Chris Ball talks eMTB Racing

January 28, 2019

Chris Ball talks eMTB Racing

Is shoehorning an eMTB category into a traditional MTB racing format a good idea? Why even ride an eMTB in an enduro race when you don't use the motor on the descent? Our eMTB club, E-Flow Riders, are looking forward to an eMTB specific race format!

ARTICLE:

2018 may go down in history as the year that eMTB finally came of age globally: acceptance and indeed, enthusiasm, for the technology continues to rise at a meteoric rate. Keen to cash in on this market growth, we have seen a number of new eMTB race series hit the calendars for 2019. Is international eMTB racing going to be the next big thing?

This Autumn, the Enduro World Series also hosted a secret experimental event, hoping to address some of the contentious issues surrounding eMTB racing, are we about to see the EWS step into the ring? Chris Ball is the creator and Managing Director of the EWS, knows a thing or two about racing and has an international view of the world of mountain biking. We sat down for a chat with Chris, to pick his brains on the current and future state of eMTB and the controversial subject of racing in particular.

Have you spent much time riding eMTBs and what’s your opinion on eMTB technology?
I was an early adopter I guess, I own a Rocky Mountain Powerplay and ride regularly. There’s a great future in eMTB technology and there is still huge potential for eMTB as a sport. The barrier for beginners to start mountain biking is that the minimum fitness level required to enjoy the sport is quite high. I think that is often not understood by people in the traditional cycle industry; eMTBs break a lot of those boundaries down and make mountain biking so much more accessible. At the same time – at the other end of the scale – it provides an exciting opportunity for performance orientated riders too progress as well.

Things are starting to happen in the world of eMTB racing but 18 months ago, you told our UK Editor Trevor that eMTBs shouldn’t have their own category in the Enduro World Series (EWS), has your opinion changed at all?
No. Next question.

Ha! No it hasn’t and it shouldn’t. With the amount of riders currently riding eMTBs, the only way it makes financial sense for event organisers is to tag an eMTB category onto existing events. We’ve always had the opinion that the future’s really bright for eMTB racing for a number of reasons: I think it’s really important to get it right soon in regards to motor control and trail access and you can use competition for a lot of wider control messaging.
To confuse eMTB racing with traditional MTB racing is to take away what’s great about current mountain bikes and restrict what could be great about eMTB racing. So we are firm in our opinion, there’s a great future in it but eMTB racing needs to have its own stand-alone format that frees it to be what it can be.

What demand has there been for an eMTB race series and who is driving the demand? Is it eMTB riders looking for a way to compete or eMTB brands looking to showcase their product and develop the market?
I guess there hasn’t been a massive demand at all, we just believe that this is something that we could really get out and do for the future by taking a step by step slow approach to it. The EWS has been successful, in part, because of the timing; the sport was in existence for a long time in various formats thanks to the development of trail/all mountain style bikes. We just got the timing right; riders were ready and wanting a race format that reflected how they like to ride and we’ve been able to spearhead trail bike and trail development from the experience that it then gave us.

I think eMTBs are going to do the same thing but this is really the early development and we don’t want to rush it as getting it wrong could potentially damage what eMTBs could be. There isn’t a huge demand from riders and there isn’t an overwhelming demand from the industry but there is of course interest and that changes in strength in relation to geography. From our side, we think that we got it right with the EWS and, with our experience, we can definitely get it right for eMTB racing but only when the impact is purely positive for the sport.

Could a World Series do for eMTB what the Enduro World Series did for enduro bikes?
Yes, definitely! But with eMTB in such a fledgeling state, I think it’s so important that we first set the tone for the future of the sport. There are so many open topics and questions surrounding racing eMTBs and that’s why we don’t want to finalise anything before finding out the right answers to at least some of the questions. Trails, for example; eMTBs can go up what traditional mountain bikes come down on – it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if we put a huge number of eMTBs on shared trails, especially wild, natural enduro style trails, you’re going to have conflict. So you need to resolve the potential conflict before you create a groundswell of growth on that kind of riding.

At our experimental event in Finale in October we worked locally to select a course for our eMTB test that became Finale’s new official eMTB trail network. Immediately we used the event, albeit with only 35 people, to create local structures that will avoid future conflict between normal bikes and eMTBs in Finale. Planning for eMTBs needs to happen globally for any of this to work.

It’s the same with motor control, you can’t really have genuine competition until the industry unites to implement measures for managing electronic doping. I understand why riders are doing it but we must avoid tuning. People are terrified of e-bikes damaging the environment due to derestriction and illegal tuning and then there’s the insurance component, the legality and the land access issues. So, I think competition has the ability to set the tone and help create the parameters for these things that would limit the growth of e-mountain biking as a sport but it would be madness to launch an eMTB race series without having the answers to all of those questions for the sake of a commercial opportunity.

Who would race eMTBs? What kind of rider do you see competing?
A good question, I think that potentially everybody will be riding eMTBs, so then anybody could be wanting to race them: new people coming into the sport at the moment won’t see any reason why they shouldn’t. More traditional mountain bikers are starting to take it up: in France, for example, the French e-bike series mirrors the French enduro series and you see racers transition naturally between the two formats. We see eMTB racing retaining the enduro format and I think you will see that type of mountain biker coming in to race in particular, but there’s a long way to go. We are definitely seeing older professional mountain bikers racers making the crossover. Enduro got the tag as a racing format for retired downhill racers, when it’s actually not true, it’s just a different style of riding and racing for peoples who want a fresh challenge and that’s what eMTB racing could be.

