The Rise of EMTB Racing

If there’s one good thing to be said about the chaos of the last few years it’s that more people started riding bikes, or, probably more accurately, started riding bikes again. Kiwis really got into biking during lockdown and sales of ebikes in particular went crazy.

Now, it seems we’re taking it to the next level and getting a bit competitive, as Kiwis are known to be. With iconic events like the Whaka 100 introducing ebike categories, more and more people are lining up on the start line on e-powered bikes.

Worldwide, this is a trend which has been building for several years both at a recreational level as well as professionally, with the world governing body of cycling, the UCI, fully on board. Meanwhile brands like Bosch eBike Systems are helping to progress the sport with ground-breaking new technology. We had a chat to those involved in the industry here in NZ and on the international stage to see what’s fuelling the rise of eMTB racing and where it’s likely to head.

A bit like a teenager going through a fast and awkward growth stage, ebiking is, to some extent, still struggling to find its true identity and where it fits in the world of competitive racing

In the purist world of elite mountain biking, do ebikes have a place alongside the traditional acoustic disciplines? How does this stand with the athletes, the event organisers and manufacturers?

When it comes to introducing an e-powered category to an event, the conversation quickly turns to the subject of cheating, whether it be the die-hard riders adamant that pure muscle bikes are the only option, or wider concerns about edoping – the tweaking of either software or hardware to give the rider an unfair advantage, something that event organisers are working hard to combat.

Battery range anxiety also features high on the list of cons along with the puzzle of how to keep racing fun for everyone in a mixed field of analogue and ebikes and riders of varying levels of experience.

And yet, even with these challenges, Tim Farmer, race director at the Whaka 100, is convinced that “ebikes have their place.”

The Whaka 100 has included ebikes in three of its event distances – the 10km, 25km and 50km – since 2018 and has seen 200% growth of ebike riders over the last three years with around 150 entered in last year’s event.

Marketing Manager Mike Cockin explains, “We brought it in because we saw the demand for it early. We knew a lot of people were riding them and also the fact that we’re keen to cater for all abilities. We knew that a lot of people were transferring to ebikes as they get older or they’re looking to recover from injuries.”

For Farmer, while recognising and catering for a new trend is important, it’s as much about allowing the sport to mature alongside its original adopters. “The original demographic and audience of mountain biking, the originators of mountain biking in New Zealand, have got to that age now where they’re on bikes and want to be involved but they don’t necessarily want to get their doors blown off either.”

At the Whaka 100 organisers have opted not to allow ebikes in the 100km distance because “then you need multiple batteries and it becomes an arms race. The formula becomes about how much gear you have, which is not what the 100 is about, it’s about the endurance.” 

How much the technology influences the race results – or should be allowed to – is a hotly debated topic. A post-event survey of Whaka 100 participants reported that 12% of riders said they had some form of speed modifications. “Some riders feel mods are unfair and many suggested speed should be capped at 32kph (already the NZ legal limit). However, it was also flagged that the ebike playing field is already unbalanced with different models of bike and newer tech every year.”

While at the professional level UCI races have now introduced an intensive scrutineering process for ebikes, local race organisers have a harder time managing illegal modifications.

“It can be a bit like the Wild West,” says Cockin, “and you can’t verify the results”. At the Whaka 100, the answer for now is not to award prize money in the ebike categories. As a short-term fix this seems to be working, with survey results showing that “that prizes and prize money are the least important reason for entering an ebike race. However, looking deeper into the feedback many feel it’s nice to be rewarded or be in with a chance for a prize. Particularly considering ebike categories often have the same entry costs as other categories which are awarded prizes.” It’s a fair point.

So how does the New Zealand situation compare to the international scene where eMTB racing has been around for a while longer? In the USA, the renowned Sea Otter Classic introduced an ebike category as far back as 2016. “The Bulls eMTB Race presented by Bosch is built to challenge modern eBikes and their riders. Steep climbs and technical descents make the course as difficult as normal bike racing, only different.”

The “only different” part is key here. Overseas, race organisers appear to have moved past the struggles of how to find a happy integration between e-powered and analogue bikes in one race, instead embracing the benefits of ebikes and building out an entirely different concept. The Enduro World Series is another good example of this.

Ruaridh Cunningham, Sports Co-ordinator at ESO Sports, which ran the EWS from 2012 to 2022, explains this in more detail.

“The biggest question around the introduction of ebikes was how do we make it different, how do we include ebike in enduro but not just make it enduro on an ebike? And that has taken a little bit of time to develop.”

The Enduro World Series introduced an ebike category, the EWS-E, in 2020. 

This year ebike racing will be included as its own category within the newly established UCI Mountain Bike Enduro World Cup which takes over from the former Enduro World Series.

“The ebike racing is now going to be a category within the Enduro World Cup rather than a separate race earlier in the week just to try and give it a seat at the big table,” says Cunningham. “With the popularity of ebikes it’s an important step and with quite a big change for the sport (EWS now coming under the UCI World Cup banner) it’s important to bring ebike along as well because in a lot of aspects it’s pretty much the future.”

From only being introduced in 2020 to ‘taking a seat at the big table’ professional eMTB racing has seen a rapid rise to the top. Is it surprising, therefore, that it wasn’t introduced earlier?

“I think it was probably on the backburner for a while,” explains Cunningham. “Fred Glo, Enrico Guala and Chris Ball who were the cofounders of EWS were doing a lot of ebiking and testing behind the scenes. It came into fruition in 2020 but there had been a lot of development to ensure it was feasible and was going to work and wasn’t just a copy of EWS but on an electric mountain bike.

