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.
Owen Bentley says
I’m a huge fan of e-bikes! On a recent trip to Italy my wife and I did a 7 day bike tour in the Abruzzo region. Beautiful scenery, old towns, green rolling hills, etc. I had my road bike and my wife hired an e-bike. That meant we could ride the whole week together and my wife was able to enjoy the riding as much as me.
Or you could have gotten a fat bar bike and rode slower so your wife could keep up.
Road Bike Rider says
Yes, but there’s a chance it still might not have been slow enough. And there’s also a chance that the slower overall time would make it very unappealing to a non-cyclist because it would end up as too much time on the bike.
Although a non-cyclist might enjoy a three hour ride on an e-bike at a particular pace, they might not want to ride six hours with no motor, even if it is at the same non-athlete pace.
Interesting article. Pretty much my impression of riding a few different e-bikes. How much of your regular bike ride time in the hour and 16 session was actually riding to more accurately compare to the ebike? You imply that you may have stopped using the ebike as well. Also next time you photo bikes turn them around so the drive train components are showing.
Road Bike Rider says
I stopped to take photos when I was riding both bikes. I stopped probably three or four times to take photos on the regular bike, and only once or twice on the e-bike. I guess I’d probably estimate 2 to 3 minutes worth of stopped time on the e-bike, versus 10 to 12 minutes worth of stopped time on the regular bike.
Excellent point! I didn’t even think about which way the bike was facing when I snapped photos and ended up snapping them both exactly facing the wrong way.
Curt Vazquez says
I doubt the E bike weighed 60-75 lbs. I have basically the same bike and it weighs around 55 lbs. But it is a brick on any kind of uphill grade.
Road Bike Rider says
Thanks for the feedback! You’re probably right. I was guesstimating based on how heavy it felt when I lifted it to carry out of the garage area.
There’s always going to be nah sayers when something new comes out. I remember when 29 inch mtn. bike first came out. Everybody rode 26 inch bike. The first time I rode a 29er I new I wanted one and immediately bought one. Everybody was saying it’s just a fad and wouldn’t last. 29ers have certainly changed a lot since the first ones came but now almost everyone rides a 29er. E-bike are here to stay and will only get better. I’ll bet a lot of the nah sayers now will some day be riding an e-bike especially as they get older. To each his own. Ride what you want and don’t cast your opinion on people who do. There’s enough road out there for all of us. Bravo e-bikes. Ride On.
Ebikes and regular bikes are apples and oranges. An ebike has much greater range and speed, and that’s what it is for. Ebikes are great for commuting and touring and carrying a load. Regular bikes are great for exercising. They are not really comparable.
I bought a Focus E Mt bike in Utah and enjoyed keeping up with my buddy Sean on technical climbs to near 10K feet. I love mt biking but now at 79 yrs old it’s tough to keep up with my sons and 50yr. old friends. Not any more!!!!
Blocking E bikes from trails is a selfish act and other excuses for this limitation are questionable at best.
Darrell van Ness says
At age 80 and having enjoyed a heart attack and a stroke not so long ago biking had become nigh impossible for me. Bu E-bike rolled to the rescue. On the flats use of the lowest power setting makes a ride similar to that of a light weight all-pedal steed. At next setting a 10 percent grade requires some muscle. The other two settings are unnecessary because they consume too much battery juice. I’m in Seattle; many hills but downward coasting offsets battery draw on climbs, thus, 60 miles per full 3-hour charge. Unlike a motorcycle the E-bike is quiet and when riding it on a woodland country road I still can hear the baby birds sing.
I have a 25km commute(each way) to work and with our idiotic city laying off most of the transit workers due to ‘rona, bussing to work became around 75% unreliable(bus would just not show up most of the time and disappear from the schedule) Our transit system was already horribly understaffed and unreliable before the pandemic and they thought laying off a ton of works right as we began to open back up was a good idea…
Anywho, I took the $1000/yr I waste on my transit pass and invested in a $2000 cruiser e-bike instead. Best decision I’ve ever made! It cut 30-45 minutes off my commute, it’s a lot more fun, and I’m getting a pretty good workout even with the assist.
I’ve been riding regular bikes my whole life but the thought of riding 25km to work and then doing it again after a long day sounds like a nightmare without the assist.
