Electric assist mountain bikes (eMTB from this point on in the article) in the $6-7K segment like my Cannondale Habit Neo 2 are the most popular and fastest growing segment of mountain bikes offered today - if you can find one. This Cage Match could easily be a comparison between Trek Rail, Giant Stance, Specialized Levo or any other brands in this category. But it is its competitor, the Trek E-Caliber 9.6, that makes this comparison worth writing. To research this article I took the opportunity to commandeer Tricia’s Trek E-Caliber 9.6, one of the new generation lightweight eMTBs. Hopefully this comparison is intriguing enough to keep your attention until I disclose our (patent pending) Who is it for?/Who is it not for? at the end.

eMTBs still fall under Cycling Rule 10.6.B regarding weight: The more you spend, the less you get. Whereas the majority of the eMTBs are 50 pounders like the Habit 2 Neo, we are seeing a new class of eMTBs emerging with a scale-friendly sub 40-pound weight. These lightweight eMTBs achieve that lean weight a couple of ways. The slimming down of the bikes starts with a lighter drive pack like the smaller modular battery system on the Orbea Rise with Shimano EP8-RS drive, or the Trek E-Caliber’s unique Fazua drive pack, one of the lightest and most compact assist systems in the industry. This weight savings usually comes at a financial cost, and the lightweight segment can be one of the most expensive of the eMTB category. Bikes like the lightweight 36-ish pound Trek E-Caliber 9.9 XXI, the high end brother to the E-Caliber 9.6 discussed here, comes in just a penny under $13.5K. Tricia’s OCLV carbon framed E-Caliber 9.6 is arguably one of the best light eMTB values at $6599.99. So, how does a 10lb weight difference between these two segments change your real world riding experience and, most importantly, which one is better … for you?
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Muscle Car vs. Sports Car
I have been riding my 2020 Cannondale Habit Neo 2, a traditional modern eMTB, for the past two years. Even with its carbon frame, the Cannondale weighs in at a not-so-svelte 50-ish pounds. Not light by any means, but with the Bosch Performance CX 625Wh/85Nm assist, that weight is not felt as much as you would think. What it does offer is a solid, connected-to-the-trail feel which creates a level of sure footedness that a regular (non e-assist) bike just does not provide.

I was trying to think of a good analogy to compare these two bike designs. As with many other comparisons, I revert to automobiles. The Habit 2 Neo feels like a modern American muscle car: strong and stable, but with the ability to cut and carve the back roads. Like the modern muscle car, these heavier e-bikes are no longer the one dimensional straight-line machine they used to be.

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If the Cannondale Habit Neo is a muscle car, what is the Trek E-Caliber? When I was out riding Tricia’s e-Caliber, it reminded me of one of my Miatas: light, nimble, not too powerful, a hint of rawness with a lavender overtone. The last part is because @Tricia has her black-as-my-soul matte/gloss black E-Caliber blinged out with purple accents.

There were a lot people questioning the purpose of E-Caliber when Trek released it. Why a cross country/race derived short, 100/120mm-ish travel full suspension 250Wh/55Nm eMTB? (Compared to the Cannondale’s 130/140mm travel and 625Wh/85Nm). Was it an answer in search of a question? Why produce a lightweight low power eMTB when so many people subscribe to the Tim Taylor philosophy of “more power?” After all, the most common questions asked by perspective eMTB buyers are “How much power?” and “How long is the range?”

Firepower vs MPG
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When I first started thinking about doing this A/B comparison, I immediately thought of the end of the movie Stripes when the magazine covers started flashing, and Louise compares her favorite tanks based on “Firepower vs. MPG.” That is very relevant in this Cage Match. Battery size transfers to the available range. I took both bikes on a 4.6 mile out-and-back test with about 540 ft of climbing. The Cannondale used 12% of its 625Wh battery and the Trek‘s 250Wh unit used 23%. So, the heavier Cannondale used 75Wh and the more efficient Trek used only 57.5 Wh. Coincidentally, the power-to-weight ratio used on this ride was about the same. The Trek’s weight is about 80% of the Cannondale, and the battery Wh was about 80% too.

While a muscle car might have more range with a bigger gas tank than a Miata, the Miata will get better MPG. MPG might not relate completely to MPWh because you cannot refill on the trail, but you can get a battery extender to take with you on those rides that are borderline or longer than the 250Wh will take you. There is a very similar discussion that comes up regarding electric cars: How much range do we really need?

Is this reviewer ready to give up his 50lb’er to go light with the cost of less Wh/Nm? When I first started riding my Habit, I initially thought, “I’m not sure I need all this power. Why not a lighter bike that doesn’t require a 625Wh battery to overcome the weight penalty?“ After riding the E-Caliber, I got part of my answer. In the auto world, I would always choose a Miata over a Camaro; but for an eMTB, the Miata with a turbo or a new Supra might be nicer. I think I would like one of these lighter bikes but…I would want to try some of the other 40-ish pound offerings like the Specialized Levo SL or the Orbea Rise M10/M20 before deciding. Like many, I am always looking for my next e-bike.

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Some other details
There are a few other aspects of this comparison that need to be disclosed: Neither bike reviewed were “stock” as both had upgrades. The Cannondale came with Maxxis Rekon tires but I upgraded to Maxxis DHF 2.5 and DHR II 2.4 and tubeless. The Trek had more upgrades. Its drivetrain was changed from Shimano Deore 6100XT to Sram GX/NX and the wheel set swapped from Bontrager Kovee Comp 2.3 to DT Swiss 1700. Brakes were also upgraded from Shimano MT4100 to XTR. Tires were changed from Bontrager XR3 Team to Maxxis Aggressor 2.3 and DHF 2.3 and tubeless. While many of these changes are significant, I don’t think they had a significant influence on the overall basis of the design comparisons. I should also add that some of the E-Caliber‘s nimbleness is due to the small frame and XC geometry. I would usually ride a medium, but like skiing a ski in a size below my sweet spot, I was able to discern the overall feel of the bike.

  • Who is the Habit Neo (and other 50lb options) for: The mainstream bikes in this range are for those who want to go out for a ride ride without worrying if they can make it up that 2,000 foot climb, or those who would love to complete a 30-40 mile ride in two-thirds of the time. The vast majority of riders who have nothing to prove to anyone, or, want to do longer rides in less time are suited to this type of eMTB.
  • Who is the E-Caliber (and other light options) for: The E-Caliber is for the rider who might need an e-bike to provide extra power, but does not want one. The E-Caliber is also a great choice if you are the only ebike rider in your group. It rides very much like an analog bike, and the Fazua drive pack can be removed and the bike ridden with little to no crank/drivetrain resistance, while dropping the weight closer to 30lb. Lastly, these lighter bikes would be my first suggestion for women and lighter riders. A 36-40lb eMTB is proportioned to a smaller rider such as a 50lb one is to a larger rider.