Aaron Gulley's position on e-bikes: “Calm down, people. We’re talking about bicycles, not Satan.”
Aaron Gulley's position on e-bikes: “Calm down, people. We’re talking about bicycles, not Satan.” (Photo: Axel Brunst/Tandem)

The Rise of the Electric Mountain Bike

Amid concerns over trail conflicts and land-management issues, e-mountain bikes just keep getting better and better

Aaron Gulley's position on e-bikes: “Calm down, people. We’re talking about bicycles, not Satan.”

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I’m continually shocked at how much disdain and vitriol e-bikes—especially the mountain variety—elicit. If you raise the topic among a group of cyclists, as I did recently at Outside’s annual bike test, you’re sure to get an earful about how pedal-assist bikes are making the world a lazier place, causing all manner of trail conflicts and trail closures, and generally just ruining cycling. My position: Calm down, people. We’re talking about bicycles, not Satan. Then I usually send naysayers off to ride one of these machines. When they return, they’re inevitably grinning ear to ear.

That’s because, like it or not, e-bikes are fun to ride. Long, slow climbs become quicker. Lunchtime rides become more interesting because you can ride farther and see trails that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible in such a short time. And whole new trail systems are accessible as the assist opens up terrain that would be too steep, loose, rocky, or brutal on a standard pedal bike. In short, rather than be afraid of e-mountain bikes, we should see them for what they are: a new tool. In the same way you’d choose an enduro bike for shredding supergnar descents or a cross-country bike for all-day endurance epics, an e-mountain bike is simply another arrow in the quiver for situations when standard pedal bikes might not be as much fun.

For clarity, the e-mountain bikes in this review are electric-motor-equipped bicycles that only go forward if you pedal them. Officially, they are categorized as Class 1 e-bikes, which means they have no throttle and a top-assisted speed of 20 miles per hour. (Class 2 and Class 3 varieties have throttles and/or different top-assist speeds. We’re limiting our coverage to Class 1 because most of the advocacy for trail use is currently for these models.) Though critics like to try and characterize all e-bikes as motorcycles, this couldn’t be further from reality. All of these bikes generate less than one horsepower, and they do it only when you are pedaling, akin to riding with a strong tailwind.

I took a fleet of the latest out on a range of trails throughout New Mexico and was amazed by how much these machines have advanced since my first ride back in 2013. Like all technology, these bikes are going to continue improving. But if you’re in the market and can swallow the high price tag, I feel they have come far enough that they’re well worth buying. 

Specialized S-Works Turbo Levo ($12,050)

(Courtesy Specialized)

The new Turbo Levo is effectively the 2019 Stumpjumper equipped with 29-inch wheels, a Brose motor, and a built-in 700-watt-hour rechargeable battery. I start here because it was my favorite, though it’s also true that it’s the most expensive in the test by a wide margin. With 150 millimeters of travel on a full carbon frame and carbon wheels, this bike approaches what unassisted downhill bikes weighed (45.1 pounds for a size medium) and felt like a decade ago, except the motor gives you extra power when you need and want it.

The Brose motor is probably the least seamless in this review, meaning it feels a little jerky and powerful when it engages. However, it is also the quietest, which I appreciate above almost everything when I’m in the woods. Power levels are indicated by a series of LED panels built into the top tube, not a display on the handlebars, which makes gauging a little more difficult but not impossible. The turbo button, to give a quick boost to the top power, is a great addition, as is the walk-mode button—just hold it for a one-mile-per-hour assist on hike-a-bikes. The 700wh battery is the biggest capacity on the market, which equates to longer range. And while it’s not as easy to remove the battery as on the Intense or Trek (reviewed below), it’s doable with the included tool. Specialized has also done a great job of building its own app to tweak power levels and diagnose problems, should they arise, as well as a calculator to help estimate range.

