Shimano Goes Electric: First ride on the E8000 STePS e-bike drivetrain

Words by Kurt Gensheimer, photos by Colin Meagher

I’ve hauled ass down Baby Heads more times in my life than I can count, a thrilling high-speed jeep road descent that’s a staple of the Downieville Classic Cross Country race. It’s a trail that claims countless tires, rims and even bodies, because slamming into baby head size rocks at 30 mph can sometimes come to a violent conclusion.

But on this one particular August day, with rain pouring down, thunder and lightning all around and nine friends – some new, some old – we charged down Baby Heads with irrational exuberance. The experience was enriched with water spraying everywhere, the taste of damp Sierra Nevada dirt in our mouths and high-speed passes generating a few harrowing hoots and hollers. Of all the times I’ve ever descended Baby Heads, that day was among the very best. And we were all on electric-assist mountain bikes.

That last sentence probably ruined the entire story for some people, and some reading this might stop now and cancel their subscription to Dirt Rag. But as the old saying goes, “a mind is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open”. Unless you’ve actually ridden a motorized off-road bicycle (MORB), you have no grounds to hate on them. These contraptions are not the devil reincarnated, and the reality is that they’re here to stay and aren’t just going to magically disappear as much as some wish they would.

So instead of keeping our heads buried in the sand, the better we understand exactly what MORBs are, the better we can figure out how they fit into the bigger multi-use recreation picture. Although I will always prefer 100 percent human powered mountain bikes and advocate for them first over power assist, there are other people in this world besides me who might find a MORB appealing. And in the interest of keeping an open mind, I rode a MORB 60 miles with 10,000 feet of climbing over two days, and dare I say, it was one hell of a good time.

Introducing Shimano E8000 STePS

Of all the places in the United States to launch their new E8000 STePS e-bike drivetrain, Shimano chose Downieville and the Mount Hough trail network in nearby Quincy for its extensive network of motorized-legal trails with huge elevation gain and terrain that pushes the limits of all bike equipment.

Maintained and constructed by the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship, the northern Sierra Nevada region an hour north of Lake Tahoe – known as the Lost Sierra – is a true multi-use recreation destination. Thanks to the Stewardship, there are trails for all users in the Lost Sierra, including moto riders, mountain bikers, equestrians, hikers, and yes, even e-bikers. For many folks, the prospect of climbing to the top of the Sierra Buttes – more than 7,000 vertical feet above Downieville – is not within their physical reality, which is why many choose to ride the Yuba Expeditions shuttle. So if there’s any destination to put an e-bike drivetrain to the test, it’s the Lost Sierra.

Shimano’s primary goal in building an e-bike drivetrain was to make it light and compact enough so the end product feels more like a mountain bike than an electric-assist bike. Examples of this philosophy include using a traditional Shimano XT crankset with the same Q-factor as a mountain bike, a very compact drive unit that allows frame builders to use shorter chainstays for quicker handling, and the seamless integration of Di2 shifting with the powertrain. The powertrain consists of a premium quality, fully waterproof 504Wh lithium-ion battery and a compact, seven-pound drive unit with 70Nm of torque.

But what really sets the E8000 system apart from all other electric assist systems is the way Shimano designed assist mode selection. Since the 11-speed system does not require a front shifter, Shimano uses a FIREBOLT left-side shifter, switching between Eco, Trail and Boost modes, as indicated on a slick bar-mounted LCD readout showing gear and mode selection, different speed and distance parameters and remaining battery range based on usage. Unlike competitors that require reaching the down tube to change modes, the Shimano system delivers different assist modes with the push of a button without hands ever leaving the bars. And for those tech geeks, Shimano offers a smartphone app that can customize the specific Eco, Trail and Boost output levels.

In addition to the three modes, there’s also a very clever Walk mode, engaging when the rider holds down the left side shifter lever, enabling the rear wheel to automatically turn at three miles-per-hour, helping the rider walk up super steep grades, not unlike a self-propelled lawnmower. And if the system senses any pressure on the pedals, Walk mode is automatically disengaged. It might sound lame, but when you’re pushing a 45 pound bike up a steep pitch, Walk mode is much appreciated.

