Electric bikepacking: lessons learned over four days and 250 miles

2024-07-06 02:00

Tech


E-bikes open up cycling sports to more people, and not just the cheaters.

“Electric bikes are for cheaters” is the refrain sung by cocksure men in lycra, worried their weekend hobbies will be invaded by unfit neophytes on battery-powered gravel, mountain, and road bicycles.

It reminds me of the early internet when AOL users were considered inferior to the online elite who did the hard work of subscribing to a regional ISP. Back then, losing an argument with an aol.com email address was reason enough to sell your modem. Now, the ultimate humiliation is being overtaken by someone in street shoes casually pushing a throttle.

But make no mistake, electric sport bikes are becoming increasingly common on trails and roads, just as electrics are slowly replacing regular bicycles in cities around the world.

To understand the appeal, I decided to pick just one electric sport bike — the Specialized Turbo Creo 2 Comp — to test on steep asphalt, rutted trails, loose gravel, mud, sand, and some green mushy stuff that smelled of doom. And to truly test its limits, I loaded the bike down with an absurd 50 pounds (23kg) of gear for a four day e-bikepacking trip.

And to test the performance of the e-bike, I was joined by an avid roadie who is currently training to ride over 800 miles (1,300km) from Amsterdam to Venice, Italy. He’s not only 10 years younger than me — he’s also fitter and carried just half the weight on his acoustic road bike.

What follows is my e-bikepacking experience over nearly 250 miles (400km) and 4,265 feet (1,300m) of elevation change. It covers my evolving charging strategy, favorite gadgets and bike gear tested, and lessons learned from over 600 miles (1,000km) of in-the-saddle testing.

Spoiler: I’m not a convert, but I can appreciate how e-bikes make cycling sports accessible to more people, even bikepacking if you live in the right places.

Charging

The Veluwe is a sprawling forest system in the heart of the Netherlands, rich in woodlands, heath, and wetlands divided by sandy hills cut by glaciers. It’s not a place you’d expect to find an extensive network of e-bike chargers. Yet, I found them to be so plentiful on my four-day trip that I was able to shed my initial range anxiety.

A bike loaded with bikepacking bags and gear leans against a tree in a wide-open Dutch landscape as a gravel road winds into the distance.
There were more charging options available then you’d think.

Each of the three campsites I stayed at cost around €10 to €15 (about $11 to $16) per night and offered free e-bike charging. The charging facilities ranged from a luxurious covered garage — important for keeping the charging brick dry when it rains — to a simple extension cord that snaked out of a solar-powered tent.

Wild camping away from official sites — which isn’t allowed in the Netherlands — would have made the charging logistics more difficult. But it was certainly possible: three of the four cafes I randomly stopped at during the tour offered free public chargers run by companies like Ion and Laad.

The Specialized e-bike I rode (more on that later) takes about 3.5 hours to fully charge both the main battery and one range extender using the included 164W (54.6V/3A) charging brick. My days would usually end with about 20 percent (out of 150 percent) of battery power remaining, which would have meant scheduling three hours of charging breaks along the route had I been wild camping. That’s certainly doable if spread over multiple food stops, especially on the long summer days found in Northern Europe. Nevertheless, charging in one go each night at a campsite was more convenient and required less planning.

Frankly, I was surprised by all the charging options I found along my route — but really, I shouldn’t have been. The Dutch are rightly lauded for their bicycling infrastructure. In the last few years, e-bikes have outsold regular bikes across the Netherlands, and a new survey suggests that electric bikes are now the majority of bikes ridden. But long before VanMoof helped make e-bikes trendy for young Dutch riders, it was the over-60s you’d see being propelled along bicycle paths. These are the same people who now strap a pair of e-bikes to RVs parked at campsites in the forests. I can only surmise that this remote charging infrastructure emerged in support of boomer demand.

You might not be able to replicate my multiday e-bikepacking experience where you live, but you will eventually, especially in Europe with its shorter distances and fast rate of e-bike adoption. It’ll take a bit longer in the US with its massive scale and dominating car culture.