Otherwise, this is just a stupendously capable bike that will assist you with three various levels of power. While the 2.6-inch tires were fine, I personally feel like the added weight of the bike feels more confident with 3-inch tread, which will fit if you choose. And the bike is not so heavy that you won’t be able to pedal home should the battery die. I’ve slashed plenty of nasty singletrack with this bike, and while the power comes on hard, I always appreciate it. The suspension is firm and ample, and it makes the bike feel more capable than the numbers suggest. Yes, the Levo is expensive, but the truth is, you could get a less expensive model and, thanks to the motor, still enjoy the same ride.

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Pivot Shuttle ($9,999)

(Courtesy Pivot)

The Shuttle has perhaps the most normal feeling of all these bikes—and by normal, I mean least assisted—courtesy of dialed-in geometry, a tuned motor, and a careful parts selection. Chris Cocailis, the founder and owner of Pivot, is an engineer, and his expertise in dialing in a ride is completely evident in this bike. The Shuttle feels small and maneuverable, which is exactly what I want when pushing around a 46.2-pound machine. Pivot calls this “the world’s lightest Class 1 e-mountain bike,” which is perhaps true for the frame alone, but our tester was over a pound heavier than the Levo.

Pivot uses the Shimano STEPS 8000 motor, which delivers three levels of power (eco, trail, and boost) and projects it on the same display Shimano specs for Di2—a benefit for being able to see what level you’re in at all times. The motor is smooth and feels as powerful as the Brose in top-assist mode, though the lower levels, especially eco, seem a touch underpowered. (It is possible to tweak the power levels in Shimano’s smartphone app.) As with many of these bikes, the STEPS 8000 seems to favor a high cadence. Whenever my pedaling speed would slow, particularly at the top of steep pitches, the motor would bog down and sometimes even cut out, leaving me hefting a very heavy bike up a steep pitch. The 500-watt-hour battery is removable, but only with tools, meaning it’s not plug and play like the Intense and Trek (reviewed below).

Motor aside, this is a firmly rooted and very comfy trail bike, with 140 millimeters of travel out back and a 150-millimeter fork. This bike feels nearly as capable as the Specialized but a bit lower and trimmer all around (despite the extra pound). I appreciated the 2.8-inch tires, which might not sound like a lot more compared to Specialized’s 2.6-inchers, but the extra weight of an e-bike demands a wider tread. This bike isn’t quite as inconspicuous as the Levo, but it rides great and, if not for the power issues in the eco mode, might have been my top pick, especially considering the (slightly) lower price tag.

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Intense Tazer Pro Build ($7,590)

(Courtesy Intense)

I really had to temper my misgivings about the Tazer from the moment I saw it, mostly for its pregnant-looking down tube and the honeybee graphics. Also, the 29-inch front and 27.5-inch rear make it a bit of a Frankenbike. And yet, on the trail, the Tazer stopped me dead with its rooted feel and the way it shrugged off seriously steep and ugly terrain.

Like the Pivot, this bike uses a Shimano STEPS 8000 motor. But here it felt quite different: I didn’t experience the same cutting out at lower cadences, and the three power levels seemed better tuned to my riding style. (Again, the assist percentages can be tweaked.) I also appreciated that the 500-watt-hour battery is easily extractable from the frame; simply pop off the plastic cover on the down tube and it pulls out, for both external charging as well as a battery replacement. (Intense sells external batteries in case you want to heft one along for extra range.) This motor is not as quiet as the Brose—there’s a constant dull whine, which ramps up as you pedal. However, with Intense’s settings, it’s the most intuitive and natural feeling of the group, and I found myself riding almost exclusively in eco mode because it easily got me through everything I threw at it.

