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eMTB Content Warning!

I Entered an eMTB "Race" (and I liked it)

Words Cam McRae
Photos Dave Silver
Date Dec 8, 2021

Racing ebikes? That’s absurd. Won’t the fastest bike win? Isn’t it easy to hack those bikes so they go faster? What’s the point? That’s as ridiculous as racing motorcycles! Wait a second...

*Cover Image - Rider - Elladee Brown Photo - Dave Slilver

The thoughts above do a reasonable job of tracking the snide questions I found invading my thoughts when I heard about the innaugural eMTB World Championships back in 2019. My attitude was at best dismissive, and at worst scornful. A little reflection made me realize this was a little silly. If racing motorcycles and horses is legit, and since those who excel in those sports revered for their abilities, why not eMTBs? Certainly it lacks the purity and human effort of traditional bike racing, but some would argue suspension and disk brakes killed the purity of bike racing long ago. The good news is, if it’s not your thing, you can just ignore it, the way I ignore all but a few sporting events. But don't try to tell me those competing at the highest level aren’t fit, highly skilled athletes, and that the winners aren’t deserving, despite the battery on their bikes. Just ask Nico Vouilloz. 

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I'd never attended a pre-race briefing that was anywhere near as jovial as this one.

It was easy to talk myself down before writing my article about the 2019 eMTB World Champs but to enter something myself? I wasn’t so sure about that. Back when I raced XC, my favourite part was usually when it was over. DH Racing was like regular riding with the added bonuses of lineups and long periods standing around, but I liked what it did for my riding. Back when I was involved with organizing the North Shore Ripper series, we used to say, “it’s an event, not a race.” That was something I was more interested in, an excuse to get people together to ride bikes while letting the keeners ride off the front if they are so inclined. It seemed this was more what the BCBR organizers were thinking so I eventually threw my hat in the ring. 

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Andreas Hestler (left) and Geoff Gulevich, preparing to do battle on Maple Mountain.

Dean Payne and Andreas Hestler, the honchos behind the BCBR, both enjoy riding eMTBs. Neither has forsaken their unplugged bikes but they appreciate having the option to climb faster and get more range than their legs might carry them in a given time, and to climb technical lines that mortals can’t conquer under their own power. The Mega Volt course reflected the way they like to have electrified fun. 

This was to be a 3 day adventure in the Cowichan Valley, near Duncan on Vancouver Island, a spectacularly beautiful part of the world. This isn’t far from where Stevie Smith was shuttled by his mom as a teenager, on Mt. Prevost. We however were going to spend two days on Maple Mountain and our final day on Mt. Tzouhalem.

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Day one was relatively dry and the trails were perfection. The weather got a little dodgier but the trails held up beautifully for the whole weekend.

The first event was the consistency enduro, the idea being to ride three laps and have your finish times be as close together as possible. I liked the idea of a non-competitive competition but my thoughts were a little more selfish; I was going to try to go faster every lap, consistency be damned. I got lucky and stuck to Elladee Brown's rear wheel, as much as possible, because she’s a great rider and always fun to be around. A bonus was that she was similarly inclined. We all climbed singletrack in a long conga line, with lots of heckling and laughing on the way up. When it got technical the key was to give the rider ahead some room so you didn’t get stuck in a hole if they bobbled or got balled up by the rider ahead. The abuse that ensued when someone fumbled, while good natured, made this a little stressful. 

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Jesse Melamed added more watts to his eMTB than the rest of us.

Maple Mt. is a mix of smooth and fast singletrack and some nice tech sections and lots of slabs. Conditions were prime on Friday for the consistency enduro and it was easy to carry good speed. Crews, supported by BCBR, had worked hard to prepare for our arrival and the trails were in amazing shape. The event was one of my first rides on the Rocky Mountain Altitude Powerplay and I was impressed by the bike on the way up. The sensor seems better able to respond to rider input and multiply your effort accurately, almost urging you to work harder. 

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BCBR Head Honcho Dean Payne getting in on the fun. You could tell that this was much less stressful for the staff and volunteers, when compared to organizing a 7-day event for several hundred cross country racers.