Hans Bakker says
The other option for riding with a partner is a tandem. Then you can talk any time, stop and start at agreed points and you both get to work as hard or as little as you want. They also attract attention much more than ordinary bikes and motorists seem to be more courteous around you.
There are tandem Ebikes – great for the less fit or older rider.
I have a ebike for commuting to work, a 50km round trip. The great thing is it makes it very easy to ride at a low intensity while traveling 35-40km/h. I get about 8 hours a week of easy base training to go with whatever else I do, which would be almost impossible for me to achieve any other way.
My wife and I are currently bicycle touring for three months in the UK and Europe (on non- ebikes). All you see people riding in Europe are e-bikes. Here, everyone rides e- bikes because, while they do ride them for fun, they mostly ride them for basic transportation and commuting to and from work. Most people you see in Europe bicycle touring are on e-bikes. You can tell by the fat down tubes and slow pedal cadence as they ascend a hill at 15 miles an hour with no sign of exertion on their faces. The ages of the bike riders appear to be from from 10-80. It will be interesting to see how quickly people in the USA take to riding ebikes.
Strava does have an E-Bike Category like running , kayaking -etc
I think the is a place for ebikes, but not really sure how it plays out. As for riding a category 1 climb, just get a motorcycle. What’s the difference?
Road Bike Rider says
There’s a major difference between riding an e-bike with pedal assist compared to a motorcycle, and I think if you had any experience actually riding an e-bike or had really read the article, you’d understand that a little better. I quite literally explained how that exact climb was a good “place for e-bikes,” because I saw locals riding there too, using them as functional commuter bikes that carried things, like a bag of groceries, which would be near impossible for a non-cyclist in regular clothes without the motor assist.
Thanks for the description. Just moved to the Seattle area (previously have ridden a single speed in Dallas and Florida), and trying to decide whether to get a single speed, aero/climber road bike, or e-bike. I like to bunny hop around and get a little squirrelly, so not sure if a 60lb e-bike is going to be satisfying, as you mention. I rented a 20lb multi-speed gravel/cyclocross bike to ride around the area here (average of 3% grade, or 400ft / 2.5mi), and I just feel that riding hills in general is not satisfying to me — crawl on the way up, and coast on the way down. 3% is bad enough, I can’t imagine 9%!
I may just try to stick with a single speed, find some flat routes, and I guess walk it when necessary.
The author is an idiot electric mountain bikes are the greatest things ever invented.
Road Bike Rider says
Your mom is an idiot.
X Marks says
Andy Lamm says
This August I bought a used 47 lb geared hubmotor e-bike impulsively. I had been riding road bikes and lately mountain bikes my whole life. I am now 86. I just love this e-bike. I use low assist much of the time, higher assists to keep my cadence at 60-70 pm. Did about 500 km till now (about 4 months), and am so happy to be out in the countryside, without becoming overly tired. Lost 15 lb (from 188 lb), and feel very healthy.
I rode motorcycle’s till 4 years ago, and this e-bike gives me back some of the pleasure I felt back then. In life, The only thing that is constant is change, and I recommend this latest riding style to older people in particular. But do become familiar with the assist settings and (multi)gear settings before venturing out into traffic. And have a flashing red rear lamp. Happy riding.
I recently got my first emtb and absolutely love it, there’s no way I’d even contemplate riding a non assisted bike on the uphill terrain it takes me. Long term it will definitely increase my fitness as I ride for longer and more often. On the flat or downhill and slight undulating terrain it’s fine without assistance but as soon as there’s any incline It does feel like a brick but on these flatter rides the battery lasts way longer than I do.
I traded my road bike for an Ebike after I relocated from FL to New England. I’ve found that while the Ebike weighs a whopping 35 lbs more than my road bike, I can take it much farther and to places I wouldn’t ride my road bike to. I’ve found that I’m riding much more, and the pedal assist equalizes the hilly terrain to the point where I can keep my heart rate in the range I want it to be in. Anyone who says you can’t get a good workout on an Ebike has never tried one and has no clue how they actually work. Turn that assist off on a long low grade incline and let us know what your heart thinks when you reach the top.
Ebikes are also a great equalizer. Pre-Ebike, my wife and I could never ride together. It was either 1) her falling way behind or 2) me having a very light ride. Now we stay together and both get the workouts we need.