Between the superslack head angle (64.9 degrees) and longer travel (a 155-millimeter rear and a 160-millimeter front), the Tazer felt like the most capable bike in the group. I chucked it off some pretty big drops, and it barely blinked. The 29- and 27.5-inch wheel combo also seems effective, rolling over pretty much everything up front but still retaining a fairly snappy feel out back. Again, the 2.6-inch tread up front feels slight diminutive, though you could easily sub in meatier rubber. The Tazer doesn’t have the same component level and carbon wheels as the Levo, but alloy hoops and SLX seem to work just dandy in this application. Truthfully, the spec here seems dead-on, especially given that this bike costs 30 percent less than the Levo. It’s a rowdy shredder, if a little tall feeling. Provided you can look past the Euro graphic design, and you want a bike that can tear up some serious terrain, this is worth a look. I’d use the Tazer for shuttle runs on serious trails—minus the car to get me there.

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Trek Powerfly LT 9.7 ($5,999)

(Courtesy Trek)

With 150 millimeters of rear travel and a 160-millimeter fork on 27.5-plus-inch wheels, the Powerfly LT is ostensibly a very capable machine. And the Bosch Performance CX motor is the smoothest of the bunch, delivering the most even (albeit the loudest) power application. It’s powered by a sleek 500-watt-hour battery. It’s also the heaviest model we tested, at 51.5 pounds—we rode a 19.5-inch compared to mediums with all the rest—though weight differences aren’t as big a deal on e-bikes as everyday pedal models.

The Bosch-motor drive delivers fluid, almost seamless assistance. Like the Shimano system, it’s all displayed and controlled via a bar-mount display and offers four levels. The eco, trail, and boost settings felt about right, but the e-mountain-bike level, which is meant to augment power based on terrain, never quite anticipated my needs.

I love the fact that the Bosch battery can be removed with the simple turn of a key. It makes this system feel infinitely upgradeable, which is important in the age of constant technology improvement. I also appreciated that, like the Levo (and unlike Shimano STEPS), there’s a walk mode: hold it down and the bike rolls at one mile per hour to ease the burden of hiking. In short, the Bosch motor feels more refined than the ones by Shimano and Brose, though I personally overlooked the torquey feeling of the Brose in the Specialized for its veritable silence.

Motor aside, the bike feels plush and capable, perhaps partly due to the 2.8-inch house-brand tires. Again, I’d say bigger sizes are a boon for e-bikes. The wheel base is longer than the others, though that sensation is partly due to the larger size of the bike. Still, the longer geometry and steeper head angle (66 degrees) made this feel more trail bike than all-mountain ripper. Having said that, this is a solid all-around bike burgeoned by the fact that it’s upgradeable over time.

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A Final Word

A friend said to me, “These new e-bikes are great, but they are basically expensive toys right now.” I get his point. You can only ride e-mountain bikes on half of the trails out there, likely fewer. So it’s important to consider where and how you can use them before you make a purchase.

Yet I’m incredibly jazzed about these bikes’ potential. The utility aspect—for trail building, commuting, training (think motor pacing), exploration (there’s nothing better than a little extra power when plowing around places you’ve never been), and flat-out capability (I hauled out an elk with mine)—makes them difficult to ignore. I also sometimes just love the speed and ease of pedaling they provide: when I’m on a rest day but still want to get out and breathe, I grab one of these bikes and power off.

You’ll note that I didn’t dwell on range or battery power. That’s because there’s not a concrete answer to how long the power on these machines will hold out; it varies by terrain, rider weight, speed, pedaling style, and chosen assist power. What I can say is that I took all of these bikes on three- to four-hour trail rides in the Rockies, in places with significant elevation gain and loss, and by spending most of my time in the lower-assist modes and powering up when needed, I finished with approximately 20 to 30 percent battery in each. I also think it’s worth pointing out that while the super-high-end builds are sweet, with their carbon frames and wheels and topmost components, given the motor assist, they probably aren’t completely definitive the way they are in standard pedal bikes. If I were in the market, I’d look at the least expensive builds of these bikes, with an eye to both durability and technology improvements over time.

Are e-mountain bikes perfect? Not yet. But they are darn fun to ride, and as we’ve seen in just a few years, they are only going to get better. For now, I’ll be blasting around the backcountry from time to time with a big grin on my face.

Lead Photo: Axel Brunst/Tandem

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