Ebike motor/gearbox units are on the rise. Not only do they promise better shifting performance, they’re also said to be capable of tricks that derailleurs can’t match. We tested three motor/gearbox units from Pinion, Valeo, and E2 Drives, and compared them head to head. Are these the ebike motors of tomorrow?

Hats off! – A derailleur is an ingenious piece of technology. For over a century, it has made it easier for cyclists to conquer steep mountain passes, reach crazy speeds on the descents, and pedal at a comfortable and efficient cadence on long-distance hauls. However, it is far from perfect.

The derailleur wasn’t originally conceived to be used together with an ebike motor, but has simply been adapted. And after the successful integration of ebike motors, combining the gears with the motor seemed to many ebike nerds like the next logical step.

So, are motor/gearbox units the natural evolution of ebike motors? We tested three current ebikes powered by different motor/gearbox units to find out if they’re the future. As the name suggests, the SIMPLON Kagu Pinion relies on the Pinion MGU E1.12 system, Ultima sent us their Multipath Trekking Allroad ebike, powered by the Valeo Cyclee drive unit, and Decathlon resort to the E2 Drives Owuru motor/gearbox unit for the BTWIN LD 920E.

If you’re interested to find out more about the individual ebikes themselves, click on the links for the respective in-depth reviews:

SIMPLON Kagu Pinion | Pinion MGU E1.12
Ultima Multipath | Valeo Cyclee
Decathlon BTWIN LD 920 E | E2 Drives Owuru

Why motor/gearbox units? – This is why!

Motor/gearbox units promise to offer many advantages, such as being low-maintenance, durable, powerful, and smart. Defective rear derailleurs and constantly having to lube the chain are a thing of the past. Instead, you get to enjoy automatic shifting and new anti-theft functions. Integrated gearboxes are also said to offer advantages in terms of the bike’s handling because they create a more focused centre of gravity around the bike’s bottom bracket. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First of all, what is a motor/gearbox unit?

A motor/gearbox unit is a special kind of mid-mounted motor, bolted to the bike’s bottom bracket. It differs from classic mid-mounted motors from the likes of Bosch and Shimano, in that it’s got an integrated gearbox. So, everything to do with the gears happens inside the motor housing. There’s no longer any need for a cassette on the rear wheel with a derailleur hanging off the back end, or for a geared hub. This should offer a handful of advantages.

Because the gearbox is combined with the motor, integrated into a single housing, it’s largely protected from the elements. There are fewer components to clean or maintain after a muddy ride.

With the omission of the cassette, you’ve got the possibility of using a belt instead of a chain. Belts are typically self-lubricating, so there’s no need for you to apply lube. You can simply clean the belt with a soft brush and water. Chain marks on our calf or trouser leg are a thing of the past, too.

A belt drive is a lazy rider’s best friend: it requires minimal maintenance, is easy to clean, and doesn’t need to be lubed.

With a classic drivetrain, all of the shifting components are exposed to the elements, subjecting them to increased wear and tear – especially in the case of ebikes. This is why motor/gearbox units are considered to be more durable. However, it always depends on the individual case and the components. If an ebike brand only spec 3-speed derailleurs and thick motorcycle chains, this will naturally achieve a higher mileage than a delicate internal gearbox with 30 gears. However, what you find on the market generally tends to be the opposite, i.e. wide-range cassettes paired with skinny chains and beefy gearboxes with belt drives.

The fact that you’ve got fewer exposed components attached to heavily stressed areas of the ebike also suggests that it will be less susceptible to defects. If you lay an ebike with a derailleur down carelessly, you risk bending or misaligning the derailleur. In the worst case, it can break off when you slam it into a rock – mountain bikers can tell you all about it. For motor/gearbox units, at least this danger is eliminated, relying on a short chain or belt tensioner at most.