If there were to be two series running side by side, can you see one detracting from the other? For example, eMTB event seen as the poor relative, riders jumping ship or even taking sponsorship away from Enduro?
I guess this question is just really far down the road, we are a number of steps back from that and these are all questions that may come up in future. It doesn’t mean that you can’t run two events or even two events on the same weekend, it’s just that the format should be different rather than just having an eMTB category in an existing race which is what we talked about earlier. Really, we are just in the ‘understanding and developmental stage’, so not in a place that answer questions that far down the line.

Will racing benefit the growth of eMTB? Or is it too far removed from the average rider, is it isolating even? To quote the mighty Jurassic Park “while everyone was thinking if we could, nobody stopped to ask if we should”…
Well, I’ve got a question for you who is the average eMTBer?

I think that any mountain biker is an e-mountain biker, it’s the same thing. I choose my enduro bike, gravel bike or eMTB depending on the ride I want to go on. I don’t change the person I am when I jump on a different machine. The industry has a perceived view of who is their eMTB customer at the moment but, in my opinion, that isn’t necessarily who the e-mountain biker is, it’s just who they are in some markets right now. This is predominantly because of the brand’s marketing strategies and the justification of current bike riders that we have to be injured, have a disability or be old to ride eMTBs, which is completely nonsensical. There is a perception that eMTB racing could conflict with the ethos of that ‘average’ group of eMTB riders but that’s all stereotyping – that’s not me as a rider, that’s not you, not most of the people who we know that ride eMTBs now and that’s not the guys who are currently racing eMTBs in Europe at the moment. It’s narrow-minded to suggest that eMTB racing will clash with the ethos of ‘eMTBers’ when 10 years down the line everyone will be a mountain bike rider whether that’s ‘E’ or not ‘E’.

As eMTBs become more commonplace, for example; riders using eMTBs to train in the off-season, do you see the lines blurring between unpowered bikes and eMTB?
It all depends what optic you’re looking at this through, With the EWS we’re looking at eMTBing today from a global point of view and each market is really very different in terms of its place on the path to eMTB becoming fully accepted. At the moment in many places you have early adopters and influencers riding eMTBs, and others wanting to try it and once they do it will gain momentum: it’s already happened in the South of France, especially where you see groups of an eMTBers riding together as they influence each other. As groups of riding friends move to eMTB it’ll tip the balance on an accelerated path. Cost though is, of course, a major barrier to most adding electric to their riding lives and if anything it’s a cost that’ll slow the uptake more than riders wanting them or not.
The technology has also so far been quite clunky and looked pretty awkward, ugly and heavy until recently and this has put off cyclists who simply don’t see them as bicycles but as bikes get sexier and motors become more integrated better it will attract more people to ride eMTBs.

Not that there won’t be a ‘non-E’ mountain bike rider anymore which I think is some people’s fear – a mountain bike will still be a mountain bike and there will always be joy to riding a motorless bike that can never ever be replicated – but, absolutely, the lines need blurring rather than driving a wedge between types of riders due to the bike they ride.

How would eMTB racing concept have to differ to enduro racing analogue bikes in order to make the most out of the technology?
The multi-stage enduro format is the perfect format for eMTB racing. Okay, it’s not got the showmanship or the crowd-pleasing element that modern XC or downhill racing has but it was never meant to. Multi-stage racing is the closest thing to what mountain bikers do when they go riding that can be replicated in competition. We don’t think that this should dramatically change for eMTBs but what ebikes do, is allow you to ride things that you can’t do on a normal mountain bike or that you don’t enjoy very much anyway! This frees you up to do more, because you enjoy more, so the focus should be on the journey and riding the whole route, not just the stages, because you now have assistance so you can enjoy the climbs and the singletrack rather than just grinding to the start of the next stage. That’s the focal point.

If you were to organise a race series, how would you monitor and prevent mechanical doping?
As we’ve discussed, there are a couple of major things that would need to be addressed before we launch an eMTB race series: we believe that you can restrict a lot of the potential doping in the race format, just by choosing the right kind of trail. If you look at what people are doing to their bikes illegally now, you know what riders would likely try – tuning for more power or increased speed – we see through course selection that we can really restrict the advantage of any tuning and almost make doping pointless in the first place.

It’s really important as a collective, whether racing or not, that the control of ebike power and speed is universal, otherwise this amazing new thing could be very short lived. We have the opportunity to try and help, and work with the rest of the industry, to create performance parameters and control mechanisms that, through competition, can be used elsewhere.

What allowances, if any, could there be for race tuning?
Our view is very strongly that tuning should never be allowed or promoted. Not only would it distance any competition from normal bikes but it would also set a dangerous precedent for trail access and how eMTBs are viewed around the world. Just like in current mtb enduro, the technology and performance need to be the same for racing as it is for everyday consumers. Ultimately, eMTBs will be raced on shared access trails and you shouldn’t be setting the tone or creating the message that in competition you can do what you like, we should manage competition within the same parameters that a normal eMTBer has in reality.

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