They appeared one day in the shop, neatly lined up in a row, these thick, bulbous, alien-looking machines—a selection of E-bikes. Electric bikes are something that seem to immediately divide opinion. They are either a scourge upon the purity of cycling, or the exciting next progression of the sport. A danger to other road and trail users, or godsends for those who need a little e-assist to enjoy riding.
This uncertainty about what e-bikes mean for the future of cycling has slowed their entry into the American marketplace, but demand is growing and nearly every major brand is now offering some sort of electric option. As I’ve noticed them more and more out in the wild, I shamefully admit that I’ve become a bit e-bike-curious.
Looking at the row of e-bikes before me that curiosity bubbled over. Their thick downtubes held big lithium-ion batteries that powered the Yamaha’s SyncDrive Sport motors at the cranks. They produced 250w of power with 80nm of torque. Having never ridden an e-bike, these numbers meant nothing to me. But for the next few weeks, I came to understand their value as I tested e-bikes on the road and on the trails.
For road riding, I used Giant’s Road-E+1 and for mountain biking, I used the full suspension Full-E+ 1. Sure, I may have been skeptical of the entire e-bike category, but perhaps much of this skepticism has stemmed from some fear of the new and unknown. I was excited to ride with an open mind and no expectations. The bikes would speak for themselves.
Giant Road-E+ 1
I live over 20 miles from our shop. I’m fortunate to have a solid system of bike lanes and paths to ride to work, but it still takes me over an hour to make the journey in the morning. I’ll arrive drenched in sweat and end up spending most of the day eating rather than doing work. Not so bad every once in a while but not really sustainable as a daily commuting solution. This means I typically drive to work. But the Road-E+ has changed everything, and it’s been a revelation.
The moment I got on I was giggling. The fun factor is immediate and with a top speed of 28mph, the bike accelerates like a rocket ship and I felt like a superhero speeding away with the softest pedal stroke. Commute times dropped to under an hour and I arrived at work faster and drier than ever before.
Because the Road-E+ is pedal assist, I think it can be seen more as a tool, rather than a crutch. It felt good to save gas and have fun commuting. I could ride to the shop every day and not feel completely blown out.
I still accumulated hundreds of miles of low-intensity work (I kept my Strava set to private for these rides, just to keep times kosher) while preserving my deeper energy reserves for real hammer-fests and workouts later in the week.
It’s as easy to ride as any normal bike. Power comes on smooth and the bike feels instantly natural to ride. Around corners the extra weight of the battery and motor is noticeable, but not in any way that feels unwieldy. It has a Shimano Ultegra drivetrain that gives you ample gear options for controlling your power output. If you want to exceed the 28mph it does become very difficult to push the bike any faster unless you’re going downhill. At over 40 lbs, without any e-assist, it’s quite hefty. It’s equipped with hydraulic disc brakes for bringing all that weight to a stop when needed.
In my testing I found a full charge could be achieved in around 5 hours, so simply plugging in the bike every night made the Road-E+ usable every day for all my needs. I decided one day to not charge it and push the range limits of the 500wh battery. I made it to 100 miles (on hilly terrain) on Eco mode but eventually died in the middle of a commute. After having to pedal it without power for 15 miles, I swear I will never do it again.
The greatest thing though, happened when I wasn’t even riding the bike. I loaned it to my wife, who is a very casual cyclist, so she could keep up with me on a long ride in the country. Almost out of nowhere, she was riding alongside me without struggle, doing a half-century, and having fun. We were able to enjoy cycling together as we never had before. Beyond anything, this is the most powerful thing I discovered about having an e-bike. It has the ability to open up a world of possibilities, allowing anyone to experience the joy of riding far and fast.
Giant Full-E+ 1
One of my local trails happens to be the perfect e-bike testing ground. It’s secret and tucked away in the woods, frequented by adventurous riders seeking the roughest, rawest, steepest, and most unmanicured trails around. (There is a large number of trails in the US where e-bikes aren’t legal, so always to check your local laws.) The problem with these type of trails is that they often require a similarly rough, raw, and steep climb to reach the top. It’s the type of area where you gain 1000 ft of elevation in less than 2 miles, and I end up hiking a fair bit from sheer exhaustion. I’m fairly fit and have no problem earning my turns, but even on my best days I usually only have the energy to complete 3 laps here.
Enter the Full-E+. With 27.5+ wheels, 140mm of rear travel, a 160mm fork, and a 67° head tube, it’s a solidly spec’d all-mountain machine. Like the Road-E+, it’s as easy to ride as a regular bike, and with the power of pedal assist, 5, 6, maybe even 10 laps in a day suddenly seemed within the realm of possibility. Steep fire roads were no match for the Full-E+. The plus tires provided ample traction but when the terrain became more technical I did have to focus to keep the power down.
Hard climbs actually became an interesting and fun challenge with the addition of a motor. Timing and smoothness was key to shooting up rough, steep bits of trail. A few times I would bumble a section and only then did I curse the Full-E+’s nearly 50 lbs when I had to get off and push. But it was a small price to pay for the ability to ride over twice as much as before.
Again, I think of the Full-E+ as a valuable tool. In the realm of mountain biking, my focus is on descending fast, and what an e-bike allows me to do is devote more of my energy to the downhill half of riding. I power up, get to the top fresh, then switch it off to shred back down. It lets me do more descents than would be normally possible in a single day and as an aspiring enduro racer always trying to improve my skills, this extra practice is not unwelcome.
The Full-E+’s descending manners aren’t half-bad considering the additional weight. I did expect the bike to handle like a pig on singletrack descents and was pleasantly surprised. I actually thought it felt quite natural and was surprised that with just a little more effort I could still jump and throw it around. Most of the weight is low down, making the bike feel stable and planted through corners. There’s ample traction from the plus tires but if I actually owned the bike I would choose some burlier rubber, and potentially use some cushcores for additional rim protection, especially since the motor essentially negates the extra weight.
Despite all the positives, I’m still not sure I’d own a mountain e-bike just yet. Beyond this one set of trails, there is really no other place near me where it’s legal to ride. Until more trails open to e-bikes, I’ll likely wait to add one to my fleet. I also still think there is something pure and lovely about suffering and riding under your own power. But after my experience, I will definitely be dreaming about the Full-E+ every time I ride these trails.
So do you need an e-bike? Well, probably not. But is it nice to have? Yes, very much so! Now that I’ve gone back to my non-motorized steed, I’ve gone back to commuting by bike only once or twice a week. As a commuting tool, I honestly don’t think there’s anything better. If I owned the Road-E+ I would probably add a rack and panniers to make it the ultimate daily driver. On the mountain side, the Full-E+ was loads of fun. I do think I can descend faster and send harder on my regular bike, but for knocking out big days with lots of vertical gain, it can’t be beaten. It’s really only held back by its usability on legal trails.
The most impressive thing to me is how easy and accessible these e-bikes make cycling. My wife is now thinking of getting a road bike of her own, a dream come true for me. I think about that ride, how happy we both were, and how big of an impression it left on both of us. I can imagine all the people out there that would be riding, but can’t because of fear or physical limitation. An e-bike is the perfect entry point, and if they can help more people discover the joy of cycling, then that’s a beautiful thing.
Bruce is a writer, a rider, and not much else. He loves getting his bikes dirty, trying new tech, and riding tough trails that make him suffer for hours at a time.