A few months ago Commencal presented us with the opportunity to review a new e-bike. We politely declined. Instead we asked to look around their site and pick something else to test. The Meta AM V4.2 New Zealand Edition instantly caught our eye, it was love at first sight. Our lusting was interrupted by a text from a close friend, Gary Croswhite. We love riding with Gary, but we don’t get to go out very often because of his physical condition. When Gary was 17 years old he broke his neck in an accident that left him completely paralyzed from the neck down for two years. Since then he’s slowly regained some function and has been riding a bike with limited mobility.
Although he’s a living miracle, Gary’s handicap limits our rides to mellower shuttles or short pedals since he doesn’t have the strength or ability to navigate techy terrain at slow speed. Putting power to the pedals is a real challenge for him. We read Gary’s text about going for a ride and reconsidered that e-bike we declined. We called the folks down at Commencal North America and told them we had an idea.
The new Meta Power Race and Meta AM V4.2 are very similar bikes and we felt this could be a unique opportunity, in more than one way. Beyond getting our friend Gary out to join us on some bigger rides, it seemed like the perfect chance to compare nearly identical pedal and e-bikes. Going into the test we were thrilled at the possibilities the e-bike would bring Gary, but were pretty convinced that we wouldn’t be fans of the e-bike when it came time to really riding it the way we like to ride mountain bikes.
A couple days later two large boxes were delivered to the Wolf Den and we eagerly dug in. After ogling at the paint and dialed build on the AM, we focused our attention to the Meta Power and its heft. Weighing in at 50 pounds, exactly 20 pounds more than the Meta AM, we figured the weight was one more nail in the coffin of the e-bike.
Our first e-bike impression was further soured when we had an issue getting the battery to charge due to a bad battery, but Commencal quickly handled the situation and had Shimano send out a replacement. It’s been trouble free ever since. The issue was a good learning experience and also gave us plenty of undivided time to ride the Meta AM.
What we learned however, was that e-MTB self-service is a long ways away and local shops are also far from ready. Even a large shop like Newbury Park Bicycle Shop, who is listed in Shimano’s list of e-MTB service centers, shrugged their shoulders and seemed less than enthused to give us much effort when we wheeled the dead bike inside.
Not a comforting experience since 9 out of 10 FAQ instructions in the owner’s manual send the STEPS E8000 owner to the place of purchase for help. Hell, we even had our Shimano marketing rep try to set up tech sessions with Shimano’s in-house e-MTB specialists and never got a reply back, which I guess is alright, so long as the products work. Thankfully Shimano stuff typically does. We’ve since learned the e-MTB branch at Shimano is looking to hire multiple positions as the growing market has the current staff undermanned and overworked… Welcome to the bike industry. I digress.
Ride the Lightning
With a new battery installed and charged up I set out to ride a loop that I became intimately knowledgeable with while training for the BC Bike Race. It’s a 25-mile ride with 3,000-feet of climbing. I’d amassed quite a deep Strava database from that ride and set out aboard the brand new bike after taking three months off due to an injury.
In my best shape ever, the ride took me roughly two and a half hours. On the Meta Power I blazed back to the car in two hours on the dot, and still felt worked. The longest single climb of the ride took me just over 11 minutes on the Meta Power whereas my fastest pedal up took 16:11. That’s a five-minute savings. Despite the massive time improvement, I was actually surprised at how much effort I was exuding on the way up.
If you’ve ever tried to motor-pace (draft) a car or rider that’s going faster than you’re casual pace, you’ll know it’s taxing on the legs and lungs to push an elevated pace. This is the closest way I can describe the e-MTB experience. If you want to push it, it’s like you’re continually chasing the gear to stay spinning, which keeps your heart rate and cadence up. You’re still working out, but you’re going faster. My first misconception that e-bikes required little fitness was quickly fading. I realized you could make the workout as hard or easy as you want.
