Two riders cruise up a hill during Sea Otter's e-MTB race.
Two riders cruise up a hill during Sea Otter's e-MTB race. (Photo: Jim Merithew)

Chill Out. E-Mountain Bikes Are Not the End of the World.

Many traditionalists are worried this new segment will ruin the sport. It doesn’t have to if we take the time to figure out where the motorized rigs fit in.

Two riders cruise up a hill during Sea Otter's e-MTB race.

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Earlier this month, Shimano announced an off-road specific version of its pedal-assist drivetrain, adding momentum to the already fast-growing e-MTB movement.

Steps MTB is an evolution of the company’s existing urban e-bike system, with an XT-level drivetrain paired to a 70-newton-meter motor and a 500-watt-hour battery. It’s a pedal-assist system, meaning you have to pedal to garner any of the motor’s supplemental power (no throttle), which will be dispensed in three levels depending on what mode you choose. Presumably it will have a max supplemented speed of 20 miles per hour, which is the limit for e-bike designation in the U.S. And given the XT quality of the system and the bike-specific features, including a Q-factor equal to standard mountain bikes and a trim, lightweight form that allows for short chain stays, it’s clear that Shimano is aiming this at cycling enthusiasts, not just the broader public.

The system looks well thought out and as nicely engineered as all of Shimano’s equipment, but it’s more evolution than revolution. Bosch, Yamaha, Currie Technologies, and a few other brands already have solid motor-drive systems for mountain bikes and have been refining their products for several years.

However, the fact that Shimano felt the need to get into the market underscores the trend, which continues to swell with big brands. Specialized last month unveiled its first e-MTB, a plus-size trail bike called the Turbo Levo that’s basically a motor-assist version of our Gear of the Year-winning Stumpy 6Fattie. And Trek has announced plans to begin bringing its e-MTB lineup, which has been for sale in Europe for a couple of years, to the U.S. late this summer.

All indications point to the e-MTB movement catching on. It is already much more accepted in Europe than it is here, with whole resorts setting up infrastructure for electric-powered trail bikes. Of course manufacturers are bullish on the idea, with proponents such as Gary Fisher, one of the forefathers of mountain biking, advocating for them on the grounds that they have the power to get more people riding. And it’s true that the addition of supplemental power has the potential to bring biking to a whole segment of people that otherwise might be too intimidated or not fit enough to try it.

Meanwhile, e-MTBs seem to inspire more angst and hate among some cyclists than pretty much any other subject in the sport at the moment. A piece I wrote a while back generated hundreds of responses on the subject across multiple social media platforms, with opponents lining up behind a slew of rationales against e-MTBs: these machines are motorbikes not bicycles; they will lead to inevitable conflict with other trail users; they cause more damage to trails than mountain bikes do; they could cause trail closures because of improper use and confusion; and finally, they are gutless and not that fun to ride. One mountain bike blog recently went so far as to call e-bikes “the spawn of Satan.”

If you ask me, everyone, on both sides of the fence, needs to take a deep breath and calm down.

To the haters: Sorry folks, pedal-assist e-MTBs produce about three percent of the power of a 250cc dirt bike, and they generate it only when you pedal, not on demand—calling e-MTBs motorcycles is like calling hyenas humans because they are four-legged mammals. According to preliminary studies from the International Mountain Bike Association, which, by the way is not endorsing their use on trails, e-MTBs probably don’t impact trails more than normal mountain bikes, and the studies are ongoing to be sure. And having ridden at least a dozen of them, I can assure you that while they aren’t as agile as a standard mountain bike, e-MTBs can also be fun in their own way. (Just ask Canadian freerider Matt Hunter, who doesn’t seem to be having a bad time—but yes, he is sponsored.)

To the industry: While I’m no luddite nor conceptually opposed to e-MTBs, lets slow down and think about the possible long-term ramifications. The technology is cool, and yes it may appeal to a much bigger market than the humble slice of current mountain bikers. But let’s go through the proper channels to get it legislated and approved without endangering existing riding for everyone. If there’s one thing we should have learned from the disc brake debacle in the Pro Tour right now it’s that jamming technology down people’s throats doesn’t work. And while we’re at it, let’s be sure to educate new riders that they can’t ride these e-MTBs everywhere they want. It’s going to be bad for everyone when consumers who just plunked down $7,000 learn they can’t take their new e-MTB on their home trails—or worse still, get a ticket and a trip to court for doing it.

With everyone dog-piling and the over-the-top marketing, there’s an uncomfortable Gold Rush feeling with e-MTBs right now, and it’s unnerving to those of us who have been riding for decades and simply want to keep doing it in longstanding, unplugged fashion. Nobody wants to see this boomtown end in our bust.

But here’s what everyone needs to remember: this is a new technology, just like any other, and complaining about it is like complaining about email versus mail or 29ers versus 26. The new stuff doesn’t necessarily make the old stuff obsolete—who doesn’t like getting a handwritten letter these days?—each simply has its benefits and pitfalls. When mountain bikes emerged in the late ‘80s, there were plenty of naysayers casting doubts on them, too, and if fanatics like Gary Fisher had caved to the pressure then, there’d be no debate over e-MTBs today. Which is to say: apart from anyone’s singular experience, the development of e-MTBs could be intrinsically important. And on a personal level, you can opt to ride an e-MTB or not, and the only thing that really matters is whether you enjoy your choice.

For my part, I’m happy with my standard mountain bike. But I’m young and fit and still physically capable, and, knowing that I might not be forever, I don’t begrudge anyone the opportunity. I also have my concerns about motor-powered mountain bikes: specifically, while 20 miles per hour might be an acceptable speed limit for urban use, it’s nearly double that of an elite athlete climbing on a singletrack and probably should be dialed back to prevent inevitable conflict with hikers and equestrians. But I also have faith that the legislation process will work, as government has been perfectly capable of distinguishing between scooters, mopeds, dirt bikes, and motorcycles—and licensing and regulating for them—without any angst.

It’s a brave new world, and e-MTBs are part of it—even Shimano agrees. So rather than grouse and agonize over the changing technology, let’s cut the panic and figure out how these new tools dovetail with our existence and identities as riders.

Lead Photo: Jim Merithew

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