Understanding E-bikes in Downieville and the Lost Sierra

Studying electric-assist mountain bikes and sharing findings


E-bikes at Big Boulder lookout – riders took the shuttle, climbed an additional 4000 feet and descended 8000.

Editor’s Note: This story was written by Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship and was originally published here).

The mission of the Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship (SBTS), a 501c3 non-profit organization, is “Building sustainable recreation-based communities through stewardship, job creation, and world-class events. Providing quality outdoor experiences through trail construction and maintenance in the Lost Sierra.”

SBTS achieves this mission by promoting responsible, shared, multi-use access of all recreation types. SBTS works on all types of trails, from motorized OHV trails to federally designated Wilderness trails.

Decision makers from the US Forest Service went on a proper ebike ride to understand the subject.

John Groom (Trail Program Manager, Truckee Ranger District)
Garrett Villanueva (Program Leader, Regional Trail and Travel Management)
Jonathan Fisher (District Ranger, Truckee Ranger District)
Eli Ilano (Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest)
Jen Eberlien (Deputy Director, Public Services Region 5)
Temoc Rios (Staff Officer, Tahoe National Forest)
Jim Bacon (Director, Public Services Region 5)
Elizabeth Berger (Deputy Forest Supervisor, Tahoe National Forest)
Greg Williams (Executive Director, Sierra Buttes Trail Stewardship)

Over the last three years, SBTS has studied electric-assist mountain bikes closely, as they are the newest form of recreation on our public lands. And what we mean by “study” is we’ve actually ridden Class 1 electric-assist mountain bikes – e-bikes with pedal assist up to 20 mph – extensively on OHV-legal trails in the Tahoe National Forest. We have even gotten trails-focused officials in the Tahoe and Plumas National Forest out on e-bikes with us, educating them on what exactly an e-bike is, helping drive sensible use management practices.


The pace up the long climb up the Mt. Hough fire road was cordial until the fireworks near the top.

In more than 300 miles of riding a wide range of trails on Class 1 e-bikes in different conditions, we discovered that although an e-bike has a motor attached, it is still human-powered and requires physical effort, as it will not move without pedaling input. But more importantly, we discovered this new form of recreation is just as low impact as a traditional mountain bike and has the ability to create many more advocates for trails and the protection of public lands.

Because of electric assist, it allows more Americans to physically reach and connect with remote corners they’d otherwise never get to see. Further, e-bikes enable users to access remote system trails in the Tahoe and Plumas National Forest that currently see little to no use. Getting more users to these remote trails will not only take stress off primary trails, it will  also help keep the remote trails more open and accessible to the public.

Rider Andy Lightle organizes an annual Mtbr gathering in Downieville but has not been able to ride to back pain. This year he was e-nabled.

The e-bike is an incredibly social form of recreation. Because of electric assist, it is more enjoyable for all-mountain bike users – particularly families – whether beginner or advanced, young or old. In many ways, e-bikes are the ultimate backcountry exploration tool. E-bikes are silent, human-powered, low impact, zero emissions, and their use actually reduce the number of people driving cars to more congested public lands trailheads.

E-bikes are also a valuable tool for conducting trail work; they’re instrumental in getting SBTS staff and volunteers out to remote locations physically impossible for most people to access by traditional mountain bike or distances too far to hike.

Shimano STEPS MTB US introduction – The president of Shimano America was able to join the crew on the climb up from Sierra City.



Because almost all of the trails surrounding Downieville date back to the Gold Rush, virtually every trail is OHV legal and opened to both motorized and non-motorized use. This OHV-legal status is critically important to SBTS, as we apply for California OHV grants to keep the SBTS Professional Trail Crew employed year-round.

Shimano STEPS MTB US launch – Long hike-a-bike sections are ok according to Aaron Bradford.

