The discussions around professional E-MTB racing are rapidly escalating: German championships, a Central-European E- World Series and a World Cup with live TV-coverage – according to some agencies, organisers and even bike manufacturers there is a huge untapped potential for E-MTBing as a separate sports niche. We checked the facts and can tell you why tuning-related issues would only the tiniest of problems in a pro racing series.

Since the outbreak of the E-MTB epidemic, there have been several attempts to find a suitable racing format for these new fascinating sport machines. And as you would imagine supporters of E-MTB events all agree on one point: every discipline needs a dedicated racing format to defines the sport. Fun grassroots races are popping up everywhere these days and they are a great way to get E-MTB riders together. But rumours suggest that it’s just a matter of time until we’ll see sponsored riders chasing medals on engine-supported bikes. But do E-MTB pro-races even make sense? Is there any point in it? Have competition standards not caused enough damage to the surf and snowboard scene?

There have been plenty of talks about an amateur racing series over the past years. At the same time the organisers of leading mtb-racing-series have carried out a number of test runs in different racing-formats: however, a poor turnout of just 10 to 50 people was a clear indicator that the interest isn’t really there especially considering that most of those who turned up were representing the cycling industry. And to confirm this the articles we published on our website addressing this topic had very few clicks.

But would a professional series not be an entirely different thing? In reality, some of the most blatant problems and arguments that play against E-MTB-racing on an amateur level could easily be addressed and resolved in a professional racing context. Whilst motor-tuning is almost impossible to control in an amateur race, technical inspections combined with a Parc fermé could work well in a more manageable professional setting. And even low attendance wouldn’t constitute a problem in a pro-context since a professional series isn’t funded with entry-fees but financed through sponsors. But the real issue of a professional E-MTB series is an entirely different one: spectators.

Every professional race pursues a financial goal. Brands that support or even run a professional racing team are predominantly looking for exposure to promote their products, chasing podiums to use as a strong selling point and collecting feedback from professional riders to improve and develop their products.

1. Racing achievements as a marketing strategy

What’s so exciting about E-MTB races for the average E-MTBer? What motivates a cyclist to ride an E-MTB? Is it the thrill of competition or the drive for athletic performance? Or maybe just the longing for an exciting experience to share with friends and family while riding leisurely? Could either a 25-year-old B-rider who never really made it into the pro-league without a motor or an ageing MTB-pro really work as a role model for thousands of hobby riders? Are competitive performance sports still as attractive and desirable as they used to be? A bike race with the support of a motor? How do you explain this to a “normal” person?

2. Racing-feedback for product development

If you ask any product manager in the E-MTB industry how the average end-consumers use their performance-oriented E-MTBs, the answer will most certainly be: like an SUV for gravel paths or an E-Enduro bike with a pannier-rack, mudguards, lights and a number of GPS and smartphone mounts. Only a tiny fraction of today’s E-MTBers actually use their E-bikes on the sort of terrain they are intended for.
Expecting constructive product feedback from an E-MTB pro-racing series would be as realistic as stuffing a whole load of Formula-1 technology into a VW Polo.

3. Exposure

You don’t achieve exposure through fancy media-partnerships but through real audience interest. And that’s the hardest part to sell. Our American friends call it “A hard sell”. All popular mountain biking disciplines are currently feeding on the commitment of one huge brand; Red Bull. The bike industry is simply not big enough to push yet another discipline and make a lasting impact on a vast audience. Exactly how many more mountain biking disciplines will there be in the future? If you like to see performance and suffering you can watch the Olympic cross-country. If you’re after action and speed then downhill is the answer. If you love adrenaline and stunts then the Red Bull Rampage and slopestyle-events will get you exactly what you’re looking for. And if you have a soft spot for action and tactical riding in unique landscapes you should follow the Enduro World Series. If we were to compare E-MTBing with any other discipline, enduro would probably come closest. And even in this case, we have the absolute certainty that racing is not the most effective way to boost the popularity of a discipline nor to sell products. In terms of popularity, the Enduro World Series doesn’t stand a chance against the Downhill-World Cup.

E-MTBing doesn’t need a racing-series but all racing-series need E-MTBs.
Bike manufacturers are shifting their marketing strategies and budgets from conventional mountain biking towards E-MTBs. This is a real threat to the survival of traditional mountain biking disciplines and races which have to rely on new formats to secure their future. So it’s no surprise that many event organisers consider a move towards an E-MTB racing-format to be not only logical but also crucial for their survival.
As the founders and organisers of the E-MOUNTAINBIKE Think Tank and publishers of the world’s leading E-MTB magazine, we have actively supported and co-designed every single development stage of E-MTBs. In our opinion, a professional racing format is not only questionable but utterly pointless.

