A case for e-bike racing
Chris DiStefano has worked in the bike industry for more than two decades, spanning from the neutral mechanic’s pits of the NORBA series (RIP) to his current role as content manager for the Davis Phinney Foundation. He recalls being told by the experts that he didn’t need index shifting, clipless pedals, suspension, dual control levers, any non-ferrous frame material, disc brakes, bigger tires, GPS, or kit that looked halfway decent. He’s been pondering the role of e-bikes in competitive cycling, and penned this piece following the first-ever e-MTB world championships (which are not the same as the ludicrous motocross version of e-bike racing we recently posted).
Half of the men’s top ten at the inaugural UCI E-MTB world championship race, held two weekends ago in Mont-Ste-Anne, Quebec, are superstars of the sport. Racers who, combined, won dozens of elite World Cup races and a bikepacking bag full of World Championships on pedal bikes. The race, with 42 starters from 17 nations, was won by the current U23 XC champion Alan Hatherly of South Africa, who only recently began riding an e-mtb as recovery from overtraining. He soon discovered that he was fit enough and fast enough to give this race a shot.
He was up against the likes of Julian Absalon (3rd), Jaroslav Kulhavy (5th), Marco Fontana (6th), Miguel Martinez (7th) and Christoph Sauser (10th).
Search “Julian Absalon” or “Christoph Sauser” and the word retirement appears prominently in the results. Look deeper through the 2019 E-MTB World Championship results and you’ll find other names that conspicuously stand out for not being current-day elite-level cross-country racers, like Andreas Hestler, another retired XC pro, and Wyn Masters, a present-day World Cup downhiller and enduro racer. They were all mixed up with riders who are current-day elite-level cross-country racers, like Hatherly and Kulhavy, which suggests that in this new discipline neither brawn nor skill is the dominant factor in success.
And so, I wonder, will e-bike racing provide an opportunity for athletes to extend careers in the sport? Is it a way for all these established personalities to stay on course so we can continue to cheer for them, and sponsors can continue to leverage the equity they’ve built?
E-MTB racing, in particular, seems well suited to hyper-talented bike handlers who are missing a bit of an edge within their human engine. It levels the physical playing field, so to speak, while at the same time elevating a rider’s skillset. It mixes retired pros in with current ones, enduro racers in with cross country racers.
Professional golf and tennis associations have done well to build successful senior tours, giving athletes a longer window to perform and allowing fans more opportunity to follow along. This has been great for brand sponsorship as the equity they’ve built into great champions doesn’t simply end when an athlete loses a half-step or a few watts. Even the Big 3 basketball league has given fans another look at popular athletes but in a format that puts much less wear and tear on them. The half-court game they play is like the game we amateurs play, too.
Andrew Luck shocked the sports world in the same week as this new World Championship event by retiring from the NFL at 29. He said in an emotional press conference that he could no longer sustain the cycle of injury and rehab as a football quarterback at the highest level. Professional cycling at the elite level is physically demanding, too. There are personalities out there, in the men’s and women’s fields, who I want to watch and support for a long time, and I think we’ll see a number of retired racers re-tire themselves to race again.
Scrolling through my Instagram feed the day after the race I was happy to see a post from Andreas Hestler crossing the line at Mont-Ste-Anne. Just as he’d done many times before at World Cups and World Championships held there, “Dre” gave it full gas across the line, right hand punching the air above, stoked. He finished 23rd. “Amazing to see the friendly faces that have been with mtb for this long, from racers, to mechanics, coaches, organizers and officials – shout outs to all of you that keep this incredible sport rolling,” he wrote.
What was e-MTB worlds like? A chat with Andreas Hestler
Hestler retired from elite-level cross-country racing in 2003 but returned to the Canadian National Team for this race. He’s a two-time Canadian National Champion and three-time Canadian National Series Champion. He finished 31st in the inaugural Olympic cross-country mountain bike race in 1996. He is among the core of the Canadian-Wave-Of-Cool who descended on mountain biking in the late 9’0s and brought new levels of technical prowess and charming spirit to the scene. He could pass for an elite racer today and certainly might give more than a few of them fits out there. But time and age affect even the Canadians (OK, maybe not Geoff Kabush) and Hestler transitioned from full-time elite racer to coaching and Director of Marketing for the BC Bike Race.
