First Ride: Trek E-Caliber
Can an E-Bike be an XC bike?
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It’s a few days before Christmas and we’re chatting with Trek. We’re discussing a new bike they’re launching in a couple months, trying to figure out if it’s something we’d be interested in getting in for testing.
“This isn’t the typical bike we’d push toward y’all,” says our contact at Trek, talking about the E-Caliber—though we’re still in the dark about the name and any details at this point.
He’s being a bit coy still; that’s how many of these initial conversations go when talking about unreleased products. The information sort of trickles out in references and hints at first. So far, what we know of Trek’s new mystery bike, from a similarly coy invite email to an upcoming COVID-style virtual bike launch presentation, is this:
“This new e‑MTB will change the landscape of the category, particularly for a set of riders who’ve been curiously neglected in the e‑bike revolution.”
“If I’m reading the clues right,” says Beta’s gear editor, Travis Engel, “It sounds like this’ll be on the lighter side of the e-bike spectrum? Palmer’s got the most experience there, having ridden a [Specialized] Levo SL for the past several months.”
“Here’s the thing,” responds our Trek contact. “It’s not a trail bike. Levo SL isn’t the comparison. It’s a cross country bike aimed at cross country riders for cross country rides.”
Oh! This isn’t an atypical thing for us because it’s an e-bike (something we didn’t cover much of at our last outfit), it’s because it’s a Cross Country bike.
He’s right, we don’t actually test very many XC bikes, although that of course depends on what you mean by ‘XC.’ We’ll get into that in a sec. This crew, the same group of folks who had been making Bike magazine, predominately test bikes that fall into the ‘Trail,’ ‘All-Mountain,’ and ‘Enduro’ categories, the meat and potatoes of what the majority of mountain bike riders ride. I’m putting all these categories in quotes, by the way, because every now and then a bike comes along that makes you question what they all mean in the first place. The whole thing turns into a discussion over semantics.
Sort of like how the latest Trek Top Fuel is an XC bike, but not an XC race bike. It’s part of an emerging group of super fun bikes that are quick and twitchy, but not as quick and twitchy as XC race rigs, that nobody can quite agree on a category name for.
But the E-Caliber is not that, according to Trek. The E-Caliber doesn’t share its suspension design and rear-wheel travel with the Top Fuel, it’s based off the Supercaliber, Trek’s lightest, fastest, World Cup Cross Country race machine. And that, my friends, is sort of the thing.
The term “Cross Country” was a race discipline first, not a bike category. So XC bikes by definition, should be race bikes, right? If that’s to be the case, then the E-Caliber is clearly not that either, even though it’s based (and named) after something that very much is. So what is it, other than a vehicle to confuse my OCD, everything-needs-a-category brain?
Really, really fun, that’s what. Fast, twitchy, eye-blurring fun.
He was right, the Specialized Levo SL is not the comparison. Actually, let me roll that back a little. The Levo SL is a very good comparison on a few metrics: power output, battery capacity, and weight. Based on what both bikes are like to ride, though, we’re looking at two very different experiences altogether. They indeed, should not be considered to be “in the same category” on that front. But, because there aren’t many of these lighter-weight, lower-output e-bikes out there right now, and because I happen to have a Levo SL, I’ll be doing some comparisons. Just remember, from a riding standpoint they’re super different.
Trek E-Caliber: So What is it, Already?
Trek used its very sleek and impressive IsoStrut suspension and integrated shock design to give the E-Caliber the same 60 millimeters of rear-wheel travel that the Supercaliber has. But, the bike is designed for a 120mm fork, and the head angle is a degree-and-a-half slacker than its analog counterpart. This part is key.
Cross Country purists might look at the head angle and scoff, thinking 67.5 degrees is too slack for an XC bike. But, this is an e-bike, and even though it’s one of the lightest ones out there, it’s still significantly heavier than the Supercaliber. And we’ll be going a lot faster because, like, the bike’s got a motor. So, yes, it’s slacker than the Supercaliber, but the bike still dodges and weaves through tight stuff like an XC bike does.
