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Best electric mountain bikes: buyer's guide

Joseph Delves
25 Nov 2020

The Cyclist guide to navigating the world via electric mountain bike

Scale mountain ranges without tiring. Or simply take the sting out of the uphills and focus on the fun parts when riding in your local woods. Electric mountain bikes even-out any trail to make the uphills almost as fun as the downward bits.

Allowing more people to access more routes, they’ll extend your range, cut your climbing time and increase your enjoyment.

If you’re an experienced mountain biker looking to electrify, or totally new to the sport, we’ve got you covered. Below is our guide to the best electric mountain bikes.

Covering the basics, from finding the right type of bike to getting out and making the most of it, read on to find out why you should give one a go.

What is an electric mountain bike?

An electric mountain bike is a mountain bike with an integrated battery and motor. Assisting as you pedal, they’ll help your bike deliver on the promise of adventure and escapism that’s the central appeal of mountain biking.

Powering you up the climbs, giving a gentle boost on the flat and leaving you to freewheel down the descents, they can help unlock more of the countryside, regardless of your level of fitness.

How much do I need to spend?

What you should spend and what people are prepared to sell you are two different things. A quality conventional mountain bike starts somewhere around £1,000.

One with front and rear suspension can easily be double that. Add in a battery and motor, plus uprated parts to deal with the extra forces exerted on them, and you’re looking at £2,500 and above.

Spend less and you’ll find significant compromises in design and parts that wear out quickly.

For off-road riding, you need a minimum of front suspension and hydraulic disc brakes. Combined with big chunky tyres to help provide cushioning and grip, a bike like this will let you ride anything, assuming you’ve got the right skills.

At £2,800 we think the Cannondale Trail Neo S 2 is a perfect example of an entry-level electric hardtail bike that won’t sell you short.

Buy now from Leisure Lakes for £2,800

Hardtail or full suspension?

A hardtail bike is a bike with a rigid frame and front suspension. A full-suspension bike has suspension dampers in both its front fork and the frame. The main advantage of a full-suspension bike is a leech-like ability to grip the terrain.

Also insulating the rider from bumps on the trail, if you intend to go hurling yourself over rocks and roots you’ll very much appreciate this. Given that the main reason for getting an electric bike is to have fun, in a world without budgetary constraints it makes sense to get a full-suspension model.

It’ll be slightly heavier, but when riding the motor negates this. About the only reason to abstain would be the somewhat increased servicing costs due to the extra damper and the pivot points within the frame.

We reckon the £5,250 Specialized Turbo Levo SL Comp Alloy is probably the current leader of the pack when it comes to choosing an electric full suspension trail bike.

Buy now from Leisure Lakes for £5,250

What else should I look for?

Aside from its battery and motor, an electric mountain bike shares all its components with a conventional machine. This leaves you plenty of extras and upgrades to look out for.

A good first thing to go after are bolt-through axles. Now standard on most bikes, these rigid axles are larger in diameter that older-style 9mm quick-releases. Helping keep the bike rigid, this is a particular boon on an e-bike on account of their increased weight and the extra drive forces to which they’re subject.

Another great addition to any bike is a dropper seatpost. This style of seatpost allows you to adjust the height of your saddle via a lever on the handlebars. The benefit of this is that you can quickly switch from an efficient high position to a lower one as the terrain gets wilder.

Tubeless tyres are also a real benefit. While your bike should have robust rubber fitted as standard, the ability to set them up tubeless means you can switch your innertubes for a squirt of latex sealant. Cutting the likelihood of puncture, most cuts to the tyres will go unnoticed as the sealant instantly heals them before any air escapes.

Finally, carbon fibre is wonderful stuff. An expensive material, it will add thousands of pounds to the cost of your bike but will drop kilos from its weight. Allowing for a wide range of structural designs not possible with aluminium, it should improve the feel of the ride too.

However, as the motor will be there to assist, the pursuit of the lightest bike is less of a concern for e-bikers than those relying on legs alone. So although carbon e-bikes are superlatively good to ride, we’ll leave you to do your own cost-benefit analysis.

Want to blow more than the doors off? This stunning money no object Trek Rail 9.9 is an example of what can be achieved when you pay no heed to the pricetag.

