E-Bikes For Trail Riding | What To Know Before You Buy

by | Sep 27, 2023 | Buyer's Guide, Bike, E-Bikes, Featured, Sports

E-bikes designed for ‘trail riding’ have to be our favourite category of pedal-assist toys!

The blend of modern bike design with the added motor support to maximise exploring that can be done and time pointed downhill just never gets old. Climbing higher, faster and further on a bike that handles beautifully on a range of singletrack terrain, what’s not to like?

If you’re not up to date, we have been doing a series of articles breaking down all you need to know about E-Bikes as a whole and the nuances of each category and by now you’re likely well aware that in this article we are focussing on what makes a good E-Bike for the intended purpose of trail riding.

Defining a ‘Trail E-Bike’

It is a broad category, to say the least but what we are dealing with here are bikes that are designed to be great all-rounders with handling that will be engaging and agile on technical climbs while still stable enough to help you tame a variety of trails, be they flowy or technical.

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
A trail E-bike is an all-rounder. Capable on the descents but still alive on the climbs. (c) Specialized Turbo Levo SL

If that doesn’t quite sound like your cuppa tea, find our articles focused on marathon bikes here and gravity bikes coming soon!

Below we’ll unpack the details on what makes for a particularly good bike in the Trail E-bike category and why so that you can make a better informed purchasing decision. We’ll also share some of our top picks from a few brands available locally.

Battery Capacity and Motors

When we took a look at what makes an E-Bike good for marathons and stage racing, a large battery capacity (600+ Wh) was top of the list. Now in the trail riding category, that might not need to be a priority for you.

If most of your rides are an hour or two and you might get up to 3 hours or so on the weekends, you may not need a big battery bike but can land up on something a bit lighter that rides more like a traditional mountain bike (if that is what you’re after). If this is you, it could also be worth considering how an E-Bike may inspire some longer adventures when the time affords it and then shopping accordingly.

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Range extenders attach via a bottle cage mount and can add an extra hour or two to your ride time (c) Trek

You may be aware that not all E-Bike have equally powered motors. More and more manufacturers these days are producing E-Bikes that feature smaller battery capacities and lighter motors that put out less power but the end product is a bike that is more akin to a traditional bicycle in ride feel. Their range is still pretty decent because of the lighter package and smaller output requiring less energy to move but it is less than that of the bigger bikes.

The smaller motored bikes are still great fun to ride but aren’t as bonkers as their full-powered brethren. We discussed this in more detail in our initial article on Understanding E-Bikes. In short, we dig these smaller motored bikes as well and you’ll see a couple of them in our recommendations coming up.

Suspension and Geometry

As a rule of thumb, you’re going to want a bike with 140+ mm of rear suspension to ensure good composure for trail riding. While an E-Bike’s weight definitely adds to its stability on the trail, the short travel bikes are quite harsh and don’t quite carry their weight as well as the longer-legged versions. That being said, you can get away with less travel on the lighter-weight options.

A good trail E-Bike will likely have geometry numbers close to that of a traditional trail mountain bike. The head angle may be a touch slacker and the chainstays a bit longer (due to the motor taking up precious room around the BB). We’ll talk more about the bikes that live in the extreme with 63-degree or lower head angles and 170mm + of suspension in our upcoming gravity E-Bike article but for the trail bikes, it is all about the happy medium.

Components for a Trail-focused E-Bike

Most of the bikes you’ll see on the market from the big players will have a solid build that will be up for the rigours of trail riding but there can be a tendency to skimp on some components at times for cost or weight-saving reasons. We’ll touch on the main ones to worry about below.


The added weight of the E-Bike system and the confidence that they inspire on the descents means that brakes are of high importance, and more so if you are a fast/aggressive or heavy rider. A set of powerful pistons (Shimano’s 4 piston brakes, Magura’s MT5s or MT7s, SRAM Codes, etc) with 200 mm rotors front and rear are what we would recommend as a baseline.

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
200mm rotors, as you’ll find on the Trek Fuel Exe, are a must to control the weight of a capable E-Bike! (c) Trek

Big brake rotors (200 mm+) will offer more leverage (less effort to brake) and cool better on long descents (meaning consistent performance). 220 mm rotors are becoming increasingly popular on capable E-Bikes and we are all for it!


This is the most common spec choice that companies will save cost and weight on. Lightweight tyres are even more prone to puncture on these heavy machines. We would advise a casing at least as tough as what you’re used to riding on a normal mountain bike (or roughly the mid-strength option from a given brand) as a baseline and going for more robust options if you’re prone to riding fast and loose.

As for tread patterns, you’ve got a motor to overcome the rolling resistance so go all out on an aggressive tyre to maximise the traction you can get! Faster rolling tires can eke out a little more range but we (and many product managers) would err on the side of traction.

Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1 E-Bike First Look
Aggressive tread patterns are a win on E-Bikes, just watch out for tire casings that aren’t up for the bike’s capabilities.


Wheels need not be too high on the priority list but if you’re looking for upgrades or the best buy, here is some info. Stronger wheels (carbon or alloy) will obviously be beneficial to aggressive or heavier riders who put a lot of force through the bike. Lighter options can also help a little with range and acceleration (we’re talking small percentages here) but it is really nuanced due to the power offered by your motor. 


This is an interesting one. You can actually get away with “cheaper” suspension on a heavy E-Bike because the weight of the bike masks the suspension performance and helps overcome the system’s friction more easily. Given that, quality suspension products aren’t a huge priority for your E-Bike’s component list but for high-performance riders, it would still be worthwhile to go for the better spec choice.


A lot of cockpit setup comes down to personal preference of course but there are a few points worth mentioning. High-rise bars of 15+ mm will offer a comfortable descending position (more rise is better for taller riders and steeper trails, generally). Short stems of 50 mm or less give a more direct steering sensation and take the weight off of your arms on the descents. For trail-oriented E-Bikes these spec choices will be pretty common on stock bikes across brands and price ranges.

Also worth noting; one-piece bar and stem combos are becoming more popular on stock bikes and while they look amazing, they may not be the ideal rise, roll, and sweep for you. A test ride is a smart idea if you’re looking at a bike with one of these futuristic cockpits.

Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1 E-Bike First Look
Thankfully, most one-pice cockpits have a neutral design that will fit a variety of riders.

Full 29” wheels or a 27.5” in the back?

E-Bikes with smaller rear wheels are increasingly popular as this allows the chainstay length to be shorter to increase the agility of the heavy machines. Though a full 29” bike will roll a little faster and easier, the mixed-wheel bike is generally more playful to ride! Smaller riders or those who like to find the steepest trails will benefit the most from this setup but taller riders will still notice the increased agility over a full 29” E-Bike. Pick your preference!

Should I go for a hardtail?

Hardtail E-Bikes can be brutes to handle because of their weight and limited compliance. They are, of course, not light and easy to dance around with like a traditional bicycle and thus we really recommend a full suspension option if your budget allows for it.

If you are needing the most affordable options and want that motor support, get a hardtail test ride and go for it!

Our top E-Bike pics for trail riding

Below you will find some of our top recommendations for E-Bikes that will deliver miles and miles of good times and fun as trail riding machines!

Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Giant Trance X Adv E+ Elite 1

Material: Carbon

Travel (f/r) in mm: 150 / 140

Wheel Size: 29 / 27.5

Motor Specs: Yamaha SyncDrive Pro ( 85 Nm )

Battery Size: 400 Wh (non-removable) (range extender compatible)

Water bottle: Yes – Small

Price: R199 990

This is a bike that we recently spent some time with and man were we blown away. It bridges a gap between the lightweight small-battery small-motor bikes and the heavy big-battery big-motor bikes by combining a 400 Wh battery with a full-powered motor. That is a lot of words but the result is simple, it’s a 19 kg rocket ship. Lay on the full support mode when you’re doing a quick after-work blast or moderate the power and enjoy 4+ hour rides on the weekend (or even more with the range extender). If you really want to go far, check out the Trance E+ models.

The Elite 1 is currently the only spec of this bike available in SA but hopefully, we will see some more affordable options in the future. The Fox Live Valve suspension on this bike is phenomenal but its absence won’t undo the overall ride experience on the lower-tier models.

Pros: Live Valve Suspension. Great power-to-weight ratio. Great app integration.
Cons: EXO Tire casing not as robust as the bike demands. Battery not removable.

Specialized Turbo Levo SL

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Specialized Turbo Levo SL

Material: Carbon or alloy

Travel (f/r) in mm: 150 / 160

Wheel Size: 29 / 27.5

Motor Specs: Specialized 1.2 SL ( 50 Nm / 320 W peak)

Battery Size:  320 Wh (non-removable) (160 Wh extender compatible)

Water bottle: Yes – Large

Price: R149 000 – R280 000

Specialized make great bikes. They just do. The latest iteration of their Turbo Levo SL E-Bike has received a bump up in power and a range of geometry adjustments to make it more potent on the climbs and capable on technical descents. The ride is best-in-class and even the baseline model is well specced enough that there aren’t any upgrades you’d ever need to make (as should hopefully be the case at just under R150 000).

This might be the most well-rounded package out there in the small-motored segment. If you want more power and range, check out their Turbo Levo we referenced in the marathon E-bike article.

Pros: Superb Design. Great app integration and UI. Attention to detail on spec list
Cons: non-removable battery.

