Last fall, the Moab field office of the Bureau of Land Management quietly published a short item on its website clarifying trail access for electric bicycles. The simple, straightforward guidance noted that e-bikes, as they’re known, were welcome on trail systems open to motorized vehicles, but not on non-motorized trails.
This decision was neither concerning nor shocking to Larry Pizzi, president of e-bike maker Currie Technologies and chair of the e-bike committee at the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA). For Pizzi, the ruling merely confirmed what had always been the case. And because the BLM grants its regional field offices wide discretion to manage land use locally, the ruling applies only to the Moab office’s management area. But when media outlets began reporting the news, the reaction was as strong as if a major, national decision had just come down.
“Bravo! Letting e-bikes on singletrack trails is the beginning of a slippery slope that leads to nothing good.”
“If you want to ride something with a motor, go ride trails where motors are allowed.”
“Say goodbye to your teeth if we do catch you on an inappropriate trail!”
Those comments are not surprising given the long and frequently contentious relationship between mountain bikers and certain other user groups, particularly conservation-minded advocates. But those comments aren’t from other user groups—they’re from mountain bikers, on a story on core-enthusiast site MTBR.com, which initially reported the BLM decision.
What exactly is an e-bikes. Well, they aren’t quite bicycles and aren’t quite motorcycles. They’re an entirely separate type of vehicle (see sidebar) with electric, not gas, motors which range from throttle-driven wattage cottages to elegant pedal-assist systems that give the rider a gentle push.
But in the ethos of mountain biking, which prizes self-sufficiency and an earn-your-turns attitude, e-bikes strike many as a kind of cheat. Whether the objection stems from a wish to preserve many wild places as accessible only under human power or, as Pizzi suggests, from a more narrow self-interest in preserving uncrowded trails, one thing is clear: The first group e-bikers have to win over isn’t hikers or equestrians or conservationists, it’s other mountain bikers.
The Moab BLM release was accompanied by the perception, among mountain bikers at least, that out there in the desert there lay a horde of e-bikers waiting to sack Amasa Back like barbarians at the gates of Rome.
The mountain biking community is reacting. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) held, for the first time, a panel on e-bikes at its World Summit last summer, and an agency position statement (short version: mountain biking is inherently a human-powered sport) dates to 2012.
But outside of two-wheel world, e-bikes are hardly alarming. Many land use agencies have no specific guidance yet. Bruce Hamilton, Associate Executive Director of the Sierra Club, seemed a bit perplexed when I called asking for comment. “I haven’t seen where the problem has been joined,” he replied. “Our biggest issue there [in recreation] is how to keep OHVs from tearing up public land. There are far bigger issues (than e-bikes).”
Pizzi told me that there are, at best, “maybe a couple thousand e-bikes in the entire US,” adding that he meant genuine, trail-capable e-mountain bikes, not urban models.
But make no mistake: the boom is coming. Pizzi’s CurrieTech imports e-bikes from HaiBike, which for 2015 includes the XDURO line of electric mountain bikes comprising a trail bike, DH-style bike and even a fat bike. French bike maker Lapierre recently began bringing in its Overvolt line. “This is happening,” said Pizzi. “Specialized is on board, Trek is on board. Everyone is in and it’s only going to grow.”
And as the bikes get more popular, riders will increasingly show up at local trailheads looking to get their shred on.
The concerns are both legion and legit if, at this point, mostly hypothetical. Will the added power at the rear wheel and weight result in more erosion? What happens if someone’s battery dies 10 miles from the trailhead and they’re left to pilot a 70-pound beast out of the backcountry under pedal power alone?
If an e-biker shuts off the power, is it a normal bike? And how do you say for sure the power is on or off? Will faster speeds, or new riders less schooled in trail etiquette, increase user conflicts? And last, will riders be able to handle that extra weight and power safely?
Pizzi, who has become something of a de facto spokesman for e-bike proponents, readily admits that there’s work to do. “This is not a short-term proposition,” he said. “First, we need to engage in educating people about the rules of the trail.”
He admits there are no studies right now on environmental issues; he suspects there’s no added harm but admits lacking data to support that claim. The BPSA has partnered with IMBA to investigate, but as Mark Eller, IMBA’s Communications Director, told me, work hasn’t started yet so there’s no defined deadline for results.
Pizzi bristles slightly at the idea that e-bike users might be more prone to trail conflicts. He points out that the most aggressive riders he sees on trails are typically younger, gravity-oriented types. The initial e-bike adopter, he thinks, will be an older, experienced mountain biker, for whom an e-bike is a way to fully enjoy a sport that’s getting a bit too difficult on human power alone.
