The weekly spin: Trends collide as Yamaha launches Wabash, a gravel e-bike

by Neal Rogers


How the hell do I record an e-bike ride on Strava? Will these miles count toward my annual total? How do I figure out what my power output was during the ride? What happens if I get a KOM?

These were the primary concerns swirling around in my mind while riding the Wabash, Yamaha’s new gravel e-bike, at a launch in San Diego County last week.

But there was another assessment — more of an emotion, really — those concerns continually butted up against.

Damn, I thought to myself (and ultimately said out loud): This is actually a lot of fun.

WHAT’S A WABASH?

First, some basic information. The Wabash is an aluminum frame and fork, power-assist, $3500 gravel e-bike designed and delivered by Yamaha Bicycles, a division of the Japanese manufacturer known for motorcycles, outboard motors, golf carts, and more. It’s available in small (53cm), medium (55cm), and large (58cm), available at about 60 independent bicycle dealers to start, and in one color, which they’re calling latte.

Similar to other gravel bikes, the Wabash comes equipped with a SRAM APEX 1×11 drive train with an 11-42 cassette, flat-mount hydraulic disc brakes, 12mm thru-axle hubs, and 33mm Maxxis Speed Terrane cyclocross tires. It’s also dropper-post ready, with dedicated external mounts as well as optional internal routing, and spec’d with a flare-drop, randonnée-style handlebar.

Unlike other gravel bikes, it also comes with a Class 1 Yamaha PWSeries SE drive unit, offering four power assist modes with a max assist speed of 20mph, and a 500 watt-hour side-exiting battery pack. The whole package weighs about 43 pounds (19.5kg) in size large.

Yamaha is no stranger to e-bikes; their first power-assist bike was sold in 1993. Since then, they’ve manufactured four million drive units, both for their own bikes as well as OEM for brands such as Giant, BH, and HaiBike. About half of those four million drive units were sold on Yamaha power-assist bikes.

The Wabash, so named after the river valley that runs through Illinois and Indiana, is labeled as a gravel bike. But during an hourlong presentation, it was clear this is really being marketed as a utility bike, designed to tackle everything from a paved commute to bike paths to dirt roads to singletrack. It’s a do-anything, go-anywhere adventure bike.

Yamaha’s marketing material reads, “Ride to where your mind takes you and leave the map at home,” and in reality, the Wabash is an adventure e-bike that can “do a lot of things.” It’s a hybrid, the lovechild of the biggest growth trend in cycling, e-bikes, with the hottest trend in cycling, gravel riding. It’s a bike designed for anyone who is less interested in achievement and more interested in enjoyment.

It’s also built to last; it comes with a three-year warranty on the drive unit, 500 watt-hour battery, and frame.

RIDING WITH POWER ASSIST

The Wabash is far from the first drop-bar gravel e-bike on the market; Easy Motion, BH’s electric bikes division, has its Rebel Gravel model, and Giant has its Tough Road E+. Like the Wabash, both are powered by Yamaha’s remarkably smooth and powerful (and quiet) PW power assist, situated at the bottom bracket. So much of my response to the Wabash equally applies to any drop-bar gravel e-bike.

What’s different on the Wabash is that Yamaha has designed both the frame and the motor. It’s their vision, top to bottom.

“We do not view the drive unit as a component of an e-bike, we think of it as the heart of an e-bike,” explained Drew Engelmann, Yamaha’s Power Assist Bicycle sales and marketing manager. “We focused on designing the frame and drive unit together for a consistent fit and feel.”

The PW power assist is governed by what Yamaha refers to as its triple sensor system, taking inputs on torque, speed, and cadence. Torque data comes from pedaling power at the crank; speed, from a sensor built into the rear hub; cadence, based on rotations at the crank. Together, this data informs the drive unit how to respond to the effort put into the pedals.

Once you get the bike going over 20mph (32kph), the power assist goes away and you’re on your own. But you don’t really notice because you’re already at speed, carrying momentum; there’s no discernible resistance from the motor, and the weight of the bike isn’t much of an issue bombing down a hill. However that changes on rolling terrain, when carrying speed into a short hill. Entering a climb at speeds well over 20mph, the power assist only kicks in once you’ve decelerated a fair bit.

For those who have never ridden a power-assist e-bike, it would be a mistake to assume the motor does all the work for you. You can still push as hard on the pedals as you like — you just go faster. If you’re looking for a workout, you can go into the mildest of the four modes, ECO+, or just turn the assist off altogether.

A bar-mounted computer display provides all kinds of information, namely which of the four power-assist modes you’re riding in, and range — how much longer you can expect the battery to last if you continue to use that mode. The controller couldn’t be more basic, just up and down buttons located to the left of the stem. The display also controls a fairly powerful LED headlight, a nice touch for commuting or night riding.

