E-MTB vs MTB: which is best for a bikepacking adventure?

T3 gears up with a Wilier e806TRB eMTB and Sonder Broken Road before heading to Dartmoor to find out

TODO alt text

Is an ebike better than a regular pedal-powered mountain bike for a big bikepacking race? To find out, Deputy Editor of T3 magazine Nick Odantzis took a Wilier e806TRB eMTB, while MBUK staffer Matt Orton straddled a Sonder Broken Road to find out.

Using a combination of roads and bridleways, the pair will be travelling 60 miles across Dartmoor in a day. There’s an element of danger, so we’re both carrying a Spot GEN3 tracker to call in the emergency services, if need be. Luckily, Matt looks like a bear so we don’t need to worry about wolves.

"The shove from the motor almost has me on the back wheel – it’s so quick"

E-MTB vs MTB

Bikepacking is a mash-up of mountain biking, hiking and camping. Outfit yourself with a bicycle capable of hitting the dirt, strap bags to the frame and pack your gear, food and clothing. Then plan a route and go for it. 

Bikepacking can be short local rides, or longer multi-day ones. It’s the ultimate adventure for those who want to do a bit of off-road riding and discover some new scenery. you can tackle it any way you like, but here at T3, we want to know the best way of doing it. 

So we’ve got two bikes: one a low-tech, but light machine; and the other a heavy but high-tech e-mountainbike. Can an MTB beat an e-MTB? Let’s find out.

Nick says...

Wilier e803TRB

It’s 6am on a Saturday in October. I should be in bed, dreaming about tech. Instead I’m outside my house trying to haul 33 kilos of mountain bike into the back of a van. 

I may have the advantage of electric power in the Wilier e803TRB bike that I’m using on this bikepacking mission – 60 miles across Dartmoor’s rugged terrain, to be specific – but is it a poisoned chalice? What looks good on paper could actually turn out to be a nightmare, in reality. 

That said, the full suspension and fat tyres should, at the least, make it comfortable to ride over the distance we’re covering.

Matt says...

Sonder Broken Road MTB

Nick loves his tech, but he’s a fool for thinking that an electric mountain bike will be a match for my steed. Firstly, his battery will probably only last about 10 miles; and secondly, his bike is a pig. 

I’ll have the advantage everywhere but on hills, and when his power runs out, I’ll breeze past him. I’ve built a bike specially for the task: it’s a Sonder Broken Road MTB from bikepacking-specialist Alpkit. Made of titanium, it’s lightweight, tough and comfy to ride. 

I’ve tricked it out with a Lauf Trail Racer Boost fork, which though nuts to look at, is light and perfect for soaking up the kind of mixed terrain we’ll be riding on, and a Bodyfloat Kinekt 2.0 seat post, for absorbing bumps at the saddle, without weighing me down. It’s a package that can’t be beaten, even by cheating tech writers.

Nick says...

Our starting point is Devon’s biggest city: Plymouth. We’re heading for Princetown, located near the centre of Dartmoor and home to Her Majesty’s Prison. That’s our halfway point, and hopefully we won’t be spending the night there – instead we’ll be carrying on to the tip of the moor where we’ll be spending the night, wild camping and eating only what we’ve brought.

"Several hundred tonnes of cow rump means we have to get off and push to get through"

The first few miles are easy-going. Well, they are for Matt until I figure out that, though I’ve turned on the battery on my Shimano STEPS-equipped bike, I’ve not selected from one of the ‘assisted’ riding modes on the handlebar-mounted display. 

Without any form of electric power, the Wilier feels as if it’s stuck in treacle. Flick it into eco mode and the difference is immediately obvious. It glides along effortlessly, despite the bike’s significant weight. 

Once we hit the edge of Dartmoor, the scenery changes dramatically, as does the difficulty of the terrain. The first major hill climb to the top of the moor is rutted, covered with sizeable rocks and slippery from the relentless mist. 

I immediately change to trail mode and the shove from the motor almost has me on the back wheel. It’s blisteringly quick, and I leave Matt chugging away. Speed aside, it’s the ease with which the e803TRB smashes through the climb that astonishes me the most – it’s so damn easy.

Matt says...

