Ausgabe #018 Englisch Szene

Taking the red pill – The darker truth behind international eMTB racing

After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes. Remember, all I’m offering is the truth. [Morpheus]

Some would argue that it’s human nature to want to race. Competition burns a little in all our D.N.A. As toddlers we chase around parks, wanting to be the fastest, to be king of the playground. As adults too, we’ve all felt our right foot tense while being overtaken by a clearly slower car. If it moves we race it: lawnmowers, pogo-sticks, even hot air balloons. Surely then, eMTB racing is a logical step forward in the growth of the sport? Supported by an explosion in eMTB popularity, there’s increasing excitement about professional eMTB racing from parts of the industry. That has resulted in a number of ‘International’ and ‘World’ (albeit based solely in Europe) series forming, demanding both industry participation and media attention. But is this good for the sport?

We could choose to simply embrace that racing is an inevitable component of any sport, trusting that we need professional racers and events to spearhead development and innovation. Or, like Neo in the Matrix, we could choose to take the red pill and chase the rabbit down its hole to a darker truth. The truth is that the sport is not ready for a global eMTB racing series, and probably never will be.

Cycle racing has an enviable heritage. BMX, Downhill, Road and XC are filled with beautiful stories of human achievement and endeavour. Surprisingly, in a sector so steeped in tradition, there’s still space for new disciplines to flourish. Look at the Enduro World Series, a mountain bike racing format that exploded in 2012 without any federation backing. During the opening round in Punta Ala, there was palpable excitement in the air, with hundreds of racers, international teams and huge media interest. Grass-roots enduro racing had reached critical mass, established national series were successful, the timing was right and the sport was ready to go global. The EWS has been an unquestioned success, but despite that success, if you asked a broad spectrum of everyday trail riders, many would have no understanding of the racing scene. Like skiing, mountain biking is a participation-based activity, not a competition-based sport. Most ride to break free of the daily grind, to escape and discover something new, not to race. Even with huge support and participation, the EWS only occupies a niche within the sport. In contrast, with exponentially lower participation at events, eMTB racing is a niche within a niche – in reality, who really cares?

Even the all-powerful UCI seems panicked. In the past, they have openly distanced themselves from eMTB racing, washing their hands of it and handing it over to the motorcycle federations. However, a recent change of leadership has triggered a renewed interest in eMTB racing and they have recently announced a one-round UCI World Championship in Mont St Anne this year. Traditionally regarded as sticklers for rules, it comes as a surprise to see the UCI rule book, recently revised to incorporate eMTBs, filled with oversights that indicate a complete lack of understanding of how eMTBs function. Take for example rule 4.8.001 that sets the criteria of the bike. “E-Mountain bike events must be organised in accordance with the following bike standards: Engine of maximum 250 watts.” This rule excludes all the most popular brands of eMTB motor. The Bosch, Brose, Yamaha and Shimano options all have a ‘nominal’ continuous power output of 250 watts but deliver far higher ‘maximum’ power in use. Is the UCI saying that only the low power Vivax can race, or have they not researched how eMTB motors work? And what of rule 4.8.005: “Riders can only use the battery in place on their bike and cannot carry an additional battery during the competition.” Does this mean there will be no regulation of battery capacity? Will Mont St Anne be a farcical showdown of Specialized Levo riders in continuous turbo mode with their 700Wh batteries, facing off against Focus JAM2 riders stuck in eco mode to conserve their 378Wh battery?

eMTB racing is a niche within a niche – in reality, who really cares?

Critical misunderstandings aside, it’s clear that even without a plan, the UCI wants to cling on to control of eMTB racing like a toddler with its toy. Their hostile attack on the FIM (Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme) eMTB series, designating it as unsanctioned and (possibly illegally) penalising any rider that attends is testament to this. Forced to draw a line in the sand, but with few options to tie allegiances with, the UCI used an aggressively worded press release to pin their ‘official’ colours onto the WES (World E-Bike Series), a tourism-centric series that is clearly still in its infancy. With only 44 and 35 racers attending the first and second rounds respectively, and reports of unclear rules and chaotic organisation (the last two rounds are still yet to be confirmed), it’s clearly too immature for a series to carry such a designation. This was an opportunity for the UCI to show strong leadership and lead from the front, but instead, they appear to have rushed to champion a fledgling series, like a dog chasing its tail.

the UCI wants to cling on to control of eMTB racing like a toddler with its toy

However, an aggressive challenge towards the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme was not unwelcome news to true eMTB enthusiasts. Looking at the FIM’s disjointed plans, it’s clear that not only could the proposed series fall on a disinterested audience, but could even damage the very growth and acceptance of the sport in the wider market. One glance at the format of the opening round in Imola and rule book reveals that the FIM really don’t understand the potential of eMTBs either. Imagine the sweeping boredom and slow claps from the audiences as eMTBs take to the infamous Imola Motocross circuit. For 30 minutes, eMTB racers will painfully roll over unsuitable jumps built for powerful MX bikes at a sedate 25 kph, before the fuel-guzzling MX show-stoppers turn up and set the course on fire. An even bigger danger is the association of eMTBs with MX bikes, a link that the industry has been working so hard to dispel. Communicating eMTBs as a cyclist’s equivalent of an MX bike will further the misunderstandings around the very different nature of pedal-assist eMTBs and throttle-operated motorbikes. The prospect that backers Youthstream will push the embarrassing spectacle to 2.5 million viewers adds insult to injury. How can this be a good thing for the sport? The fact that the press release for these proposals was dropped on April 1st has a bittersweet irony.

