Pedal-assist makes steep climbs and technical terrain less intimidating. Bikers are getting charged up.
Barely a year ago, e-mountain bikes were a curiosity on backcountry trails—now they’re here to stay. Twenty-five percent of all dollars spent on mountain bikes in 2020 went to models equipped with a motor and battery that boost pedaling power. That’s because pedal-assisted bikes offer indisputable advantages: They lessen the gut-punch of harsh, relentless uphills, and help riders crank over blocky rocks and other muscle-sapping technical features. Consequently, e-mountain bikes (e-MTBs) let cyclists of varying abilities and fitness levels ride together compatibly, with badasses on regular bikes and less-aggro types using pedal-assist. Action photographers are increasingly using e-MTBs to chase pros into Gnarville—while hauling loads of camera gear with far less pain. Riders in scorching climates love how e-MTBs let them dodge heatstroke in temperatures that typically make cyclists hang up their wheels and retreat to air conditioning.
E-mountain bikes blur the line between motorized and human-powered recreation. Class 1 systems offer pedal-assist power (no throttle) up to 20 mph. Class 2 adds a throttle (pedaling not required). Class 3 ups the pedal-assist threshold to 28 mph. Not everyone is a convert. E-MTBs are verboten at many singletrack networks—e-bikers should check local regulations. And because e-MTBs are typically twice as heavy as standard setups, they take some getting used to, especially during technical descents and unintended dismounts.
But build technology is improving. Pivot’s carbon-fiber Shuttle uses Shimano’s 250-watt EP8 drive unit (lighter yet 21 percent more powerful than predecessors) and a 726-watt battery that supports hours-long rides. Specialized’s flagship S-Works Turbo Levo achieves similar performance thresholds. (Its tagline is “It’s you, only faster.”) Entry-level e-MTBs start at around $5,000. Higher models can get as spendy as $15,000.
As federal land managers comply with the Department of the Interior’s 2019 edict to allow e-bikes on “regular” bike trails, opportunities are expanding. “Generally, the desired ride experience on a Class 1 e-MTB will be similar to a traditional mountain bike, so any great rides for mountain bikes that are also open to e-MTBs are stellar,” says Eleanor Blick of the International Mountain Biking Association.
E-mountain bikes don’t make squats obsolete, but they do open new territory for riders.
1) Slaughter Pen and Blowing Springs
The Slaughter Pen system includes rollicking downhill flow lines (Boo Boo and Choo Choo) and chundery Schroen Train. The Razorback Regional Greenway to the Blowing Springs network has cliffy drops and waterfalls.
2) South Mountain Park and Preserve
Towering saguaro cacti surround South Mountain Park and Preserve’s 70 miles of blocky-rocky singletrack where Pivot Cycles developed and tested its Shuttle e-MTB.
3) The White Rim
This 100-mile route showcases scenery in Canyonlands National Park. On e-MTBs, cyclists can complete The White Rim over three days (rather than the usual four) and float up the final 1,500-foot climb.
4) Greenhorn Gulch
Smooth, flowy ribbons of decomposed granite wind through thickets of wildflowers, grasses, and ghost forests scorched by wildfires in Greenhorn Gulch. E-MTBs let you see it all on the 23-mile loop combining the Cow Creek/Mahoney/Greenhorn/Imperial trails.
5) Big Bear Lake
San Bernardino, California
You can load an e-MTB onto the lifts at Summit Bike Park, or stitch together routes on 100 miles of cross-country and gravel trails. The six-mile Cactus Flats loop threads through Joshua trees, while the more technical 15-mile John Bull loop challenges riders with ledges and slickrock. Big Bear Lake can’t be beat.