I know Hestler from my time as a neutral tech support mechanic back in the ’90s, so I sent him a DM and asked if he would answer some questions about e-MTBs and this new championship event. I was also seeking to inform my hypothesis: that e-MTB racing is a way to extend the careers of athletes we already love to follow.
I heard there were numerous course changes leading right up to the event. What was the feedback from riders and what were both sides looking for in an ideal course?
I flew in Monday night, so didn’t ride that day. By the time I got on the course Tuesday at 3:30pm it was set, so no confusion or discussion from me. But lets talk a bit about the course; I had assumed it would be a toned-down XC something or other, maybe XCO style? The moment I got onto the first climb I was impressed, all the worry about 25km speed limits being a problem quickly evaporated. The climbs were uber technical, requiring full mountain bike skills, small gears and lots of engine from both human and machine, then there were the rock gardens – they were in no short supply up and down. Some of the downs were seriously in the pucker zone and pinning it down in a race – it was to sum it up – proper mountain biking!
Give me the quick lowdown on e-mtb racing. What does it mean to have a sanctioned UCI championship?
With government offices moving to approve public e-bike access across both our nations I’ll say giving E-bikes a World Championships is akin to the recognition mountain biking originally got when it was included in the Olympics for the first time in ‘96.
Tell me about your bike.
I took a Rocky Mountain Instinct Powerplay with 140mm of travel. Initially, it was built to handle riding on the North Shore in the style I am accustomed too and then in preparation for this event we put a bunch of smaller lighter parts on it, that was a mistake. But going into an event not knowing the distance, the mind set of the organizers or the nature of the course had me doing a lot of guessing – thankfully they did a bang up job on the course, kept the distance well within the battery range and in the end I had a really fun time riding my bike on a really challenging course.
What does #thisiswhoiam mean?
Well as a veteran of a long racing career and at the vintage I am, it’s time to accept myself and I’m more comfortable in my skin than ever before – slow, old (father of two) and still like to ride hard on gnarly terrain. In this case an opportunity arose that allowed me to do a first ever race, as an old guy attend the World Champs in a historical moment for the cycling community and visit with some old friends, racers, comminsairs and fly the Canadian flag. My first trip to St Anne was in 1991, so it was nice to get back and ride some of the old stomping grounds.
Tell me a little bit about being on the national team again. How many is this for you?
My first trip to the World Champs came in 1992 at Bromont, I had to do the qualifier the day before and was the second to last person inside the cut off, just a pimply faced naive young kid. Following that I attended every World Championships through 2003 only missing 2000 in Sierra Nevada. Hard to imagine that a span of time stretching from 1992 to 2019 could encapsulate so many memories and the wearing of one’s National Team jersey is something to be very proud of, even still at 49.
Will E-MTB be an opportunity for riders to have longer careers or am I incorrect in thinking there’s a parallel to what golf and tennis have done?
If you consider the Senior PGA then, yes, maybe. In a race that lasts only an hour and fifteen minutes, the holeshot is super important and young muscles make that speed, something that us old guys don’t have any more. So there is a solid future for racing E-bikes, but it will most likely be divided just as the categories are now, by age.
As to wanting to continue racing these days, that’s really the crux. Every year in prep for the BC Bike Race I do a few season openers, check the fitness, see old friends but mostly it’s about getting out on a micro road trip and hoping that one day the kids will come and get the race bug. I feel that I stay involved and race because my peer group is still there, we don’t have time to catch up that often, so it’s nice to rub shoulders, take on a little stress and pressure then drink beers with that “I did a long hard ride” soul glow on.
Will E-MTB give gravity athletes who ride just outside the edge of XC fitness an opportunity to race a new discipline? I’m thinking of riders like Brian Lopes or Greg Minnaar.
From what I experienced at this, my first ever E-bike race fitness, skill, line position and strength to weight will be the deciding factors on who will win. Now if I raced Brian Lopes it would probably be pretty close cause he’s super fit and my motivation to train is pretty minimal these days. I know Wade Simmons loves getting out on his e-bike and maybe yes there could be a circuit for Old Guys, if they wanted to race.