Ebikes Keep Elite Road Training Motoring

Pedal assist enables training partners to push the pace for top athletes.

Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto
From left to right: Taylor Phinney leads out EF Education First Pro Cycling teammates Mike Woods and Tejay van Garderen aboard a Cannondale electric road bike on a training ride ahead of this year’s Tour de France.Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto

Allen Lim has seen the future of elite road race training—and it’s all about ebikes.

A veteran pro cycling coach and the founder of nutrition company Skratch Labs, Lim faced a dilemma last race season finding training partners who could really lay the wood to 2013 Tour of California winner and two-time USA Pro Cycling Challenge champion Tejay van Garderen.

“He’s so strong that it’s hard to find athletes who will go out there and go toe to toe with him on his really hard days. Even his own teammates weren’t always in a position where they could make that sacrifice. So we thought to ourselves, ‘Wouldn’t it be amazing if Tejay had an unlimited supply of training partners who never got tired? How do we do this?’ We could do this with riders on ebikes,” he said.

So in the run-up to the 2019 Tour of California, Lim brought in former US national cyclocross champion (and current Red Bull cyclist) Tim Johnson and put him on a Cannondale pedal-assist road bike to push van Garderen to his limits on long training days. The plan paid off: van Garderen took the ToC yellow jersey on the tour’s second day and held onto it for three days until the lead slipped away from him on the agonizing ascents of Mount Baldy in the wake of an ill-timed mechanical and subsequent crash near the finish line the previous day.

Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto
Former US cyclocross national champion Tim Johnson used electric assist to help train Tejay van Garderen for this year’s Tour of California and Tour de France.Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto

Turning his attention to training van Garderen for the Tour de France, Lim brought Johnson out again along with van Garderen’s EF Education First teammate Taylor Phinney, who had opted out of this year’s TdF.

“We got three ebikes for that. Between myself, Tim, and Taylor, we always had someone riding an ebike. It transformed the specificity of Tejay’s training. We could replicate the power output and demand of a stage on a race day,” Lim recalled.

Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto
Coach Allen Lim swaps out the battery on a Cannondale pedal-assist road ebike.Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto

Additionally, using ebikes has brought a new level of intimacy to Lim’s training program compared with motor pacing using a gas-powered scooter or car.

“Automobiles and scooters can be really difficult to communicate through. If I’m wearing a full-face helmet while training him on a scooter, it’s really hard to talk. If I’m in a car following him, it’s hard to know what’s going on. But if you’re on a bicycle right next to someone, it’s really easy to communicate,” Lim said.

The ebikes also make up for what Lim sees as the inefficacies of motor pacing particularly when it comes to long, steep climbing days.

“Motor pacing is phenomenal on flat roads and rolling terrain when you’re trying to create these high speeds. But motor pacing falls apart a bit on climbs, especially when the climbs get steep, because you can now no longer control the scooter all that well. The sensitivity of the throttle makes it really hard to hold things steady. Scooters typically don’t have the torque to go that slow on climbs. They also make a lot of noise and create a lot of pollution, especially onto the riders,” he noted.

Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto
Left to right: Tim Johnson, Tejay van Garderen, and Simon Clarke get in a high-elevation day during training camp in Girona, Spain.Greg Erwin, @gregerwinphoto

Ultimately, Lim would like to remove automobiles and scooters from training, carrying supplies, changes of clothes, and spare batteries in panniers and other carriers on the ebikes for long training days. To that end, he is collaborating with Zach Krapfl of Saris Cycling Group, the North American distributor of Bosch ebike systems for the handbuilt market, on building a prototype titanium road bike with numerous provisions for carrying gear. With geometry customized for Lim’s body size and shape, the bike will be built around 650b road-plus wheels to accommodate tires of 47c or larger for improved grip on high-speed road descents and to cross-train road athletes on gravel routes when they want some variety in their training.

Lim hasn’t ruled out working with ProTour athletes for the 2020 race season, but he will focus primarily on using the ebike to train the U19 athletes on the Lux Cycling Development Team, whose Quinn Simmons won the junior men’s race at the UCI Road World Championships in September.

“It’ll be a great way to ride with them and not get my ass handed to me,” Lim said. “This is going to become standard training practice.”