The Tahoe National Forest recently opened more than 200 miles of non-motorized trail to Class 1 e-bike use including favorites like Hole in the Ground, Emigrant, Sawtooth, Bullards Bar and North Yuba Trail in Downieville. These are in addition to the already 2,000 miles of roads and 195 miles of OHV trails in the Tahoe National Forest.

Additionally, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt recently issued an order allowing e-bikes to use the same trails in the National Parks System already open to traditional mountain bikes. This is a significant development and indicates the federal government is paying attention to e-bikes as a legitimate new form of recreation.

Remote areas like the Buttes tower at 8600 are accessible and fun with an e-bike.

Not only will expanding access for Class 1 e-bikes help encourage more of the public to explore their public lands, but the rapidly growing popularity of e-bikes will also help bolster the recreation economy of struggling mountain towns like Downieville that rely on visitation and tourism revenue.

E-bikes are not just another passing fad; they are here to stay and will change the face of outdoor recreation. The better we understand what e-bikes are, the better we can integrate them into the existing trail networks. SBTS is excited to continue working with the Tahoe National Forest, providing quality recreational experiences on public lands.


Shimano STEPS MTB US introduction – Hans Rey approves.

More information on Tahoe National Forest e-bike riding opportunities can be found at:

Class 1 e-bike recommended trails in the Tahoe National Forest.

About the author: Mtbr

Mtbr.com is a site by mountain bikers for mountain bikers. We are the best online resource for information for mountain bikers of all abilities, ages and interests.


  • bikebuddha says:

    Ebikes are evil and will eventually lose access for all mountain bikes. First, while the ‘CURRENT’ ebikes are ‘pedal assist’ and ‘limited to 20mph’, FUTURE ebikes won’t be. No way bigger more powerful batteries won’t be put on these bikes once the battery technology allows for it. (And that’s a never ending progression of more and more powerful batteries). Do a youtube search for homemade e-bkes. You’ll find hundreds of examples of people doing over 60pmh. Do you think our park rangers have the free time to check to see which bikes have batteries, or what size battery? Of course not. After a couple of reports of people shooting down the train at 30-40mph, it’s all over. They will just ban all bikes. Of course there are a couple of other issues. First off, 20mph doesn’t sound all that fast. But that’s road bike speeds. Road bike speeds on our trails, and not just on the downhills anymore. Now people will be going those speeds on the flats and up the hills. Yeah, I can just image a family of four shooting down the trail at 20mph (or more). Brilliant. Then there is errosion. I’ve demo’d an e-bike. I was railing berms gloing UP a hill. Yeah, there will be more wear and tear on the trails, especially once the bigger batteries show up. Finally, and almost as scary, is this notion that e-bikes are opening up new trails to users that otherwise weren’t able to access them (due to age or low fitness). I sure as hell hope the American’s with Disabilites crowd doesn’t read this article. That kind of talk will get them think ALL our trails need to be ADA accessbile. You know, to be fair to the criples. Finally, as an avid rider. I’m glad ‘not everyone’ can get to every square inch of trail. I like, at least some, of my riding to be alone out in the great outdoors. I don’t need every ride to be so full of other bikers that it’s akin to searching for a parking space at the mall at Christmas…

    • elyhim says:

      You don’t understand ebikes will be outselling acoustic bikes. Look at the market share, look at projections. You think the ebike wave is going to be stopped by your poor opinions? You don’t see that there will be more ebikers than bikers? Than hikers?

      In ten years who do you think will own cycling advocacy? IMBA already figured it out.

      • Adam Causewell says:

        Um, PROJECTIONS….same baloney projections we’ve seen for the past half-decade. The marketers spew what they want you to believe (and what they want you to buy). Fact is, the sales of ebikes continue to crawl along, and they remain cost-prohibitive to most new entrants to biking. Nice toys for rich folks, and a temporary fad for the lazy ones that will eventually give it up anyway. There are some bikers that will convert and enjoy ebikes for the things they offer, but nonsense projection graphs from greedy sales reps do not trump reality.