False friends: E-MTB = Mountain-bike = bike

If you ever came across a market study promoting the “potential of bicycles” you would probably think that the possibilities are infinite. And yet the reality is totally different from what greedy agencies want you to believe. And even amongst mountain bikers, only a small minority is interested in competition whilst the majority considers their bike a tool to exercise and have fun within the spare time. E-MTBs are this popular simply because they allow a wider audience to enjoy the perks and joys of cycling and not because they can provide a well-trained athlete with a few extra watts. Only 3,5 % of our readers (data based on our 2017 reader survey) are actually interested in racing and this is hardly surprising considering the demographics of the average e-bike buyer.

Mountain biking has never managed a major breakthrough as a mass-spectator sport. Let’s assume that E-MTBs can achieve this by sporting an innovative format, suppressing the popularity of football with its multi-billion TV business and become the new TV mass-sport hit – would this necessarily mean that all of a sudden every average Joe will buy an E-MTB?

Average Joes like watching dart tournaments, ski jumping, biathlon or fun formats like Top Gear on TV – but does that mean they go out in masses buying skis, sports rifles and dart boards? If you assume that anyone throwing a dart while holding a pint in the backroom of a bar was inspired by the pros on Euro-Sport, think again.
A link between TV coverage and high-volume sales is just mere wishful thinking.

But let’s get back to our topic: an electric motor won’t make mountain bike races any more exciting than they already are. At the end of the day, any well-trained pro-athlete can burst through most trail-sections at well over the 25 km/h limit with the sole power of his legs. And even the addition of a battery as a tactical element won’t increase the entertainment factor to the extent that it will beat Top Gear ratings. Exactly for the same reasons you wouldn’t watch the Formula 1 just because you like the pit-stops. Whether it is XC, DH or Enduro the interest in mountain bike racing is easily manageable and there is no reason to believe that E-MTB races will gain even more popularity.

So, where lies the potential of E-MTBs then?

E-MTBing comes with a huge potential for great stories – stories that move, inspire and fascinate people. A racing format based on sheer performance-comparison would not only be the dullest way to stage E-MTBs but also the silliest. Because a racing format wouldn’t even represent the true potential of E-MTB nor do it justice. Let’s pretend for a second we’re sitting in a classroom and the teacher returns our essays. What would she say? “You’re missing the point!”. At the end of the day E-MTBing isn’t a sport of extremes and therefore it cannot use extremes to look more interesting to a broader audience. Let’s take football as an example: an occasional trip to the countryside with your mates to play footie and have a barbeque – this is what mainstream actually looks like. When applied to E-MTBs the message is: less extremism!

E-MTB offers you a chance to reinvent yourself and live a life full of new experiences to share with your friends and family, a new way to enjoy your daily commute or spice up a simple trail adventure. E-MOUNTAINBIKE editor Manfred Schmitt says: “Instead of creating new problems with a racing format and risking to endanger the development of E-MTB by touching delicate issues such as tuning, fairness and regulations, all players could benefit by simply addressing the true needs of this niche. E-MTBing appeals to an entirely new target group and requires a different marketing approach than conventional mountain bikes. Everything else is a waste of time and resources.”

What should we do then? Racing format yes or no?
If you got this far down the article you might see the answer coming. But even more important than the actual discussion about a racing series is understanding how we can spread the legacy of E-MTB in the broadest sense and let the E-MTB cake grow bigger (many retailers complain about extremely poor returns). Why aren’t bike manufacturers talking to the biggest E-Mobility brand in the world – heard of Tesla anyone? Why is no one teaming up with the celebrities, football stars and actors who can tell the world how an E-MTB changed their lives? Because family, fitness, work-life-balance, sustainability and outdoor adventures are the current hot topics of our society– and E-MTBs are the perfect match for these trends!
Let’s think in terms of destructive business models for a minute: what would happen if Tesla or any big motor manufacturer like Bosch would launch an E-Bike/E-MTB – which bike brand is strong enough to oppose to this without losing its valuable market share? What would happen if the tuning issue became the most interesting topic for the media to cover in a professional E-MTB-series, effectively killing the sport like the doping scandals did with pro road-cycling? E-MTB is faced with major decisions and we have the responsibility to set the right course towards a bright future – focusing on the wrong topics is not only a waste of time but also potentially dangerous; we have experienced this with surfing and snowboarding competitions.

Interactive question: What’s your take on professional E-MTB racing?

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Words: Robin Schmitt Photos: Trev Worsey, Isac Paddock

About the author

Robin Schmitt

Robin is one of the two founders of 41 Publishing, a visionary and go-getter. While he now enjoys every second on the bike – whenever his busy schedule allows – he used to race against the clock at enduro events and a few Downhill World Cups. Besides that, Robin practises kung fu and Zen meditation, plays the cello or with his dog (which actually belongs to his girlfriend), travels abroad and still reviews numerous bikes himself. Progressive ideas, new projects and major challenges – Robin loves exploring undiscovered potential and getting to the bottom of new trends.