Bike Test: Mountain Bike vs. E-Mountain Bike
Story and photos by Alex Boyce
E-bikes have now been a main part of the market for a few years. However, the frost towards them from enduro riders and gravity riders has only started to thaw recently. This can be seen with a huge increase in the sales of these bikes. For sure, there is still a huge amount of education to be done to understand what an e-bike is and how it affects the way we ride. On the fringes of the Riva del Garda bike festival, we got the chance to come to grips with a Rocky Mountain Altitude and a Rocky Mountain Altitude Powerplay.
Rocky Mountain is very proud of the fact that their e-bike resembles a normal enduro bike in many ways. The geometry, the build and the look of the bikes are very similar. We spent some time on both bikes learning about how they ride, then compared it to one another. We felt it was an excellent way to get to the bottom of the whole emerging e-bike scene and figure out the performance differences.
The concept when Rocky Mountain announced they would be doing an e-bike was all about fun, carrying over from their non-e-bike line. Wade Simmons, long-time freerider and Rocky Mountain mainstay, was adamant that fun is the most important factor when riding, and they didn’t want to create an e-bike that was not fun.
In our recent reviews, we highlighted the fun element of the Powerplay, but riding it back to back with a normal Altitude was an eye-opening experience. We discovered a few things riding that many would not have thought.
When looking at geometry, both models are basically the same—the head angle, seat tube angle and chainstay length are exactly the same. The first outcome of this is that swapping bike to bike, your settings are the same. Suspension components and other parts are all the same brands. Fox covers suspension duties, and all other parts are brand comparative across the different bikes. Part for part, the bikes are about as similar as one could find on the market. The biggest difference is the weight. The non-electric version we rode weighed in at 27 pounds, 14 ounces (12.6 kilograms), and the Altitude Powerplay weighed 49.2 pounds (22.3 kilograms). That’s a lot of difference.
Otherwise, though, we have got two bikes that—although separated by breed—are close when it comes to physical form.
A lot of e-bikes are created with different geometries from pedal bikes because they are electric. Rocky was adamant that there doesn’t need to be a vast difference between the two. Our trail time on the Powerplay over the last couple of months would tend to side with Rocky Mountain on this one in our previous reviews.
The electrical system of the Rocky Mountain is fairly different to other e-bikes on the market, starting with the custom power controller on the bar, which even has a USB in line that can be used to charge devices. However, we would prefer to keep the energy for riding. Which takes us to the power display—there are four lights to show how much battery remains, solid or flashing, as each light has two states to indicate battery status in a sequence.
The motor is Rocky’s custom unit that has a chain mounted torque sensor, that as the rider increases chain tension the motor increases its power. Of the more normal main brand e-bikes on the market, we like the power of this motor the most. Lastly, the battery is a 630 w/h unit that is integrated and non-removable. It charges at 48 volts pretty quickly.
How this all this compares to the non-assist bike, well we don’t have energy indicators or motors apart from our legs. Ironically it can be quite hard to know how much we have got left in us when riding. Technically speaking we find ourselves more easily able to judge how much more we can ride with the e-bike. On a fast, fun ride we would say on a non-assist bike would be our choice, but for longer rides, the e-bike makes more sense.
WHO IT’S MADE FOR
This is a tough point to understand with these two bikes. The Altitude is pushed towards hard trail and verging on medium Enduro. It is capable and can do anything, the limit is only that of the rider, it is cool looking and lightweight. It is expensive, but one ride and the rider becomes aware of all the trickery that is in the package. Compare this directly to the e-bike version and much can be said the same, the main difference is the weight, so who will prefer which bike?
The geometry and power makes you want to ride it a lot. There is a hardcore group of trail riders out there that like the feel of the e-bike and who want to lightly skip up trails then hammer down the descents. The Altitude is great for that, but it feels pretty obvious in the long term the non-assist bike, although good, is going to become a niche for the dedicated sportsman, not the everyday rider which will be the firm territory of the Altitude Powerplay.
The Altitude is sold as a capable trail bike. Honestly though our test trails in Garda were old Enduro trails and we have to say it handled everything really well. The Altitude is light weight easy to move about, precise and fun. The suspension is reactive and gives great control, at 160mm up front with the Fox 36, it’s stiff and can take a beating. It is one of their top machines, it feels like it. We loved riding it uphill and downhill.
The Powerplay has one of the best-feeling motors on the market when it comes to torque and raw lowdown power. It’s stable and fast in corners, and it also has a great tune on the suspension. Pedal uphill and the Powerplay rockets along with a long battery life that is going to keep most people very happy. Descents are fun, nippy and leave you with a satisfying feeling that you were riding a bike that is not so distant from the non-e-bikes out there.
The nitty-gritty of the situation is this—we rode both bikes numerous times on the same trail. We tried to take the same lines and have the same amount of fun. We rode back up to the top and understand what was going on between the two bikes.
