These past few months have seen some heated debates over electric mountain bikes and whether or not they belong on multi-use trails. Firstindustry legend Jimmy “Mac” McIlvain stepped down as editor of Mountain Bike Action after 20 years with the magazine when the publisher decided to start covering motorized mountain bikes.
“The publisher is expanding the magazine’s coverage to motorized mountain bikes and I just can’t go along with his logic. Mountain biking is a human-powered activity,” wrote McIlvain on his Facebook page. As the reason for walking away from a job after two decades, it’s a major statement and a big reason why Jimmy Mac is such a beloved figure. Dude is sticking to his guns, and you have to respect him for that.
Then there was a recent feature in Dirt Rag titled “Elephant on the Trail” that objectively looked at e-mountain bikes from a couple perspectives. One of them was the topic of innovation and how people are generally resistant to change. The article discussed peoples’ unwillingness to welcome new innovations, like when 29-inch wheels were first introduced and the development of the first suspension fork. However, these two innovations are distinctly different than the rise of the e-mountain bike, and it’s pretty damn obvious what the difference is.
At the IMBA World Summit in Steamboat Springs, Colo. two weeks ago, the e-mountain bike and where it belongs was discussed at length. For decades mountain bikes were considered “mechanized transport” by many land managers, wrongfully lumped in with motorcycles and subsequently banned. It’s only recently that the tide has shifted, and throwing e-mountain bikes into the picture has the potential to erode all the work IMBA has done in the name of trail access. IMBA is not against e-mountain bikes per se, but in this document they make their stance on the matter perfectly clear. E-bikes are not mountain bikes, and should be categorized differently.
Last year, I wrote a feature titled Electric Mountain Bikes, Friend or Foe? The article included the opinions of IMBA’s president, a San Diego land manager and a bike shop owner. I reserved my opinion and judgment on the topic at the time, but since then, I’ve come to the realization that there really should be no controversy here—E-mountain bikes are a black and white issue. Does it have a motor on it? Yes? Then it’s motorized, end of discussion.
The second we start getting into semantics and saying things like “but it’s pedal assisted and only works when the rider is working” is just a way to dance around the fact that it’s motorized.
Whether or not an e-mountain bike has more impact on trails than a traditional mountain bike is beside the point. When the discussion expands to including a bicycle with a motor attached, confusion will run rampant about what’s acceptable and what isn’t. How much maximum wattage should be allowed? Should it be pedal assist only? What about those who can’t pedal at all? Shouldn’t they be able to ride a fully electric mountain bike?
Another issue to be considered is safety. Although it might sound a bit cruel, there are simply some people who shouldn’t be out in the middle of the wilderness without having arrived there under their own power. If you put someone without peak physical fitness or ability on an e-mountain bike and they end up way the hell out in BFE, what happens when their battery dies? Their pedal-assist bike suddenly turns into a 50-pound anchor weight that even the fittest of mountain bikers might not be able to pedal back to civilization.
I’m not trying to discriminate against old people, disabled people, overweight people or lazy people, and I’m not trying to dismiss the importance of e-bikes. But from what I’ve read, whom I’ve talked to and the reactions I’ve seen in the industry, most people are in agreement that this is a black and white issue. Motorized bicycles should be limited to trails specifically designated for motorized use.
Although I understand why executives from within the industry staunchly defend the rights of e-mountain bikes on multi-use trails, their strategy of blurring the lines between a traditional mountain bike and an e-mountain bike doesn’t help matters.
E-bike manufacturers are being rebuffed by many who are responsible for trail access, so now e-mountain bike advocates are calling these bikes “hybrids”, as if the word that suddenly gave the perception of the Toyota Prius as the holiest, greenest car on the planet (it isn’t), would somehow do the same for the e-mountain bike.
Yes, the e-bike segment has enormous fiscal upside, and some companies are licking their chops at the potential profits. But we cannot let capitalism play its little spin game and mask the truth of the matter. It all goes back to that one question—does it have a motor attached?
In a world of ever-expanding complications and political correctness, we just need to call a spade a spade. E-mountain bikes are motorized bikes just like motorcycles. Period. Once the bike has been categorized, we can move forward with common sense discussions around where they should be allowed and where they shouldn’t.
There are plenty of places where motorized bikes are allowed. BLM lands and National Forest lands have abundant terrain for motorized use. Hell, most of the trails around Downieville are open to motorized use. Wanna rail that new electric Haibike Nduro without having to do much work? Ride it to the top of the Sierra Buttes and bomb 15 miles downhill. An e-mountain bike in Downieville would be an interesting prospect.
But to me, trying to blur the lines of categorization, cry out “discrimination” or ask “what will old and disabled people do?” is just a way for e-bike entrepreneurs to get their foot jammed in the door of non-motorized mountain bike trail access so they can rake in maximum profitability.
I don’t hate e-mountain bikes. I think they’re fascinating and a terrific way for people to recreate. But the line in the loam needs to be dug deep and firm. If your bike has a motor attached, assisted or not, beyond this line you do not cross.
Perhaps the only positive I can take from the inclusion of e-mountain bikes on non-motorized trails is the widespread destruction of peoples’ highly coveted Strava segments. See some hardcore Stravaddict beaten uphill by a 65 year-old woman would bring the ASS great pleasure.
Editor’s Note: The Angry Singlespeeder is a collection of mercurial musings from contributing editor Kurt Gensheimer. In no way do his maniacal diatribes about all things bike oriented represent the opinions of Mtbr, RoadBikeReview, or any of their employees, contractors, janitorial staff, family members, household pets, or any other creature, living or dead. You can submit questions or comments to Kurt at email@example.com. And make sure to check out Kurt’s previous columns.