When you talk to Pizzi, there’s a disarming sincerity to his comments: We need to educate users. We’ll study trail impacts. There’s a lulling sense to them, as when he tells me that most riders will be perfectly happy on the kind of multitrack trails that, in Moab, are already open to motorized users.
But these things are slippery. Right now, e-bikes are pretty clearly identifiable. As Pizzi readily admitted, “It’s got a motor; that’s undeniable.” But as the technology matures, batteries will shrink, perhaps enough to hide in the frame, while more elegant pedal-assist systems improve efficiency.
The end goal of the BPSA’s legislation (see sidebar) is to have the lowest category of e-bikes classified as bicycles. I ask him: Do you mean then that these would be regulated exactly the same as bikes, allowed on the same trails? He hedges a bit. “I think we’ll create another category,” he said. “Right now, there’s a bold black line between motorized and non-motorized categories, and maybe we need a new category, closer to non-motorized. Call it hybrid.”
Right now, the buyer may be an aging mountain biker, but the potential market is broad: families, in particular, who may not be active riders right now. Pizzi doesn’t see true enthusiasts adopting e-bikes, but tells a story about a demo in Park City, Utah, where some hardcore riders came back from a test ride grinning ear to ear. “They want to get their wives on them so they can ride together.”
That’s hard to object to. The bike industry would certainly love to get more people on bikes. And various studies show that personal experience with the outdoors (particularly non-consumptive uses) has a generally positive effect on people’s interest in conservation.
No matter how you view the issue, there is an uncomfortable truth about e-bikes: they blur lines. IMBA spent much of its first decade wrestling with the existential question of what mountain bikes were. Was the sport akin to others on wheels, and just not motorized? Or were we closer, at heart, to other human-powered uses like hiking?
Hardcore hikers and conservationists might chuckle at the pretension of it, but to the vast majority of mountain bikers, the sport is purely human-powered. You get there by sweat and gears. Access is, to an extent, tied to ability, and that is a deal we willingly made in allying ourselves with other human-powered recreation. Can we really re-negotiate that deal now?
“It’s no more fair for an e-biker to declare that he should be able to access a non-motorized trail than it is for a DH rider to say that it’s OK to build a bandit trail because there’s nowhere to ride,” said IMBA’s Eller. Push too hard for that access, he warns, and the backlash could result in more losses.
Perhaps what masquerades as concern really is just naked self-interest, keeping “our” trails quiet and uncrowded. But that’s likely not what’s behind the resistance. Many mountain bikers, including myself, remember the darker days of the 80s and early 90s, when it seemed like a trail closed every week.
E-bikes revive those old nightmares. They re-open an existential question about our sport we thought long settled. The negative response by many mountain bikers is far too vehement and vitriolic; it’s based on emotion rather than logic and it’s ugly. But it is not purely irrational. The bike industry, as well as advocacy organizations like IMBA and land-use managers, would be well-served to hear what’s behind it: fear.
It’s a very specific fear, based on not-so-distant memories of the access battle that mountain bikers very nearly lost entirely and the damage from which we have spent patient decades rebuilding. If an e-bike is just a bike, if everyone sees it like that and they become a problem on trails, the fear is that it’s not just e-bikes that will be banned, but all of us. The fear is that if we lose it again, this time we won’t get it back.
MAKING SENSE OF E-BIKES
E-bikes blur the line between bicycles and motorcycles. And what makes it more confusing is the different styles. In the U.S., any bicycle with operable pedals and a motor under 750 watts (one horsepower) is considered a bicycle rather than a moped and is regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission rather than transportation agencies. The Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA) is attempting to pass legislation to further clarify levels of e-bikes. Here’s what their approach would look like:
Propulsion: Pedal-assist only
Max assisted speed (point at which motor turns off): 20 m.p.h.
Propulsion: Pedal-assist or throttle mode
Max motor-driven or assisted speed: 20 m.p.h.
Propulsion: Pedal-assist or throttle
Max motor-driven speed: 20 m.p.h.
Max assisted speed: 28 m.p.h.
The BPSA legislation, if enacted, would allow a Class 1 e-bike to be used anywhere a normal bike is allowed to be ridden. Note that this definition carries no distinction about surface, such as like natural-surface trails, so singletrack is in play. Class 2 bikes would be allowed on paved bicycle infrastructure, like off-street multi-use paths. Class 3 would only be allowed on roads, but in on-street bike lanes.
Joe Lindsey is a freelance writer and contributing editor to Bicycling magazine.