Shimano figured out the reason why previous 11-speed mountain bike-specific drivetrains broke chains on ebikes so often; inadequate plate to pin design that couldn’t hold up to increased torque loads under shifting. As a result, Shimano redesigned their 11-speed chain with thicker end plates, preventing breakage. And over the course of four days and 120 miles of trail riding, there wasn’t a single broken chain to be reported.

Shimano put their E8000 system on an aluminum trail bike designed by Taiwanese manufacturer ASTRO, which produces e-bikes for Mondraker. The 150mm front/140mm rear travel trail bike was also equipped with a Fox 36 fork and Float rear suspension, specially tuned for the heavier weight of an ebike. In order to provide the best overall riding experience, Shimano and Fox worked closely together developing quite a capable e-bike system.

The Ride

Of course the E8000 system makes riding uphill much more agreeable and social. There couldn’t have been a better example of this than 12 riders across a wide range of skill, fitness and experience levels all staying together, holding a conversation while riding the infamous “Trail of Tears” climb on the Downieville Classic course from Sierra City to Packer Saddle; a seven-mile, 3,000 vertical foot climb that crushes peoples’ dreams. Having the mode selector at the touch of a button made climbing much more dynamic, shifting dozens of times between modes to match the output of other riders. Say what you want about e-bikes, but these machines absolutely make climbing more approachable and social for more riders; it’s the ultimate equalizer.

Perhaps more impressive was how well the ASTRO-built bike with its e-bike optimized Fox suspension performed downhill. Although 45 pounds sounds like a lot, it’s five pounds lighter than the Specialized Levo, which is significant. This is was most noticeable when descending Baby Heads, Pauley Creek and Third Divide trails. There were times I forgot I was on a 45 pound bike, that is until I ripped into a high speed corner and felt the front end plowing like a bulldozer. It’s still an e-bike, but the best descending e-bike I’ve ridden to date.

The biggest question mark in my mind before the ride was battery life. I was quite impressed to see after 30 miles and 5,000 vertical feet of climbing in Downieville I still had two bars out of five on the 504 Wh battery, equating to nearly 10 more miles of riding. And after 30 miles and 5,000 feet of vertical on Mount Hough Trail in Quincy, I was down to a single bar; but I used Trail mode almost the entire time on the long climb up, with numerous episodes in Boost mode. Boost mode really has some good kick for those uphill moments when you’re on the edge of not making it, and even after pedaling, Boost gives a final quarter turn of push before disengaging. Ultimately, battery life comes down to energy management, and riders who keep it in Eco mode most of the time can expect to get at least 35 miles and more than four hours of riding before depleting the battery.

Final Thoughts

Did I have fun on this Shimano-equipped e-bike? Absolutely. Will it replace my mountain bike? No way. The following day I pulled out my good old 100-percent human powered mountain bike and went for a ride. I was nervous at first that I’d miss the power assist; the hand of God pushing me up the climb, but I didn’t. You know what else I didn’t miss? The constant humming sound of the electric drivetrain and the constant looking down at the LCD readout to see what mode I was in and how much juice I had left.

The other thing I noticed pedaling my mountain bike was that my legs were indeed tired from two big days on the e-bike. Whoever says you can’t get a workout riding an e-bike is full of it. You absolutely can. Regardless, there’s still something amazing about pedaling under your own power to the top of a mountain. Maximum work for maximum reward, which for me equates to extra earned beers. And as long as you have the time and the energy, who cares if it takes longer to get to the top than if you pedal an e-bike? I got the time and I got the energy, so at least in the foreseeable future, the e-bike won’t be driving my pedal-powered adventures.

But for trail builders who need a quick way to get out and do trail work, older folks who want to keep up with their younger friends and those with life-altering injuries, the e-bike makes perfect sense. I just hope that e-bike manufacturers realize the conflict they are creating by trying to call these devices mountain bikes, because they’re not. And I also hope e-bike manufacturers get engaged with land managers, figuring out ways to raise money for new, e-bike legal trails while responsibly incorporating e-bikes on non-motorized trails only where they make the most sense. So long as the growing e-bike industry can take responsibility and bring their own advocacy dollars to the table, I don’t see anything wrong with the incorporation of this new way to recreate in the outdoors.

