When out shooting mountain bike events, not only do I need to haul myself around the mountains chasing riders, I also need to carry around 20kg of expensive camera gear. 

For a couple of seasons before the eMTB revolution, I dabbled with off-road motorbikes. The first of which was a 125cc pit-bike, which was a great giggle. I looked absolutely ridiculous on it, but who cares.

Moral Panic

The down-side was that being so small, it never had enough ground clearance for the single-tracks, (even though it was probably the only pit-bike in the country fitted with a Fox air shock – thanks James O’Carroll). So after two years of grinding the sump plate, I upgraded to a proper 250cc trials bike. However, despite lots of encouragement from the Callaghan clan, the trials bike and I never really saw eye-to-eye. So after a few early bumps and crashes (sorry about that Michelle), it sat neglected in the shed for the remainder of the season.

But by then the eMTB revolution was gaining a lot of traction. These bikes were beginning to get a lot of attention, sending the ‘we don’t like change’ brigade into a tail-spin of moral panic.

eMTBs for the snappers.

At the Irish rounds of the Enduro World Series in 2016 and 2017, the ‘media squids’ were presented with Cube Stereo eMTBs to get themselves around the hill in Carrick. At first these were a complete novelty – lots of hurtling across the paddock in turbo mode to see who could leave the longest skid – like a bunch of grown up kids. But after 4 days of climbing that hill in Carrick, it was clear to all that eMTBs could well be the way forward.

The first year some die-hards insisted on using their regular bikes for the event, but that Carrick climb has a way of breaking your spirit after the fourth or fifth ascent. So the following year everyone rode eMTBs!

Of course we had the full support of the Cube pit crew who would attend to any mechanicals or punctures and swap out batteries any time we wanted. These were full-on (if slightly heavy) Enduro bikes, which meant we could ride all the stages and quickly find the best vantage points.

Gradually, I found my head being turned. Much kudos must go to Cube and Bosch for their eMTB development and for raising the bar for other manufacturers to follow. But for all their technical development, in my opinion the Bosch motors had a couple of flaws…

2017 Carrick EWS

On the Saturday of the 2017 Carrick EWS, the heavens opened for the Challenger event. One of the wettest days photography I have ever endured. Of course the international posse of snappers were all well used to these conditions. The first four rounds of the 2017 series were wash-outs – the Enduro ‘Wet’ Series as it was renamed!

The following day the sun came out and the schlomp quickly turned to peanut butter. The Bosch motors on the Cube bikes ran a very small 14 tooth chain-ring. A chain-ring that small very quickly gets clogged with mud and debris in these conditions. As the day wore on, more and more bikes broke down and were abandoned in bushes as snappers rushed from stage to stage to get their shots. The other problem with them is when you do run out of power, you will be turning over the motor gearing as you pedal, making them very heavy going.

Shimano Steps 8000 – smaller & lighter eMTB motor.

Around about the same time Shimano were releasing their Steps 8000 motor. Same power output, but quieter, smaller and 1.4Kg lighter! The Steps 8000 uses a normal 34 tooth chainring and disengages the motor gearing when you pedal without power – this was a game changer. The motor has a Q Factor (linear distance between the cranks) of 175mm – so your feet are the same distance apart as a conventional MTB. This might not sound like a big thing, but peddling bandy-legged all day is very tiring and can cause serious muscle and joint strain.

The Shimano motor opened up a whole new world of possibility as manufacturers realised that they no longer had to fit bikes around the oversized Bosch motor. Now it was possible to build a full-on powered Enduro bike and match the geometry of its unpowered brother!

Alongside the household names such as Specialised, Trek, Focus, Giant etc., less familiar names started to appear. The likes of Haibike, Moustache, Bulls and even Ducati. Suddenly, everyone was getting in on the eMTB market.

It has to be said however that some of these machines are just plain ugly. Many look like they may have escaped out the back door of the engineering department without troubling the designers! Others however, adopted the notion of ‘integration’ in to their designs to the point where you would need to look twice to realise that this was in fact an eMTB.

The eMTB revolution

Focus Bikes were one of the manufacturers leading this revolution with their ‘Squared’ range of eMTBs – ‘Bold²’, ‘Jam²’ and ‘Sam²’. At a time when most eMTB manufacturers were opting for a full 500Wh battery. Focus reckoned that this was just too much power/weight to be carrying around for your average spin. So they threaded a linear 378Wh battery in to the down tube to keep the profile nice and clean.

‘But what if I want to go for a big mountain spin, 378Wh won’t give me the range I need’? Well, here’s the clever bit. Focus developed the Tailored Energy Concept (T.E.C.) which allows for a second 378Wh battery to be attached to the down tube and series-linked to give a massive 756Wh of power, Enough for 4 or 5 hours of biking – very smart!