    • jiw71 says:

      From your rant it’s obvious that you have a righteous mindset and/or macho attitude you have to uphold.

      When you get the facts straight and without emotions you see that e-bikes are not different than a regular mountain bikes. The tire of an e-bike that ride the trail is the same brand and size. There is no noise or pollution. There is also no difference what makes the wheel turn. Mechanical/muscle power or electrical/muscle power…… the trail does not know the difference. It is the same for the hiker who encounters a mountain bike.

      The motor generates no more torque than a good cyclist.

      Stop being so selfish. I’m willing to bet you haven’t ridden an e-MTB. In most cases, you wouldn’t be able to distinguish an e-bike on the trail. They’re not ‘destructive’, nor are they ‘motorcycles’. Lose the dramatic rhetoric. If you don’t want to be around bikes, then hike in Wilderness.

    • NLTCrow says:

      If bikebuddha can predict the future, he should be hanging out at a casino, not MTBR. Otherwise this tirade is just a bunch of fear mongering drivel.

    • Once a MTB rider says:

      I hear where you are coming from and tend to agree with most of your views.
      More riders will end in congestion, crashes, a greater difference in speeds of riders causing angst, conflict and hurt, increased environmental damage.
      Soon ebikes will be motorbikes (that’s when i will get one, feck the peddling) and then these ebikes will banned and possibly all ebikes. Are all ebikes going to be checked to make sure they in fact are peddle ebikes before you start riding?
      Maybe permits will be required and licensing and insurance ……….
      Segregation. Different trails for different bikes.
      This could all get very ugly in the future.

  • Duffman76 says:

    Zero emissions? While the bike itself is, you still need to drive to the trailhead. And where does the power come from to charge it? A zero-emission power plant? Same false argument used to support electric cars.

    • kragu says:

      I’d rather have people in Yosemite buzzing around on ebikes than sitting in the valley for hours stuck in traffic with their cars idling.

  • edb_mtb_socal says:

    eBikes are not evil and will not cause all access to mountain bikes to be taken away. That statement made by ‘bikebuddha’ is ignorant and dumb. Not to mention his thoughts on “criples (sic)”…. wow. It is people like this that drive this debate into worthless discussions. If eBikes were going to cause all access to mountain bikes to cease they would have done it while they were illegal to ride on the trails and people were doing it anyways. His concern of speed and a family of four shooting down the trail at 20mph or more…. LOL. I too am a “avid rider” for many years and only in the last six months switched to an eBike. I have many strava / trailfork / apple watch recordings of my rides and I do not ride any faster downhill or on flat trail on my eBike than I did on my non eBikes. Only the uphill which I rarely rode anyway is where I am faster. Also, who are these reports to the ranger of 30-40 mph coming from? I personally have never reached those speeds on a dirt trail…. it is hard to reach that speed going downhill on the street. The fact that some people are making or modifying bikes to go faster… well that happens with everything. Do cars only go the speed limit? Why does Ferrari exist if I can only go 65 mph legally? bikebuddha I think we all hope that you are riding “alone out in the great outdoors” on the trails as I personally would never want to run into someone so single minded and frankly rude as you. Your commits on the “Americans with Disabilities crowd” is unbelievable and unjust. eBikes are here to stay and access will only get greater.

    • aali says:

      Not to mention that he wants to keep trails to himself that everyone else’s tax dollars are paying for.

      Free loader.

    • Just4thefunofit says:

      I’m on the fence on this one and understand the pros and the cons and there certainly are both. If it is hard for you to reach 30-40 mph going downhill on a street than you do need an e-bike.

  • andyakarut says:

    There’s a lot of hate there Mr bike”buddha”. You are not exactly living up to your name.
    You sound like an equestrian 20 years ago. “Bikes will ruin our trails! Bikes will scare the horses!” Yes we could be doing that, but only if we are irresponsible.
    I ride responsibly, I am a courteous rider- I am aware of my surroundings, the people around me and the trail I am on. It doesn’t matter if I’m on a horse, a bike, an e-bike or hiking. Simply be responsible. Time for me to get out there and enjoy the ride.

