I cheated on the Kitzbüheler Horn and I felt like a god
I’m flying up the Kitzbüheler Horn, one of the hardest climbs in Europe. I’m out of the saddle, my legs feel weightless and free. My heart rate is pegged, but I’m in control, I’ve got this. The finish line is within reach. There’s writing on the road. The fans in my head are screaming. I’m heading uphill, but I’m hitting the hairpins so quickly that I’m having to choose my line carefully. I crane my neck to make sure there’s nothing coming and then I use every inch of the road. Outside to apex. Apex to outside.
When I reach the top I feel an empty elation. I know I’ve achieved something, but I’m not completely sure what it is exactly. For last few hundred metres a car had been shadowing me, a couple of tourists in search of a view. The man gets out. He looks slightly awed. “Are you a pro?” he says. I want to lie, but I just can’t bring myself to.
“No, it’s got a motor.”
“Ah” he says. “Because otherwise, that was unbelievable.”
The truth of the matter
I was riding Giant’s Road-E+ 1, a drop-bar e-bike with a nominal 250W of power on tap. Like all road-legal e-bikes, the power cuts out above a certain speed, 25km/h in this case as I’m in the EU. But on a steep climb that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because there’s very little danger of me hitting that magic number.
Giant quietly launched the Road-E+ a few months ago but delays meant the bike hasn’t actually been available, and this media event in Austria was the first time anyone outside of Giant had ridden it. As an intro the cutting edge of e-road cycling (now there’s a clumsy phrase), Giant led me and a group of my fellow journalists on a 42km ride around some very pretty roads in Austria, the day before the Eurobike Media Days.
Although the Road-E+ bears a strong resemblance to Giant’s entry-level Defy range, it’s been designed from the ground up as an e-bike. Like all Giant’s latest offerings in the segment, the battery is integrated neatly with the down tube. The so-called ‘Energypak’ is the result of considerable design effort, the aim being to squeeze the required number of lithium ion cells (40 in a 10-series, 4-parallel arrangement) into as small a space as possible, with rounded external lines that match those of the frame.
The frame is standard Giant alloy fare, with smartly hydroformed tubing and it offers huge tyre clearances as well as mounts for mudguards/fenders and a rack. In geometry terms it's similar to the brand’s Defy road range, but with a head angle that's 1.5 degrees slacker and a longer top tube in the interests of safe, stable handling – a reflection of a target demographic that includes less experienced or less confident cyclists. The rear tyre clearance and the substantial power unit necessitate longer chainstays, so in total the wheelbase is 92mm longer than on the Defy.
The bike is powered by a Yamaha SyncDrive unit with a nominal output of 250W. There’s no official standard for rating electric motors however, and peak power is somewhere close to double that figure according to Giant. The level of assist is controlled by the RideControl switch unit that sits on the bars next to a screen displaying useful info like remaining battery capacity, and various ride metrics including speed and distance. The lowest power level is Eco, followed by Normal and Power. As the first two aren’t as exciting and we weren’t doing a huge ride, I left mine in Power the whole time – more on which later…
It’s not cycling as we know it, but e-bike riding definitely has its rewards. I took on the Kitzbüheler Horn with the intention of going as quickly as possible, but the luxury of riding a powerful e-bike is that when you don’t feel like putting in any effort, you really don’t have to. You can simply sit in a low gear and soft-pedal, your legs effectively acting a switch rather than actually propelling you forwards. The system seems biased towards lower cadences, offering a greater feeling of assistance around 70rpm than at a typical roadie 90rpm. This is likely why it feels so good when you stand on climbs, as cadence tends to be lower then.
Uphill the Road-E+ is phenomenal as I’ve already described, but on our test ride a number of the journalists including me suffered a complete shutdown of the power system. I’d been running mine in the highest-assist Power mode for the entire ride, and 1km from the top of the Kitzbüheler Horn my bike suffered a total loss of power, shutting down without warning and displaying an error message on the head unit.
Leaving aside philosophical objections to what is essentially egregious cheating in the eyes of many cyclists, there’s no denying that the Road-E+ is remarkably capable.
Down we go
On the descents, the Road-E+ is a gravity-driven missile. The bike’s weight and ample wheelbase make it very stable, and the steep gradients of the Kitzbüheler Horn highlighted the need for disc brakes on a bike like this – it gathers speed at a tremendous rate, and you need to be assertive with your lever-work to keep things under control as the hairpins loom.
I managed to get my brakes very, very hot on the descent and the rather budget-looking rotors were shrieking like banshees. I didn’t suffer any loss of stopping power, but at least one (rather heavier) journalist on the same ride did, suggesting that bigger rotors or improved cooling of the brakes would be no bad thing. Giant UK’s David Ward commented that the smaller rotor reduces the risk of overwhelming the tyres’ grip, but if that’s becoming a limiting factor I’d speculate that perhaps fatter rubber would be a good idea too – as this is an e-bike the weight penalty would be of less concern than on a conventional bike.
The Road-E+ clearly has at least one bug that needs ironing out, but my experience with the bike was eye-opening to say the least – it was a hell of a lot of fun. Leaving aside philosophical objections to what is essentially egregious cheating in the eyes of many cyclists, there’s no denying that the Road-E+ is remarkably capable and in a place like Austria it opens up to casual cyclists a whole realm of riding that would normally be beyond their reach.
To get an idea of the difference between this and a conventional bike, consider this: I did the Kitzbüheler Horn again a couple of days later on Cannondale’s stunning new Evo Disc and granted, I was terribly over-geared with a low-end of 36/28, but it took me 55 minutes – almost three times as long as on the e-bike. It was, if I’m perfectly honest, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done on a bicycle. Did I feel a greater sense of achievement? Yes. But was it more fun? I’d struggle to argue that it was.