  • Mauriceman

    I like this new term “motorized off-road bicycle (MORB)”. Did we just coin that or ????

    • That’s the term Kurt used; I had never heard it before either but I like it so I kept it. 🙂

    • Kurt P Gensheimer

      I’ve been calling them MORBs for a while. Hoping that the acronym catches on.

    • TedKidd

      Motorized implies it’s self powered. There are self powered electric bicycles. This article is about pedal assist bicycles. Bicycles that don’t operate without the rider providing power.

      Understanding the distinction requires IQ above room temperature AND an operable parachute. A lot of folks here seem to have neither.

  • Dwight Lyman Moody

    A bike with a motor is a motor bike. Motorcycles are fun. Motorcycles aren’t mountain bikes.

    • That’s like saying a scooter is a motorcycle. Or that a gravel bike is a mountain bike.

      It’s pretty obvious you’ve never ridden a MORB. I wouldn’t call a MORB a mountain bike either, but it sure as hell isn’t a motorcycle. It isn’t a moped or a scooter either.

      • russelk

        No motorized bikes, on non- motorized trails. Pretty simple rule.

      • Dwight Lyman Moody

        But I have ridden one, so go fuck yourself. DirtRag doesn’t cover scooters, mopeds, motos, mini-bikes, dirt bikes, etc… and I would be very happy if they’d stop wasting space on this sub-genre of motorcycle as well.

        • I’m personally not a fan of reading about ebikes either, but it’s still not a motorcycle.

          Also, you’re a dick.

      • Grant

        go away

        • TedKidd

          Not going away. Need help untwisting your panties pussy?

          • Grant

            put on your little skirt lard ass

          • TedKidd

            Awww, hurt your fragile feelings widdle girl?

  • Zuul

    “Unlike competitors that require reaching the down tube to change modes”

    What? Specialized 16/17 models are the only ones requiring this. Everything else on the market has bar mounted assist level selector, including spesh 18 models.

    • TedKidd

      Not even “Required”. Garmin Bluetooth remote solves that problem…

  • russelk

    Well though-out insight…until you blew at the end. “…while responsibly incorporating e-bikes on non-motorized trails only where they make the most sense.” They DON’T makes sense on non-motorized trails. No motors on non-motorized trails — period! That is the real problem with eBikes — they are trying to work they way onto non-motorized trails.

  • Vadim Vronsky

    Well, I do MTB CX racing on my 30 pounds bike which is heavy for hours of racing. So eBike with 45 pounds may be suitable for downhill riding. I see only one point to have eBike is recreational use for riders with some age and/or physical limitations, which is well explained by test-rider in the article.

    Best, see you on trails!

  • TedKidd

    Own Both.

    I think the guy’s “this OR that” thinking misses some key points. The idea you have to decide between owning an e-bike or a regular bike is false dichotomy. Own BOTH!

    Also, the idea of feeding your ego by “getting to the top of the mountain” under your own energy seems stupid to me. That’s great he thinks he has all the time in the world, but he doesn’t. None of us do. I’ve got Cancer throughout my family and am coming to the conclusion “ah, I’ll do that tomorrow” is crazythink. In a beautiful place like that, if the choice is one peak or two, let me see two!

    Riding in Jackson I was sometimes constrained by how far I could ride, and often constrained by how far others could ride. It’s so amazingly beautiful I kept wanting to go further and see more.

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/mQoploU9RLXcyUKX2

    When I go back I’m taking BOTH bikes.

