As a teenager growing up in Marin County, California, Joe Murray built wheels and assembled bicycles for mountain bike pioneer Gary Fisher, before becoming a national champion cross-country racer. This led to stints designing bikes for Bob Buckley’s Marin Bicycles, Kona and VooDoo. A quarter century ago Murray became a skunkworks tester for the mighty component maker Shimano, providing critical feedback before, during and after the prototype and production process.
Murray was inducted in the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 1988, and hasn’t rested on his laurels since. The 54-year-old has a shop in Flagstaff, Arizona, where he tests the latest Shimano STEPS electric mountain bike power plant. We spoke recently about the genesis of the Japanese giant’s foray into e-bikes in this exclusive interview.
When did the discussion in Japan begin about Shimano STEPS, and when was the first working prototype installed on a bike in your Flagstaff workshop?
There’s a division at Shimano where we come up with ideas and produce prototypes for testing and proof of concept. Many of these projects never get produced. In this respect, we’ve been testing off-road electric bikes for over a decade in one form or another. I like to think we used this early E-MTB Shimano testing experience when we started with Shimano’s first bottom bracket drive unit (E6000) for commuter bikes.
Even though this drive system was intended for commuting, we began testing it off road before it was introduced to the public. During this time the project for a dedicated off-road drive system (E8000) began. We had already been testing Bosch-drive bikes and others for a long time. The development cycle can go a long time until we get it right. So it’s been quite a few years since I got the first E8000 bike sent to my shop for long-term testing. We then went through a number of pre-production drive units until it was released.
You’ve had a Pivot Shuttle eMTB for how long now? Tell me what it’s like riding a 44-pound full suspension pedal-assist bike around the San Francisco Peaks.
I first rode the Shuttle over a year ago and had my own not long after that. We’ve tested many full-suspension MTBs. There were a few Shimano STEPS-specific test bikes I had for long-term testing, but it wasn’t until I got the Pivot prototype that I felt I had a bike as dialed in as this. The guys at Pivot have been committed to the Shimano system from the beginning and the owner Chris (Cocalis) was really cool to show me how the development of the bike was going from early on. The prototype bike is made from aluminum, which is what many companies build to test before they begin tooling for carbon. The production Shuttle is carbon, and I’m still on the aluminum prototype because it’s a great riding bike.
We have hundreds of miles of trails right out of town and specifically really good motorized trails here in Flagstaff. There are quite a few moto riders here, including Rob “Fig” Naughton, a local off-road legend who also raced downhill mountain bikes. Fig made the effort to keep local trails open to motorized use. This is important to E-MTB riders.
How challenging was it to lighten the E8000 powerplant and create an almost seamless aesthetic with the drivetrain and downtube battery placement? And how much co-development did you share with Chris at Pivot? Getting the suspension and handling dialed must’ve been a challenge with an extra 20 pounds compared to a non e-bike.
Weight is not really the hard part since it’s not critical to managing overall control. Most of the work was getting the drive unit output to more seamlessly match rider input. There were countless days of testing different firmware that focused on the profile of how the power matches the rider input so it does not surge or remains on just long enough for a smooth feel with each pedal stroke. The torque sensor has to be nearly perfect to read the rider output and respond how we want it to on the trail in as many conditions as possible.
We knew early on the power matching issue of course, but also we found that having to switch power modes too much was not ideal. The best thing would be to never have to change the power mode at all. And I think we’re closer to that than anyone else. It’s too much of a hassle to switch it higher to power easily up a steep section and then having to switch it lower so the bike does not surge into corners or rocks at lower speed. There’s the dropper seatpost to constantly adjust so we don’t want another lever to push constantly.
We worked with Chris to some degree because he was testing prototypes with the Shimano drive system. And as far as the extra weight and all that, they knew what needed to be done to the suspension and geometry get the bike to handle properly. The Shuttle is based on a Switchblade, yet it only started from that and became quite a different machine obviously.
All things considered, it hasn’t taken very long for the bicycle industry to ramp up high-tech battery-powered machines. What will we see in the near future from Shimano?
I can’t really say what we’re planning next, but there are many ideas and projects happening. These bikes are a blast to ride and a killer workout, too. I use it on recovery days since I can dial in the level of effort really easy which makes it a great training tool. Yet it’s quite a different beast to ride and the bottom line is it’s really fun. The more that riders discover E-MTBs the more they’ll want to ride them. I’m stoked that Shimano is fully committed to it and that I’m a part of it, too.