Joseph Agustin

2019 Yamaha Wabash Power Assist eBike First Ride Review

Testing and being tested by Yamaha’s latest gravel-road-friendly power-assist eBike

Yamaha is keeping pace with the momentum of growth inside the eBike cycling segment with its latest creation: a gravel-road-friendly Wabash bicycle. The Wabash follows up on last year's introduction of a new four-bike line of power-assist bicycles.

Okay, but what is a gravel bike? Basically, it’s a blend of a road bicycle (pavement) and a cyclocross (light off-road) bike meant for trails that are too rough for a road bike, yet too forgiving for a mountain bike. Think mellow single-tracks, fire roads, gravel, pavement—whatever. It’s a bike with the capability to perform on various surfaces while still allowing for a comfortable ride.

“The gravel category is growing because of the performance and versatility built into these bikes, and Yamaha really keyed in on these areas for the new Wabash,” says Drew Engelmann, Yamaha’s Power Assist Bicycle Group sales and marketing manager.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
The Yamaha Wabash is a Class 1 power-assist electric bicycle designed and developed from frame to motor by Yamaha, the pioneering leader in eBikes since 1993.Joseph Agustin

Yamaha is the only manufacturer to have a whopping 25 years’ experience designing and developing complete eBikes from frame to motor. It also contributes components to other manufacturers. In typical Tuning Fork style, quality, reliability, and versatility are paramount in the design of this new adventure gravel bike.

Yamaha held an exclusive Wabash unveiling and ride experience through the streets and hills of North County San Diego prior to its public debut.

Prior to the press event, I provided my measurements (5 feet, 6 inches, 108 pounds) for proper bike size selection between the small, medium, and large frame it comes in and a shiny new Wabash size small with my name on it awaited me. Since my legs are shorter than most men, we lowered the seat to get just enough bend in my knee when the pedals are at the bottom of the stroke. We also slid the seat forward to make the angle of my back more comfortable.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
Left: The Wabash stair-step stack-and-reach geometry ensures that every rider has the same feel and handling experience no matter what size bike you ride.
Right: Made ready for solo or group adventures right out of the garage, the Wabash takes the gravel riding experience seriously as the category of cycling experiences rapid growth.
Joseph Agustin

The ability to adjust the ergonomics was a huge plus as a recent accident left me with chronic back pain. Once the group had dialed in the fit of their bikes we sat down for the unveiling presentation, given by the Yamaha crew.

I was a little nervous for the ride being that my cycling skills were pretty rusty having not ridden a pedal bike in more than two years. Clearly, this bike is capable of a whole lot more than a sunset cruise on the boardwalk. Thankfully, there was time the next morning to familiarize myself and get comfortable on the bike with a few turns around the parking lot before we headed off for the day.

Circling around without the power assist I found the Wabash feels like a normal pedal bike. It was smooth, comfortable, and the presence of the motor and battery didn’t affect the handling versus a conventional bicycle.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
The Wabash cockpit equipment make up a bicycle dashboard for component control and ride data feedback.Joseph Agustin

Handlebar-mounted components include the ruggedized monochrome backlit computer, the four-power-level control switch, a 200-lumen LED headlamp, and the small thumb-strike bell. The computer displays speed, average speed, maximum speed, trip distance, odometer, cadence, battery capacity (%), and a clock. It also has Bluetooth connectivity capabilities and a USB micro-B charge port at the bottom so you can charge your phone while riding.

The power-level control switch allows you to click through the four levels of assist: Eco+, Eco, Standard, and High, and even with gloves on the switch was immediately responsive. A subtle but impactful feature is a color-coded light on the computer display that tells you if you’re in one of the two Eco lower levels of assist (green) or in one of the two higher levels of assist (blue). Although the lights don’t tell you specifically which level you’re in. It’s a small gripe.

Yamaha’s PW Series SE drive motor provides propulsion up to 20 mph, cadence support up to 110 rpm, and max power output of 500 watts. The centrally mounted location of the unit versus a rear-wheel mount of many other eBikes creates a more natural feel, though it may sacrifice a degree of aesthetic appeal.

