Yes you have to pedal it (and probably transport it), but once you reach an age when you can’t tear around on MTBs like you used to, but recognise that you must ‘use it or lose it’ to maintain good health, an e-MTB can open up a huge range of trails in Britain’s wilder corners that you can’t legally ride on a trail bike.
When it wasn’t a job, motorcycling to me has long added up to travel and trail riding. Ideally a bit of both. Over 40 years ago it was the limited opportunities for trail biking in the UK (compared to say, the western US) that drove me to the Sahara in the first place. I can’t imagine UK green laning has got any better since.
It may not be Algeria, but mid-Wales is a much overlooked and sparsely populated area of hill farms and old droving roads. With John, a guide from the nearby Yamaha dirt school, in 2016 we spent a great couple of days out of Llanidloes riding backroads and trails, me on my WR250R. And way back in I981 I remember my first proper enduro south of there on a lame KLX250.
Traversing that region is the Glyndwr’s Way (right), a 135-mile National Trail no one’s ever heard of. It crosses Powys, Wales’ biggest county but with the population of Canterbury. Walking the 9-day route for a new guidebook back in March, I clocked loads of sections that would’ve been a blast on my MTB. So in August I came back on my Merida hardtail. It takes a couple of passes to get the detail right and a pushbike speeds up the job and so saves a bit of money.
And a blast on the Merida 500 Trail I did have, even if it was no lighter than the classic Specialized Stumpjumper I bought back in the mid-1980s.
Like most people, I’ve owned MTBs pretty much no-stop since then. In 2007 we cycled the Karakoram from China to the Hindu Kush then came back the following year to do the Himalayas (video below). Compared to motos, cycle overlanding is so simple: fly a bike in (or buy used in China); no paperwork, simple mechanics and when you get puffed out at 5000 metres on the way to Tanglang La, sling it in the back of a passing lorry.
But guess what! I’m not 45 any more and hardtailing the Glyndwr’s I soon remembered cycling up a rough trail consumes loads much more energy than simply pushing. Soon I ended up feeling like a hung sheep.
My time and money saving plan to cover two typical 15-mile walking days in one soon got stretched, not least because I had to stop constantly to annotate the maps (right). On the Glyndwr’s it’s usually 15 miles or nothing to get to the next lodgings and no public transport to speak of.
I ticked off a couple of the walk’s nine stages, then realised it wasn’t going to work as planned so left the Merida at Nick Sanders‘ place near Machynlleth (left) where I was doing a moto talk later that month. Then I thought again about renting an e-bike. With a bit of help I could achieve my two-days-in-one target plus enjoy trying out e-bikepacking too.
Most e-MTB rental places want you to go round and round their closed courses, but I found a go-where-you-like outfit in Hay, 38 miles from my start in Felindre, on the English border. Leaving it all a bit late, all they had left was nearly six grand’s worth of Marin Alpine Trail E2 in Large, when I’m more on an XL and happy on my 800 quid Merida. The full suspension was a bit of a novelty, as of course was the latest Shimano EP8 motor. It gave three levels of pedal assistance: Eco, Trail and Boost and claimed up to 60 miles of range.
With my gross weight and intended use, I translated that to 40 real-world miles, and soon I was huffing and puffing along hilly back roads to Felindre. Sticking resolutely to Eco until I knew better, the reality of e-pedalling soon became clear: climbs are not at all effortless – when it’s steep you have to give it some welly, even with 12 gears.
According to UK laws, e-assistance cuts out at 15mph but despite the knobblies I still managed to hit over 40mph on some longer downhills. After a fat-tyre dinner at the Radnorshire Arms in Beguidy (left), I camped in Felindre (the only place which charged for an overnight charge), ready next day to cover about 35 miles on road and trail to Abbeycwmhir and beyond Llanidloes to a B&B on the far side of the Clywedog reservoir.
One good thing about having previously walked the trail was that good or bad, I knew what to expect. And one of those good and bad things was there are very few stiles (left) on Glyndwr’s Way. Lifting 25 kilos of Marin without damaging it or yourself soon takes it out of you.
Managing the Economy
I was warned that engaging ‘Boost’ would kill the battery and that switching off on long downhills (to save power; it doesn’t) could temporarily boggle the electronics. Initially I was over worried about ending up pedalling 30+ kilos of flat-batt bike on the dirt, though of course that’s exactly what we did in the Himalayas once you factor in baggage weight. So for the first few days I only blipped into ‘Trail’ for a few minutes a day and never used Boost.
That evening I reached my remote B&B with one bar flashing and pretty knackered, even though it had been 60% hilly roads. In my rush I got the date wrong so ended up sleeping in a polytunnel out back. On reason I was stuck here (the next possible place was 5 hilly miles) was that this £6k bike only had a slow (overnight) charger, not the ‘1 hour to get 80%’ fast charger I’d read of somewhere. You plug it directly into the motor through the downtube battery can be removed.
Imagine the game changer fast charging would be. Though realistically 30 full-on off-road miles is all you could cycle in a day, on the road you could do 40-50 miles, recharge over a leisurely lunch, then do the same in the afternoon. In fact Nick Sanders is doing that right now from Nordkapp to Gibraltar on one of Yamaha’s new Wabash e-bikes.
One huge annoyance I blame on both Marin’s online blurb/bike manual and the bike rental place is there’s no mention of walk-assist mode – a ‘hand throttle’ you can use to help push the bike up steep or rough slopes that are barely rideable or are too battery-devouring. Without it, many times I ended up pushing the bike like Chris Bonington on Annapurna: 5-10 paces; rest; 5-7 paces; rest.