Buy now from Trek for £9,350

Motors, batteries and range

Known as a mid-motor, a motor that drives the cranks has several benefits. First, by adding power through the drivetrain as you would when pedalling it assists the rear wheel in a way that feels natural.

Reducing the risk of the wheel slipping to almost zero, this combines with a low and centre of gravity to create a stable and balanced ride.

The handling of a mid-motor will be familiar to most mountain bikers, and can easily be thrown through tight corners, off jumps or down tricky terrain. Because the motor is located in the frame, the bike’s wheels can also easily be removed or adjusted making storage and servicing easier.

Hub motors are generally confined to cheaper bikes. Here the drive comes from a motor that forms either the front or rear hub.

Located at one end of the bike, they’re more prone to slipping. The uneven weight distribution also makes technical riding difficult.

However, if you plan on keeping your tyres firmly on the ground, they’ll still happily deal with more sedate forest paths.

Electric mountain bike batteries are almost always located on the downtube. Most can be removed for remote charging. Measured in Wh this stands for Watt-hours. Although the performance of each bike will vary, the Wh rating of the battery will be a good indication of range.

Cheap bikes tend to have less well-integrated batteries with the most basic simply squatting on the downtube. By comparison, better quality bikes will integrate their powerpack into the frame, resulting in a system that’s both neater and less prone to crash damage.

Styles and types of riding

Photo: Bartek Woliński/Red Bull Content Pool

XC

Stands for cross country. This athletic style of riding is focused on covering mixed terrain as quickly as possible. Despite the existence of a UCI-sanctioned E-MTB World Championships, focusing on an athletic discipline but adding in speed-limited motor assistance hasn’t won over many fans.

Focused on going fast uphill at the expense of enjoyment and control on the descents, it’s hard not to see electric XC bikes as a bit of a contradiction.

Trail - Where most of the action is

From quiet loops in your local woods to dedicated centres with graded loops, or all-day jaunts across high and wild places. Trail riding takes place wherever the trail takes you.

Versatile and efficient, trail bikes can be ridden all day and strike a balance between speed and comfort. The latest bikes are almost as efficient as an XC racer yet as capable on the downhills as enduro bikes from just a few years back.

Electric assistance has helped make this style of riding more accessible than ever.

Enduro

A race format where riders tackle aggressive timed downhill stages as part of a larger loop. It’s also become an umbrella term for a more technical style of riding.

Enduro riders might spend the whole day in the mountains, but they’re less likely to exhaust themselves on the climbs. It’s all about the descents.

With wider tyres and more suspension, enduro bikes can be ridden on terrain many people would struggle to walk down, and consequently, it’s common to see enduro riders wearing kneepads and full-face helmets.

Downhill

This describes the most aggressive style of mountain biking. Taking on short and incredibly technical courses with big jumps and drops, riders would previously have been shuttled to the top of the climb via a chairlift (or in the UK a tractor and trailer).

Of course, with a motor on your bike, you won’t be needing a lift pass to access the start gate.

What's the law, do I need insurance and can I take my bike on a plane?

You don’t need a license or insurance to ride a standard electric bike in the UK. However, in the UK all electric bikes are currently limited to 25 kmh – when the assistance cuts out.

Any bike must also work on a pedal-assist basis, i.e. you pedal and the motor adds some support. A bike with a motorbike-style throttle is not legal.

A second class of e-bikes exists called S-pedelecs, which provide assistance up to 45 kmh. In the UK and Europe, these are classed as motorised vehicles and so need to be insured and can’t be used on bike paths.

As standard e-bikes are viewed as bicycles, they enjoy the same access rights as conventional machines on public rights of way. Informal permission to ride on private land may vary.

As when riding any bike, when out and about ensure you give other trail users plenty of space and be courteous. Electric mountain bikes also place a higher degree of wear on trials, especially in wet conditions.

Being snotty about people using an e-bike to have fun and get outside is a jerk move. However, using the electrical assistance to ride multiple highspeed laps of a fragile trail in the rain and damaging the environment is not a great look either.

An e-bike makes a great holiday companion. However, the large capacity batteries used by electric bikes can’t be taken on a plane.

If you’re flying this means you’ll either have to leave your bike at home or arrange to rent a battery at your destination. An alternative is to ship the battery separately, although due to regulations surrounding their transit, this can also be difficult.

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