Yamaha Wabash ebike details
Left: Yamaha's drive unit is not exclusive to the Wabash and has been featured in more than four million drive units for other eBike brands including Giant, Haibike, and BH/Emotion.
Right: Yamaha's exclusive high-speed sensor is designed into the rear hub of its Power Assist Bicycles. The "zero cadence" assist feature immediately detects any forward pedaling movement and activates the power support system.
Joseph Agustin

The SRAM Apex 1x11 drivetrain with X-Sync chainring configuration ensure precise shifts, even up steep climbs. The SRAM Apex 1 HRD DoubleTap Shifter consists of a singular small lever behind the right brake lever that when pressed inward halfway (one click) shifts up and when pressed inward completely (two clicks) shifts down. Having experience with motorcycles and manual transmission cars may have made it easier to pick up this style of shifting, but the setup is intuitive enough for an inexperienced person to pick up quickly.

Once riding, I initially took a conservative approach to the power-assist function beginning with the lowest level. However, the rest of the group had a need for speed so I quickly had to increase the assist level to keep up as we climbed a steep hill. No problem. With an accordingly fast downhill on the other side where we surpassed the 20-mph assist limit. The disengagement of the assist is so subtle that I didn’t even notice it the first time and had to feel for it on other high-speed sections of the ride.

After a little street warm-up and a quick stop to let one of the guys change his flat tire, we made it to the real test for the Wabash: the off-road sections. The sections I was most nervous about since my mountain bike experience has consisted of a whole two rides up until this point. Admittedly, it could probably really more accurately be described as nice rolling hills.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
While many people are opposed to eBikes because of the assumption they do all the work for you, the Wabash offers flexible ride controls to give as physically challenging ride as you desire.Joseph Agustin

Wow, was I in for a surprise. The Wabash handled great; it felt steady going through rugged, rocky, and slippery sections. The weather during our ride was absolutely perfect but there had been several days of rain earlier in the week so there was plenty of wet, muddy sections, flowing streams to cross, and giant puddles to splash through. The bike was easy to maneuver right over all the terrain we encountered without being tossed around and the Maxxis Speed Terrane tires provided crucial traction.

For the majority of the flatter or downhill off-road sections I utilized assist in the lower levels of power. Basically, enough boost to not lose momentum through the trickier sections and give me just a little extra in order to conserve myself for the more difficult portions. For the climbs I used the middle two levels. I wasn’t trying to pin it up rocky, slippery hills for the sake of ease and end up unable to avoid the giant rocks or deep crevices in the trail.

My goal was to make it up and down everything without incident. Although, at one point just shy of a tough hilltop I deviated from my approach trying to avoid joining one of the guys on his walk up and leveled into the High power setting from Eco. It caused the tire to slip, losing momentum and bringing me to a stop. It was difficult on that slippery slope to get going again so still ended up walking up the last little bit with him. Honestly, here had I been more efficient with shifting instead of adjusting the power assist I would have been fine.

Unfortunately, right after this came the most difficult and technical part of the ride. It was the steepest, narrowest, most overgrown, and of course the rockiest section. Not to mention the most expletive inducing. If he hadn’t by then, Drew, who was leading the ride, certainly lost any sense that I was a prim woman as I attempted to make my way up this short yet intensely challenging trail.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
The ease with which a rider can adapt to the engineering of the Wabash allows its capabilities to shine as your confidence builds on and off road.Joseph Agustin

Sena had equipped us all with its new Sena R1 cycling helmet, with built-in microphone, speakers and Bluetooth connectivity allowing us to pair our phone to listen to music and talk to each other. I paired to Drew from the beginning of the ride, so he got some entertaining insight to my difficulties. I’d love to say that I was able to get up this section, but even to my untrained eye it’s a section that takes a good amount of serious training and working up to. I wasn’t the only one of the group who got to the top on foot, so I wasn’t too disappointed in myself.

