As I peer over the handlebars of my mud-splattered mountain bike, I’m struck by the severity of the decline before me. It is very much not, as my cousin put it, “a dip.”
I’m five miles outside of Würzburg, Germany, a Bavarian city on the Main river, in a secluded swath of woods with my cousins Michi and Andi. It’s late August but the dense canopy shields us from the summer sun, a welcome reprieve since sweat’s already pooling on my shirt from the long trek out here. That ride began at Michi’s house in Höchberg, a municipality in the western part of the city, and followed Autobahn 27 for miles until we arrived at a clearing with a path leading directly to the woods. When I reached the clearing, tired and sweaty, the lower half of my clothing bespattered with dirt, I watched my cousins disappear into the copse in the distance, leaving me, quite literally, in their dust.
Michi, let it be known, pedals out here often. Andi, who resides in the shadow of Salzburg, frequently takes to the Alps for his trail riding. Me? This is my first time on a mountain bike.
Not only is it my first time on a mountain bike, but I've elected to ride one of my cousin's Haibike electric mountain bikes, or “E-MTBs,” packed with a Yamaha motor. My cousin owns three of these bikes, each with a price tag well over 2,000 euros, and each bearing the promise of transforming the novice rider into someone able to handle moderately challenging climbs. And now I'm testing that theory.
Dare to Fail
Splintered twigs and mossy stones protrude from the earth, promising more than a bruised ego should I fall at great speed. I wipe my slick palms on my jeans and clamp down on the bike’s rubber grips. Perhaps from fear of embarrassment, fear of telling my cousins I bowed out before I even tried, I push off the ground. Feet find pedals immediately, instinctively, and I careen down the hill, my body feeling as if it were thrown into a rock tumbler.
What I realize — and I imagine this is something every aspiring mountain biker learns quickly — is, it’s not so much the decline you need to worry about; it’s the incline. Since I pumped the brakes numerous times during my descent, I was left without enough momentum to take me up the back half of the elongated U. I feel like Wile E. Coyote, suspended briefly in the air, just long enough to realize my mistake, before plummeting back to earth. And plummet I do, tumbling over and landing on the soft, sodden ground.
What Is an E-MTB?
An E-MTB is built to assist with the very situation I’m in. However, hell-bent on gauging my own abilities, I left the motor off on the first climb. Clearly, it went swimmingly.
With multiple assistance settings, each providing a different degree of oomph, riding an E-MTB sort of feels like you’re learning to ride a bike again, a parent pushing you from behind. The higher the setting, the stronger your parent. On the highest setting, your dad is basically Jason Momoa.
The e-mountain biking trend is not new; electric bikes represent the fastest-growing bicycle type in the market. Sales jumped 78 percent from 2017 to 2018. And while those numbers reflect e-bikes as a whole, not specifically electric mountain bikes, a cursory search shows there’s a demand for more experiences incorporating these machines.
Euan Wilson, CEO of H+I Adventures, a Scotland-based company that offers mountain biking tours all around the world, has watched this demand grow over the last three years. “We recognized early on that e-mountain biking is different from traditional mountain biking and could not just be ‘bolted on’ to our existing adventures.” That’s why, for 2020, H+I Adventures is launching a series of tours specifically designed for e-mountain bikers.
These tours allow riders of varying skill levels the opportunity to take their hobby abroad to exotic locations such as Slovenia, Namibia, and Croatia. “Our E-MTB safari in Namibia is geared to riders at the novice level — those who’ve been riding for a year or more and are comfortable on forest roads, gravel paths, and uneven terrain,” Wilson says. “On the advanced end is our Switzerland trip — these riders should be experienced with steep singletrack climbs and technical descents with switchbacks, as well as rocky and rooty terrain through forests.”
While I fall too low on the skill scale for an H+I Adventure outing, I do get bitten by the E-MTB bug quickly.
Resting on my seat at the lowest point of the first dip, I press the up arrow twice on the digital screen and, with hilariously little effort, propel up the second half of that obstacle. With just one spectacular ascent, I feel as if I understand what this bike can do for a beginner like me. A little know-how and you become, in essence, a cyborg, a tandem of man and machine able to conquer seemingly impossible feats on just your first ride.
I continue on, avoiding logs and divets, trying in vain to catch sight of one of my cousins. As I approach the next major dip, I instinctively hit the brakes and bring the bike to a halt. I don’t know how long it takes to feel comfortable approaching the edge of the earth, speeding merrily toward the abyss, but I’m confident the answer is more than twice. I put the computer on the highest setting and pedal over the ledge. Once again, it feels like driving 45 down a cobblestone street, and I can’t help but pump the brakes like before. This time, however, my meager pedaling lifts me right up the other side, keeping me on the narrow trail to continue riding.
“The pedal-assist offered by the E-MTB battery takes some of the hard work out of climbing on a regular mountain bike, meaning that you can go farther or tackle more descents in a ride than with the power of your legs alone,” Wilson says. “The battery gives more people the confidence to get out and enjoy the trails, taking on climbs — and sometimes descents — they never thought possible.”
For 12 years Wilson has worked with local guides to craft mountain bike tours, and he’s seen these guides slowly gravitate toward E-MTBs, perhaps because they allow even experienced riders the ability to do things they could never do on a standard mountain bike. To a first-time rider, it’s startling.
H+I Adventure isn’t the only one to get in the game. There are E-MTB excursions through Moab, packages to take you through resorts in California, and plenty of guided rides in and around the mountains of Colorado. These tours are tempting to anyone who doesn’t consider themselves a mountain biker, lessening the barrier to entry for this type of adventure.
One Ride in the Books
I fall a few more times. Avoiding downed branches and recently felled trees is not something a motor can help you with. Still, I’m confident I wouldn’t have reached the end of the trail had my mountain bike been of the fully manual variety. Upon reaching my cousins at the edge of the woods, I’m rather happy with my performance, regardless of how long they have been waiting for me, which, I would find out later, was “all summer.”
As I begin the ride back to my cousin’s house, bike bedraggled, body beaten, I wonder whether I could sell Michi and Andi on a brief respite before our journey alongside the Autobahn. After all, motor or no motor, foreign muscles still ache after a ride. A Biergarten sounds nice. Before I speak up and further entrench my beginner status, I turn to the tiny screen in front of me to punch up the bike’s assistance to its highest setting. My legs able to breathe, I glide through the German countryside.