by Lars Hundley
On a trip to the Bavarian Alps recently, the hotel that I was staying in offered some very nice loaner bicycles from a nearby German bike manufacturer, Rotwild.
Guests could reserve and borrow bikes for free. Most of the bikes were ebikes, because your average hotel guest doesn’t want to pedal up a mountain unassisted. They also had a few regular bikes, which were always easy to reserve because no one wanted them.
Over a period of a few days, I was able to borrow a regular mountain bike and also one of their e-bike models. I rode both bikes on the road over a Category 1 climb on separate days, so I could compare the difference between them on a difficult course.
Before borrowing the Rotwild e-bike, my only experience riding one was spending about 5 minutes trying out a Giant commuter e-bike in the parking lot of the Giant shop in Dallas. My opinion of e-bikes was mostly negative, but a recent article by Dr. Mirkin had made me reconsider my position on them.
Riding the Climb on a Regular Bike
If you don’t live near the mountains, you might not have ever had the chance to ride a Category 1 climb. I live in Dallas and have rarely had the opportunity to ride in the mountains, so I was excited. I found it both challenging and fun. According to Strava, the climb was around 4.5 miles long, with an elevation gain of 2,197 feet and an average grade of around 9 percent.
I was riding it on a fairly heavy dual suspension, 27.5 trail mountain bike with the shocks locked out, with flat pedals and in my tennis shoes. I had not brought any cycling shoes on the trip. The hotel had loaner helmets to go with the bikes.
It was unclear looking at the map in advance how long or hard the climb actually was. All I had was a single bottle cage with a little half liter bottle of water provided by the hotel. I didn’t want to push it and bonk or run out of water with no easy way to get back. I was there for vacation, and not to set records.
The ride started with what turned out to be a three mile descent from the hotel to where the climb began, so I was all-in right from the start and there was no easy return to the hotel.
Several parts of the climb were quite steep, and I definitely needed the lowest gear on the single chain ring mountain bike during those stretches to keep a cadence that wouldn’t blow out my knees or force me to stand. Early on the climb, I passed a guy who was also riding a mountain bike. I saw him look down and notice my tennis shoes, so it wasn’t much of a surprise when he dug in to pass me back. I followed him for about a mile until he turned off.
Stopping several times to take photos, it look me an hour and 16 minutes to complete the climb. From there I went over the top and it was all downhill on the other side of the climb back to the hotel, forming a loop. The only thing worse than riding up a tough climb with flat pedals and tennis shoes is descending with them. It was a little bit scary, and I descended very cautiously.
Overall, the ride took a couple of hours, and I was physically tired at the end. There’s no real way to “take it easy” up a Category 1.
Riding the Climb Again, on an E-bike
The next day, I borrowed the hard tail mountain e-bike. The guy in charge of the bikes at the hotel showed me how to use it, and demonstrated how there were four levels of assist, as well as an option for no assist at all. The bike was very heavy. I’d estimate it was somewhere between 60 and 75 pounds.
Riding an e-bike is a little bit like having the bionic power of the Six Million Dollar Man. You can almost imagine that sound in your head as you accelerate. It’s weird and fun. This bike was set with a maximum assist speed of 25 kph, which is around 16 mph.
One of the first things I noticed is that the e-bike rode like a brick when I had the power turned off. It felt very “dead” and sluggish. It wasn’t enjoyable, and it would be a pain to ride it very far if the battery died.
Another strange thing about riding it on the road was that when you hit the 16 mph limit, the assist turned off. So the bike suddenly went from feeling great to feeling like you were pedaling a steamroller. There were hardly any flat stretches on the ride, so it fortunately didn’t happen very often.
When you pedal backwards on the Rotwild e-bike, the chain doesn’t turn backwards — it just stops like you’re coasting. The cranks in front are specially designed to work with the electric motor.
When you stop pedaling, the power stops immediately. On a steep uphill, that means that bike slows down dramatically and comes to almost an immediate stop. If you try to coast on a long climb to change your bike position or shift around on the saddle to get more comfortable, you have to do it quickly.
I started the e-bike ride with the same three mile descent from the day before, which felt a little scary at first as I got used to the reduced braking power. On downhills it handled fine, but you could clearly feel that the disc brakes do not slow down a heavy e-bike nearly as easily as they do a regular bike.
When I started the climb itself, it was completely different experience than riding it on a regular bike. This time around, I had a feel for how long the climb was in general, and knew the route that was coming ahead. I had also taken a lot of photos the day before, so I didn’t feel the need to stop as much.
With the electric motor assisting, the entire Category 1 climb that had taken me an hour and 16 minutes only took me 26 minutes on the e-bike.
The climb was still steep enough that I couldn’t hit the 16 mph limit in most parts. My average for the entire climb was still only 10 mph. It only assists, and doesn’t work like motorcycle. So I could still go anaerobic and blow up on it, even while getting assistance from the motor. Having an e-bike doesn’t prevent you from riding hard.
From the point of view of a tourist, the assistance made the climb very enjoyable. I was still pedaling at an aerobic pace by my own choice, but I could look around and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the Alps.
I think that a non-athlete, non-cyclist would have also been able to ride up the entire climb with the motor assisting at the highest level. In fact, I saw a local lady in her 60s descending on an e-bike with a rear basket from her house into town, wearing her regular clothes. I imagine that buying a bike with an electric motor was a game changer for her in making it reasonable to ride somewhere instead of taking a car.
I finished the same loop from the day before in about an hour with the e-bike, compared to two hours on the regular bike. I didn’t feel very tired and the ride didn’t feel long enough, so I kept going, taking it off the road and onto the bike trails for another hour. It added up to an extra 10 miles over the same two hour period. (E-bikes were allowed on these trails, and I rode it very cautiously and politely.)
On really steep stuff in the dirt, you could stay seated and easily keep traction with your weight over the back wheel, allowing you to pedal up sections that are technically a lot more challenging on a regular bike.
Uh Oh, I Polluted Strava by Accident!
I was using Strava on an Apple watch on both rides, which automatically uploads with the default settings when it connects to wifi. So a few hours after my e-bike ride I made the awkward discovery that I had inadvertently set several KOMs and annoyed several local German cyclists who ride the climb for real.
Setting it to “followers only” took it off the Leaderboard, even though they already had rightly flagged it. I had named the ride Ebike test ride, so it was no secret. Still, pretty embarrassing to annoy the locals.
After taking one on an extended ride, my impression was that riding an e-bike was a fun experience, but not something that I need to do more than once. I ended up borrowing the regular bike the other days I was at the hotel. I ride for fun and for fitness, so the challenge of riding uphill unassisted is something that I enjoy.
Even though it wasn’t for me, I now recognize the potential of being able to ride with family members who are not into cycling. Suddenly a 10 mile ride or a hilly ride is reasonable to a non-cyclist on an e-bike. It opens up more possibilities than cruising a few blocks around the neighborhood.
A quick Internet search revealed that there are even guided European bicycle tours right now that offer e-bikes as an option. It’s now possible to go a tour with someone who isn’t a hard core roadie, which seems very intriguing to me.
I also read in the comments on Dr. Mirkin’s article about how e-bikes have allowed some cyclists to continue riding on group rides without constantly getting dropped, or forcing the other riders to slow down for them. That’s also a clear win to me.
Actually riding an e-bike made me decide that they are indeed still bicycles, and that there are plenty of valid reasons why someone might want one.