The bike

For this trip, I rode the $6,500 / €6,000 Specialized Turbo Creo 2 Comp drop-bar gravel / road e-bike. My European review bike was capped at a top speed of 15.5mph (25km/h) and 50Nm of torque from the company’s own 250W / 330W mid-drive motor. Buyers in the US will receive a faster Class-3 e-bike with a top speed of 28mph.

The Specialized Turbo Creo 2 Comp ready to ride after packing up all the gear.

There are several reasons why I chose the Creo 2 Comp for my first e-bikepacking adventure. First, it’s lightweight for an e-bike at just 14.47kg (32 pounds) making it almost 5kg (11 pounds) lighter than DJI’s attention-grabbing electric mountain bike. Impressively, the Creo 2 Comp is just 1.3kg (almost 3 pounds) heavier than my own hardtail MTB.

The Creo 2 Comp also features multiple attachment points for all the cages and racks needed to haul lots of gear, and a front shock built into the handlebar stem that allows for 20mm of travel. That’s not a lot of dampening compared to mountain bikes, but my hands definitely benefited after several hours of daily riding over rough gravel, tree roots, and bumpy single track.

Specialized’s two-wheeler also supports healthy tire volumes, including the chunky 29 x 2.2-inch variety commonly fitted to mountain bikes. My review bike came with the company’s smaller 700 x 42 Pathfinder Pro tubeless tires. They proved to be smooth rollers on pavement and gravel and plenty capable in sections of sand and muck that stopped my friend who rode on thinner tires.

My riding companion’s regular road bike, fitted with gravel tires.

But the main reason I selected the Creo 2 Comp was for its battery expansion. The electric gravel bike features a main 320Wh battery that can be easily supplemented with $450 160Wh range extenders. Specialized sent me two extenders for a total capacity of 640Wh. The company also sent me a Y-cable for dual-battery charging.

Unfortunately, that main battery is fully integrated into the frame and can’t be removed for charging. Specialized did this to help keep the weight down. But the Y-cable can only charge the main battery and one range extender simultaneously — not two range extenders — ruining my plan to keep the bike securely by my tent while the two smaller batteries were charging elsewhere. That meant leaving Specialized’s very expensive bike and one range extender charging outside in the rain on three occasions — twice overnight, and a few hundred meters away — protected only by a lightweight lock and rain fly made from a trash bag. Not ideal.

Another intriguing feature of the Creo 2 Comp is Specialized’s smart battery control. In Smart Control mode, you can enter the distance and duration of your planned travel, and the bike will adjust the pedal assist to ensure you don’t run out of power. I ended up not using this mode for a few reasons. First, Smart Control requires tracking the ride in the Specialized app, and I didn’t want to drain my phone’s battery unnecessarily (the bike doesn’t have a USB charging port for bike computers and phones). The second reason I didn’t use Smart Control is that I was easily getting about 68 miles (110km) from the internal battery and range extender combo, even with all that gear and riding in Sport mode — Specialized’s medium setting, which nicely balances pedal assistance with battery conservation. Without all the gear, I was getting closer to 93 miles (150km) from the battery plus extender.

And let’s face it: the real reason I chose the Specialized Creo 2 Comp for the trip is that it barely looks like an e-bike. But the motor’s audible whir made it obvious to anyone nearby that I was getting an electrical assist.

Planning

For this tour, I upgraded to the Komoot Premium ($59 / year) service to access its multiday cycling trip planner. My plan started with a premade gravel tour called the Green Divide created by Erwin Sikkens, which I segmented into a custom four-day journey that extended to my home in Amsterdam. Komoot also helped me add cafes and campsites along the way. I then exported the maps to my old Garmin 530 bike computer.

My modified Green Divide route on Komoot Premium.

When booking each campsite, I called ahead to confirm the availability of e-bike charging since I wanted to camp in the more isolated backpacking sections of the campsites, away from the busy charging poles used by all the parked RVs. Little did I know that this was a common amenity offered by every campsite I contacted in the area.

