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I really like e-bikes. I own a nice one for getting around town. And every time I’ve ridden one off-road I can’t stop an idiotic grin from forming (at least when going uphill).
Yet, when it came to riding a new carbon fibre e-road bike, I found myself remembering something a first-year marketing lecturer had us awkwardly chant each week: “I am not the customer. I am not the customer.”
E-road bikes and the laws restricting them
E-bikes, or electric motor-assisted bikes, have already been a lucrative market for several years now. While some of those are throttle-operated (basically making them mopeds), the vast majority are pedelecs, meaning they offer automated motor assistance that amplifies your own pedaling effort; they won’t propel themselves otherwise. The motor is most commonly fitted to the crankset axle, but hub-based systems exist as well.
Most of the e-bike market has concentrated on the urban and MTB markets, but e-road bikes are now gaining in popularity as well. And with traditional performance-focussed brands such as Pinarello, Look, Wilier Triestina, Orbea, Focus, Storck, Ridley, Cube, Trek, and Cannondale now offering motor-assisted versions of their drop-bar endurance road bikes, we’re just beginning to see examples of where the technology is headed.
There are situations and uses where this latest crop of e-road bikes make sense, but for those that already identify as a cyclist, I don’t believe they’ll make you any faster.
That is, unless you live in North America.
Nearly every e-bike has a pre-programmed speed at which the motor assistance turns off, to stop the rider from going too fast. In North America, that speed cutoff is usually 32kph (20mph), but can be as high as 45kph (28mph) in some states. As a result, you’ll almost certainly be faster on an e-road bike in such jurisdictions, relative to other parts of the world with more restrictive laws in place.
Certified pedelec e-bikes sold in Europe, Australia, and many other countries, however, feature a 25kph (15.5mph) legal assistance limit and 250W nominal power outputs (European standard). The way things look currently, that isn’t likely to change in the near future.
Not surprisingly, there is consumer demand for faster e-bikes, but also a lack of a united voice on that front.
“There is an appetite from the industry to get [the laws] changed, but there’s no appetite from the government to look at it,” said Cameron Burke of Bosch Australia. “[Those within the Australian bike industry] are not a united voice; some importers aren’t members of advocacy groups or willing to share their sale numbers. We’re our own biggest enemies.”
Now while some would say faster is always better, I’m actually ok with the 25kph limit for commuting and mountain bike purposes. That 25kph figure was based on the average travelling speed of European cyclists, and in an urban environment, that’s fast enough to be efficient in traffic, but not so fast that less experienced riders will be a huge danger to others.
On the trails, riding uphill at over 20kph is hilariously quick and 25kph through twisty singletrack is roughly what a strong rider would do under their own steam. Even 25kph on a flat road is plenty fast when you’re dragging along a bike with suspension and fat knobby tyres. Want to go fast downhill? I can promise you that any good mountain biker is faster downhill on an “analog” bike than one with a motor.
But when it comes to the more aggressive and aerodynamic position of a road bike with drop bars, 25kph feels, and is, slow.
If you’re in Melbourne, for example, most road cycling groups will average in excess of 28kph, while even casual groups in hillier Sydney still manage to average 25kph. And while I’m aware of Strava’s average rolling speeds of approximately 25kph and 22kph for men and women respectively, it’s where and how the e-road bikes assist (or don’t) that makes current e-road bikes so frustrating.
I recently took a new Focus Paralane2 (pronounced, “Paralane squared”) 9.6 for a ride around a local road loop. This bike is commonly considered one of the best, if not the pinnacle of new e-road bikes on the market, what with its cutting-edge Fazua mid-drive motor and integrated battery and electronics.
And yet, I was just left wanting more.
With the ride ending in an average speed no different to usual, and a sweaty jersey (ok, it was hot), I walked away feeling underwhelmed by what this category of bike currently has to offer, at least for those of us under European regulations.
What it does
I rode the Focus e-road bike with a list of specific things to test. Would it ride like a regular road bike? How much of a help is it on climbs? And what does the motor feel like when you pedal past its 25kph limitation?
Overall, there was a lot that impressed me. The fit and handling are indeed pretty similar to what you’d expect of an endurance-style road bike. And a quick check of Focus’ geometry charts confirms this: the analog Paralane is an almost exact match with the assisted Paralane2.
Reach flat ground and the Fazua motor does a remarkable job of disappearing from thought when not required. Cruising at 26kph, you can hear the motor disengage, and from there, the drivetrain feels just as free as a decent road bike does. This is certainly a different experience to most other e-bikes I’ve tried. With those mid-drive motors and their associated gearboxes, it can feel like you’re pedaling a dry chain and overtightened bottom bracket when the motor isn’t running.
However, the “mid-priced” AU$8,000 Focus Paralene2 9.6 tips the scales at nearly 14.5kg with pedals. On the lowest power setting, it almost feels like the motor is simply providing enough assistance to cancel out its own weight. The mid-level setting gives a more noticeable relief, with the “rocket” setting above that offering up a maximum of 400 watts.
