E-MTB: a fast-moving cycling discipline

That Electric Mountain Bike (E-MTB) is joining the UCI Mountain Bike World Championships presented by Mercedes-Benz this summer is a clear endorsement of the electric bicycle’s emerging place in sport and a consolidation of its place in society.

A confluence of technological developments and ecological necessities, and the gradual alignment of governments, global bodies and public imagination means that electrically-assisted transport is gathering momentum to approach a critical mass. Within that movement, electric bikes are becoming more affordable, more reliable, more desirable… and more fun. And fun is where E-bikes and sport meet.

The E-MTB World Championships make their debut on 28 August in Mont-Sainte-Anne (Canada) alongside the Worlds for cross-country Olympic (XCO) and downhill (DHI). Its integration is official acceptance of a sporting discipline that’s coming of age and set to establish itself as part of our future sporting landscape. This year’s Elite Men’s and Women’s finals are on the Wednesday ahead of the gravity-powered DHI and pedal-powered XCO at the weekend. Mont-Sainte-Anne – a ski resort by winter and bike haven by summer, north of Quebec – will welcome thousands of spectators in August, and attract enormous media coverage. It is an ideal opportunity to showcase E-MTB to fans, the curious, the uninitiated and sceptics alike.

E-MTB is accessible, understandable, and entertaining for both riders and spectators. The 2019 Worlds will be raced on a 5.6km course. Bikes have a maximum continuous rate of power of 250 watts, with assistance topping out at 25km/h and no bike or battery changes permitted mid-race.

The sport is simultaneously emerging and diversifying: it’s finding its feet by offering many different types of riding experiences in line with the available technology. The sport of cycling and the industry that surrounds it will ultimately work out what sticks.

The growth of E-MTB and E-MTB racing tends to be fastest in territories where E-bikes – for commuters, transport and leisure – are most established. Germany is the heartland, with a global map spreading out from its epicentre. The summer-long ‘German eMTB Masters’ series was launched in 2015, and momentum has gathered year on year. E-MTB has a growing stature in the Netherlands,  which has adopted E-bikes on a huge scale (it is the first territory where electric bike sales reportedly outstrip traditional bike sales) and quickly assimilated the technology into its national culture.

Multiple XCO UCI World Champion Julien Absalon winning the inaugural E-MTB French National Championships late in 2018 helped cement the relationship between electric-assisted and traditional bikes. Popularity is spreading across central and northern Europe and rapidly expanding in Scandinavia: Bike Europe reported a massive spike in Swedish E-bike sales in 2018, largely triggered by a government subsidy.

Bosch – one of the major manufacturers of E-bike power-plants and who partners with dozens of bike brands worldwide – has been running the ‘Bosch e-MTB Challenge’ for the last three years. Held in different venues throughout Europe, these events sample XCO, enduro and even trials skills (there’s a ‘no-foot-down’ section), along with basic orienteering. Showcasing the machines’ capabilities and the fun of competition, the different rounds have been linked to existing events and mountain bike festivals in mainland Europe. In 2019, the series has been extended to visit Great Britain for the first time, being hosted by the TweedLove festival in Scotland, alongside well-attended traditional mountain bike rides and races.

The Enduro World Series (EWS) ran a secret E-MTB test event alongside the final round of the 2018 EWS, in Finale Ligure, Italy, last October. One observation from the Italian Riviera was that while there’s clearly appetite for this format, there’s not yet the scale for a standalone E-MTB event:  for the moment it should live alongside a traditional mountain bike event, benefitting from the significant synergy between the two.

The WES Series, event part of the UCI International Calendar, ran its first event in April just outside Monaco, combining cross-country and enduro races. It’s reported that more than 50 competitors from 10 nations lined up for the Men and Women’s categories, with some big names from the traditional mountain bike world on the roster including multiple DHI UCI World Champion Nicolas Vouilloz and XCO Olympic medallist Marco Fontana. Quite an endorsement.

E-MTB races are getting traction elsewhere, from the USA’s spring and summer Boogaloo and Sea Otter Classic-hosted events to December’s 300km E-bike Desert Challenge through the Moroccan Sahara and way beyond… It’s a diverse and fast-moving scene. And on 28 August it becomes truly global with the UCI E-MTB World Championships.