“It probably was about the right time. I think the introduction of the power stages, the technical uphill stages, and then making the liaisons (the trail between special stages) as technical and as engaging as possible, and having a shorter time limit, it’s taken quite a bit of time to develop the discipline.

“The technology to really showcase that probably only came available in 2020 or thereabouts. There were brands who were ahead of the game, in the same way that there were brands before enduro making capable trail bikes, but it probably took up until 2020 for most brands to adopt an ebike. So there definitely was a timing issue with the industry, making sure it was going to be well supported enough.

“But also from a technology standpoint, in 2020 everybody was riding 500w/h batteries which, if we were on technical terrain, depending on the weight of the rider, temperature and everything else, you were getting about 1000m of elevation per battery, whereas now we’re seeing with the 720 w/h batteries you’re getting 1500/1600m which allows us to expand the race a bit.”

Technology is progressing at a steep rate but for Cunningham and his team, it’s about embracing these developments and allowing them to benefit the sport as a whole.

“It’s a difficult one for us because obviously in a sporting aspect you’ve got to try and put regulations and rules on that and try and keep this whole thing in line but at the same time, we’re like well, the technology and even the way the riders are using it is developing so quickly that we’ve kind of got to let it grow.

“We can’t put too many restrictions and rules on it now because it’s just so good to see the improvements year on year and the user experience at the end of that. You’re seeing this technology being developed at races and then filtering down so you can go and buy it in the shop maybe a year or two later. And we feel very responsible for not trying to choke that too soon. We want that to grow and develop because I think it’s going to benefit everybody. It’s really exciting.”

An open dialogue between event organisers and the companies developing eMTB technology is crucial, says Cunningham.

“I think we have to with how new the sport is, how popular ebikes are already, it’s important for us to have good relationships with the brands and the motor manufacturers, and get an idea of where they’re headed.”

Bosch eBike Systems is one of the brands leading the way with products like their recently-released Performance Line CX Race limited edition motor which is specifically “designed to win races” and “makes light work of the world’s toughest eMTB races.”

“The eMTB sector is becoming more and more professional worldwide, and we actively support this development,” explains Claus Fleischer, CEO of Bosch eBike Systems. “As a passionate eMTB rider myself, I know exactly the pain, effort and excitement on the trail. This is why I am particularly proud that our technology enables athletes to compete even more successfully.”

With such impressive and rapid advancements in technology, is there a risk that eMTB racing will soon no longer require good old fashioned riding skills?

“We’re still perfecting it and adapting with the increases in technology and the riders improving but we can do a lot with course design,” explains Cunningham. “I can’t look back on the last season and say someone won there because they had an advantage with a motor. 100% it still comes down to the rider. We want the best bike rider to win at the end of the day, not the lightest person or the best motor. If we can do that, it keeps it fair.

“The special stages are more focused on the technical skills than the speed of the rider. We try to make sure it’s not just a steep power to weight game up a steep climb; we make sure it’s tight, it’s awkward, it requires technical skills. It’s important we maintain that and it doesn’t become a sport where it’s just like jockeys and it’s just the light riders on ebikes.

“Last year was quite interesting in that respect. We saw a bunch of different winners. We’ve had riders who have been quite vocal about the power stages and them being unfair because of the weight thing and then they’ll go and win one. “

The steep technical uphill stages are becoming the defining feature in eMTB racing and what draws the crowds in.

“We’ve tried to make the power stages as accessible as possible because it’s become the stage that the crowd want to go and see,” explains Cunningham. “Riders picking their way up a really technical stage seems to be what everybody flocks to watch.”

And, interestingly, it’s not just the general public taking an interest. “In the last couple of years, you go to an EWS-E and go to a power stage and you’ve probably got half the top 10 pro EWS men and women sat at the side watching. They’re not there to mock, they’re there to go oh this looks quite interesting.

“I think there probably was a little bit of stigma initially but the way it’s developed and the way the riding has developed it’s one of those things where it’s quickly becoming its own category and discipline and style of riding. I see a lot more EWS pro riders on ebikes these days.”

Cunningham is confident that the developments being seen in professional eMTB racing are also helping the sport to grow at the grassroots level.

“We also want the technology that makes it better to go up a power stage in an enduro World Cup event to benefit someone who’s riding recreationally at the weekend as well. I think enduro has done a really good job of that over the last 10 years but I’m confident ebike is getting that way and we can continue to improve it.”

Events like the Bosch eMTB Challenge have been helping to grow the sport in Europe. The tour covers six European countries and has been running for six years. The races are aimed at ebikers of all ages and abilities, with ‘Amateur’ and ‘Advanced’ categories on offer.

Overseas, eMTB racing is growing thanks to advancements in technology, a change in attitudes amongst riders and the availability of races at amateur and professional levels. What would it take to see similar growth in NZ?

Tim Farmer believes the drive would need to come from mountain bike clubs and commercial events.

“I definitely think there’s opportunity for it but the industry needs to support those events to develop. Without their support they’re just not viable and that’s a conversation we’ve been having with a couple of bike brands who want to do it.

“You’ll have to get the chequebook out. That’s the reality of it. To do something like that costs a lot of money just for a one-off standalone event set up.”

One thing is for sure, this is a unique time in the world of mountain biking. Sales for recreational use of ebikes are at a high, and at the same time the elite racing fraternity is seeing this once looked-down-upon pursuit with fresh e-assisted eyes.

Let’s hope then that the New Zealand eMTB race scene continues to endure its growing pains so that more of us who ‘don’t want to get the doors blown off’ can still get amongst it. We have a way to go before we catch up with our friends in Europe, but then, the same can be said about many aspects of our cycling culture. See you on the start line.

Words: Alex Stevens