  • Brian says:

    So they showed a picture of 9 Ebikers and presumably the photographer so 10 riders. Their study composed of “more than 300 miles”. So they did a study with 10 people doing s single 30 mile ride?? That really does not sound like a large study. I think it is very important that they limit e-bike access to class 1. The proposed federal regulation change allowing class 3 seems unnecessary. I have no interest not but some day when I am old and week I will happily buy one.

  • W.S. says:

    Here in the Prescott National forest the only trails I have seen E bikes on are the few trails on which they are not allowed. Obviously, that will not help us gain or even retain trail access. I am 50 years old have a bad back and the beginning stages of COPD and if I can get out and do a 1000 ft+ ft of climbing why does a 20 something year old need to be shredding the trails on an E bike?

  • joey says:

    when I can’t walk anymore, I will get in my electric golf cart and enjoy the trails I USE to ride under MY own power.

  • Kapusta says:

    For a few years, I lived in Norden, CA a couple miles from Hole InThe Ground, and rode it as much as I could for the few months each year it was free of snow. The thought of eBikes on it makes me throw up in my mouth just a little bit.

  • Kevin says:

    Ebikes will eventually be more common than human-only powered bikes. as technology advances they’ll become cheaper and more desirable to more people. It really doesn’t matter what vehicle you choose, the eco nazis want to shut down all trails for anyone but hikers. They don’t give a damn what type of vehicle you’re on/in.
    I used to ride 200-300 miles a week on a standard Mtb. Now I have Diabetes and Crohn’s disease and my joints just won’t allow for that kind of mileage anymore. Us “cripples” would like to enjoy the trails too.

    • Adam Causewell says:

      Cheaper? Really, add a hi-tech motor to a bike and it gets cheaper? What fantasy world do you live in? There are no eco-nazis. Maybe some misguided zealots that don’t understand ebikes for what they can actually offer (many good things), but let’s not spread lies on either side of the discussion.

  • 916rider says:

    To all those against ebikes, stop acting like the old ladies that ride horses and want separate trails and act like ebikes are going harming anyone. When we all hit a certain age or have injuries, ebikes will be the only thing that will keep us going and allow more people to have the same enjoyment for longer. I’m young now, but when I’m 80 years old, I will buy an ebike and keep riding until I’m dead. So what if they can go faster uphill and in the flats, just show some respect and everybody will survive and have some fun in life.

  • Rick says:

    Excellent article and excellent logic in it. Thank you for presenting the results of your research.

  • Dr. Love says:

    Well, my ride is a normal full-suspension mtb and I’ve actually ridden an e-mtb and can confirm it doesn’t make it possible to shoot “down the train at 30-40mph.” If anything the extra weight slowed things down for me. Maybe we should ban full-suspension bikes because they made it easier for people to ride more technical trails too.

    Plus, what do trains have to do with the discussion? 😉

  • john says:

    I find it strange the “Hate” for eBikes. While I am a traditional bike rider, I do have an eBike and enjoy it too. Sometimes to ride with younger guys and sometimes just to have fun, but either way it is all cycling and fun. Seems like traditional riders fear eBikes for some reason. I understand the concept and accomplishment in climbing a long hill and do not think the eBike rider should get a free ride up it, but it’s their hill too. It’s like people who hike do not think Bicycles should be allowed as you should have to walk up the hill as they do. It’s all good if you walk, run, bike or eBike it’s just great to get outdoors and yes I am on Strava and do not want an eBike to beat my results, but that’s another story.