The stem is flipped down, and I’m in an aggressive racing posture, on an e-bike. There’s just a smidge of rear-wheel suspension, enough to take the edge off, but not enough, by any means, to get lost in. It’s responsive, agile. It taunts you to put the power down. And then, it puts it down with you. Sticking a motor on that kind of handling results in a unique and extremely gratifying experience. I don’t care how fit and fast you already are, you’ll be going much faster on the E-Caliber.
Like any XC bike should, the E-Caliber inspires pain-cave riding. It makes you want to push and push until your legs and lungs explode. The fact that it’s an e-bike doesn’t change that in any regard.
Actually, for me, it heightens the feeling. From a fitness perspective, I’m positive that I push myself harder on the E-Caliber than I do on any of the acoustic bikes I ride. I’ve got the heart rate data to prove it. One of the big myths about e-bikes is this assumption that the people riding them are lazy, or that they’ll make you a lazy rider. Not the case. If you love punishing yourself, you’ll love punishing yourself on an e-bike, too.
Especially this one. The Levo SL has this going for it as well. These are the two only lightweight, lower-output e-bikes I’ve ridden, and both of them share a similar sense of motivating you to only use the amount of power you need in order to keep your momentum up and essentially, not blow yourself up in the process. But the Levo SL is much more couch-like. It’s not a lumbering bike on its own, but it sure is when compared to the E-Caliber. The Levo SL makes me want to pedal all day, but the E-Caliber makes me want to grit my teeth, put my head down, and smash.
There are a lot of neat things about e-bikes in general. One of which is that they allow you to basically manage your heart rate in almost any terrain. This is key for athletes who are on specific training programs, many of whom use road cycling to put in base miles and maintain consistent, steady heart rates. The consistency of a graded and paved road is basically used as a baseline to control heart rate. Toggling between modes on the E-Caliber can offer the same type of training while allowing riders to train off-road. It’ll basically flatten steep climbs out enough so you don’t have to go anaerobic if you don’t want to. And because this bike fits and handles like an XC bike, I think it can be a really great and entertaining training tool.
Plus, like any e-bike, the E-Caliber opens up new terrain because it’s possible to ride up steeper climbs. I find myself wanting to try riding up trails I’ve only ever descended, and with the E-Caliber, all the same challenges I love about trying to clean technical climbs on a normal bike are still there. The E-Caliber is so efficient and light that it rides a lot like a normal bike does, and less like a full-power e-bike.
Most of the time I stay in the E-Caliber’s middle output mode, which I’ve customized to provide 185 watts of help (of the maximum available 300 watts). And I can only get the full 185 watts after I’m putting 310 watts of my own power into the system. Out of the box, the bike’s motor, which is a Fazua Evation with Fazua’s 250X 252-watt-hour battery, is limited to 250 watts of help in the highest output mode (which Fazua calls ‘rocket’), but each of the three output modes can be totally customized on Fazua’s desktop computer app. For now, you have to physically connect the Evation unit into a desktop via USB mini, but they’ll be an updated bluetooth-connected app in the future.
Anyway, back to that middle setting. I find that 185 watts is a happy medium for me. It gives me enough of a boost to overcome the weight increase over a regular bike, plus enough extra that my average speeds are considerably higher and I can tackle terrain I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out. But, it’s still making me work for it. I’m getting the same or better workout, but mentally, I’m much more stoked because my speeds are up. My brain doesn’t care that I’m going fast because I’m ‘cheating,’ it’s just happy the ground is screaming by under my wheels. And let us not forget, that’s what mountain biking is all about. Fun, happiness.
Is it Really That Good?
Yes. It really is. You really do have to try it to believe it, but the feeling of a supercharged Supercaliber is something very special.
But also, no. There are plenty of things about the E-Caliber that I’m not in love with. Let’s get the small stuff out of the way first: The fancy 9.9 level of spec does not get a dropper post. I’m sorry, but that’s just not safe. Mountain bikes need droppers, period. I know a lot of XC riders still don’t use them, but I strongly believe that every mountain bike should come with a dropper, regardless of optics or price. This is obviously my own personal opinion, and it’s an easy fix. The bike comes with the ability to run a dropper, and lower-level specs do come out of the box with one.