The pace on the climb was fast but not at the limit, at least not for me riding in boost mode. I was definitely working hard but it didn’t feel like race pace used to back in the day. Doing three laps on the same course was a great way to get used to the Altitude Powerplay and the terrain in Cowichan Bay and hitting things a little better each time was a great feeling. In the end I sucked at consistency but my times weren't half bad. My first lap was 13:43. lap two was 13:34 and my final lap was 13:09, failing spectacularly at the actual race goal but succeeding in my personal task of going faster each lap. This was also the last time of the weekend when my times were decent compared to the rest of the field as well. The vibe at the finish line was beautiful. Beer and food went down nicely and everybody was smiling and happy. Maybe this was my kind of racing?

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Trying (in vain) to keep Gully in sight after my flat on day 2.

It rained on Friday night as expected. It was just enough to make the nasty slabs much nastier. There were multiple occasions were the only way to keep it upright was to get off the brakes and hope for the best. I went hard on the climb and ended up in a fast group, but I had a powerful hankering to pass James Durand who was riding in front of me. But then someone started talking to me, about high pressure systems and freezing temperatures... and dishwasher detergent? I couldn't figure out where the voice was coming from and it was driving me crazy on the technical downhill, but I didn't want to stop and lose my place in the procession. I finally realized my phone had somehow started playing video from the Weather Network App. The worst part was the ads. Being unable to hit skip, I was getting hammered with 15 second spots for tequila or Canadian Tire, followed by stories about Volcanic eruptions in the Southern Hemisphere, whales rescued by stellar citizens, and predictions about the coming winter. This incessant talk of weather and pre-holiday bargains took my head out of the game. At least that's my excuse for what happened next.

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Gully rubbing some ink on John Kearns' blank canvas. One of the best parts of BCBR was the amazing staff and volunteers. They were always helpful and cheerful, unless you failed to return your plate race relations manager Moneira Khan!

There was a rare spot on the course ahead where there were multiple lines for a short section before it got tight again. I jumped on the pedals and went for the gap. In my haste I failed to notice the sharpened blade of rock adorning my line of choice, and I flatted. I was punished for being too competitive! Normally I ride prepared for all sorts of repairs, but lately I've been riding with either Cushcore or Octamousse, both of which ride flat extremely well, so I've been leaving tubes and bacon strips at home. Unfortunately I had a set of test wheels on the Norco Sight VLT that I decided to ride in the morning, and testing wheels with inserts can hide a lot of vital information, so I only had sealant inside, and not enough to stop the purge. Luckily Kurt Flaman and Vance Fugeta of Freedom the Bike Shop, in Penticton B.C. helped a brother out so I didn't have to do the walk of shame to finish the 20 km course.

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Former North Shore local Andre Weaver getting up an over one of the tech challenges on Maple Mountain.

I rode the next section with Andreas Hestler and Geoff Gulevich, which was great fun, but I was feeling a little spanked so I let them go ahead and cruised back to the finish. Luckily we had another course to ride in the afternoon, so after a little lunch I swapped back to the Rocky Altitude (for some back to back observations) and was ready to let 'er rip for the afternoon. Or so I thought. The afternoon's route, our third on Maple Mt., was to have more flow than the morning and be a little shorter at 18kms. We again climbed and bantered in the familiar queue, but the pace felt a little faster to me. I found myself toward the pointy end of the group, feeling mostly okay, until our second climb when I began to bonk. Electrified or not, the pace both up and down had been intense over the first two days and my body wasn't up to it. I suffered on the final climbs but found some flow on the last descent, redeeming myself marginally.

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Andreas getting tailed on Mt. Tzouhalem.

As dinner was winding down, Brooks Hogya, BCBR's safety officer asked for our attention. There was a nasty storm on the way and not only was the race likely to be cancelled for Sunday, he thought it was unlikely we'd be getting off Vancouver Island any time soon because of the weather rolling in. After that, Saturday evening got boozy. Etc. There was a moment when it looked like things were going to ramp up further after the bar closed, but I took a left turn and went directly to my hotel room to get some much needed rest and I woke feeling somewhat human.

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Jesse Melamed (left) and Chris Johnston rubbing shoulders on Tzouhalem.

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A trio of bike shop owners atop the podium in the old guy category. Left to right; Kurt Flaman, James Wilson, and Gary Jackson.

