eMTB Tips: Pro Advice for Your First Electric Mountain Bike Ride
Downhill racer and coach, Caroline Washam, shares her tips on braking, shifting, pedaling consistency, and more for a smooth eMTB ride.
My first time riding an electric mountain bike, I was so excited that I forgot some of the basic rules of mountain biking. I found myself tackling a technical rocky climb, but by the time I got to the top of it, I had lost all my speed and traction. At that point, not even the e-assist was able to help me, so I had to put my foot down to avoid tipping over and falling onto the rocks, brush, and cacti on the side of the trail. My mistake? I was in the wrong gear. So basic!
With the range of assist modes electric mountain bikes have to offer, it is easy to feel overconfident and think you can just power through most obstacles, but the rules of shifting still apply. On that occasion, I was in the middle of my cassette when I should have been in a lighter gear and ready to shift to an even lighter one as I approached the toughest part of the climb. Being on the wrong gear was one of a few mistakes I made as I got used to the new ride, but after some time playing and sessioning, it soon started to feel just like any other capable MTB—just electric.
If you decide to give eMTBs a shot, get ready to see more trails and session more features, but don't forget that you are still riding a bike and many of the variables of cycling haven't changed. To help you avoid the mistakes I made, I chatted with Caroline Washam, a professional downhill mountain bike racer, a level-two certified PMBIA skills coach, and content manager for Liv Cycling, to get her best eMTB tips. Here is what she had to say.
Riding a new bike can take some getting used to, even more so if you have to deal with new features like power modes on top of shifting gears, engaging your dropper post, and braking.
Most e-bikes will offer between three to six support modes or levels—Power, Sport, Active, Tour, and Eco. Plus, some models may offer an automatic or smart-assist option, which will automatically adjust the support level based on information acquired from multiple sensors, like rider input and terrain feedback, for a natural feeling assist.
"If there is a smart-assist option or automatic mode, for your first ride, that's probably the best option just because you don't really have to think about it—you can just shift as you normally would, and [the support] will adjust. But that being said, that mode is not the best for every situation or for battery life," explains Washam, who has been a professional Gravity MTB athlete since 2015.
If your bike does not have an auto mode or you would like more control over the pedal assist, start out easy and focus on proper shifting. "I’ll go ride my local XC trail at least once a week, and what I do is I just set [the e-assist] at two-out-of-five or three-out-of-five power and ride it in that level the entire ride. That way, it's predictable, and I do not have to think about adjusting the amount of power, and I can just focus on shifting like I normally would," she adds.
While e-bikes are becoming significantly lighter, most of them are still heavier than the acoustic bikes we are used to, and things like slowing down and getting off the bike may feel different. "One of the first things I noticed [on my first eMTB rides] was that I was blowing through corners or getting a little off balance. So, breaking earlier to compensate for that extra weight, anticipating those corners, using proper braking technique, dropping your heels, and spreading your weight out across the bike—those [habits] are going to help you stay more in control, especially on downhills," Washam tells Bicycling.
As basic as it may sound, when dismounting, "one thing to notice, is that [the bike] will fall faster to the side, so anticipate this and look for where you’re going to put your foot, making sure you’re on a stable position," adds Washam.
Sure, you may be able to climb with more ease now that you have the extra power. However, it is still important that you shift and position yourself on the bike as you would on an acoustic MTB. For technical or steep climbs, that would be off the saddle, shifting your weight over the front wheel for traction, and on a light gear. The eMTBs pedal assist won't always save you if you run out of momentum or speed, especially if you are in a less-than-ideal gear. "Just shift a lot, like on a normal bike. For the most part, if you don't shift, you’re gonna get stalled out on those climbs," says Washam.
Washam also emphasized the importance of consistency in your pedaling. "If you’re not shifting, your cadence is going to fluctuate more, and when you’re riding an e-bike, you want your cadence as consistent as possible for multiple reasons: It helps smooth out your pedal stroke so that you’re not experiencing surges, and it will also extend your battery life," she explains.