Komoot Premium also displays detailed weather reports along the route. It showed mostly tailwinds for my dates of travel allowing me to plan a quicker-than-average pace, but the rain forecast meant packing additional protection.

I brought along a $270 Spinshift jacket from Gorewear to fight back the cold wind and rain. My review jacket kept me warm and completely dry and packed down small into the jacket’s zip pocket. It fit snuggly with my arms extended on the Creo 2 Comp e-bike, especially when fully stretched into the drop-bar position. But that also meant that the stiff (thin and lightweight) Gore-Tex fabric bunched up a bit when just standing around — a tradeoff I’m always happy to make in a cycling jacket. The Spinshift performed far better than my friend’s rain jacket, which quickly filled with air (slowing him down) and caused him to overheat more frequently. The Gorewear Spinshift jacket isn’t cheap, but it’s worth the price.

If you’re in the US, you’ll also want to check if the trails along your route allow for e-bikes, especially if you’re on a fast and powerful Class-3. Europe’s less powerful pedal-assisted e-bikes have fewer such restrictions.

Baggage

The 14.47kg (32 pounds) Creo 2 Comp weighed a staggering 37kg (82 pounds) after loading it up with 1.5L of water and everything I needed for four days of camping in the rain and cold. For food, I only needed to pack breakfasts and energy snacks since lunches and dinners would be found at markets and cafes along the way.

Ironically, the heaviest items were all related to keeping the e-bike’s motor running. This included the two external range extenders, the massive charging brick, and the heavy-duty Y charging cable. I also brought along a CEE-to-Schuko adapter cable just in case I needed to charge the e-bike from one of those blue charging poles at campsites (I never did). I also never used the second range extender battery, but I was happy to have it in reserve.

I installed an extended rear axel to act as quick-release mounting points for the rack.

To support all that weight and volume, I had to fit the Creo 2 Comp with a rack and pannier bags. For this, I chose a carbon-fiber AeroPack rack and organization system from Tailfin to review. That 50 liters of waterproof on-bike storage proved to be fantastic, albeit expensive, at nearly €1,000 (almost $1,100).

The AeroPack rack I reviewed attaches to the seat post and to an extended rear axle I had to install on the e-bike — a procedure that took about 30 minutes. Tailfin’s 16L Mini Panniers and the entire rear rack that includes an integrated 18L top bag are designed for quick attachment and detachment. That was super helpful since I wanted my gear at my tent while the bike was charging far away.

All my small gadgets and cables went into the smaller Tailfin Packing Cube that cinches shut, while most of my clothes went into the larger 6L Cube.
The big Cube is a perfect fit for the top bag. The other two Cubes are designed to fit on top.

I used Tailfin’s Packing Cubes to help keep things organized inside those deep storage bags. Most of my clothes went into the 6L Cube, which fit snugly into the AeroPack top bag. All my cables and small electronics went into the 2.5L Cube, and the toiletries and microfiber towel in the 3.5L Cube. Both of those organizers went into the waterproof panniers alongside items like my trusty JetBoil camping stove I’ve had for something like 15 years. All my stored gear stayed completely dry despite three days of on-and-off rain.

The rest of the bags were my own, including two feed bags for quick access to snacks, my lock, and a water bottle; a partial frame bag for my tools and first aid kit; and a small top-tube bag for a USB battery pack, wallet, and miscellaneous items needed during the ride.

I’ve never carried so much gear on a bikepacking trip before, but I never had a motor to help carry the load, either. Still, the Tailfin bags remained firmly in place with zero sway, which has never been my experience when using those elongated saddle bags that often go limp after a bit of rough riding and end up dragging on the rear wheel.

Tailfin’s setup is totally worth the price, in my opinion.

Sleeping

The other star of the trip was the $500 Hubba Hubba Bikepack 1-Person Tent MSR sent me to review. It’s tiny and weighs only 2 pounds 1 ounce (0.9kg) but has a long list of very smart features for bikepackers. Notably, it comes in a waterproof handlebar bag / stuff sack with plenty of attachment points for add-ons. It features thick spacers that give room for the bike’s cables and a compartment for tent poles that are shorter than normal to not interfere with steering.

