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MONTEREY, California (VN) — Spectators lined the barriers of Laguna Seca Raceway this past Friday afternoon. Anticipation was building for perhaps the most entertaining race of Sea Otter’s second day. At the word “Go,” we lurched off the line with startling speed and power.
No, this was not the Sea Otter Classic’s pro short-track XC race — it was the electric mountain-bike cross-country race. Say what you will about e-bikes, and whether they belong in the realm of competitive cycling. This bicycle race was a blast — just as fun as a race on a traditional human-powered rig. Sure, the bicycle I raced had a 250-watt motor. But I am here to tell you that this race was damn hard.
Sea Otter restricts its racing format to “class 1” e-bikes, which only provide an electric boost if you’re pedaling the bicycle. Racing on an electric motorcycle is strictly forbidden — every racer must actually pedal. These class 1 bikes also feature motors that abruptly cut off when the rider reaches 20mph. When the engine stops, the pedaling gets extremely hard — these bicycles are hardly featherweights.
I raced aboard a BMC Speedfox Amp, and when I arrived, a few volunteers from race sponsor Haibike inspected the rig to make sure it adhered to the rules. No e-bike doping here. They said they could quickly tell that the Shimano E-8000 motor was legit — no further inspection was required.
The field was a strange amalgamation of bicycle industry folks (myself included), non-serious e-bike fans, and casual riders. One was a semi-experienced e-bike rider who said that he actually preferred riding his regular mountain bike. Another guy from Giant bikes was just happy to get out for a ride during the four-day frenzy of Sea Otter. It was his first e-MTB race.
I did meet a few e-bike veterans. One was from San Francisco. He had never raced his e-bike, but admitted that the motor made his hilly rides much easier. He admitted that some of his riding buddies gave him flack for the rig, but he said he didn’t mind the teasing.
And then there was Xavier Marovelli — the ringer in the field. The Frenchman is one of the few “pro” e-bike racers, and he is sponsored by Haibike. Marvelli dove into the e-bike craze a few years ago, having raced for years on traditional mountain bikes. After racing enduro mountain bike for many years, he wanted to try something new. Now he almost exclusively rides his Haibike in the mountains around Nice, France.
This unusual blend of riders — multi-time French cyclocross champion Caroline Mani was in the field too — set off on four laps of a 2.2-mile course that featured everything from paved road to bony rock gardens.
The gun went off and Marovelli sped away — those Haibike sponsorship bucks are well-spent, apparently. The rest of us funneled into a sand pit on a gradual uphill. I’ve suffered through countless sandy cyclocross races, but this was different, with that electric motor boosting me across the ruts. It was fun to speed through the sand, even if I lost my line and almost rode through the course tape (oops, guess I didn’t preview this part of the course).
After a few laps, I figured out a few of the nuances of riding with a motor. Whenever possible, I kept pedaling through the corners. Maybe I wasn’t putting much of my own power into the pedals, but I was still engaging the motor, a downright giddy slingshot sensation.
Don’t think that this was some sort of feet-off-the pedals, Pee-wee Herman style joyride though. Once my bike’s motor cut off at 20mph, things got really hard. The BMC I was riding is relatively svelte by e-MTB standards at 48 pounds with 130mm of travel. However, that’s still a lot of resistance after the motor cuts off. At times it was actually better to hold back just inside of the speed governor to keep the motor running.
That weight was even more of a burden when I dumped it on a grassy corner into the course’s steepest climb. Restarting an e-bike on a hill is not so simple — that slight delay to engage the motor feels impossible. And don’t even consider running uphill with that beast. Some companies have introduced a “walk” mode to help in this scenario. Specialized has walk mode on its e-MTB, and the Shimano motor on this BMC does too, although I figure it’s not meant for a 20-minute sprint like this race.
Apart from that one mishap, my race was a rousing second jaunt into competitive e-biking. Sea Otter was far better than my e-bike racing “debut” at CrossVegas last fall when my motor wouldn’t start, giving me an incomprehensible error message on the little digital display. I even made it onto the podium at Sea Otter — my prize was a power drill made by e-bike motor manufacturer Bosch.
Am I an e-MTB convert who will never ride unplugged again? Definitely not. Did we resolve the lingering uncertainty and controversy over trail access for electric-assist bikes? Nope. But for the afternoon, during a busy week of bikes, we all had a lot of fun and even suffered a bit in the Sea Otter sunshine. Sure, there were electric motors involved, but it still felt like bike racing to me.