I’ll hand it to him, Nick’s quick up the hills, but as soon as the landscape flattens at the top of the plain, I’m able to give chase and slowly reel him back in over the course of the next several miles, thanks to my lighter setup. Plus, Nick keeps stopping every 30 minutes or so because he’s aching; not the case for me on the Sonder bike – it’s supremely comfy.

But this isn’t my trump card. What Nick doesn’t realise is that I’ve already ridden this route, and you have to walk a good deal of it. Case in point – we get to a river crossing, the first of many, and the only way across is via stepping stones. 

While I step from slippery rock to rock with the bike hoisted on my back, Nick has to wade his through the fast-flowing river, which makes for painfully slow progress, meaning I sneak ahead. 

It’s the same through farmer’s fields – this summer’s non-stop downpour, combined with 100 tonnes of cow rump, means we have to get off and push to navigate the boggy ground, and once again Nick falls behind. What’s the point of having power if you can’t use it?

Nick says...

I don’t care what Matt says, power reigns supreme, and my eMTB is the quicker bike – end of. I concede, the e806TRB is not in its element here, and as I have to Iug my ebike over this gnarly, unrideable terrain for the 10th time, my volume of cursing is starting to become a bit of a problem. The bigger issue, however, is range. 

Shimano estimates about 62 miles with this battery and motor combination, and though the route sneaks under that at 60 miles, I’m having way too much fun (when I can actually pedal, that is) to worry about it. Bad news: after 40 miles the battery bars (displayed on the battery) drop down to two out of five. Worrying. 

During a welcome stop for some cycling essentials – coffee and cake, natch – at The Birdcage cafe in Chagford, I formulate a plan in my caffeine-enriched mind. Over the remainder of the journey I flit between no power assistance on the straights, and eco mode for a bit of a shove up those monster hills – a bit miserable, for sure, but more efficient. 

It works a treat, and having power assistance means I can carry more stuff with me, too, so when we reach our destination at Crockernwell with a single bar of charge remaining, just before sundown, I’ve got a proper tent (albeit an ultra-light MSR one), a cushy sleeping mat from Therm-a-rest and Exped’s feather-light down bag. I’ve also got a stove, so I can conjure up a vaguely edible meal to help me go to bed feeling extra-toasty.

Matt says...

That second part of the journey was hard work, but rewarding. Nick still looks pretty fresh, which isn’t surprising since he didn’t really have to use his legs most of the time, but I bet his back is in knots.

"I give two fingers to cooking because I’ve got space food called peronin"

What with minimalism being the theme of my ride, I’ve packed light, so admittedly I’ve sacrificed a bit of comfort here. But that doesn’t mean my gear is unsuitable for the task. I’m using a Mountain Hardwear Ethereal Bivy, which is a sort of tent and sleeping bag in one. It’s quick to put up, which means I can get to bed without any faffing. 

As for eating? I give two fingers to outdoor culinary activities because I’ve got space food. Peronin (no, not Peroni) is basically a liquid food containing all the essentials you need on an adventure like this, and because I can drink (or slurp, should I say) straight from the pouch, I’ve no need for any cooking gear. 

While Nick is getting eaten alive by midges, trying to fashion up a ‘meal’ in near-darkness, I’m already in bed, ready to catch some quality Zs.

E-MTB vs MTB: Nick concludes

No matter how you look at this adventure, we both had an amazing time, regardless of our rides. Which is sort of the point of bikepacking – no matter what you’re on, you’re going to have fun. I’m going to be controversial given my choice of ride and accept that an ebike, even one made for rough terrain, isn’t the ideal tool for this kind of thing. 

Yes, it’s a breeze up the hills, but everywhere else, it’s outclassed by Matt’s lightweight (and cheaper) machine, and as for a multi-day ride across a long distance? Good luck with that. That said, once ebikes become lighter and the range increases – which is happening – they’ll soon replace traditional pedal power in any situation.

E-MTB vs MTB: Matt concludes

I’m all for ebikes and I think they’re brilliant, to a point, but they’re overkill for bikepacking. This ride wasn’t about speed, it was about the journey; the destination is an afterthought. Sure, I’ll get one when I’m old and my knees are knackered. Until then, I’ll stick to the tried and tested way.