Next up, another very XC thing: dual remote lockouts. The E-Caliber very well might be an XC bike, but it’s not a race bike, so it doesn’t need remote lockouts. It only has 60 millimeters of rear suspension. It might be the most efficient climbing bike on the market. The lockout makes it slower uphill. So, I called Trek and they sent me an IsoStrut shock with a manual lockout. Don’t even get me started on fork lockouts. Again, I realize that this bike is aimed at the kind of rider that goes for these types of features, but this is an e-bike. It’s different, and it’s not going to be in any sprint finishes winning anyone any novelty-size checks. What this bike needs, because it’s so fast, is a fork with real damping capability. That’s why I replaced the stock Fox 34 Step-Cast fork with a 34 Grip 2.
Removing the lockout lever cleared up real estate for the dropper lever, though the bike did come with an add-on dropper lever that cleanly mounts to the bottom of the suspension-lockout lever. I could have kept everything in place and just put a cable-actuated dropper on. But, I was ditching the dual-remote-lockout setup anyway, so I opted for a RockShox Reverb AXS.
By no means I’m I trying to change what this bike is. It handles exactly the same now as it did before the modifications. It’s still has the same snappy handling, the same travel front and rear, and it only gained a pound: it went from 36.2 pounds (with XTR pedals) to 37.3. But, I have a lot more fun on it now that it’s tailored to my liking. The Grip2 fork has a ton more control and traction, making the bike feel a lot more planted when the dropper is down and I’m getting the good old gravity-assist.
These nitpicks are just that, nitpicks. I presume most people will be perfectly happy with the lockouts, and I presume most of the buyers will go for something a little more affordable than this $11,500 E-Caliber 9.9 XTR, so they’ll get a dropper out of the box.
The other issues aren’t as easy to fix. Range, and weight; and here’s where the Levo SL comes back in to the comparison. The Levo SL is both lighter, and has far better range than the E-Caliber. There are obvious variables involved with any real-world testing, and I’m not going to go into much depth on my testing procedures, but I’m consistently getting almost twice as many vertical feet climbing with the Levo SL than the E-Caliber. That isn’t a small thing. It makes it so that I’m constantly monitoring the battery level, whereas I tend to just forget about it on the Levo SL. The SL will always be fine on a three-hour ride, but the E-Caliber might not be. But, it has become my go-to for lunchtime power rides. I can crush myself in one hour, and go insanely fast while doing so. Some of these rides have been my favorite of any I’ve done in the past year.
Weight-wise, even though the Levo SL I actually ride is about a pound heavier than the E-caliber (with modifications), if I swap wheels, the scales tell an entirely different story. If I were to run the SL with the E-Caliber’s wheels, it’s 35.5 pounds, 2 pounds lighter than how I’m running the E-Caliber. And, keep in mind, the Levo SL has 150mm of travel front and rear.
The weight isn’t the issue for me, though. Both bikes feel the same to me on the trail from a weight perspective. Actually, the E-Caliber sort of feels lighter because it’s so much more agile. For me, right now, I think the range is potentially the E-Caliber’s biggest weakness, because it’s naturally the type of bike that you’d want to go out all day on. It’s the entire reason I went in and customized the power output in the middle (most often used) mode.
Taking it from the stock 210 watts of output in that mode to 185 did something I didn’t quite expect. It improved the range a bit, sure. But it also made me ride the bike in a different way than I ride the Levo SL, geometry and intent notwithstanding. It really cemented the idea that the E-Caliber isn’t like any other e-bike, or at least any that I’ve ridden. It’s made for people who really love to pedal. And for those who really, really love to pedal, the E-Caliber comes with a dummy that clips in where the motor and battery do, resulting in an analog bike that weighs just 30 pounds (size large with XTR pedals). It’s also a massive container for snacks and things.
The E-Caliber isn’t supposed to go head to head with a bike like the Levo SL, because it’s sort of designed to make you work harder than that bike does. You can still go for big rides, you just won’t be able to get as much help along the way. And I think that’s probably the exact point. Yeah, the E-Caliber is an XC bike.