First, e-biking is a bit different to riding a normal bike and not exactly the same thing. The difference in weight and climbing abilities changes what one can do with each bike. We would say that as we rode each bike in turn, we are firm that we enjoyed both bikes for what they are—great machines. The setups were the same and we felt at home on both bikes. We felt the best way to understand is to turn to list form of the key elements we noticed.
Riding downhill with both bikes is fast and fun, but if you find yourself in the wrong place with something about to happen that you don’t want, like a rock popping up in front of you, it is easier and quicker to react to the situation with the Altitude. You can shift the bike more instantly and sneak around the obstacle that was going to take you down. The Powerplay is a bike that rides over stuff but does need more anticipation, and you can’t whip it out of the way very easily.
Braking is better with the Altitude Powerplay. The bike seems to be more connected with the ground, whatever the surface might be, and the e-bike stops more quickly and does not slide over the ground the same. The Altitude stops, but you lose control more easily, slip and slide, especially on loose surfaces. This surprised us, and the only thing we could think about was the fact that the extra weight maintains better pressure/contact between the tires and the surface.
Stability on descents was greater with the Altitude Powerplay. You can blast through stuff and hit just about anything hard and it shrugs it off—really very impressive. The Altitude is super light, whipable and easily jumps over stuff, but needs a greater level of technical ability to control the situation when it gets tricky.
Now, we get to our most interesting point. We have been riding e-bikes for a long time now, yet when we jump on a non-assist bike, our trail skills are much better, especially when climbing when compared to before when we only rode non-e-bikes. The fact is that on an e-bike, you spend more time blasting along and riding steep technical climbs. This means you learn to deal with harder uphill sections more and actually ride more tricker situations, whereas before you might have gotten off.
When switching back to a non-e-bike, these skills learned and extra time on the bike mean that we are now able to climb things we could not do before on the non-e-bike and preserve our trail flow and be more efficient.
Suspension is another interesting point; the tune on the e-bike needs to be right. We could feel the weight shift forward much more on the Powerplay compared to the non-e-bike. This gives a heavy feeling to the bike as you come into a trail feature or loose, open corner. You lose some of the zip in the situation that you have with the non-assist bike. The answer to this is anticipation—try to keep your speed and flow; having to restart a heavier object even if you have motor support is harder; learning to carry through momentum and having a suspension tune that sports this is fundamental; and setting up a harder compression and slightly quicker rebound we discovered was one way to preserve the momentum, also learning to brake less.
There is no doubt that despite the bikes being cut from the same cloth, they are two different machines that ride exceptionally well despite being different. The Powerplay definitely gets close to its non-e-bike counterpart when it comes to cornering and moving around on the trail and, to this day, stands out as one of the most nimble e-bikes on the market.
We were lucky to get all the right elements together to do this test, and we found ourselves enjoying both bikes. The results, though, of our testing left us with a few ideas that we will probably see take place in the market as time progresses ahead and e-bikes become more prevalent.
“The fact is that on an e-bike, you spend more time blasting along and riding steep technical climbs.”
One of these ideas is that we foresee less skilled riders, and those who like to have fun and blast around without too much fuss, getting more out of an e-bike than a non-e-bike. We could foresee e-bikes keeping 70 percent of the market happy, especially those who like to explore and ride around a lot. For those technical riders, enduro or trail die-hards, there is no getting away from the fact that the e-bike has extra weight and the non-e-bike is nimble and exciting. These factors alone mean you can’t ride in the same way with an e-bike as you can with a modern lightweight trail bike like the Altitude, but you need to be fit to get to the top of the hill.
Whatever your views, e-bikes are going to become a larger part of the market. They are fun and exciting in their own way, and they give more options and probably a better ride experience for less skilled riders; however, trail bikes will not die, because there are some moments that are hard to beat when you know you have a lightweight trail whip under you that will give you the feeling of flying if you know how to.
SPECS ROCKY MOUNTAIN ALTITUDE & ROCKY MOUNTAIN ALTITUDE POWERPLAY
Battery: N/A; 630 Wh
Charge time: N/A; 4.5 hours
Top speed: N/A; 25 km/h (15.5 mph)
Range: N/A; 25-45 miles
Drive: SRAM X01 Eagle 12-speed; SRAM EX1
Brakes: SRAM Guide RE; SRAM Guide RSC
Controls: N/A; Rocky Mountain
Frame: SmoothWall Carbon, RIDE-9 adjustable geometry + suspension pate
Fork: Fox 36 Float EVOL FIT4 Factory 160mm; Fox 36 Float EVOL Grip Performance 160mm
Rear shock: Fox Float DPX2 Factory, 150mm; Fox Float DPS EVOL Performance Elite, 150mm
Tires: Maxxis Minion DHF WT Maxx Terra 3C 27.5×2.5/Maxxis Minion DHR II WT Maxx Terra 3C 27.5×2.4; Maxxis Minion DHF WT EXO Tubeless Ready 27.5×2.5
Weight: 27.8 lb.; 49.2 lb
Colorchoices: Blue/black, red/black; yellow/green, black/yellow
Sizes: XS, S, M, L, XL; XS, S, M, L, XL