Given the very low participation numbers of grass-roots races targeted at eMTB riders, who is actually driving the need for a ‘world’ series and what is their motivation? Is it the riders themselves? Is it from established national series, running at capacity and ready to feed into the next level? Or is it a financially motivated arms race among promoters to establish ‘the’ international series and cash in quick when the sport is clearly still in its infancy?

Question everything, learn something, answer nothing.[Euripides]

You only have to look at the WES and the e-Eis (the e-Enduro International Series run by Franco Monchiero)? While the post-event press releases may look glossy, name-dropping select ex-pros with carefully chosen images to avoid highlighting the poor turnout, in reality, participation numbers are woefully low. You need only to look at how the current crop of European based factory-teams represent themselves to see the widening disconnect between eMTB racing and the growing number of eMTB riders on the trails. Dramatically lit photos of oh-so-serious ‘professional’ racers, posturing like Formula 1 drivers in freshly-pressed, logo’ed-up race gear, thousand-yard stares showing that they’re ‘not to be messed with’. Is this image representative of the emotions eMTB brings to you? Is this how we want eMTBing to be represented?

Is eMTB racing taking itself too seriously, where is that eMTB smile

But at least it’s a level playing field. Or is it? Even without getting into the minefield of tuning, a process that is very easy to do, even ‘standard’ bikes vary wildly. As discussed above, the 250 watt figure quoted like gospel is actually a ‘nominal’ figure for continuous power delivery. Many motors deliver far more depending on the cadence, and these peaks vary considerably across the brands. Anyone who has ridden a new Brose in Shuttle mode compared to a Bosch CX or Shimano M8000 will know that some motors deliver more torque and power. But “it’s OK” say many organisers, as events will be designed to ensure battery life dictates the terms. But aren’t battery capacities different from brand to brand? With so much emerging diversity within the bikes, please don’t try and tell us a head-to-head race is fair.

And what of the EWS organisers, where do they fit in? With their influence in the industry, support, infrastructure and media experience, they could drop a series at any point. Perhaps it’s their silence that is the most deafening of all. After holding a ‘test’ event last year, director Chris Ball concluded the resultant video saying, “There are so many open questions in eMTB racing, from the format and trail access right through to motor control. We think there are people rushing into this, people launching series, but ultimately there are too many big questions unanswered to move with responsibility at such speed. We must answer all the questions before we award any champions because otherwise, it delegitimizes what could potentially be a great thing for the sport of mountain biking.” The truth is, those questions still sit unanswered…

As painful as it is, this is the reality of international eMTB racing: confusion, disinterest, poor uptake and in some cases a complete misunderstanding of what eMTBs represent. This is the real truth we learn after taking the red pill. The deeper you follow the rabbit down its hole, the more you understand the true Wonderland of eMTBs and all they can offer. While mountain biking is predominantly the realm of the fit and strong, eMTBs democratize the mountain, bringing obvious health-benefits, a spirit of adventure, fun and empowerment to an almost limitless audience. Moreover, eMTBs have the potential to redefine commuting, to change the way we socialize, shop and get our kids to school, cementing a new role in not only recreation but in society as a whole. Understanding this, we start to see that international eMTB racing is the answer to a question that no one is asking.

Or, of course, we could simply take the blue pill, believe the industry hype and live in the illusion that international eMTB racing is a great thing for the development of the sport right now.

Dieser Artikel ist aus E-MOUNTAINBIKE Ausgabe #018

Das E-MOUNTAINBIKE Magazin erscheint auf Deutsch und Englisch im digitalen App-Format. Ladet euch jetzt die App für iOS oder Android und lest alle Artikel auf eurem Tablet oder Smartphone. Kostenlos!

Words Trevor Worsey Illustration Julian Lemme

Hat dir dieser Artikel gefallen? Dann würde es uns sehr freuen, wenn auch du uns als Supporter mit einem monatlichen Beitrag unterstützt. Als E-MOUNTAINBIKE-Supporter sicherst du dem hochwertigen Bike-Journalismus eine nachhaltige Zukunft und sorgst dafür, dass der E-Mountainbike-Sport auch weiter ein kostenloses und frei zugängliches Leitmedium hat! Jetzt Supporter werden!