Depending on the model, a large 12-speed cassette can weigh half a kilo, while modern geared hubs usually tip the scales at over 1 kg. Aggressive full-suspension ebike riders stand to benefit the most from reduced weight on the rear end. Every additional gram on the rear wheel increases the unsprung and rotating mass. Less rotating mass means the rear wheel can accelerate and slow down more easily. In the case of a full suspension bike, a reduction in sprung mass results in more responsive suspension, better capable of absorbing bumps and sticking to the ground.

For a sporty eMTB, a motor/gearbox unit can provide a more balanced centre of gravity, focused around the bottom bracket. The rear end of the Pinion MGU E1.12 equipped BULLS VUCA EVO AM 2 is as light as a feather, with the weight moved to the bottom bracket.

With motor/gearbox units, the weight saved on the rear wheel goes where it’s least annoying: the bottom bracket, low and centred on the bike. In theory, this should result in an improved weight distribution. A more focused centre of gravity is conducive to agility, and a low centre of gravity increases the bike’s composure.

As always, it depends on each individual case and on how well the respective bike brands play to the advantages of motor/gearbox units. However, the motor/gearbox units we tested have one disadvantage in terms of their weight: they’re all upwards of four kilograms. They certainly don’t lend themselves to light eMTBs.

Many of the benefits listed so far are just bonuses. The biggest advantage of motor/gearbox units is their shifting performance, and the new smart functions that integrated gearboxes offer. And it’s these that we want to look at in detail here.

The popular all-rounder amongst motor/gearbox units – The Pinion MGU E1.12 on test

First and foremost, Pinion have made a name for themselves for their gearboxes on analogue bikes. However, the German bike gearbox manufacturers have a background in the automotive sector, and turned the ebike world upside down in the summer of 2023.

Pinion MGU E1.12 | Power: 600 W/85 Nm | 400% support | Gears: 12/600% gear range | Weight: 4.1 kg

Pinion may not be the first brand to offer a motor/gearbox unit, but the Pinion MGU (Motor Gearbox Unit) made the biggest waves, and was welcomed by ebike manufacturers with open arms. In the eSUV group test conducted by our sister magazine E-MOUNTAINBIKE, every third bike came equipped with the Pinion MGU. It also featured on three bikes in our big 2024 eMTB group test.

The Pinion MGU is available in four versions, either with a 9- or 12-speed gearbox; for s-pedelecs limited to 45 km/h, or for ebikes limited to 25 km/h.

The 12-speed MGU weighs around 4.1 kg, making it the lightest motor/gearbox unit on test. Compared to conventional full-power, mid-mounted motors, the MGU is just slightly larger and therefore relatively easy to integrate into existing ebike platforms. This has certainly been met with a positive response from many bike brands, boosting the motor’s popularity.

With the 12-speed gearbox, the MGU E1.12 system has a vast gear range of 600% (MGU E1.9 = 568%), which is significantly more than the other two motor/gearbox units on test, and more than current 12-speed cassettes. In practice, this means that you’ll almost never run out of gears with the Pinion MGU E1.12, providing an easy gear for even the steepest climbs, and a high gear fast enough for breakneck descents.

Although the Pinion MGU cannot (yet) shift fully automatically, it’s capable of offering the right amount of support and a suitable gear for any climb, descent or payload thanks to its powerful motor and 12-speed, 600% gear range.

The Pinion MGU has a claimed nominal torque output of 85 Nm. However, the specified torque output of motor/gearbox units should only serve to better classify them amongst conventional mid-mounted motors without gearboxes. Because the motor’s actual torque output depends on the gear selected. For example, the Pinion MGU is said to churn out as much as 160 Nm in the easiest gears.

If you select the highest support mode, FLY, the Pinion MGU feels very powerful in all gears. In FLY mode, the motor offers a considerable 400% support. Nevertheless, it wasn’t the most powerful motor on test as it was outdone by the motor/gearbox unit from its French competitors, Valeo.

Allegedly, the Tesla Cybertruck can pull a Porsche 911 on a trailer down a quarter mile stretch faster than the Porsche would be able to ride on its own. The Pinion motor doesn’t hang around either, though, admittedly, our office dog Henry is faster on his own.