  • drtdiva

    I guess next yr Dville will have the ebike competition….. Just like Vegas is having the Cross Vegas Ebike race…meh…Dville is a special place and motorcycles were there before human power bicycles..
    So who wants to go in with me a buy a fleet of ebikes and give the shuttle services a run for their money in Dville…Its gold; Ebikes in Dville…

  • APRandom

    Please forgive me for bringing up the (hopefully) sobering political perspective:

    “(a) Mechanical transport, as herein used, shall include
    any contrivance which travels over ground, snow, or water on wheels,
    tracks, skids, or by floatation and is propelled by a nonliving power source contained or carried on or within the device.”
    http://www.wildernessbicycling.org/bikesbelong/cfr.html

    We’re trying to get back to this former definition, as designated Wilderness and Wilderness Study Areas are closing out bicycle riding at a pretty good clip. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act will designate Wilderness right up to my back yard, eliminating mountain biking in my area, and perhaps my job as a bike mechanic. We only sell or rent mountain bikes and cruisers for the bike path, because there are only two paved roads of any distance.

    Having motorbike reviews in what was once a strictly human-powered-sport magazine is a little distressing, to say the least, along with the motor ads in the sidebar.

    Bicycle manufacturers are selling these as “It’s a bicycle, first,” trying to weasel their way into non-motorized multi-use trails. This is wrong. For the non-motorized mountain bikers, it is political suicide. “If we allow bicycles on these trails, soon you’ll want motorcycles.” I have heard this more than once at public hearings on the subject. Now, especially with this new, tiny Shimano system, it will be, “See? we told you so. Look how easy it is to hide a motor in a bicycle.” and “You’re just a bunch of lazy thrill-seekers.” “We can’t let ANY bicycles on these trails, because you never know who’s going to sneak in a motorize bicycle.”

    This article is a must-read, why mountain bikes and motorcycles should never be in the same bed:
    “To understand why this is important, consider that the solitary reason
    that mountain bikes gained access to trails where motorized vehicles of
    any sort were banned was because they are human powered – and it was a
    tenuous handshake – we were not welcomed by traditional users with open
    arms. If we had told them up front, that pedaling uphill was too
    difficult, so we were going to use motors, mountain bikes would have
    been permanently banned – end of story.

    “The
    deception was simple: Bicycle industry and pedal-assist motor makers
    would first lobby government and transportation officials to give power-assisted electric bicycles legal access to streets and bike-ways
    that pedal-powered bicycles enjoy. Once they achieved that goal, then
    they could make two key arguments: the first is that because
    power-assisted bicycles shared the same privileges, then legally they
    were are no different than any other bicycle; and the second argument
    was that a mountain bike is also a bicycle, and because an e-mountain
    bike is legally the same as a pedal-powered bicycle on the highway, then
    it should also be legal to ride everywhere a bicycle is allowed
    off-road. It’s a compelling story, but it’s a fabrication. The off-road
    segment of the E-bike market is on fire, and the industry knows that the
    boom can’t be sustained without trail access. If they laid low for a
    little while, and maintained their mountain bike disguise well enough to
    convince the right people, they could sneak in the back door.”
    https://www.pinkbike.com/news/history-and-deception-opinion.html

    In my opinion, magazines such as this should not touch motors with a ten foot pole. What’s next, These things? https://motoped.com/ How about Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki, and Yamaha? It’s a slippery slope y’all are sliding down, and we’re going to be relegated to motocross areas, even if we don’t have motors, if this keeps up.

  • Bart L.

    “e-bike legal trails while responsibly incorporating e-bikes on non-motorized trails” I respectfully disagree. Motorized bicycles do no belong on shared trails. Because when little Timmy is mowed down by some Stravasshole with modded E-bike, we will all pay the price.

  • For years, the ski industry fought against snowboards. If there were not snowboards today, there would not be any ski industry. The train has left the station and electric bikes are on it. Tens of thousands have already been sold and it will be hundreds of thousands soon. Good luck to all those who want protectionism. All taxpayers have a right to us public lands, not just the purists. If you don’t like it, move to Europe. Oh wait, the cycling community there has embraced electric mountain bikes.

  • cyclist0

    Sorry, these are motor bikes. OK for a trip around town to work or the store but they DO NOT BELONG with pedal bikes on trails. Watch out because soon all bikes of any stripe will be banned because of these motor bikes.