Only on the very last day did I accidentally nudge the toggle switch into walk-assist which popped up on the display. But I didn’t know (or was too knackered) to know what to do or try to work it out, so struggled on upward. That really would have eased my whole week on the Marin, along with being able to rely on the seat post dropper which was set right on the limit for my leg length and tended to collapse (ruining my saddle-slung sleeping mat on the rear tyre).
In fact, even with e-assist, 30 miles a day got a bit much for me after a while. Stage 6 out of Mach was 95% trail with no less than 70 gates to Llanbrynmair. By the time I got there, overdid lunch and chatted with a very rare GW walker, I realised I probably didn’t have it in me to navigate the 11 miles rising steeply up onto the tussocky moors and over to Llangadfan. Instead I took a lovely road ride to pick up the GW in the Nant yr Eira valley, then backtracked next day from Llangadfan with no baggage to tick off the missing section – much more fun!
I was now getting the hang of optimising the bike’s economy and came in off that 30-mile day still with 3/5 bars. I even treated myself to a spot of turbo Boost but was surprised how little it did compared to switching from Eco to Trail. Time it right in the right gear and Trail really can feel like the hand of god giving you a gentle but firm push uphill.
About UK Rights of Way
Just as motos must stick off-road to the few remaining byways, BOATs etc, pushbikes and horses cannot ride footpaths and must stick to bridleways and above. Glyndwr’s Way switches constantly between footpath and bridleway (plus tracks and backroads; it’s 27% asphalt). The map above shows the G-Way mostly as a bridleway.
While I agree that in the congested Peaks or the Lake District riding footpaths would be bad form and is in fact a civil wrong or tort – in the lost paradise of mid-Wales I rarely saw anyone anywhere, and when I did, none batted an eyelid as they’d rightly have done had I been on a cackling WR450 dressed like a transformer.
After a week and some 200 miles temperatures were creeping back up to the 30s making riding more tiring. In Welshpool I completed my job and caught a train to Hereford where they picked up their sheep-shit splattered Marin. My shins were all scratched to buggery from the pedals and I was still picking thistle thorns out of my knuckles and legs weeks later. But I’d had a great mini-adventure.
It had been a darn good work-out and revealed a whole new way of enjoying the UK countryside. Though I was leg tired at the end of most days, I didn’t feel beaten up which must be a testament to full suspension combined with my slow pace. The e-assist often helped when I was in a marginal spot crossing some muddy hump at 1mph – the extra pedal boost got me over where I’d have otherwise stalled. But stalling on a steep stony track there’d often be too much torque from the motor and the wheel spun, while the bike was too heavy (or me lacking strength and finesse) to get moving uphill unassisted. And on a ride where range wasn’t so critical, using more of the Trail setting would add up to loads of fun. Just don’t think for a minute that you won’t break a sweat!
I made things harder for myself by sticking to Eco 99% of the time, getting off and pushing when Trail may have got me up some hills. Tbh, it was nice to walk sometimes and air the derriere. And I also had things made hard for me by not knowing about Walk-Assist plus having the weather warm up on me. In Wales? Who’d have thought.
The question is: will owning an e-bike get you riding more and for longer than your regular MTB, or is it just another toy? Setting aside motivation which overcomes all excuses, I think much must depend on opportunity and access to worthwhile riding. I’d say in the southeast e-bikepacking would be wasted but in the remoter upland locales of western and northern Britain, there must be loads of great riding not far away and where the climbs need not always be daunting.
Will I be getting an e-bike? Not at £6000 tvm and not any more than I’ll be getting a small trail bike. Where I live what I consider the worthwhile stuff is just too far away. But it sure was fun trying out e-bikepacking. I’ll definitely be renting one again some time.
* A couple of weeks later I picked up my Merida from Nick’s and ended up riding it from Upton to Cheltenham to catch another train. Costing me just 800 quid near-new, I was reminded what a great hardtail it is – and what a great thing a seat post dropper is when you’re stopping every 10 minutes to open a gate. Something between the Marin and my Merida could do nicely. They even sell clamp-on Bafang motors for a grand.
2022 Marin Alpine Trail E2
250W, 85Nm Shimano STEPS EP8 motor and 630Wh removable downtube battery
Clean, integrated design and subtle graphics
Low standover height – really helpful when stopping all the time
SLX 4-piston brakes
Firm suspension (did not meddle)
Pleasing boost from Eco to Trail mode
Stay in Eco where possible and range exceeds what I can ride off-road on a good stay
Seatpost dropper (seat on max, could not use reliably)
No flats or slip-ups on Maxxis Assegai tyres (tubed)
Clear, simple display
Though I locked out the front as needed, I can’t say I detected any suspension bobbing from the unlockable rear spring. Maybe e-assist helps
I’m a big fan of 1x drivetrains; did that to my old Charge years ago
Ended the days tired but not beaten up (ie; full sus may well work, even for touring)
£5765 (but apparently it’s a bargain)
Weight when pushing unassisted or lifting
Didn’t know/was not told/no mention on marin.com about ‘Walk Assist’ mode
Slow, 1.8A Shimano 6002 charger takes all night.
‘Trail’ –> ‘Boost’ was imperceptible – won’t pull you out of a steep climb
Pedals low, due to 27″ rear wheel or my weight?
Downtube fork ‘bumpers’ broken off on collection
Small wheel/big 1st gear means derailleur eats ferns.
Feels like electronics get a bit confused sometimes when clicking down a mode
‘Large’ frame too small for me but was only one available