Is a bicycle that adds power when a rider is pedaling, also a motor vehicle? The simple answer is, yes. The U.S. Forest Service has taken the straight-forward position that trails on public lands open to motorcycles are also open to mountain bikes with electric motors. But the rapidly evolving machines are not to be employed on trails reserved for people riding non-motorized mountain bikes and horses or hiking – forest paths where all motorized conveyance is essentially banned.
The ethics of trail access for power-assisted bicycles and appraisal of the hot-button technology as the latest trend in a multi-billion-dollar industry were central to last week’s Crank Tank press camp in Sun Valley, Idaho, where bicycle journalists met up with some of the top bicycle and gear purveyors rolling out their latest wares.
The meetup at the historic destination ski resort community of five towns where mountain-bikers in the vicinity enjoy hundreds of miles of trail access, most also ridden by motorcyclists, was a first for Crank Tank, a new Ketchum marketing concern with deep roots in the industry.
The local Blaine County Recreation District maintains an up to the minute trail guide that indicates various closures and what vehicles are allowed where on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management lands that make up the majority of the county and neighboring areas for riding, including the mesmerizingly scenic Sawtooth Valley to the north and nearly year-round high desert riding to the south.
The three-day event culminated in a People for Bikes Draft meet-up where the subject of e-bikes on trails was the key point of discussion. The event hosted at Ketchum’s brand new Aspen, Colorado-backed Limelight Hotel is replete with an indoor/outdoor lobby and patio, bar, and wood-fired pizza hangout making it one of the towns latest community gathering points.
Rebecca Rusch of mountain bike and adventure racing fame was one of the speakers. She was in town to kick off her first gravel-riding camp. Rusch, like many in the room said they felt it was a time to help trail policy catch up with technology. She said her fall Sun Valley gravel event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, which utilizes roads and trails open to motorized vehicles, wouldn’t be open to e-bikes, at least for now.
Also, veteran BLM manager, John Kurtz with the Shoshone, Idaho, field office said an upcoming travel plan could include some 100-miles of trail with a new designation that allows class 1 e-bikes, those with pedal assist motors that go up to 20mph.
Outstanding challenges include how to define machines that are changing quickly and how to enforce new rules for all travelers. To date in the Sun Valley area, rules are followed essentially on an honor system. For the 4 million BLM acres in the area there is only one law-enforcement officer.
Longtime bicycle journalist Zapata Espinoza, editorial director for Electric Bike Action Magazine, said, although he prefers to ride with simplicity, no computers or accessories on board, he is in favor of the way e-bikes will help people expand their lives outside the city because of the access they can provide for people looking to get out in nature.
Many reiterated a common trait of Sun Valley that there is little contention on the trails because different user groups have learned to carve out a peaceful coexistence. Part of that is the low population. But a more important aspect is a heritage of communication and problem solving, a long-standing effort to form policies that jive with what’s happening on the ground.
Motorcyclists carrying chainsaws have long helped to keep trails intact by clearing deadfall on far-flung trails around Sun Valley. It was a point also reiterated by Draft meet-up speaker Michael Kelley, an IMBA founder with a great deal of experience monitoring policy developments, especially at the local level, on roads and trails in California. He sees e-bikes as an inclusive machine that democratizes exercise and makes for a more dynamic social experience.
One question that was asked is whether, as e-bike technology improves, won’t lighter bikes with longer battery life help riders have less impact on the environment and allow people to slip through terrain with the least possible distress for wildlife? It’s an interesting question with no easy answers — just as is the case for the ongoing e-bike debate.
To learn more about the Impact Sun Valley event, head to cranktank.net.