike industry
The motorcycle industry is in a state of flux with electric in Australia at the moment. Electric Motorbikes haven’t really taken off. Zero motorbikes dipped their toe in the Australian market and then withdrew.
Alta Motors launched a series of electric dirt bikes, motard, and street bikes -they recently received investment from former Tesla employees - but have yet to officially launch outside the US.
Harley Davidson have teased their livewire electric motorbike with a claimed 180km range, and a 0-100km time (3.5 seconds) to match all but the fastest dual motor Telsa cars.
Yamaha have had their own e bike (pedelec) motor in the market for a number of years and a dedicated ebike range in the USA.
Closer to home UBCO from NZ have a dual motor electric motorbike which is classified as a moped and can be ridden on a standard car license here in Australia
So that’s 150 words to sum up the electric motor bike market here in Australia. Sure, there are prototypes and concept bikes, but you can’t walk down to your local dealer and ride one away.
In contrast e bikes are sold in the millions globally, and maybe this is why in the absence of commercially available electric motorbikes the FIM has taken high powered eMTBs under their wing?
How could we inject a bit more excitement into e MTB racing?
Firstly, I don’t want to take anything away from the athletes who are competing in the current UCI and FIM events. There’s a huge amount of commitment, training and skill required to compete in any international event. However, I’m still struggling to understand how these events will be significantly different from the existing mountain bike race program run by the UCI.
How about an unlimited class?
The EN15914 race class should continue, as this opens up MTB racing to a wide audience, and keeps speeds down to a safe level for all but the most novice riders.
However, why not introduce a no-limits class in the two key areas of motor power and battery capacity? A simple upper weight limit could be used to challenge engineers and racers to find the sweet spot between power, range and bike handling eg. a 30kg bike weight limit.
Haibike released their Flyon powered e-bikes in Europe this year. With 120Nm of torque the TQ motor is a race class motor with a top speed of 75kph with the limiter removed. (TQ is the company who manufactured the Flyon system for Haibike)
Pro-downhill mountain bike racers are already achieving peak speeds in excess of 75kph on courses like Mont Sonte Anne in France. This is great if you live near French Alps, but no so great if you have “hills” rather than epic mountain ranges to race on. This leads the discussion to another key area: Course design.
e Mountain bike course design
If you’ve ever been to a downhill event or a grand tour in person, you tend to camp out on a section of the course, usually where there’s a chance of catching some action. In a downhill race your glimpse of the riders is pretty short lived.
In contrast BMX, 4 Cross and Criterium racing are all track based events. As a spectator you’re always close to the action. As an event organiser you don’t have to live in the Alps to set up an exciting and challenging course.
The Rio and London (not known for its mountains) Olympics demonstrated how this could be achieved, with clever course design for the Olympic cross country mountain bike events.
Event distances and duration should be designed to push the limits of battery range. This will add to the tension, as racers can choose when to use full power to put in an attack mid race, or to close down a gap in the final stages of the race.
Joker laps are used to good effect in the motorsport discipline of Rally Cross. Essentially a Joker lap either is a shorter or longer lap (depending on the format) that each competitor must complete at least once during the race.
With eMTBs the ideal joker lap could include a super steep climb with multiple line choices to reward riders who chose the technical line. The safer B line would be designed to be a lot slower. Joker laps are a great way to add another dimension to strategy and tactics to the race.
Points and scoring
The current UCI downhill World Cup points are 1st = 200, 2nd = 160, 3rd = 140 4th = 125, and 5th = 110. In addition to points per position let’s borrow some ideas from other forms of racing.
How about bonus points for the fastest lap of the race? On the other side of the coin, what about penalty points for dabbing through some of the designated technical sections?
Let's push the limits of rider AND technology
The technology and performance of eMTBs is progressing at a rapid rate. Faster, more power, longer range, lighter, integrated GPS real time tracking. The scope to create an exciting innovative race format that showcases the technology and challenges riders and engineers alike is huge.
It would be a great shame if eMTB and other forms of ebike racing simply followed suit with existing categories and formats. Where’s the fun in that?