If you compare the shifting functions, the Pinion motor isn’t on par with the competition. Like the other two models on test, the unit is capable of shifting without having to pedal, whether you’re stationary or rolling. With the Start.Select function activated, it can automatically select a predefined starting gear when you come to a stop at a traffic light, too.

However, Pinion are yet to introduce fully automatic shifting functions to the MGU. For now, with the Pre.Select function, the Pinion MGU will automatically select the appropriate gear for the current speed, but only when you stop pedalling. Therefore, when you coast downhill, the Pinion MGU will shift up to an appropriate pedalling gear. However, when you’re pedalling uphill and your speed decreases, the MGU doesn’t automatically shift down. You’ll either have to shift manually or stop pedalling. However, the MGU shifts very quickly when you tell it to, even under full load, and practically never miss-shifts, unlike many badly adjusted derailleurs.

Furthermore, the lack of fully-automatic shifting is set to change in the summer of 2024. Pinion have already announced a free software update that will introduce this function to all current MGU systems, even under full load.

The powerful French option – Testing the Valeo Cyclee motor/gearbox unit

With over 100,000 employees, Valeo are a world-renowned powerhouse among automotive suppliers. Although the Valeo Cyclee motor/gearbox unit was introduced to the public back in December 2020, it’s still not on most ebikers’ radars. According to Valeo, 25 bike brands already rely on the Cyclee unit, but most of them are based in the French automotive supplier’s home country, which accounts for the lack of international presence. However, Valeo’s system is more than deserving of attention because it’s got several technological highlights to offer the ebike segment.

Valeo Cyclee | Power: 750 W/130 Nm | 800% support | Gears: 7/450% gear range | Weight: 4.9 kg

The Valeo Cyclee motor/gearbox unit features a 7-speed automatic gearbox developed in collaboration with French gearbox specialists Effigear. The 7 speeds offer a 450% gear range. As such, the Valeo unit can’t match the wide range or fine gear steps of the 12-speed Pinion system, though shifting becomes a secondary matter aboard Cyclee powered bikes.

With a torque output of up to 130 Nm and 800% support, the powerful motor can compensate for the somewhat limited gear range, capable of bringing riders up to cruising speed from a dead stop in the blink of an eye. Steep climbs are no problem for the Valeo Cylcee motor/gearbox unit either, and it shouldn’t be fazed by heavy loads. In fact, the Valeo Cyclee motor was designed with heavy duty cargo bikes in mind. To this end, the Valeo system can even be equipped with a reverse gear, helping you manoeuvre a heavily loaded cargo bike in steep driveways and the like.

Just cruising and talking tech: The new motor/gearbox units let you focus on the road and the conversation instead of worrying about shifting gears.

Another standout feature exclusive to the Valeo Cyclee system is the ability to put it in neutral, which serves as a clever anti-theft function. When you park the ebike and select neutral, the Valeo Cyclee powered ebike won’t budge no matter how hard you pedal. You’ll first have to enter a code via the remote and display to engage the motor. We couldn’t think of a better way to exploit the advantages of motor/gearbox units for theft protection.

While riding, the internal gearbox is fully automatic. In the adaptive support mode, called Predict, you can’t even manually override the automatic gear selection via the remote. The shifting works well whether you’re stationary or rolling. And unlike the Pinion MGU, it also shifts automatically under load, so while you’re pedalling. However, in this case, the Valeo Cyclee can occasionally be particularly lazy and slow to change gears.

You can always shift later: The Valeo Cyclee unit rarely makes use of its fully automatic gearbox. Instead, it simply relies on brute power to push you up the climbs.

As you pick up speed, the automatic gearbox predictably shifts into a higher gear and keeps you pedalling at a comfortable cadence. Shifting gears via remote in Turbo or Eco mode works perfectly. However, when you hit a climb and slow down, stomping on the pedals, the gearbox leaves you waiting. Whether automatically in Predict mode or manually by remote control, downshifts are delayed by several crank rotations if there’s too much force being applied to the pedals. Although this prevents the cranks from disengaging and making you spin out, it also makes it difficult to hold your pace on the climbs.

