Could Strava athletes use e-bikes to take KOMs on epic climbs and get away with it? We put it to the test.

No-one enjoys getting an email through from Strava informing you that someone has taken one of your KOMs. You hastily check the segment to see what they did, and you instantly try to rationalise it. There must have been a big tail wind today, maybe they were sat behind a big group of riders, or even a car, perhaps they were on a time trial bike?

Either way, they certainly didn’t take the segment because they were fitter than you.

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Many Strava users will be familiar with the mysterious JP. For those who aren’t, he is an anonymous Strava user, who has a habit of taking KOMs on iconic climbs off famous pros.

Somewhat provocatively his profile picture is of Lance Armstrong, with some conspiracy theorists suggesting that the account does in fact belong to the disgraced Texan. Others have suggested it may even be Sir Bradley Wiggins.

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However, I have another theory. What if JP is not a pro at all, but just a regular cyclist, with the power output and VO2 max of an average human. If so, would it be possible to cheat? I wanted to find out, as this would have implications for all Strava users. In effect, is it possible to ride up a famous climb, in a convincing way and get the KOM by cheating, and geting away with it in the process?

>>> How to take a Strava KOM

Analysis of JP’s ride data suggests at first glance that it’s legitimate. He has power, cadence and heart rate. Furthermore, his numbers appear feasible too.

So, how could he and others be cheating? My suggestion is with an e-bike. By attaching a powermeter, such as Garmin Vector pedals to an e-bike you would still get your power output and cadence. Heart rate could be recorded as per normal.

You can adjust the assistance on most electric bikes, so it is possible to still put in a lot of effort, resulting in a high and realistic looking heart rate. Furthermore, anything around 300W for 30 mins could be enough to take a KOM if you weigh 60Kg. After all, how is Strava to know that you actually weigh 85Kg and enjoy a pint or five!

The Kalkhoff Integrale 10

The Kalkhoff Integrale 10G

For a bit of fun, I decided to put this to the test. First I needed a climb, so I chose a brute – the Kitzbuheler Horn is found in Austria, next to the town of Kitzbuhel. For those not familiar, this fearsome hors catagorie monster is 9.7km of 13% unrelenting brutality, and is often featured in the Tour of Austria.

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Next, I needed an e-bike. Having done some research, I opted for a Kalkhoff Integrale 10G. This particular bike is designed primarily for town use and features Kalkhoff’s proprietary Impulse Evo 36V / 250W motor with shift-sensor technology. The motor is impressive, producing a claimed 70Nm of torque. In real terms this is like having a crank arm 1 metre long with a 70kg weight pushing on the end of it. I hoped this would be enough to cope with the 20% gradients I had to ride. Furthermore, the battery life is good too, with a claimed range of approximately 200km on ‘eco mode.’

We changed the saddle and the pedals on the Kalkhoff

We changed the saddle and the pedals on the Kalkhoff

The Integrale 10G is limited to 27kph, beyond which the motor ceases to assist you. Kalkoff do make a model above this with a more powerful 350W motor that is limited to 45kph. This however requires a licence to ride on the road.

Considering the current KOM on the Kitzbuheler Horn was set at average speed of 12.1 kph, I figured the 27kph max speed would not hold me back. I was keen to see if the motor could cope with the sustained torque loads and heat (it was a stifling 30ºC).

Although the battery life is long, this is dramatically reduced if you use the motor a lot, so I wanted to see if the battery would last the course too.

The Horn features a ticket machine so you can time yourself.

The Horn features a ticket machine so you can time yourself.

I swapped the flat pedals for my own Mavic Zxellium SLs and also changed the wide padded saddle for a Selle Italia SLR. Other than that, the bike was off the shelf and the motor was not tweaked in anyway. The fork was also locked out, as suspension would not be required.

I set out, heading towards the climb. The ‘Horn’ as it is know is clearly visible as you approach it. Imposing itself upon the horizon, it certainly is intimidating. Rolling along the flat valley on the approach I was consistently exceeding the 27kph limit, whereupon the Integrale 10 would suddenly become a really heavy bike.

I attached my Garmin next the Kalkhoff display unit

I attached my Garmin next the Kalkhoff display unit

I reached the base of the climb and pre-emptively switched the Kalkhoff motor to give me maximum assistance, in ‘Ultra mode’. However, it quickly became apparent that this was going to take the proverbial and look completely unrealistic.

The initial 14% ramps of the ‘Horn’ were demolished at over 20kph. It felt effortless too, my heart rate was really low and I wasn’t having to pedal hard. Maybe this is what EPO feels like?

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Worried that my heart rate was too low and my speed too high to look convincing, I turned down the assistance. The motor actually features five levels and I struck a happy medium on the second level – ‘sport.’ This level seemed to give me some assistance but also required me to work pretty hard and get my HR up at a speed which was just enough to take the KOM.

Descending was great fun. The combination of wide tyres and Shimano Deore disc brakes is great.

Descending was great fun. The combination of wide tyres and Shimano Deore disc brakes is great.

Further up the road, scattered along the length of the climb were several cyclists also attempting the Horn, the majority of whom were astride expensive carbon road bikes.

I saw the first rider up the road, snaking his way up, weaving in an effort to take the sting out of the relentless gradient. As I flew past, he was able to exclaim ‘wow’ through his panting. I passed another cyclist who I heard say ‘Jesus Christ’ as I blasted past him at a speed only a pro could realistically hope to achieve.

>>> How to master a long climb

Interestingly people didn’t seem to notice that I was on an electrically assisted bike and effectively cheating. I felt a mixture of pity and amusement for them. After all, they were giving it their all on lightweight carbon bikes, only to have someone fly past on an upright town bike, looking like they were going to the shops.