The waterproof and nicely ventilated tent and rainfly kept me completely dry in lots of rain, even a thunderstorm. The uniform rectangular shape made it easy to set up and provided plenty of headroom to sit upright. The Hubba Hubba tent also features plenty of internal pockets to store gear and a large vestibule outside the side entry to keep my shoes, helmet, bags, and other bits out of sight and dry while I slept. I also made good use of the internal and external clotheslines to dry my gear.

The Hubba Hubba Bikepack tent is hands down the best lightweight tent of the dozens I’ve tried over the last three decades. It’s clearly been designed by people who spend a ton of time cycling away from civilization. Still, $500 is very expensive. My friend’s $110 NatureHike Cloud tent (which I also own) is only slightly heavier, and he seemed just as comfortable and dry. You don’t absolutely need the Hubba Hubba for bikepacking — but you’re right to want it.

Rounding out my sleep gear was a very comfortable and warm $200 NeoAir XLite NXT four-season air mattress that Thermarest sent me to test. And despite measuring a thick three inches (7.6cm), it packs down small and light at 13 ounces (370g). I appreciated the WingLock Valve that let me inflate (and deflate) it quickly without exhausting myself using the included pump sack and some good ol’ Bernoulli physics.

Thermarest also sent me a down-filled Vesper 32F/0C Quilt to review; $400 for a trail blanket is expensive, but it weighs just 15 ounces (425g) and packs down into an impossibly small ball. Despite being lightweight, it was a bit too warm when falling asleep in 64 degrees Fahrenheit (18 degrees Celsius), but I was happy to have it when temps dropped down to 48F (9C) a few nights — Thermarest says the quilt’s sweet spot is around 41F (5C). It’s silky soft to the touch and stretches around the NeoAir XLite NXT to prevent slippage and drafts.

I slept reasonably well with this setup or at least as well as I do at home. But I just can’t get comfortable with any inflatable pillow I’ve tried. Someday, I’ll find the perfect pillow, but the Trekology Aluft Pro I bought on Amazon isn’t it.

Gadgets

As a nerd, I brought far more gadgets than a typical person would. That meant bringing several USB power banks along to keep everything charged over a period of four days: two 10,000mAh (40Wh) batteries and one 27,000mAh (100Wh) behemoth. That’s far more than I’d normally bring, but again, I had a motor and tons of storage.

Some gadgets I always bring with me on bikepacking trips. These include my iPhone in a QuadLock bike-mount case and my Apple Watch — both set to low-power modes. I also brought a GoPro with extra batteries that I never even used. My aging but formidable Garmin 530 bike computer provided turn-by-turn navigation. To my delight, it was able to read power, cadence, and speed data off the Specialized Turbo Creo 2 Comp after I manually added each bike sensor.

I also had to bring the little SRAM AXS battery charger that came with the bike just in case its wireless electronic shifter died. Something that nearly happened to me earlier during 370 miles (about 600km) of preparation for the trip.

Naturally, I also brought along plenty of gadgets to review.

The Baseus over-the-ear slug let me hear sounds around me while also providing better quality than bone-conduction units favored by many cyclists.

I tested a pair of $60 Baseus Eli Sport 1 open-ear Bluetooth headphones to be sure that I could still hear everything around me. Most riders prefer bone-conducting headphones for this purpose, but I’ve never been a fan of the flat sound. With the rain-proof Eli Sport 1, I could slip on just one of the two over-the-ear slugs for the duration of the ride to hear the navigation. They’re so lightweight and comfortable that I’d forget I was wearing one by the end of the day, and it never fell off my ear, even on the roughest trails or when taking off my helmet and sunglasses. At night, I could pop on the second slug and listen to music or watch videos with real bass, though anyone nearby could hear the audio bleed into the quiet even at modest volumes. The case also kept the headphones charged for the duration of the trip despite heavy all-day usage. For the price, they proved to be outstanding, but I should note that Amazon says it’s a frequently returned product.