It was indeed cold and rainy when we arrived at Mt. Tzouhalem on Sunday morning but it seemed the worst of the weather was delayed so the event was back on. Tzouhalem is a marvellous place to ride bikes. The singletrack climb through a mature forest was a masterfully sinewy bit of trail building. The switchbacks were well crafted but tight enough to keep you on your toes, and there were a few tricky descents to spice the climb as well. This was to be a poker ride and we all started with five cards, two of which (as I recall) we could swap out Hold'em style after a first lap and then one more after the second.

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This was one of the few times all weekend I was ahead of Elladee Brown, and I have no idea how that happened.

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Most elements are unharmed by the presence of electricity, and the post ride vibes were second to none.

Having not learned my lesson, I charged out of the gate with the fast crew, only to feel the wrath of the hangover at the top of the climb. The downhill had some great surprises with step-downs and gaps and some incredible berms, and about halfway down, the course again took us to the top for more fun. At this point the weather was starting to get serious and the clouds were motoring overhead, warning of what was to come. I decided my hand was good enough and pedalled back to my truck to get into some warm clothes. With most of the participants headed back to the mainland, the pleasantries were kept to a minimum, except for a group of 6 of us who huddled together with a couple of brews to bask in the post ride glow.

It became clear that a consensus was forming; this was a great way for mountain bikers to process some competitive juices, in a semi-competitive arena, but it was even better as a way to level the playing field so everyone felt included in the party. The eMTBs softened all of these former and current racers' and put the priority on everyone having a good ol' time.

I'm putting this in my calendar for next year. Mega Volt is definitely something I'd like to do again.

Thanks to the trail builders of Cowichan Bay, and all the BCBR staff and volunteers for putting on such an excellent event!

*By "everyone" I'm referring to the narrow swath of humanity with the means possess a very exclusive and expensive eMTB .

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Comments

jt
JT
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+8 Etacata Sandy James Oates Cam McRae Pete Roggeman Mark Forbes kmag76 Merwinn kcy4130

This just in: Riding bikes is fun, with or without motors.

Reply

kos
Kos
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+6 Etacata Cam McRae Pete Roggeman Merwinn Dan E-wok

Yes, let me also explain to you how you were NOT actually having any fun. IIRC, the first time Ned Overend raced an e-bike his take was something like: I worked just as hard, but went much faster. Sounds like a blast!

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+1 Dan

That's a great quote from a hall-of-famer. Nice one!

Reply

TristanC
TristanC
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+5 Etacata Cam McRae Pete Roggeman Mark Forbes Merwinn

How dare you have fun in a slightly different way than I like having fun!

I don't see myself getting an eMTB in the future, since I ride mostly for exercise, but I don't get offended when I see them. I'd certainly get a commuter eBike. Or get an eMTB and ride it to the trails, then turn off the motor and use it as "training weight."

Reply

Bikes
Bikes
9 months, 4 weeks ago
0

You'll get the same amount exercise, you'll just ride hills fast or go farther.  The only issue I have seen is speed limiters as they can make you "hover" just where assist kicks off, which can make you hold back as the effort to sustain the speed above unassisted can too high.  I don't see that happening on an eMTB other than commuting duty.

I don't have an eMTB for various reasons, but desired exercise intensity isn't one of them.

Reply

TomM
TomM
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+5 Cam McRae Pete Roggeman Mark Forbes Dan kcy4130 E-wok Rick M

Sucking at consistency is definitely better than consistently sucking.  

Cool story with great pics as always.

Reply

cam@nsmb.com
Cam McRae
9 months, 4 weeks ago
0 Dan Rick M

Thanks very much Tom! After the consistency enduro I consistently sucked, but I was pretty happy with my ranking in that one! I might have to print it out considering the names that came after mine!

Reply

lamar454
Peter Appleton
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+4 Cam McRae Pete Roggeman Dan E-wok

in the east and Quebec in particular its become a game of "which bike are you bringing?, emtb or pedal" definitely more people are bringing their eMTB's and that is not going to change.

picking fast lines on uphills is something none of us had any experience, so old man sagacious ways or young gun power, were all learning

Reply

kos
Kos
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+1 Dan

The faster uphill part really appeals to me, and I kind of love to climb.

But it would be awesome for mtb riding time ratios to change from 70% slogging/30% ripping down to the opposite.

I think.

