Back in 1977, a Californian bicycle racer called Joe Breeze created his “Breezer No 1”, inspired by his original Schwinn roadster – the sort once beloved of American newspaper delivery boys. The machine, which is now in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution, is widely acknowledged as being the first purpose-built mountain bike, cobbled together by Breeze so he could have fun riding the off-road trails of Mount Tamalpais near his Mill Valley home.
Little did he (or anyone else) know that in the rather less picturesque parallel universe of north London that very same year, the 13-year-old me was building his own type of mountain bike based on an ancient sit-up-and‑ beg machine acquired from a local scrapyard in exchange for a week’s pocket money. Trimmed of all superfluous weight and adapted with wide “cow horn” handlebars and thick, knobbly tyres to make light work of rough terrain, it provided thrills and spills in the woods and wilder bits of parkland near my home for months to come – until I somehow obtained an off-road motorcycle and pedalling became passé.
As a result, my affair with mountain biking came to an end before the sport had really taken off, and several decades before it grew into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today. Ever since, my off-road two-wheeled fun has been enjoyed almost exclusively on motorbikes. In fact, every time I see a mud-spattered, crimson-faced mountain-bicycle enthusiast wheezing their way up the steep track that passes my Devon home, I find myself asking: “Why are you doing that? Is it really for pleasure?”
But I am now becoming a mad-keen, born-again mountain biker, powering up impossible inclines for all I am worth, scorching along forest tracks and even riding up steps and leaping off rocks on a new type of machine that must rank as the greatest development in the sport since that first Breezer – not just a mountain bike, but an electric mountain bike.
Sales of regular electric bicycles have taken off in the past five years, helped by improved battery technology and the fact that many people who thought their cycling days were over have discovered that a little bit of electrical assistance goes a long way, making a 25km ride seem like a walk in the park and taking the edge off those once daunting hills that forced them to get off and push on the homeward commute.
It is only relatively recently, however, that the latest electric technology has been incorporated into high-end mountain bikes featuring state-of-the-art frames and top-notch brakes and suspension – and the results are a revelation.
That said, my electric-mountain-bike baptism was one of fire. It appeared in the form of the insane SWIND EB-01, which, unlike the test machines that were to follow, didn’t arrive by courier in a cardboard box but was personally delivered by its designer, Sylvain Rubio, and his boss, Raphaël Caillé.
Caillé is the MD of Swindon Powertrain, which was established in 1971 to maintain the engines of Formula One racing cars and has become a powertrain specialist over the years, encompassing all areas of motorsport and the high-performance-road-car industry. Rubio, meanwhile, is the firm’s technical director and was previously employed by McLaren Automotive to design and develop engines for its current and future models. A lifelong off-road-motorcycling fan, he began in 2016 to contemplate the possibility of developing a two-wheeler that could offer similar levels of performance and excitement to a petrol-engined motorbike, while still retaining the look, the eco-friendliness – and the pedals – of a top-quality mountain bike.
Starting with a blank sheet of paper, Rubio worked on the project for “a good 1,000 hours” to produce the SWIND EB-01, which is described by SWIND as “the world’s first hyper-electric bicycle” thanks to its remarkable 15-kilowatt electric motor (that equates to around 20 combustion-engine hp) and 60mph top speed. Much of the genius of the design lies in the shell frame, a high-tech hybrid made from aluminium and carbon that incorporates the air-cooled, 1.75-kilowatt-hour, lithium-ion battery pack (the most powerful ever fitted to a bicycle), the electric motor and a nine-speed sequential gearbox that shifts seamlessly regardless of speed, load or terrain. The rider provides all the momentum through pedalling until the electric power is invoked by turning a small, handlebar-mounted twistgrip after choosing one of three settings: Eco for a relatively gentle assistance level and optimum battery range; Normal for a noticeably greater level of “help”; and Boost for the full, high-speed, wheelie-inducing, incline-devouring EB-01 experience.
With a range of up to 80 miles and a charge time of under 90 minutes, the £15,000 machine is undoubtedly the ultimate in electric MTBs – but Caillé emphasises that it is not, strictly speaking, a conventional bicycle.
“In order to be road-legal, an electric bicycle should not be able to provide any assistance above 25kph/ 15.5mph and the assistance should only come through pedalling, not through a twist-grip,” he explains. “We intended it to be an off-highway toy that wealthy people will probably use on their private estates or where they have permission to ride. Each one will be hand-built to the individual customer’s requirements, using the same technology but finished in any way they require.”
But while the EB-01 is undoubtedly a thrilling machine, I soon found that there are plenty of other electric mountain bikes (or “eMTBs”) that open up a whole new world of off-road bicycling adventures while also being road-legal.
Among the best of these are the superbly engineered models from French company Moustache. Launched seven years ago, it offers a range of eMTBS in its Samedi 27 line, including the premium Trail 11 (£7,799), which combines a powerful Bosch motor with an easily removable 500-watt-hour battery pack that is neatly integrated into the frame. The exceptional hand-built quality of the Moustache together with its compliant front and rear suspension and lightweight carbon-fibre wheels make for a superb‑looking machine that really demonstrates the benefits of adding electrical power. The motor doesn’t entirely take over or totally eliminate the need for physical input – it simply enables a rider to go further, faster and be considerably more ambitious in the type of terrain that he or she tackles.
Along with machines such as the Specialized Levo Carbon S-Works (£9,999), the Orange Alpine 6E Factory (£7,800) and the Rocky Mountain Altitude Powerplay 70 (£6,999), the Moustache occupies the current top tier of high-quality eMTBS. But for those not ready to invest quite such a sum in a first machine, Germany’s Haibike offers the aluminium-framed XDURO AllMtn (£3,899) with a powerful Yamaha electric motor and 20 gears (most eMTBs make do with up to 11), while Canyon’s Spectral: ON 8.00 (£4,499), which uses the popular Shimano STEPS E8000 electric motor has been highly praised by experienced MTB racers.
These are, of course, only a few of a fast-growing range of available machines that demonstrate just how popular eMTBs are becoming – a fact witnessed by Phil Blackford, the commercial manager at BikePark Wales, the UK’s largest off-road- cycling centre. “The numbers are definitely on the rise and the fleet of electric MTBs that we made available for hire at the beginning of the year are attracting more and more interest every week,” says Blackford.
“The staff have also started using them to travel around the park because it makes it possible to cover distance more quickly, and the fact that they are heavier than conventional bikes due to the weight of the battery and motor actually makes them track the ground better and turn more positively.”
But according to cycling journalist Henry Catchpole, there are cons as well as pros to the eMTB revolution: “I have heard of people with little mountain-bike experience using eMTBs to get themselves up to places from which they can’t easily get back down. And the fact that it’s possible to achieve and sustain greater speeds does raise the question of how other people using the countryside for walking, horse riding and so on are going to react – it’s important that anyone on a mountain bike should ride with respect for others.
“However, an eMTB comes into its own at a venue such as BikePark Wales, where riders of ‘normal’ mountain bikes are met at the bottom of trails and transported back up in a non-eco-friendly van in what is called an ‘uplift’ – riders with electrically assisted machines often won’t require this.
“And there’s no doubt that eMTBs are of real benefit to people who want to do some mountain biking but don’t have the inclination or, for one reason or another, feel they’re not up to doing so on a conventional bike.”