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The motor coped very well with the steep gradients

Ramps of 20% are common on the Horn and with each kilometre, there is a sign informing you what the average gradient of the next kilometre is. One particularly cruel sign near the top informs you that the next 1000m has an average gradient of 19.5%. Ouch.

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The e-bike had absolutely no problem and continued to be more than up to the task in just its second level of assistance.

So did I take the KOM? I did, and interestingly, I appeared to do it in a way which was convincing enough not to be flagged. Friends were impressed, giving me plenty of virtual ‘kudos’ and messages of congratulation.

Now I have admitted to my deception, I fully expect the climb to be flagged, but I wanted to see if it could be done in a believable way and if an e-bike was up to the task. It would appear it can. I have subsequently removed the ride.

The segment screen on Strava

The segment screen on Strava

Interestingly my VAM score was a high 1689 Vm/h. VAM is a measure of climbing speed, measured in metres-per-hour.

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The biggest values ever seen in pro cycling, over sustained climbs, were in excess of 1800 Vm/h, from Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani. But crucially mine was actually higher than Chris Froome’s ascent up the climb to La-Pierre-Saint-Martin on stage 10 of the 2015 Tour de France. Froome’s VAM was 1602 Vm/h.

The Strava leader board for the Horn.

The Strava leader board for the Horn.

Before all the trolls break out of their cages (dank bedrooms), I should point out several things. Riding an e-bike up a climb is great fun. You can adjust the assistance, as I did, so that you still have the sensation of pushing yourself up a climb. The crucial difference, is that you are travelling at a fast speed, giving you a unique inkling of what it must be like to be Chris Froome or Nairo Quintana. Also, Strava isn’t life or death and this was an amusing experiment.

Looking out over Austrian Alps, the views are stunning

Looking out over Austrian Alps, the views are stunning. I hit 76kph on the descent, on a town bike!

So… what have we learnt? If you are that way inclined and want to take all the KOMs on the biggest climbs, buy an e-bike. However, although I found the Kalkhoff incredibly enjoyable to ride, the feat of taking that KOM was completely empty. This only touches the surface, but it gave me an insight into what it may feel like for any of the winners of any major cycle races who have done so by foul play.

This is not to say I am against the idea of e-bikes. For people who for whatever reason would struggle up a hors catagorie climb, e-bikes represent a great solution.

Key climbs of the Tour de France. Montvernier 

  • Andre

    Just looking at your Data shows me right away that you cheated, even if i didn’t know. I wouldn’t even have to look at your power output. Looking into your power data would flag this ride instantly. I’m not gonna go into details how things work.
    But anyway…There is always a way to cheat if somebody really wants to. The other question is, what does it bring you? LMAO…it just shows what a loser somebody is and he or she should get a life. (I’m not saying you are one, I’m talking about people that do it not as a test)

  • Rob Dean

    It’s not cheating using an eBike on Strava, there is actually an eBike activity category. The cheating is simply misclassifying the activity. Not much different to going around a running route on a “normal” bike, or roller blades or any other mis-classification. eBikes have a place in cycling, and there own place on Strava, so we can all use whatever equipment we want and enjoy it, with fair comparison to others 🙂

  • avtechnician

    … or you could improve your Strava times by getting fitter.

  • 140 km/h on a motorbike. Dont make me laugh. Dumb reply..

  • Roland Lawrence

    Indeed as Lance pointed out its easy to win either on an e-bike or by taking something like EPO. I enjoy using the app to see how im doing VS my friends and how i’ve been doing VS myself over time. Im slow. If I set record times its because no one else has done that stretch before. Im still happy & have no smartphone rage!

  • terry j

    Strava is a fun recreational tool,for use in sport how sad that you proved you can cheat just like taking epo or other drugs but without the self harm . maybe you will have succeded in taking away some of the pleasure from strava users and also incidentlaly promoted the Bike for sale or amybe that wasnt the only motive ???
    ps didnt read the whole of this long epic tale of a man on a moped !

  • Ambientereal

    Yes, I believe you are right, but I somehow feel that Strava was some kind of fully amateur competition. As Juno_M says, that list provides no economic incentive, and there was the beauty of it. Showing that the system can be cheated, any further interest will get lost, and I feel that is a pity. I must state that I am quite old and only ride my stationery bike, but enjoy enormously the sports.

  • Steve Hislop

    Its only Strava, there are more important things in life. If your revolves around setting times against people you may never ever meet then it is ultimately a very shallow one. Maybe this is what Strava needs, to teach the lunatics who take it so seriously that they could be beaten by an e-bike so why not just ride for the enjoyment instead

  • Larry Page

    Dumb experiment. If you enjoy, do it on a motorbike at 140 km/h. Strava is just for yourself, Or do u think u became a winner after a kom?

  • Jono_M

    Yes, you can cheat by buying a 3,500 Euro Kalkhoff Integrale 10G and taking it up a mountain. So you can be leader on a list that provides no economic incentive.

  • Ambientereal

    By the way I found irresponsible to tell the cheaters how to cheat.

  • Ambientereal

    I´m sorry but 70 Nm is not “like having a crank arm 1 meter long with a 70kg weight pushing on the end of it” but ten times smaller. Nm means Newton-meter and a Newton is almost ten times smaller than a Kg. As a real figure is like having a crank of 0,10 meter and a rider of 70 Kg. softly lying his weight on it. If he lets his body drop at some speed (what riders normally do) it will dramatically increase. With a real crank length of say 180 mm a pro rider of 70 Kg. can produce some 200 Nm.

  • I think this is an interesting experiment and I’m glad you came clean about it and deleted the ride. If we start to see many more e-bikes on our local routes we may now know why!