At around 4.9 kg, the Valeo Cyclee is the heaviest motor/gearbox unit on test. The housing is shaped like a triangle, which requires more space in the frame and complicates matters when it comes to integration. Hopefully, this won’t put ebike manufacturers off, and Valeo will find more partners for their powerhouse of a system. We’d be happy to see the French motor/gearbox unit featured on even more ebikes in the future.

The Valeo display and remote look very dated. However, they’ve got a few interesting capabilities up their sleeves.
If you put the gearbox into neutral before switching off, you can only re-engage the motor with a predefined code, offering a clever anti-theft feature.

The sensitive Belgian among motor/gearbox units – The E2 Drives Owuru in review

If Pinion are the shooting stars of the motor/gearbox scene and Valeo are the local French heroes, you can rightly call the E2 Drives Owuru system a niche product, featured on just a single bike so far.

E2 Drives Owuru | Power: 600 W/65 Nm | 375% support | Gears: continuously variable/265% gear range | Weight: 4.6 kg

If you look at it from a different perspective, the folks behind E2 Drives have achieved an absolute box-office hit with their Owuru unit. The concept must have impressed Decathlon enough to have them snatch up the small motor start-up, so that E2 Drives are now a subsidiary of the sports goods giants. So, it’s hardly surprising that the innovative Owuru motor is currently exclusive to the Decathlon BTWIN LD 920E city ebike.

The Decathlon BTWIN LD 920E relies on E2 Drives’ debut product: the innovative Owuru motor/gearbox unit with a continuously variable automatic transmission.

While the key specs of the Pinion MGU are targeted at the masses, and the Valeo system is all about power, the Owuru motor/gearbox unit has different strengths entirely. It promises a particularly smooth and relaxed riding experience, and it’s the only motor/gearbox unit on test with a continuously variable automatic transmission.

Technically, the Owuru motor achieves seamless shifting thanks to two electric motors that converge via an internal planetary gear. In practice, this means that you can set a desired target pedalling cadence of 40 to 90 RPM before you set off. Once you’re going, you’ll no longer have to think about shifting gears.

The motor always regulates the support and gearing ratio so that you can pedal at the desired cadence. This is achieved entirely without interruption from gear shifts or power fluctuations – like a variomatic transmission on a scooter.

In city traffic, therefore, none of the other motor/gearbox systems on test can keep up with the relaxed riding experience offered by the E2 Drives Owuru. If you stomp on the pedals to pull away from your competition at a traffic light, the unit smoothly shifts to a higher gearing ratio and lets you pick up speed without having to spin the cranks like a maniac. As you slowly come to a halt in stop-and-go traffic, the system automatically shifts down, so you’re always in a pleasantly easy gearing ratio when pulling away.

However, the clever automatic transmission also has its disadvantages. Compared to the other two motor/gearboxes, the Owuru isn’t quite as powerful and can’t compete with conventional, full-power, mid-mounted motors.

E2 Drives specify a minimum torque output of 65 Nm, which is achievable in any gearing ratio, with a maximum of up to 120 Nm in ideal conditions. Although the Owuru’s 375% maximum support sounds like plenty, it can’t match the 400 and 800% of the Pinion and Valeo systems, and the internal gear range of 265% is significantly narrower than the 600 and 450% offered by Pinion and Valeo.

You can still get around quickly in flat cities, nonetheless. If your commute includes steep hills, however, the motor will likely run out of steam. If you drop below a certain speed on a climb, the motor can’t maintain the predefined target pedalling cadence, forcing you to stand up from the saddle and put all your weight on the pedals to reach the summit.

The Owuru reaches its limits on steep climbs. Compared to the other two motor/gearbox units on test, you’ll have to exert yourself a lot more to reach the summit.

Another shortcoming is the system vibration. The motor itself isn’t particularly noisy. The Valeo Cyclee is significantly louder, and the sounds emitted by the Pinion MGU in the first four gears can also get annoying. But with the Owuru, you can feel the vibrations in your feet of the two motors pulling on the planetary gearbox.

