Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, are hot! We come across them more and more on bicycle paths, although these models are mainly touring or urban bikes. Motorised racing bikes have gained a bad reputation through incidents of mechanical doping in cyclocross, for example, and rumours surrounding the professional peloton. But that seems to have blown over nowadays: manufacturers are now building near-invisible electric motors into sports bikes.

Mechanical doping

Motorised racing bikes have a checkered history. Amongst many rumours, 2010 saw the confirmed case of a rider being caught red-handed: Belgian cyclocrosser Femke van de Driessche. She had hidden an electric motor in one of her reserve bikes, and it was detected by race inspectors during the under-23 World Cyclocross championships.

Van den Driessche in action during the fateful U-23 World Cyclocross Championships race

That case, the first-ever proven instance of mechanical doping in racing, sparked a whirlwind of research into hidden electric motors in sports bikes. But now that particular storm has passed, bicycle manufacturers have continued with the research. Numerous brands have been releasing cool-looking e-bikes, aimed at a different market than standard human-powered bicycles.

New target group

As the motors and batteries get smaller and smaller, and frame designs more accommodating, today’s high-end electric motors are often invisible to the untrained eye. But that doesn’t mean that manufacturers are aiming to cheat during races.

While us competitive fanatics, be it during club races or on the road, are disgusted by electrical pedal power, bike makers are aiming to access a whole new target group with electrically-assisted racing bikes. E-bikes are for those who want some help. This can be for a number of different reasons: you want to commute to your office, but it’s just that little bit too far away; there are too many hills on your route; or you simply can’t physically make it without some extra help.

There are a bunch of obvious questions regarding electric bicycles, such as: “How much does an electric bike weigh?” Let’s have a look at the Orbea Gain as an example, seeing that the Spanish bike-maker makes one of the most stylish e-bikes around at the moment. Although bike weight is one of the first questions that comes to mind, it’s actually not a very relevant question since it refers to a non-competitive machine. But anyway, a fully-built aluminium Gain includes 3.5 kg of battery and motor, and the whole bike weighs in at 13 kg (the all-carbon version tips the scales at 11.3 kg). That is not light for a racing bike: the current minimum weight allowed by the racing federation UCI is 6.8 kilograms, and they are considering lowering that…

Good looks: an Orbea Gain electric racing bike

A close look at the specifications show that this bike is not designed for speed merchants: the motor offers help up to a speed of 25 kilometres per hour, but most club riders up to around 60 years of age can ride at that speed all day without needing a motor. The Gain allows you to ride roughly 100 kilometres on one battery charge. If you want to ride faster than 25 kilometres per hour, though, the motor will only impede your performance.

Hottest trend

The launch by Orbea of the Gain range of bike could well be a move that other manufacturers will follow. It’s certainly an opportunity to get more people out of their cars and onto a bike, or an opportunity for people who have physical difficulties riding to be able to get out and about more. As one might expect, the price of an electric racing bike is higher than one without motor and battery. But in that respect it’s the same as normal racing bikes: your bike is as expensive as you want to make it…