Hit a climb and you can immediately hear the whirr of the motor providing additional watts to the crank. And while the bike itself hides the motor well, it’s unlikely you’ll hide the noise from other riders on quiet roads.
That extra power certainly offers benefit where longer climbs are concerned, and for riders that only ever get dropped on climbs, an e-road bike may prove to be the savior you seek. Likewise, for riders that live in truly mountainous regions that go straight up and down, e-road bikes will have you wanting to ride even when you least feel like it. And yes, they make perfect sense for occasional riders who would otherwise be turned off from the thought of riding a bike unassisted uphill. And the best part of all of that is that it still provides a solid workout.
What it doesn’t do
However, two key things greatly limit the appeal of current e-road bikes. One is the increased weight, but the other – and, arguably, more critical – downside is the modest speed cut-off.
With every rise or desire to accelerate, I kept being reminded of that 14.5kg figure – double the weight of my own aluminium road bike.
Spend up to AU$14,000, and Focus’ Paralane2 9.9 will drop that weight closer to 12kg, but that’s about as good as it gets at the moment. And most of Focus’ competitors sit on the scales closer to the Paralane2 9.6 model I rode.
Many of the latest e-road “superbikes” use one of two popular motor systems, either from Fazua or ebikemotion. Both claim to add a little more than 3.5kg of weight to a regular bike, but that’s before the frame manufacturer has to specifically build a frame around the system. Meanwhile, neither Shimano nor Bosch currently offer dedicated systems that were designed with e-road bikes in mind.
It takes energy to accelerate a bike that weighs as much as an enduro mountain bike, and the motor isn’t always going to be there to help you. Hit a short and punchy climb when ticking along comfortably in a group and you’ll be pushing more power than usually required to keep pace, that is until you slow below 25kph for the motor to do its thing. Dropping your speed and then having to kick back on to a group will quickly wear on you, even with the aid of a motor.
Take a fast descent and you’ll be thankful for the disc brakes, but even still, your braking distances are longer with that extra weight, too. The extra mass of the bike affects handling as well, and so you’ll want to allow more road to overcome the less reactive steering. If your riding buddies are on the attack, then sprinting out of the corners will require more effort than usual, too, as the motor will have already cut-out. And needless to say, it’s unlikely you’ll find joy in sprinting one of these things.
And unfortunately, that motor won’t help you at times when you might want it most. Road riding – especially reasonably fast road riding in a group – is all about maintaining a rhythm and momentum, usually at higher speeds.
The Fazua system meets EU standards with its 250W nominal output, but its peak output is a relatively modest 400W. Spin up an extended climb or cruise on rolling terrain and 400W is plenty, but stand out of the saddle to attack a climb and even the lightest of reasonably fit riders will overcome the motor’s ability to help.
On faster flat or rolling terrain, there’s a good chance you’ll already be traveling over 25kph. As a result, the motor can’t help you there, either, and with the added weight, you’ll actually be working harder than on a non-powered bike. Sure, weight can be of benefit once up to speed, but at least for the roads of Sydney, pan-flat highways are few and far between.
Finally, despite the fact that e-road bikes seem practically made for climbing, you may even need to adjust your climbing style. E-bike motors reward high and efficient cadences, and they won’t do as much if you like to grind away. According to Burke, Bosch systems are most efficient between 70-100rpm (Fazua suggests 65-85rpm), and realistically, the golden zone is 80-90rpm. Riding an e-bike is always a game of spin-to-win, and for this, the provided compact chainring setup on the Paralane2 actually makes sense.
Is it right for you?
Solo rides, leisurely tours, exploring mountain passes, returning from injury, health issues, or simply leveling the field between riders of disparate abilities all seem good uses for e-road bikes. And if you’re serious about your training, then an e-road bike may be the perfect, if not totally extravagant, recovery ride weapon.
However, a reasonably fit and experienced rider is likely to find an e-road bike just that little bit too limited; a little lacking in guts, oomph, and other things you’d desire from a sporty motorised vehicle.
To me, riding a carbon e-road bike felt like driving a European sports car with the police sitting on the bumper. There’s a tease of an exhilarating experience, but you’re just not allowed to immerse yourself in it. But hey, at least it’s a talking piece.
Certainly, none of us are getting younger, and it’s comforting to know there is technology that allows more people to enjoy cycling and the social aspect of group riding. But in their current form, e-road bikes aren’t a solution to being able to ride in a group that’s otherwise too fast for you – at least not ones that are legal to use.
It’s clear to me that if e-road bikes are going to succeed in the way that urban e-bikes and e-MTBs have already, then we need even lighter bikes and updated laws that allow for increased assisted speeds (or to move to the USA). As it stands, they’re best suited to casual riders that aren’t interested in outright speed, but rather the journey and a more controlled form of exercise.
If you see one in the meantime, don’t feel threatened. More people on bikes is a good thing, and chances are that rider on the e-road bike isn’t going to be able to keep up with you.
A mini review in images
Special thanks to Pedals Plus in Gordon, Sydney, for the loan of the Focus Paralane2.