Good vibrations: the fledgling Owuru motor stands out thanks to its pleasant riding experience. When pedalling, however, it occasionally provides an involuntary foot massage due to slight vibrations coming through the pedals.

How well the Owuru system lends itself to integration is actually a side issue because it’s exclusive to Decathlon for now. The motor/gearbox unit weighs 4.6 kg, so it’s not exactly lightweight. The motor housing is just slightly bulkier than a modern, compact, full-power, mid-mounted motor without an internal gearbox. Integrating the system requires special attention to the chain line because the motor relies on a small additional sprocket above the chainring to transmit much of its power. In the case of the BTWIN LD 920E city ebike, Decathlon prove that they’re capable of top-notch motor integration, building an entire system around the Owuru drive unit. The motor/gearbox unit blends seamlessly into the frame’s rounded silhouette, and a neatly integrated display in the stem provides you with data from the motor.

The holy trinity of a motor, an integrated, infinitely variable automatic gearbox, and a display in the stem results in top-notch integration.
Dual power: The Owuru system relies on two electric motors, balancing the chainring and a second driving gear.

Are motor/gearbox units the future of ebike motors?

The now long-deceased Henri Desgrange, an important cycling journalist of his time (and also the founder of the Tour de France, by the way), allegedly said: “…variable gears are only for the disabled and women.” Of course, more than a century has passed since our colleague Henri is said to have made this bold assertion, which today everyone knows is not true. But our thinking hasn’t evolved much since then: “Ebikes are only for old people, dropper posts only add weight, and disc brakes are far too complicated and unreliable.” Instead of openly welcoming innovations without prejudice, they’re typically met with a lot of unfounded skepticism and resistance.

Motor/gearbox units may seem bulky, unrefined, and not fit for high-performance bikes. We secretly relegate them to a niche reserved for comfortable hybrids and low-maintenance trekking bikes. The motor market continues to be dominated by conventional mid-mounted drive units and hub motors. Admittedly, motor/gearbox units have only just arrived on the relatively young ebike scene. However, they have enormous potential. Ebike motors are inevitably intertwined with the drivetrain. Therefore, it makes sense to combine the two components as closely as possible. In the best case, doing so will turn two components into just one: the motor/gearbox unit. Pinion, Valeo, and E2 Drives motor/gearbox units aren’t perfect, sure. But it’s been a while since we’ve been as impressed by an ebike motor as we were by these three models. Motor/gearbox units certainly have the potential to dominate the market.

While there’s plenty of room left for improvement, Pinion, Valeo and E2 Drives make an impressive debut on the ebike motor market. They’ve cleared the way for motor/gearbox units to take the market by storm. Now, it’s up to bike brands to exploit their full potential, and that’s a different matter entirely. However, conventional mid-mounted motors and derailleurs should prepare for a possible onslaught from motor/gearbox units because they could take a big cut of their pie.

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Words: Rudolf Fischer Photos: Jan Richter, Diverse

About the author

Rudolf Fischer

In his previous life Rudolf was a dab hand at promoting innovation, putting his brain behind big-ticket patent assessments that easily ran into six-or-seven-plus figures. These days, the self-confessed data nerd’s role as editor at DOWNTOWN and E-MOUNTAINBIKE is no less exciting. Given his specialism in connectivity, Rudolf’s often placed on the front line of future mobility conversations, but he’s also big into testing new bikes–both on the daily as a committed commuter and intensively for our group tests. The business economist graduate is as versatile as a Swiss penknife, and that’s no hyperbole. Away from two wheels, his background in parkour means he’s a master of front, side and backflips, plus he speaks German, English, French, Russian and a touch of Esperanto. Japanese remains woefully unmastered, despite his best home-learning attempts. Good to know: Rudolf’s sharp tongue has made him a figure of fear in the office, where he’s got a reputation for flexing a dry wittiness à la Ricky Gervais... interestingly, he's usually the one laughing hardest.