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First Ride: BMC AlpenChallenge AMP Road One

Sure, it's got a battery, but the AlpenChallenge Amp also borrows plenty of features from non-motorized road bikes to make it fun and comfortable.

SOLOTHURN, Switzerland (VN) — The Swiss have a different definition of “climbs” than the rest of us. While riding with the folks from BMC Switzerland to test out several new bikes, I learned that when they say that was the last climb, there are several more. They just don’t consider them climbs because they’re not steep enough. They still go uphill. They still hurt.

So after day one’s ride aboard the BMC Roadmachine — in the rain, chasing the likes of Cadel Evans, among other super-fast dudes — my legs were already cooked from a fair bit of climbing and, of course, some Swiss not-climbs.

Fortunately, day two was the day we tested out the revamped BMC Alpenchallenge Amp. It takes many of the features from BMC’s previous Alpenchallenge — a flat-bar e-road bike that catered more to the serious commuter — and adds some sleek features, most notably a set of drop bars.

Would I have made it through the second day of Swizz climbs without it? Sure. Would I have been happy about it? Well…

E-Road arrives

This was the second time I found myself on an e-road bike in Europe within a month’s time. That’s notable for a few reasons: First, up until now, e-bikes have run rampant through commuting and mountain bike circles, but not so much road bikes; and second, it indicates that brands recognize this as a burgeoning market we’ll see much more of in the near future, even in the U.S.

To be frank, I wasn’t stoked to hop on a big, heavy road bike with a motor on it. I like e-bikes for commuting, but for road riding? Doesn’t that just take the challenge out of it? Isn’t that ‘cheating?’

No and no. You’re still pedaling, and you can make the challenge whatever you want it to be. And it’s not cheating if you’re not competing. To be clear, these types of bikes aren’t for everyone. If you scoff at the idea of getting an assist up a particularly difficult climb, this bike isn’t for you. But it is, indeed, for a lot of riders, many of whom don’t come close to the stereotypical out-of-shaper who just can’t hack it. E-bikes like this add a touch of practicality to multi-purpose riders.

E-Road Evolves

It was a fun moment: A door opened into a room with about thirty Alpenchallenge Amp e-bikes, and — gasp! — they looked like regular old road bikes. Well, almost. It’s hard to ignore the massive battery and Shimano Steps motor, but BMC made a smart decision to keep the battery on the seat tube, rather than the popular practice of integrating the big battery into the downtube. The latter certainly makes for a cleaner aesthetic, but the former should, in theory, lead to more responsive handling.

That’s because the weight is focused more on the center of the bike. Keeping the weight centered and low should keep more weight off the front end, thus having less of an effect on steering.

Speaking of weight, it’s inevitable with a motor and battery that size. Yet BMC has managed to keep the overall package under 15kg (33 Lbs). Not exactly a featherweight, but that’s impressive for an e-bike certainly. While the AlpenChallenge Amp still feels heavy compared to a regular road bike, it doesn’t feel as bulky as most other e-bikes I’ve ridden.

The 504 Wh battery means you get a relatively long battery life, but it’s somewhat unclear what that means. It lasted my entire ride (more on that in a moment), but it was close to dead by the end. In that sense, it didn’t seem any different than any other e-bike battery I’ve come across.

From afar, the AlpenChallenge Amp looks a lot like a typical all-around or endurance road bike. You can easily get yourself into an aggressive riding position, and the sleek internal cable routing through the stem makes it look like a bike you’d actually want to be seen riding.

The cable routing too doesn’t bind when you turn the handlebars. That’s largely due to the Integrated Cockpit System, which features a steerer with flattened sides that won’t interfere with the cables and housing as it winds through the head tube.

If it’s comfort you’re after, The AlpenChallenge has that, too. BMC’s Micro Travel Technology (MTT) offers 10mm of travel from an elastomer mounted between the seat tube and the seat stays. It’s the same system you’ll find on BMC’s TeamElite mountain bike.

More compliance comes from the D-shaped seatpost that allows some fore and aft flex. Such posts are becoming more common on bikes in all road categories, and for good reason: Even on the harshest frames, the D-shaped post allows some flex while maintaining as much stiffness as possible in the frame.

I tested the AlpenChallenge Amp Road LTD, which features a full carbon frame and fork. It’s designed to handle tires up to 40mm wide, which offers plenty of flexibility to tackle your home roads, whether they’re paved or not.

First Ride

It doesn’t take long to find the climbs from downtown Solothurn. It’s a bit too easy to find solace knowing the Alps are far away north, but it’s folly to think you won’t be working your way up some tough climbs. We found quite a few.

Through the rolling streets out of town, I stayed in Eco mode almost the entire time. I also turned the system completely off at certain points, largely to conserve the battery. It was easy enough to pedal along without the system activated on flat terrain, and it was difficult to tell any real difference between the AlpenChallenge and a bike without a motor. With the Eco mode engaged, the bike zips just a bit more, allowing you to keep up with the group should you find yourself fading.

The first climb of the day necessitated a kick up to the Trail mode (it’s essentially the ‘medium’ setting). Well, necessitate isn’t the right word, but it certainly made the climb more bearable, and fun. Conversation pace upped its game: I wasn’t even breathing hard at a brisk 20mph pace.

Here’s where I encountered my first niggle with e-bikes (though this isn’t specific to BMC’s e-bike). Battery life anxiety is real, and I had it all the way up once that first bar of juice was gone. The handlebar-mounted display is clear and easy to understand; it also provides a constant reminder that at some point your battery will die and you’ll be stuck pedaling, possibly uphill, without any assist.

When the group’s pace picked up, it of course coincided with the pitch of the climb ramping up. I used the left Di2 shifter to switch into the Boost mode. The kick is immediate and impactful. I was thankful for it on the steepest pitches on the climb. It doesn’t feel like you’re doing no work at all; rather, it feels like you’re working a bit less, for a shorter period of time.

Here’s another rub: It’s fairly easy to hit the assist’s speed ceiling. That means once you hit 20 mph (Class 1 e-bike), the pedal-assist cuts out and you’re pedaling on your own again. That’s certainly not the worst thing in the world, but the transition from assist to no-assist is dramatic and sudden. Again, this issue is by no means exclusive to the AlpenChallenge Amp.

So what is exclusive to the AlpenChallenge? The handling, for starters. Like all e-bikes, the Alpenchallenge handles differently than a road bike without a bulky battery, but the impact of that battery’s weight seems to be lessened by its position on the seat tube. It requires less muscling in corners and it doesn’t fight you as much when you’re climbing out of the saddle.

The battery’s location may not look as sleek as a downtube-integrated system, but to me that was a small tradeoff. I felt stable and in control both up and down the hills, though some riders in our group complained of some wobble in the front end at high speeds. I didn’t experience this at all. The AlpenChallenge felt like it was on solid footing the entire ride.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say this feels like a normal road bike, but at this point, no e-bikes do. If you’re able to separate these bikes and appreciate them for what they are, you’ll find the AlpenChallenge to be an excellent offering. It looks and feels like exactly what a high-performance e-road bike should.