By the end of our 20-plus-mile ride going through on- and off-road terrain varying from pavement, gravel, fire trails, dirt, mud, rocks as big as my head, sand, water, steep climbs, and sketchy descents I had made it without crashing, and with 80-percent battery life still left. The latter to the surprise of one of the guys who checked my battery life at the end and came over to inform me. However, throughout the ride I had tried to use the minimum assist level required for the terrain in order to still feel a solid physical challenge and to assure myself that, contrary to what many may think, fitness has not been made totally obsolete by eBikes. So really, I had expected on having a healthy bit of battery life at the end.

Besides, we heard in the presentation that during testing the Wabash had a range of 33 to 78 miles depending on a few factors like the amount of pedaling power the rider contributes and terrain. Yamaha’s 500-wh, 36-volt lithium-ion battery comes with four-hour charge time, anti-vibration mounting plate, and with side exiting dock station meaning it can be conveniently conveniently charged on or off the bike. There has also been a free battery recycling program established so when you do finally get to the end of the approximate 700-charge battery life you’ll know what to do with it.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
Left: The Wabash design is meant to complement its versatility amounting to a look befitting on- or off-road riding.
Right: The drops on the Wabash flare 10cm at the bottom of the drop creating more position versatility depending on terrain and is the prime spot to load up a pack for those longer adventures.
Joseph Agustin

Overall, I had a phenomenal time riding the Wabash! It was an incredibly simple bike to adapt to. Yamaha has done an impressive job of engineering its exclusive Triple Sensor System that measures rider power generation, bike rolling speed, and pedal rpm making power delivery and transition between power-assist levels unthinkably smooth. One thing I wasn’t sold on was the placement of the switch to adjust the power-assist level. In challenging sections of the ride, I didn’t like having to let go of the bars to make the adjustment.

Yamaha’s durable hydroformed alloy frame design and 12mm axle on both front and rear hubs increase control making it easily maneuverable when cornering and accelerating and able to handle pretty much anything. The Wabash never felt out of place through any of the various types of terrain we trekked over making the switch between on- to off-road riding effortless. I also have to mention the motor being quiet and not ever posing a distraction as I focused on the more difficult sections. Now that I’ve experienced a gravel bike, I know its versatile capabilities are definitely more for me in order to stay entertained throughout a ride and motivated to keep getting back out there for a thrill.

Drew was right when he said: “The Wabash is fun to ride, and it’s made for adventures right out of the garage no matter the terrain.”

But I’ll take it a step further and add no matter your fitness level or cycling skills as well. It’s a bike that throws the doors to adventure wide open for a great variety of people. From ones who want to be able to go longer distances, or through tougher terrain than their fitness or injury would typically allow them to people who want to try something completely new, the message is loud and clear: Let’s go have some fun on a bike that encompasses the best of both on- and off-road worlds. Granted, for the most extreme riders within a cycling niche the Wabash will have its limitations. After all, it’s not a full mountain bike.

Yamaha Wabash ebike
While the Wabash may not be for those at the extremes of the cycling spectrum, its capabilities and sleek styling will make even adamant eBike opposers rethink themselves.Joseph Agustin

The Wabash comes in only one color dubbed “latte” with some black and white accents on the fork and front portion of the frame. Each of the three sizes come with size-specific handlebars, stem, seat post, and crank arms. The stair-step stack-and-reach geometry of the Wabash means that no matter what size bike, the ride experience will be comfortable and performance optimal. Looking at it, you won’t be confusing it for a “normal” bike due to the visible motor and battery, but it has a clean, with internal cable/housing routing, and multifunctional look.

The eye-catching flared drop handlebars are there to add stability and control. For instance, on a steep climb you can get more leverage to jockey the bike back and forth as you make your way up, or on a fast downhill you can tuck into the drops for better aerodynamics. I never used them keeping my hands situated on the hoods where I was most comfortable for easy braking and shifting. Until I up my cycling regimen they’re a detail I’d probably get more use out of by loading up a handlebar pack for longer rides.

Another neat feature of the Wabash is its internal or external dropper seat-post compatibility. It allows you to temporarily lower the seat and comes in handy during rough downhill sections where you need to shift your body position as far low and back as possible.

The $3,499 MSRP price tag might make some do a double take, but taking into consideration all that it can do and the three-year frame, motor, and battery warranty, the Yamaha Wabash should be on everyone’s radar as their next purchase.