Newer e-bikes have a quicker response time when engaging the pedal assist, and while your e-bike can certainly handle a low rpm, you should keep in mind that it's going to make the motor work harder, and this could affect your traction when coming out of turns and other features.
"During a [eMTB] race, I was descending like I normally would, and I would go through corners, and then I’d take that first pedal stroke out, but my rear wheel would slip right out and slide into the pocket of the berm. I needed to wait for just half a second longer to start that pedal stroke, because the minute you start, that motor is going to kick in and make that rear wheel go. So make sure you wait till it's in a straight line [when coming out of a corner]," Washam says.
One of the most awesome things about eMTBs is that you can now ride farther and experience more trails. But, remember, the higher the support mode, the faster you will drain the battery, so plan your ride accordingly and strategize when and where to use your power. E-bikes are still heavier than most bikes, so you want to make sure you don't end up riding a heavy bike with a dead battery on the way back home.
"When I ride in the mountains where there are longer climbs and longer descents, I’ll give myself a little more juice on the climbs, using Active, Sport, or Power modes depending on how long I want to ride," Washam explains. "On the descents, I will drop the support down to Eco or Tour modes. Not only does it save my battery, but it also gives me a more comfortable amount of power when I want to pedal up to a jump or out of a berm."
While an eMTB will offer you great pedal-assist allowing you to go farther and faster, keep in mind that you are still working out! Even with the assist, you still have to handle a heavier-than-usual ride. Plus, on technical features, you are still getting off the saddle and putting down power, and muscling the bike to get over rocks, roots, and more.
"Problems with hydration and nutrition for eMTB riding are the result of underestimating how much work you are still doing even with the pedal assist. With e-biking, it's important to look at how long (and far) you will be riding, as well as the intensity," Washam says. Fueling for eMTB riding should be the same as riding an acoustic MTB, and Washam recommends bringing the same amount of water, electrolytes, and calories for the amount of time you plan to spend on the trail.
"Whether you’re riding an acoustic MTB or an eMTB, a three-hour ride is a three-hour ride. You’re exposed to the elements for the same amount of time, and you’ve likely ridden many more miles in the same amount of time, so hydrating and snacking adequately is still super important," Washam adds.
E-bike categories are becoming more common now at local race series and events. So, whether you’re looking at cross-country or enduro racing, there may be a category for the eMTB-racing curious. But first, there are a couple of things to know about how it works.
"On my first e-bike race, I was asking these 10-year-olds, ‘what do I do? Do I ride in the highest power mode the whole time?’ And they said, ‘yeah,’ and I’m like ‘but will I run out of battery?’ And they’re like, ‘no,’ and they explained it all to me," Washam says.
"Essentially, e-bike races are catered to allowing you to have enough battery life for the whole race. In many races, you’re only riding for an hour, but riding in a high-power mode is hard. If you are interested in e-bike racing, I would suggest that you practice [riding in high-power mode] ahead of time because it's different."
Many riders and athletes are turning to e-bikes to keep easy days fast and fun and even spice up their off-seasons with cross-training. "I know a lot of athletes around here that will add eMTB riding into their training. For example, some enduro racers during the off-season may try an eMTB race to keep their skills sharp, but not worry about having to be in top form," Washam says.
Electric mountain bikes can help others stay active during phases of life that require them to slow down. Washam, who is 28 weeks pregnant, shares that "in the first two trimesters, it was hard to pedal. I was still riding my regular bike and noticed that I wasn't going as fast, but I had to push the pedals harder, resulting in a higher heart rate and breathing harder," she says. "But then, on my e-bike, I can ride and still feel like myself. And that's been a huge boost in morale."
Rosael is an avid cyclist in the pursuit of getting more people on bikes. All bodies. All bikes. As a features editor, she gets to work on initiatives that further engage our audience and provide additional value to our readership. Lately, she has been dipping her cleats into gravel racing and other off-road adventures.
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