How e-MTBs are tearing up trail centres


Now, with the explosion of electric mountain bikes (e-MTBs) available in the UK, mountain biking is opening up to more and more riders. To find out why why trail centres are the perfect mountain biking venues, and why you should consider an e-MTB, we talked to Alex Woollen, our Head of Category Management who has been a keen mountain biker since the early 90s. Here’s what he had to say.

Q. We are seeing a big rise in MTB trail centre popularity over recent years. What do you think is causing it?

A. Over the last decade there has been a huge surge in attendance at trail centres and bike parks. The latter usually represents the more extreme end of mountain biking and will be focused on the gravity aspect. Trail centres can often remove some of the barriers that may stop people from taking part in mountain biking. For example, the need to navigate is no longer required with trails following a waymarked route, often with signage highlighting specific technical challenges that lay ahead. At the start of the trail you will often be presented with a list of options that are separated by distance and levels of skill required. This ease of access is certainly one reason why trail centre use is so high.

The days of pouring over an Ordnance Survey map trying to interpret what the contour lines will mean to the ride are long gone. In reality, many people’s experience of mountain biking is purely based on trail centre riding.

Q. What effect is this increased popularity having?

A. With the volume of people often attending a trail centre this has a knock on impact on the construction of the trails. A natural trail found on a bridleway can see significant erosion, which has a big impact on what the trail is like to ride. This can make it impassable, especially to a beginner.

But at a trail centre, the use of rock and hardcore mixed in with materials more commonly found in the building of a house than the countryside give trails a distinctively man made feel. The benefit to this is the longevity of the trails and their ability to accommodate huge volumes of footfall.

Q. What is it about trails that's so appealing to riders?

A. At a trail centre you will have what to expect presented to you ahead of the ride even down to the length of time the ride will last for. Removing the uncertainty of what to expect is very appealing to many riders. And a trailhead will often have a bike shop, café, bike wash and toilet facilities on site, this will often add to the experience for many people.

There’s also the importance of the man-made features, meaning riders can be confident that the ride will have no ‘dead sections’. Ladder drops, bermed boardwalks and north shore can often find their way onto a trail and give a riding experience that you would not find out in the wild. The features have been designed with the end use in mind right from the start so are great ways for people to learn more advanced riding techniques.

All this means that trail centres give people instant access to an MTB experience with the thrills of rock gardens, jumps and drops on hand. So that’s why so many people who are new or returning to the sport will choose a trail centre as their first riding destination.

Q. Alongside the rise in trail centre popularity, we’ve also seen electric mountain bikes becoming more common. What are the benefits of riding an e-MTB?

A. While some people enjoy the challenges provided by a long steep climb, many people enjoy mountain biking for the thrills that the downhill can provide. Riding a regular bike will often limit people to a certain distance or elevation climbed. With an e-bike a rider can climb more hills without getting too fatigued. This provides people with the opportunity to do more of the fun stuff on the trails.

Q. How does riding an e-MTB change the experience of the trail?

A. A trail centre can be a tough ride for a beginner with the gradient on offer being maximised. The upshot to this is that a red or black trail will be packed full of punchy climbs before diving back into a technical descent or feature. This can lead to a very physical ride with no chance to regain your composure between sections.

But the assistance provided by an e-bike will give the rider the ability to keep going for longer and enjoy the downs without worrying about getting back up the other side.

Q. What would you say to someone who thinks e-MTBs are cheating?

A. While it does make the climb easier, an e-MTB still requires effort to get the bike moving. The difference between a mechanical bike and an e-bike is that the electrical assistance raises the limits for the rider. Essentially, e-bike riders will end the ride as fatigued as you would otherwise have been on a mechanical bike but you will have just covered more ground.

Read more: The studies that show e-bikes are not cheating
Q. Are there any downsides to e-MTB's that people should bear in mind?

A. There is no getting away from the fact that a good e-MTB is a considered purchase with an entry level full suspension bike costing much less. That said, the experience it provides is significantly different to that of a mechanical bike. And with more bikes being released into the market all the time, there’s a better chance of finding something that fits a particular budget.

The other thing to bear in mind is that e-bikes require a slight adjustment to riding style if you are used to a mechanical bike. But it’s easy to adopt, and many e-bike riders are either new to the sport or getting back into it, so this becomes less of an issue.

Q. Overall, would you say e-MTBs are good for the sport?

A. Yes, whether you are a seasoned pro just looking to try something new or a new cyclist limited by how far you can ride, an e-MTB should be on everyone’s list to at least try out. More people riding is a good thing and if e-bikes encourage more people out onto the trail, then we should celebrate that fact.

Q. What are your favourite trails that people should try?

A. Wakerley Great Wood in Northamptonshire gives people a great introduction to trail centre riding and is easily accessible from the A1 near Stamford. And any mountain biker should head to Wales or the Scottish borders with venues such as Coed Llandegla and Ae Forest being great spots to try out trail centre riding.

Thanks to Alex for your time!

If you’re thinking of trying mountain biking, read British Cycling’s helpful guide to getting started.

To find out more about electric mountain bikes, check out our buyers guide to e-MTBs.