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e-mountain bike

There’s something about the power of an electronically assisted mountain bike that is infectious. It can make the rider feel like a cycling champion, legs powering them faster than they’ve ever ridden before with less effort, especially up hills and over technical terrain. Or at least, it feels like less effort.

But a new study from health researchers at BYU showed that e-bike riders on mountain bike trails experienced nearly identical heart rates when they rode e-bikes as they did conventional bikes on the same trail.

33 riders from age 18 to 65 took part in the study. The riders were fitted with heart rate monitors to record their exertion and tracked with Strava to monitor their speed. Each participant chose either an e-bike or a conventional mtb and rode a six-mile loop over rolling terrain, including 700 feet of elevation gain with one particularly demanding stretch that featured a five percent grade over a mile-long climb.

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At the end of the loop, they rested then climbed aboard the type of bike they didn’t ride the first loop and again had their heart rate and speed recorded. Unsurprisingly, when they rode the e-bikes, on average, the participants finished the course over 12 minutes quicker than on conventional bikes, and rode, on average, 4 miles per hour faster.

What was surprising was the cyclists’ heart rates. While riding e-bikes, the cyclists’ heart rates on average were recorded at 145 bpm, whereas on conventional bikes, heart rate averages were not a great deal higher, at 155 bpm. Both of those figures are considered to have reached the level of vigorous intensity, meaning that there is not a great deal of difference between the exertion level of the riders when they rode e-bikes or conventional bikes. Indeed, the lower heart rate is 94 percent of the higher one. Riding an e-bike made cycling easier in the sense that riders went faster, but it was not easier when it came to measurable physical exertion over the same course.

The results suggest what many in the cycling community have argued since e-bikes first began making market inroads: E-bikes may be a way to get more people on bikes who are otherwise less inclined to engage in exercise because riding one does not feel like as much work while providing excellent exercise.

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“Many of us have these perceived barriers about exercise, that it is hard and painful and all we can remember are bad memories from our 8th-grade gym class,” said Cougar Hall, lead author of the study. “This study could be a critical catalyst for populations who struggle to exercise. The participants got cardiovascular results, but didn’t really feel like they were working out.”

Previous studies have shown that e-bikes, whether mtbs or road bikes, provide health benefits on par with conventional bikes partially because they encourage more riding. A European group of researchers found that owners of e-bikes rode further and more often than conventional bike riders, likely because the e-bikes feel easier to ride. Yet, the physiological benefits end up nearly matching what they’d enjoy on a conventional bike, simply because they accrue so much saddle time. That study looked at e-bikes designed for road use, but the results seem to match what the BYU researchers found concerning e-mtbs.

The participants in the BYU study were chosen because they are regular riders of mtbs, and it was assumed that if they experienced significant physical exertion on an e-bike, a novice rider would as well. The researchers were also curious as to whether the experience of riding e-bikes on trails would shift any perception among the riders about how easy e-bikes are to ride. At the end of the test, the riders agreed that e-bikes would be greatly appealing to new riders on trails.

Photo: Specialized