Cycle CQ

I Won a Gravel Race on an E-bike

Two or three weeks ago you might recall I made a video where I climbed Mount Archer on my new Polygon Siskiu T7E e-bike to test its battery range. At one stage I pulled over and pointed out some odd shaped hills in the distance and mentioned that I'd be riding there in a gravel race the following Sunday. Well that race happened. It was a weird experience, not the race itself but because the course was pretty much flat which I knew, and I ended up riding my e-bike. So yeah that made it weird. So this is the tale of why I rode an e-bike in a gravel race, how I won, and why I will probably never do it again.

An e-bike in a gravel race?

The Polygon e-bike wasn't my first option. I'd originally planned to ride the 20 kilometre short course on my monster gravel bike. It's a beautiful rig with big tyres and big chainring coupled to a 1x drivetrain, purpose built for this type of riding. A customised 2017 Giant XTC hardtail. It's got flared drop bars, Nukeproof rims, and a GRX groupset.

But during a test ride the next day, the bike developed a new mechanical noise in the drivetrain. I assumed this clunking was the result of a failed repair we'd made to the metal cups in the bottom bracket which had pulled away from the carbon housing so at this point, I considered scratching from the race.

As fate would have it though later that day on a social ride, Nick, a young bloke from the club, mentioned he was also doing the gravel race but the longer 55 kilometre course on his e-bike. And I thought hmm, that could be fun, and because idiots like company I then corralled another mate into entering the e-bike category as well.

So it's the morning of the race. The course was an out-and-back type loop meaning that you would pass other competitors riding in the opposite direction and be able to see how far in front or behind you were. It was a handicapped race with a staggered start so only three or four of us taking off at a time.

They put me and my mate Mark together but Nick was 14 minutes later, probably assuming that over a two-hour race he'd catch up to the old fellas. I understand that principle but e-bikes don't care about age, just cut-off speed. But for the same reason since the course was largely flat I figured I'd be riding close to Mark for most of the way.

Adding to the list of variables was the differing technology. We had me on the Polygon T7E with a Shimano EP801, Nick on his Yamaha-powered Giant Trance E, and Mark on his Bosch powered Focus, so it was all over the shop. I had no idea how accurately the speed limiter kicked in nor how much time lag there was in my head unit so with such a mix of riders and tech I was really interested - and a bit excited too - to see how the race played out.

So we're on the start line at Lake Mary, right alongside the beautiful Hedlow Creek, halfway between Rockhampton and the Capricorn Coast. We head off and the speed limiter kicks in within a few seconds. One bloke from Victoria is on an analogue gravel bike and he pulls away and that's okay because he's in a different class and we're not racing directly against him.

So with all of this in mind I decided I didn't just want to win by a handicap. I wanted to win by actual riding time. This added a new dimension to the race because I had to stay conscious of where the young bloke was - who we couldn't see - despite the fact he started 14 minutes behind me. So what I had to be conscious of throughout was that when I hit the far end of the course, I needed to be at least seven minutes in front of Nick when he came back in the opposite direction. Any less, then technically his riding time would be less than mine.

An hour later, when we did eventually see him, he was right on the money, exactly seven minutes from the turnaround point, which meant that after 35 kilometres, all three of us were neck and neck. At some point, one of us had to make a break and pick up the pace significantly.

Forty kilometres into the race, Mark and I are still more or less side by side, sitting on or just above the speed limiter. It's been painful for 40 kilometres.

You can't hear whether the motor is running or not due to the noise of the tyres crunching loose gravel, and the head unit lag means that the reported speed isn't in real time. So the motor is constantly kicking on and off, and this stop-start pulsing only adds to the load on our legs.

At one point after coming down a slight hill, I decided to try a break. I pushed into the descent and hit about 45 kilometres an hour. I was feeling pretty good. I looked back. Mark was way back, nearly 100 metres behind me.

I realised what I had to do. The only way I was going to keep in front of him was to gun it, to forget the motor. I had to finish this race in analogue mode, 30 kilometres an hour average for the next 10 kilometres. That's no problem. That's how I train. Hard gear, heavy bike, high speed.

Over the next few minutes, I started overtaking some of the slower analogue riders and ended up crossing the line in two hours nine minutes. Mark came in at two hours 11 minutes and Nick at 2 hours 13. So I won not only in the handicap but in the actual riding time.

podium photos e-bike category gravel race Hedlow Creek 2023

Never again

An e-bike on a flat gravel circuit is pretty pointless. For more than two hours, I averaged 26.6 kph on a bike that is speed limited to 25. That bike weighs 24 kilograms. It's a tank.

I would have been far better off riding a comfortable 30 kilometres an hour on my 11 kg monster gravel bike if it wasn't busted. In the end I would have finished 20 minutes faster and I wouldn't have exerted near as much energy.

So that's why I probably won't do it again. I enjoyed riding the e-bike in a flat gravel race but only once. I know the trick to winning it now. In fact I knew way too early that I was going to win the race and that made it boring. In future I'll stick to analogue bikes for gravel races.

There will be one exception though. If there are other competitors with my sort of build who like to blow out their lungs and legs on a 10 km endurance sprint at the end, yeah that'd be really interesting. If that becomes a thing, that would be really interesting.

Because we just don't know how the sport of e-biking is going to progress over the years ahead and and I kind of can see a point where it branches away from conventional mountain biking so you're just having e-bike races and on a purpose-built course with a few flowy hills, yeah that would be serious fun.

Righto, thanks for your company. See you out on the trails next time.


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Have a brilliant day,
Andrew Thompson.

Andrew Thompson, Reef Studios Rockhampton