The Milo communicator mounted to the top tube where it didn’t perform as well as I had hoped — probably too far from my mouth. Will try on an arm band and handlebar mount next time.

I also tested a pair of Milo Communicators. I’ll have a full review coming later, as these need to be tested in a few more scenarios. My first impressions are mixed. They were invaluable in finding out that my friend had fallen off his bike in a gnarly sand patch a few hundred meters behind me, but they frequently failed to clearly deliver insults and warnings when both of us were riding full out over noisy gravel, wind, grunts, and woo-hooing. We had the Milos mounted on the bikes, and that might have been too far away to properly isolate our voices (the company offers several mounting options). It’s promising tech, so more on this later.

Yes, that’s a HoverAir X1 drone in my mouth, something I wouldn’t try with a DJI.

I’ve also been testing a HoverAir X1 drone for the past few weeks. And honestly, I think I love it. It’s so easy to grab and set aloft without needing any type of controller. And like they say, the best drone is the drone you have with you, and I wasn’t about to bring a DJI drone on this trip. A full review is coming.

The FlexTail Tiny Repeller S kept my tent lit and free of mosquitos, but more testing is required.

Last but not least is the Flextail Tiny Repeller S combination bug repellent and lantern. It kept my tent mosquito-free and well-lit at night, but I need to test it in a few more scenarios, which requires a full review. That one is coming later this summer after I test it in an RV, but so far, so good.

Truthfully, if this hadn’t been a work assignment I would have left most of my electronic devices at home. I love technology’s ability to bend nature to my will, but it can be very distracting from just living in the moment and creates a lot of charging stress where no stress should be.

E-bikepacking is indeed, a thing.

Conclusion

Let’s be clear: the vast majority of people don’t need to spend nearly $10,000 on an electric bike, top-of-the-line camping gear, and premium bike bags to go bikepacking.

If you’re already moderately fit, then you’d be amazed at what you can do with a bunch of bungee cords strapped to a regular ol’ second-hand mountain or gravel bike — and you’ll never need to worry about finding a charger. You can even splurge a little on inexpensive bikepacking gear from brands I’ve used, like Naturehike and Rhinowalk.

But e-bikepacking is most definitely a thing and will become more popular as the charging infrastructure spreads to more wilderness areas around the world. That motor is a game changer, allowing for heavier loads to be carried (even trailers with pets and small kids), tall mountain passes to be flattened, and for people with lesser abilities to get outside and do more.

Notably, e-bikes can help recreational riders join their hardcore cycling partners and friends on their long weekend rides. After which, they’ll be regaled with stories full of grit, cadence, and power stats while gobbling back all those spent calories.

My e-bike allowed me to keep up with my younger and fitter riding mate — basically leveling the field. He got his training sessions in, and I got the camaraderie I was seeking. I got a solid workout in myself since European pedal assist cuts out at 15.5mph (25km/h), and we’d regularly be traveling at speeds above 19mph (30km/h) whenever things flattened out.

Despite the immense amount of fun I had on the very capable Specialized Turbo Creo 2 Comp, I won’t be trading in my trusty hardtail mountain bike for an electrified version any time soon. I still enjoy the exercise and simplicity of conquering terrain with a pure mechanical assist.

I get the urge for gravel, road, and mountain bikers to dunk on e-bike riders, but let’s not reflexively call them all cheaters. Cheating is an act of dishonesty to unfairly gain an advantage over another, and plenty of people buy electric sport bikes after an honest assessment of their own limited abilities. They give people new options for enjoying the benefits of being active and upright on two wheels, even as they get older. And that’s something we should be celebrating.

But I was definitely cheating, and I will miss listening to my friend’s exclamations anytime he fell behind on long climbs or found his little baby tires stuck in the mud or sand that I had already traversed.

To everyone else: apologies if I knocked you off the Strava segment leaderboard — you should try harder.

All photography by Thomas Ricker / The Verge


Source: https://www.theverge.com/24187989/e-bikepacking-charging-range-lessons-gear-review