Orbea Wild

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Orbea Wild

Material: Carbon or alloy

Travel (f/r) in mm: 160 / 160

Wheel Size: 29

Motor Specs: Bosch Performance Line CX ( 85 Nm )

Battery Size:  750 Wh (non-removable)

Water bottle: Yes – Large

Price: R99 999 – R 130 000

Straight outta the Basque Country of Northern Spain, the Wild is ready for anything you can throw at it. This is a full powered big battery bike that could even hold its own in the Gravity category. The Bosch motor is a brute and will blow you away with its power on the climbs!

Running on full 29” wheels and 445mm chainstays, the Wild offers a table ride that will be appreciated by beginners looking for a confidence-inspiring ride and the more skilled wanting to push their limits.

The Wild also comes in at a very reasonable price point locally through Cycle Lab which can be a big deciding point for many buyers. The spec is not top-tier but it is sensible and fair for the price on these bikes so you’re not going to need to do any upgrades off the shelf (or ever, potentially). Their lightweight 140mm option, the Rise, is also worth looking at!

Pros: Incredibly capable.
Cons: non-removable battery. Top-tier spec not available off the shelf.

Trek Fuel EXe

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Trek Fuel EXe

Material: Carbon or alloy

Travel (f/r) in mm: 150 / 140

Wheel Size: 29

Motor Specs: ( 50 Nm / 300 W peak)

Battery Size:  360 Wh (removable) (160 Wh extender compatible)

Water bottle: Yes

Price: R105 000 – R240 000

One of the most exciting bikes to be released in the last year or so has been the Trek Fuel EXe and a lot of that is due to the new-to-cycling motor that it uses from TQ. The Harmonic Pin Ring motor used in the Fuel EXe is incredibly compact and super quiet making for an E-Bike experience that seamlessly blends into your ride.

The motor offers plenty of power for the bike’s weight and unlike many bikes mentioned in this list, the battery is removable! The Fuel EXe looks like a normal trail bike and the ride is about as close to that as you can get with a motor and battery on board. If a subtle E-Bike experience is what you are after, it will be tough to beat the Fuel EXe.

Pros: Seamless riding experience. Removable battery. Great app integration.
Cons: Hard to find any!

Scott Lumen

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Scott Lumen

Material: Carbon or alloy

Travel (f/r) in mm: 130 / 130

Wheel Size: 29

Motor Specs: ( 50 Nm / 300 W peak)

Battery Size:  360 Wh (non-removable) (160 Wh extender compatible)

Water bottle: Yes X 2

Price: R123 900 – R173 900

Fans of integration will love the Scott Lumen! From the internal shock to clean headset routing of the cables, Scott really went all out on this bike. You’ll notice a similar silhouette from their World Cup-winning Spark cross-country bike, this E-Bike is on the light and nippy side of the trail bike spectrum.

The Limen shares the same TQ motor with the Trek Fuel EXe mentioned above, delivering 50 Nm of torque, 250 W of continuous power and 300 W peak power. It has more than sufficient muscle for a lightweight platform. These bikes obviously won’t keep up with the full-powered brutes but they will lend a firm hand on the climbs and blend into the background as you flow down your trail of choice. The shorter travel Lumen will be most at home on flow trails and smoother singletracks and its TwinLoc suspension control can transform the bike into a climbing wizard.

Pros: Adjustable headset angle spacers. High integration. Great app integration.
Cons: Not the most capable on technical trails

Santa Cruz Heckler

What Makes A Good Trail E-Bike Emtb Ebike
Santa Cruz Heckler

Material: Carbon or alloy

Travel (f/r) in mm: 160 / 150

Wheel Size: 29 or mixed

Motor Specs: Shimano EP ( 85 Nm )

Battery Size:  720 Wh (removable)

Water bottle: Yes – Large

Price: R180 000 – R295 000

Santa Cruz took a while to join the E-Bike party but when they did, they did it properly! The Heckler is one of the most fun and playful full-powered E-Bikes on the market. The large 720 Wh battery means you can rev it up in full-support mode for hours and slam a new battery in to keep on going further if you wish!

Available in full 29” or mixed wheel sizing to suit your trails and preferences. Their lightweight version has just launched with local availability TBC, but could be another superb option in the category. 

Pros: Super fun ride. Removable battery. Great app integration.
Cons: It is one of the most expensive options.

Where to next?

With a host of great options here, the best way to figure out if a bike is what you’re looking for and to see how it stacks up to other options is to get a test ride. Get in touch with your local dealer and swing a leg over to see if the bike actually suits your riding style and local terrain. Once you find the right ride, there are many happy hours ahead so get excited!

You can find the rest of this article series here on understanding E-Bikes where we cover marathon-focused options and pure gravity-oriented bruisers if either of those might suit your preference better. Road and gravel bikes to come as well!

Find more E-Bike related content right here.

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