Once I arrived at the top, although I was breathing hard, I had a much better attitude about life, and my heart didn’t hate me. After some relatively flat and rolling miles I arrived at a descent I knew quite well. My fastest time down the trail (four years ago) was 5:53. The trail has changed a bit since then and I’ve moved away so I dropped in expecting big rain ruts and line changes to affect my run. I also expected the 50lb bike to hold me back as I navigated my way down the 1.7-mile descent. To my surprise I put down a 6:09 after not having ridden the trail in at least 16 months. I was breathing hard and my arms were tired, but I felt fast and like I still had more time I could have shaved off.
After dropping back into the canyon I pedaled the final four miles back to the car and felt like I was floating. Had the sun not been setting (or the battery bars not been fading) I would have been tempted to find another descent or two.
Initially my plan was to come out, ride the loop on the Meta Power then ride it again on the Meta AM the next day. After I got back to the car and realized how sore and out of shape I was, I decided that my motivation to come back and pedal that same loop again was nonexistent. Embarrassing to admit, but the fact I finished the ride 30 minutes faster than I ever did when I was in shape made me realize I didn’t have the time or desire to come back out here for three hours. Sad when life gets in the way of riding.
After breaking in both bikes for a month down in Thousand Oaks, CA I headed back up to Bend, OR. I was excited to put more time on both bikes but I couldn’t wait to get the Meta Power under Gary. As I said above, Gary is a walking quadriplegic who can ride a bike but doesn’t have the strength to go very far. As a typical bike shop employee with a typical bike-snob opinion on pedal assist bikes, getting Gary out on the e-bike still took a little convincing, but not much.
At the moment Bend, OR isn’t e-bike friendly, so we had to make a bit of a drive and research an area that wouldn’t have us dodging head on collisions with dirt bikers. After unloading the bikes and setting everything up Gary laid the bike over and picked up his leg to swing it over the bike. I heard him giggling and hooting as he dropped me like a bad habit.
Despite Gary’s lack of muscle and ability to put power into the pedals, he was able to complete a ride that was longer, harder and higher than any he’d ever accomplished before! In fact on smooth sections I couldn’t even keep up with him in Turbo mode. When we reached techy rock sections I’d usually find him laying beneath the bike waiting for a pick-me-up.
After dusting himself off he’d put the bike in Walk mode and the 1-MPH assist would help him ascend tricky bits of trail much easier. Once at the top, Gary was excited to drop into the trail. He felt the weight a bit more than I did because keeping the front wheel of a 50-lb bike up off a drop takes a bit more muscle than his 29-lb Pivot Mach 6. Still, it never held him back and the trade off he felt in traction, stability and roll-over confidence made up for the heft.
Needless to say for Gary and all of us in attendance, seeing his first ride aboard an e-MTB was more than enough to have us take back all the shit-talking we’d spat about e-bikes. In fact, Gary said the same thing. The whole drive home he was begging to go out for more big mile rides and climb peaks that he’d heard so many friends talk about all these years. He’s now able to ride with more friends, more often!
We initially wanted this to be a head to head feature where we voted a winner (we assumed it’d be the Meta AM), but in fact, after riding the Meta Power more and more, we realized that wouldn’t be fair to the Meta AM. These bikes ride completely different despite the similarities.
We had some serious hesitations and misconceptions about e-bikes and while we still feel sheepish showing up to the trails and pulling an e-MTB out of the van, that feeling quickly fades once we’re burning miles and able to hit our favorite downhills four times instead of two.
As we all know nothing comes for free so let’s address some of our comparisons between the Meta AM and Meta Power. With 20 extra pounds under the rider, the Meta Power definitely doesn’t leap or pounce like it’s lighter brother. Did it significantly reduce our performance on the trail or limit us from making moves? No, we just had to give it a little more gusto. If you have a disability, heaving a 50-pound bike in and out of your vehicle is definitely something to consider.
Aside from the low hanging fruit of the bike’s weight, there weren’t too many drawbacks to the Meta Power. Excluding the fact you may not be able to ride it on mountain bike trails where you live, which is sort of a big deal.