Focus Sam² Pro eMTB

I opted for the fully-loaded Focus Sam² Pro with 170mm of buttery smooth Fox Factory suspension and I absolutely love it. My previous bike, a Yeti SB75, had the same Fox suspension but only 150mm of travel. That extra 20mm doesn’t sound like a lot, but the confidence it gives me is unreal when descending a steep Enduro stage with a heavy pack of camera equipment on my back. Drop the seat post, push the weight back and let the big 2.6” Maxxis Minion DH tyres grip the trail like nothing else. With the Shimano motor sitting level with the BB, the low centre of gravity means this eMTB corners like it’s on rails! So much fun!

Not perfect.

However it’s not without its flaws, the SRAM EX1 chain set is not perfect. For those unfamiliar with it, the EX1 is SRAM’s eMTB specific chain set. My Yeti had a 1×10 with an 11/40 cassette and a 30t chainring up front. I never had any problem finding the right gear. The EX1 is a 1×8 with an 11/48 cassette and a 34t chainring. A 1×8 is set-up allows for a wider (and therefore stronger) chain. That’s because the the torque of the motor combined with the power of the rider, mean conventional chains don’t stand a chance. So if the eMTB you’re looking at has a natty little 1×10, 1×11 or, heaven forbid, a racy little 1×12 set-up, you might want to think again.

Gear Ratios

But one of the biggest issues I have with it is the gear ratios. Being a 1×8 the jump between gears (particularly in the mid-range) is too severe, you just never seem to be in the perfect gear. The the cassette is too linear, a more curved profile would have suited far better. Of course there’s the motor to give you the added power when the gear is not quite right. But somehow it just never feels quite as natural as it should.

Cleverly though, the EX1 system only allows you to shift through one gear at a time to protect the chain. Having said that, the shift is extremely precise and accurate.

But it’s also ridiculously expensive. A replacement cassette alone for the EX1 is an eye-watering €400, or as near as damn it!! Currently it’s the only e-MTB specific chain-set on the market at present. But at that price competition can’t be far away

Well protected display.

The only other issue I have had with the bike is the Shimano Di2 display. It may just have been a rogue unit that came with the bike, but it basically packed up after a month or so. A new unit was fitted by the lads in Expert Cycles under warranty and I haven’t had any issue since. The Di2 display is well designed and bright enough to read clearly on a sunny days. Unlike the Bosch displays which sit proud above the bars, this one sits behind the handle bars next to the head-set. So is well protected in the event of a crash.

There are only three power settings with the Steps 8000 motor – Eco, Trail & Boost. I’m not really sure why you would need any more. As far as I know, the Bosch motors now have five power settings!. However, if you find that the power modes don’t quite suit your riding style, you can adjust the Trail & Boost settings with the eTube app. More clever thinking from Shimano. Eco mode (which is the power setting I use most) will add 30% to the power you are putting down. ‘Boost’ – which I’ve only ever used a handful of times – will add up to a massive 300%!

Worth its weight.

It goes without saying that eMTBs are heavy. Yet the SAM² weighs in at just 20kgs (still 3-4kgs lighter than most other bikes in its class). It wasn’t all that long ago that World Cup DH bikes weighed as much and like DH bikes, the weight is reducing year by year.

When choosing an eMTB, it’s important to make sure that it has suitable components to handle that weight. The SAM² Pro comes loaded…

4 pot brakes.

I’ve already discussed the EX1 chain set, but obviously brakes are the next thing to look at. The SRAM Code RSC 4 pots are frankly awesome. It goes without saying I put them under more pressure than most, yet they manage everything I’ve thrown at them. The braking power is smooth and manageable. No grabbing or snatching. Which means you exit the corner in full control ready to set-up for the next one. Yes they chew through pads, but that’s probably down to the weight of eMTBs and my riding style than anything else.

The Fox Transfer seatpost responds instantly to the controls and, unlike the Reverb on the Yeti. There is no play or wobble at any height setting – really nice.

Spoke too soon.

The wheels are Raceface Turbine Rs – bought separately, these are very pricey for MTB wheels, RRP is over €1,000 a set. Rims and hubs are grand, but to be honest with the combined weight of me and my camera bag, I kept snapping spokes so had to upgrade to a heavier set – but have had no issues since.

Fox or Rockshox – Nikon or Canon – Guinness or Carlsberg – life is all about brand choices. Well I don’t know about you, but I made my suspension manufacturer choice years ago and have never looked back. The big beefy Fox Factory 36 Boosts soak up everything. The combination of the 170mm travel, slacker head-angle and smooth controlled rebound, has me regularly thinking ‘how the hell did I get over that?’!

The Focus SAM² Pro takes me places I have never been before, on almost every spin I discover new trails. Trails I sort of knew were there but never knew where they went. I always thought if I dropped in I’d have to push my way up out again – that’s no longer an issue!

Uphill is the new downhill – and it’s a whole new world.