Reply

T-mack
T-mack
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+2 Etacata Pete Roggeman

One format Id like to see with Ebike racing would be an 'XC' race like Nino and Claudio did recently. They hammered up an access road then dropped into a world cup dh track for laps. A mass start race like that would be amazing to watch.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
9 months, 4 weeks ago
0

Totally agree. There are some really interesting factors that come into play in that kind of racing, battery management over long distances and the strength-to-weight ratio of rider+machine. XCO racers are already phenomenally strong and fast for their size, adding a motor just changes the arena but I would think a challenging course and format would really favour smaller riders, not unlike jockeys.

I had a conversation with an e-bike PM about just that - he had taken a friend's son on his first e-bike ride - IIRC the youth was 10 or 11 years old and a solid rider. The bike industry vet - a very fit and skilled rider - could not keep the young guy in his sight on the climbs despite his bag of 'old man tricks'. Interesting illustration of the way those factors can change. No, he wasn't intent on turning young people into e-bike riders, it was just an insight into how they're different.

Reply

Timer
Timer
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+3 Cam McRae Sandy James Oates kcy4130

Would the motor really change much at the highest levels? Its just an extra 250W for everyone. Which is relatively modest, compared to the power output of world-class athletes.

It would make them faster, but i don't think it would dramatically change the dynamics of a race format.

Reply

mtmc99
mtmc99
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+2 taprider kcy4130

I think a pure XC like format would end up skewing massively towards the lighter riders because the max assist is equal for all riders.

For example, two riders with a 4:1 W/kg one rider weighing 62.5kg and the other weighing 100kgs. The lighter rider would have an output of 250W to obtain the 4:1 ratio, and the 100kg rider would be 400W to achieve that ratio. If both riders get a 250W boost, the lighter rider would have an 8:1 W/kg ratio and the heavier rider would have a 6.5W/kg. If both are riding at the limit the lighter rider would absolutely pants the heavier rider on a climb even though they both had the same base fitness level. Obviously, no one at the highest level is weighing 100kgs (meanwhile I wish I was down at that weight) but I chose those numbers to highlight the disparity that would show up for different sized riders.

The fun run style event describe in this article seems like the perfect fit for an eBike event. It allows for competitive spirit but focus on some other aspects of riding to keep a relatively even field.

Reply

pete@nsmb.com
Pete Roggeman
9 months, 4 weeks ago
0

@Timer: It's still a huge boost and the courses and format would be tuned to properly test them. E-bike enduro racing has been interesting and includes something I believe is the real way to make e-bike racing - and riding - more fun: technical uphills where you can put that motor to work to overcome really tough obstacles.

@mtmc99: those numbers do a good job to illustrate the point I made above about the young kid riding with the adult. Totally agree with you, although I think a good and competitive e-bike race format would take that into account somehow. An advantage would still remain unless some sort of handicapping system came into play that factored in weight. But at the end of the day, it's not unlike the advantage a strong and light rider like Tom Pidcock has over larger competitors. And yeah, the format of BCBR's MegaVolt is definitely the right one for folks who value a different fun:fitness ratio.

Anyway, fun things to think about.

Reply

taprider
taprider
9 months, 4 weeks ago
+1 Cam McRae

Yeah, guys like Tom Pidcock (130 lb Olympic XC winner) are the UCI E-bike world champions.

I don't think any beer-drinking gray-haired former Elite/Pro racers have a chance if E-bike racing becomes a big thing

Reply

cyclotoine
cyclotoine
9 months, 3 weeks ago
+1 Dan

Motors are fun. I started "mountain biking" around 1992 as a young teen because of the freedom and exploration. Around 1996 I replaced mountain bikes with dirt bikes (more fun especially in the flattish area I grew up). My partner has been asking me for the last 10 years (half-joking) when I am I going to get a dirtbike again. I admit some aspect of the exploration piece of a dirtbike appeals to me, but not the extra thing in my garage. An ebike on the other hand would expand the trail options I have for a one hour ride window out my door which appeals to me even more. I will get an ebike within the next 3 years.

Reply

XXX_er
XXX_er
9 months, 3 weeks ago
+1 E-wok

I'm normal weight  ( 24 on the BMI ) but I will still lose weight riding my E-bike, I think its cuz I can ride straight up without stopping, at the top my heart rate is lower in the fat burning zone and its fun

Reply

dan
Dan
9 months, 3 weeks ago
0

This looks awesome.  I hope to nab a PowerPlay soon, so count me in for 2022!

Reply

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