Whatever the Meta Power loses in test points in the poppy and playful department, it more than makes up for in traction and stability. Our confidence to attack corners, brake late and throw the handlebars towards the ground was one of the best parts about this bike. In fact, the added traction has us evaluating just how light we really want our pedal bikes to be. After feeling how nice a planted ride like this can be, we may voluntarily add a few grams back to our personal bikes.
Spec wise, the two bikes sport a few major differences, which may have contributed to the most noticeable gap in performance. Suspension and brakes – the Meta AM comes spec’d with a Fox Factory Float 36 fork and an oh-so-buttery smooth Fox Factory DHX2. The suspension on the AM V4.2 is definitely a highlight! Shimano XT brakes are more than capable of scrubbing the speed when things get going real fast– a solid spec choice from Commencal and solid performance from Shimano.
The Meta Power sports Rock Shox dampers front and back. A Lyrik RCT3 fork and Super Deluxe Coil RT shock both did a decent job but never quite felt right when compared to the Meta AM. Hand fatigue and pedal feedback were more noticeable aboard the Rock Shox-equipped Meta Power. Commencal does offer the Power with a Fox-spec and we would love to compare them in the future.
Likewise, we didn’t have the best time with SRAM’s Code R brakes. With dual 200mm rotors, the power was pretty good overall, but we struggled with the same old consistency issues and can’t believe they haven’t developed a better way to adjust lever reach. The finicky knobs have a tendency to lock-up making it frustrating to adjust the lever reach throughout the course of a ride as the lever pull changes. Are we the only ones with this issue?
SRAM drivetrains come on both bikes and worked pretty well throughout the duration. The EX1 (e-bike specific) drivetrain was a bit more temperamental in terms of shift precision and drivetrain noise but the Eagle-equipped Meta AM ran flawlessly the whole time we had it. The range of the Eagle really allowed the bike to climb anything we needed to and have enough for flat-out fire road spins.
The Wolf’s Last Word
The goal of this introductory review was to pit two nearly identical bikes against each other to see just how different an e-bike would perform compared to its traditional counterpart. Despite the fact that we now look like hypocrites and don’t want to admit it, we’ve changed our minds. In fact after his first ride we asked Sourpatch, one of the saltiest e-bike haters we know to rate how much his mind had been changed on a scale of 1-10. After shaking his head and looking at the ground he replied, “A solid 8 or 9.” We’re not alone here either. Surprisingly, every pro rider and hardened industry guy we’ve talked to has had a similar experience, ‘you’ll hate them until you ride one’, has been the theme.
Commencal has done a great job offering two killer bikes at incredible price points. The Meta AM is without a doubt one of the best aggressive, all mountain bikes we’ve ridden in recent memory and we look forward to sharing our detailed, full review with you very soon.
As much as we love the AM, the Meta Power stole the show for us. That’s not what we expected going into this comparison, partially because of how much we didn’t want to like it. We didn’t plan on how much new terrain we’d be able to explore in areas we’d been riding our entire life. It changed our perspective on where, when and what we could ride. Any last doubts we had were squashed once we got our disabled friend out on some big rides with us. Seeing a recovering quadriplegic climb at speed and ride trails he’s never ridden got us thinking far outside ourselves, and it was a rewarding experience.
We hit trails farther, faster and without concern for where we’d end up. There were multiple occasions where we didn’t have time, energy or motivation to go out and complete an hour-plus ride. Knowing that we could take the Meta Power out and finish a loop in 40 minutes made the difference between sitting on the couch after work or saying, “I’m just gonna use Turbo today and spin it out.” I was able to shred some turns and get a couple downhills in on a day I’d rather stay home and veg out. On days that I did have time to spare, I ventured down every singletrack offshoot I could fine. Knowing I could now scale anything with the right technique, I was free to build and ride into anything. Those things alone make me excited for the future of e-bikes.
Stay tuned for our detailed review of each bike in the coming weeks.