Racing the Giro d’Italia on an E-bike

What was it like to race an e bike along the Giro dItalia route? We spoke to one of the participants from the new Giro E event

Photo: Francesca Soli

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Last month Giro d’Italia organizer RCS brought back its novelty competition for electric bikes, the Giro E, for the second edition. As it did in 2018, RCS invited teams of riders aboard e bikes to race along the same roads as the professional event. There were 10 total teams, and each team could rotate in one of six riders over the 18-stage event. Each stage included 115km of riding on a bicycle with an electric assist motor.

But how do you create a competition format for motorized bicycles that can overcome tired legs? For 2019 the Giro E organizers devised three challenges for the riders. Riders had to maintain a predetermined average speed over specific sections without the aid of a speedometer. They had to maintain the highest maximum speed over timed sections, and then compete for sprints.

So, what was it like to actually compete in the Giro E? We spoke to Swedish rider Patrik Popelar, who completed six stages of the Giro E, and even raced up the Mortirolo on a Pinarello Dyodo E bike.

Riding the Mortirolo was still hard. 

“There was no holding back on the Mortirolo because the e bike gives you assistance, which just means you go faster, but it doesn’t mean you don’t go hard. I was on a less powerful model and I still had to work. I had ridden the Mortirolo three days earlier and I did it in 1:30 from bottom to the top on a regular bike. Then, I did it on the e-bike and I did it in 1:12, so I cut a huge amount of time off. I was still equally as knackered by the time I got to the top.”

Most riders were inexperienced, and looked to each other for guidance on how to race on an e bike. 

“As we started riding up the Mortirolo none of us knew what to expect, and we were all guys that compete in events. There’s this light on the bike that tells you what mode you’re in, and most people were in the green mode, which is the lowest setting. There was a lot of looking around at what mode everyone was in. It’s like, what mode are you in? The macho aspect was there, because it was like, ‘I’m on the green. I don’t need that much help!'” Of course once the pack started pulling up the hill I took a rest in the higher blue mode to catch my breath, because I was already at my limit. I wouldn’t have been able to keep up if I was in the lowest mode.”

He only had to change his battery once. 

“The Mortirolo took quite a bit of energy out of the battery, but the bike we were on wasn’t that powerful, so you actually had to do a lot of work. The Trek seemed to have more power. Out of the three batteries I only changed my battery once. Changing batteries wasn’t that big of a deal.”

Hitting the predetermined average speed was tricky. 

“The whole thing was your team gets a target speed, and the team that comes closest to their target speed wins. So, it wasn’t about going flat out on the Mortirolo, it was about doing it within a certain time frame. Every team had a different pace, because they have a different target speed. All speed measuring devises were banned, otherwise it would be too easy. So, the average speed we had to hit was fairly OK, but at one point the [average speed] was way too slow. We went up to Ponte di Legno and we were supposed to hold 21 kilometers per hour, and that was simply too slow. We had just frozen our butts off descending the Mortirolo and I wanted to go faster.”

The E-bike gave the feeling of racing at WorldTour speeds. 

“The e-bike gave you the legs of a pro. You go from your normal watts of 220 up to 320 or 400, so you actually see the scenery go by at their speed. Since you have that assistance, your legs are going around a lot faster.”

The competitive format needs some tweaking, but the experience has potential for adding to the Giro d’Italia experience. 

“It felt like a group ride. One thing you have to remember is the e bike helps you on the uphill, and nowhere else does it help you because they are limited to 25km per hour. They were good bikes and had 32mm tires and were quite heavy. There wasn’t much for the actual competition and challenge. I think there is potential there as a PR thing and for race hospitality. Some people want to drive in a team car, some people want to be in a helicopter, and we got to see the route and the crowds on the e bike. You’re riding up the Mortirolo and there’s the smell of flares and of the fresh paint on the road. So we do get to feel something of what the pros go through.”


An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.