The Bureau of Land Management in Moab, Utah, updated its website last week with guidelines that exclude “motor-assisted bicycles” from many of the most popular trails around town. The update wasn’t really news. It is simply an articulation of standing policy that e-bikes are considered motorized vehicles and, as such, are banned from all trails designated for non-motorized use.
But the BLM’s decision to overhaul the website—and MTBR’s decision to report on it—reflects the growing confusion and unease over e-mountain bikes.
Following on the success and growth of the electric mountain bikes in Europe, manufacturers have begun importing and pushing motor-assisted mountain bikes on a much broader level than ever before. Bianchi, Cannondale, Felt, Focus, Giant, Lapierre, Orbea, Raleigh, Scott, and Trek all have e-mountain bikes in their line-ups, and that’s not even accounting for brands outside the standard bicycle industry channels such as Haibike and Kreidler.
But there’s at least as much resistance and hostility to e-mountain bikes as there is interest and growth, as the comments on the MTBR story about Moab suggest. There’s some reasonable dialogue on both sides of the issue, peppered by lots of vitriol from mountain bikers opposed to e-bikes on trails. “Lazy motorized inbetween (sic) spaces shits!” writes one. “Say goodbye to your teeth if we do catch you on an inappropriate trail!” writes another purist.
It’s easy to dismiss open forums like this, as anonymity can engender unrestrained, unpleasant responses. But a few days after I saw this piece, a friend and colleague of mine posted a disparaging message on Facebook about a favorable review of an electric bike, and the comments, many from people I know, like, and respect, were equally as venomous and inflexible. “I’m throwing elbows if someone comes up behind me on one of these,” posted one. “First person I see on a trail with that gets a knuckle sandwich,” said another.
This rancor disheartens me. I like to think of cyclists as reasonable, good-natured people who can have rational discourse. I’ve often bragged to non-biking friends that mountain bikers are some of the most easygoing, agreeable people on the planet. But this sort of knee-jerk impudence and vigilantism makes me question that assumption.
Are there questions about safety, user conflict, and trail impact that must be addressed? Absolutely. But I remember a time when many of those same arguments were used to keep mountain bikes off the trails.
I’m neither an advocate for nor an opponent of e-mountain bikes. But the fact is, there are good cases to be made on either side of the argument.
I agree with ex-Mountain Bike Action editor Jimmy Mac’s safety argument that building e-mountain bikes with standard bike parts is dangerous given the extra weight and speed involved with the electronics and battery. I also think he makes a good point that it’s unfair to sell these bikes to a public largely unaware that much singletrack could be off-limits to them. (It’s worth noting the Jimmy Mac quit his job as editor because he felt so strongly against his publishers directive to cover e-mountain bikes.)
Richard Cunningham at Pinkbike also makes the solid case that e-mountain bikes could be the nail in the coffin for trail access in many places. It’s true that conflict over trail use is difficult and that inexperienced riders on machines with more power than their skills allow is unlikely to help the debate.
And there are many other good reasons to proceed with caution.
But plenty of arguments can be made in favor of e-mountain bikes, too. For starters, more bikes, even the pedal-assist variety, mean fewer cars (both as replacements, but also in long-term shifts in thinking), as well as happier, healthier people. And e-bikes have the power to open this sport to a whole new range of people. Yes, there are those with handicaps that might suddenly gain access. But I’m also talking about older or less fit riders, who might not otherwise get out. Michael Kelley, one of the original founders of the International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA), poignantly made this case.
The hasty rebuttal to this is often an earn-your-turns purism—mountain biking is about doing it yourself. What many don’t understand is that most of the electric mountain bikes being rolled out at the moment are the pedal-assist variety, which must be pedaled to activate the motor. There’s no throttle, just a computer to choose what percentage of assistance you want: 25 percent of the 200 watts you might push means you can ride at 250 watts; 100 percent at 200 watts yields 400 watts output. It’s like a motorized tailwind. And if you push 0 watts, you don’t get any extra power.
Part of what is fueling the debate is the broad blanket definition for e-bikes. Federal law considers any two- or three-wheeled vehicle with a motor less than 750 watts and a maximum speed of 20 miles per hour to be a bicycle. That can encompass anything from the pedal-assisted models described above to a machine that resembles a motorcycle more than a bike, complete with throttle and a motor that can do all the work with zero pedaling. A committee of the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association is currently lobbying to create three categories of electric bikes, which could make use regulations more nuanced.
In that respect, Moab’s case is black-and-white: they’re simply enforcing the ban on “motor-assisted bicycles” from non-motorized trails. That’s the right decision considering the legislative ambiguity and lack of oversight in the industry at the moment. We must proceed with caution.
What’s not right, however, is this impulsive opposition to electric-assist mountain bikes, divorced from logic or facts. Are there questions about safety, legislation, user conflict, and effects on trails that must be addressed? Absolutely. But I remember a time 25 years ago when many of those same arguments were used to keep mountain bikes off the trails. We, of any group, should give electric bike manufacturers the courtesy and support to at least make their case. That isn’t to say e-mountain bikes should end up with equal footing and rights as standard ones. I am still ambivalent about that.
But I’m certain that no cyclists should spew hatred and threaten other riders just because they might want to use a pedal-assist bike. It reminds me of the drivers who say that they’d be happy to door-pop or run a cyclist off the road. Shouldn’t we, as a cycling community, be better than that?