RIDING A GRAVEL E-BIKE

Riding the Wabash through rocky terrain, it quickly became apparent that you can get yourself in trouble going uphill as much as you can downhill. Once you start really pushing the pedals on a climb, you encounter obstacles much more quickly than you’re used to. The same is true with pedaling out of slow-going technical sections.

At one point, I slow-danced my way through a rocky uphill section, nearly came to a standstill, pushed on the pedals to keep my momentum, and was almost instantly straight into a technical section 15 feet (4.5m) up the trail, the front tire slicing and dicing its way through a rock garden. I point this out not as a flaw of the bike — knowing how to use the varying pedal-assist modes is an acquired skill, just as knowing which gear you’re in — but rather to explain just how different the riding experience is. I punctured once on our hilly 18-mile (29km) ride, and it was going full-stick on a climb, through a rocky section.

And that brings me to my biggest complaint with the test bike we rode — the wheel and tire set up, which mounts a 33mm Maxxis Speed Terrane tire, inflated with an inner tube, to a Yamaha-built 25mm box rim laced with standard J-bend spokes. Inflated to 54 psi, the tires were just too hard and too bouncy, with not the kind of traction I’m accustomed to.

I stopped to let out air pressure more than once; subconsciously, I suppose I was begging for a pinch flat. The tires are tubeless compatible; with a rim strip and some sealant, they should be good to go. If not, for a serious trail user, it would be worth considering a full wheelset upgrade.

I realize that when marketing a bike for all types of riders, some of whom might use a bike like this primarily to commute, with only the occasional foray into off-road riding, a narrower tire makes sense. The same goes for running it with an inner tube, rather than tubeless, so as not to scare off less-experienced consumers. But for my style of riding, a 35 or 40mm tire, set up tubeless, would be an immediate upgrade. With a motor, there’s little downside to dragging around a more capable tire; these are lessons already learned with electric-assist mountain bikes.

The bike handles well enough when riding, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s heavy. It’s not something I thought about when navigating technical singletrack — the tail tracks well enough — but roll up to a stoplight and reach back to realign the back of the bike, and you’ll feel it in your arm. Lifting it onto a hitch rack would be a legitimate effort.

The bike is playful and capable, but therein lies the problem — its capability. It’s fun, and it’s fast, and it’s fun to go fast. There’s no barrier to entry to achieving legitimate speed on the trail; the bike removes many essential skills from the equation.

I’ve worked hard over the past 25 years to maintain the fitness, and proficiency, required to ride up and down just about anything (within reason). I’m by no means the most capable off-road rider on the trail, but what capabilities I do possess were hard earned. Blood, sweat, and tears, as well as a heavy dose of stubbornness, went into learning how to pick the best line, weight the front wheel, stay upright, and pedal out of a tight section.

On a bike like the Wabash, you don’t really need to navigate most technical questions — you just point the front wheel and press on the pedals, and you squirt out the other side. There’s no easy way to finesse a heavy bike like this, which highlights the skinny tire/inner tube issue in rougher terrain, because you don’t need to finesse it to get through the rough stuff. Just pedal and shoot.

I don’t subscribe to the philosophy that riding an e-bike is cheating — for others. It’s a personal preference, and one can only be cheating if he or she is consciously trying to win something. And I’ll always believe that more people getting out on two wheels is to be encouraged. But I do hold myself to a self-imposed standard that I’ve adhered to for the entirety of my cycling experience. There may come a day when I’m eager to have pedal-assist capability at my fingertips, but at age 46, I’m not there yet.

I also use Strava regularly to log my rides, see where I’ve been, compare times on segments to previous efforts, and see how my power compared to other recent rides, or other efforts on those segments. And this is where an e-bike is just a different animal. Unless you’re using the same pedal-assist mode at the same time on a recurring segment, no two efforts are truly comparable.

Yamaha’s Drew Engleman explained that there are apps available, such as Ride with GPS, that can record a rider’s power based off the torque readings that inform the power-assist drive unit. I didn’t have the app downloaded for our ride, so I wasn’t able to confirm that in my own riding.

But here’s the thing — does it matter?

At some point on the ride, it dawned on me that concerns about Strava, PRs, KOMs, and watts would be irrelevant to most all Wabash owners. That’s not this bike, and that’s not this user — the first-time bike buyer, the commuter, the elderly, those with disabilities or health issues, or those who just want to go faster, or further, by bike.

The race is long, the saying goes, and in the end, it’s only with yourself. Unless, of course, you’re not racing at all. The target audience for this kind of bike likely won’t have achievement-based concerns swirling around their heads while riding along. They’ll just be out on their bike, having an adventure.

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