  • sportsdoc says:

    Full access to everything by everyone is not realistic nor is it preferred. I, like some of my patients and friends, will lose my ability ride my mtb due to injury or age. Such is life and I’ll need to find other ways find my zen. This may mean that I no longer have access to some areas of nature, too bad. I don’t have the capacity needed to climb Mt Everest or to descend the Red Bull Rampage. I don’t expect either of these to be made easier to accommodate me.

  • hotsauce says:

    I think key words here are “‘study'” and “OHV”. First, not a study – please refrain from absolutist and didactic conclusions without an actual study. Second, e-MTBs are motorized and as long as they are classified as such and remain on motorized (OHV) trails, then by all means.

  • mlhcpa says:

    I started riding when a Bridgestone MB3 was a decent bike and required most of my summer earnings. Many miles and years later, I have developed such severe quadricep tendinitis that I have almost stopped riding altogether. However, I loved The Ride too much to quit and fantasized about returning to the trail when a friend invited me on an e-bike ride with him, and I realized I found a way back.

    I now own an eMTN bike and feel like a kid again, and I want to ride it everywhere. Unfortunately, riding everywhere is not allowed. Dismayed, I have plunged down the rabbit hole of eMTN bike access, consuming everything I can find on the topic. While reading “Conflicts on Multiple-Use Trails,” I read about “Last Settlor Syndrome” and realized that is the piece of the puzzle I had missed in the ongoing debate. Following is a quote from page 19/69 of the paper:

    “Another theme related to trail conflict often expressed by trail managers and trail users is the resentment toward newcomers that is often expressed by traditional trail users. This is similar to the “last settler syndrome” (Nielsen, Shelby and Haas 1977) where visitors want a particular place to remain the way is was when they first arrived. The first or traditional users want to be the last ones allowed access. Mountain bikers commonly complain that hikers want to unfairly exclude them from backcountry areas just because bicycle use is new and untraditional. This “last settler syndrome” is particularly acute in areas where one user group has built and/or maintained trails which are later invaded by other types of uses. Managers and new users must be sensitive to the understandable ownership the traditional users feel toward trails they have built and care for. A similar sense of ownership and tradition makes it more difficult to close trails to a particular use once that use is established. The animosity felt by some long-time mountain bikers toward managers of the Mt. Tamalpias area (Marin County, north of San Francisco) is likely magnified by the fact that in the early days of mountain biking, all trails there were open to mountain biking. Singletrack trails were subsequently closed to mountain bike use.”

    The truth about eMTN bike access isn’t trail wear, IMBA in a 2015 study concluded, “This study found that the impacts from Class 1 eMTBs and traditional mountain bicycles were not significantly different…”.

    “But eMTN bikes are so fast and all travel at 20mph!”. eMTN bikes do have a higher average speed, measured to be 4 mph in a 2019 study by Brigham Young University. I have not found any research regarding where the speed differentials occur on an eMTN bike vs. a conventional bicycle. However, the speed differential, in my experience, is while climbing. Instead of climbing at 2-4 mph on a traditional bike, now I’m climbing at 5-8 mph, certainly not a dangerous speed considering gravity is helping me stop if I have to. I am also slightly faster on flat trail sections. Downhill speeds are substantially similar to my traditional bike. In practice, I only hit the speed governer of 20 mph when pedaling on a paved road downhill to or from a ride.

    Critics often cite that they don’t want to encounter an e-bike at 20 mph on a trail. Well, neither do I. For that matter, Usain Bolt ran at a top speed of 27.7 miles an hour. Does that mean all trail runners can run that fast and that we will see them coming at us on the dead run doing that speed? Quarter horses can gallop at speeds of 55 mph. Does that mean equestrians have their 1200 pound steeds barreling down the trail at highway speeds, ready to crush everything in their path? Of course not, but folks incorrectly argue that all eMTN bikes move at their maximum speed of 20mph at all times, regardless of trail conditions or respect for other trail users.

    Hysterical opponents of eMTN bikes use the speed argument, most of whom, such as the Wilderness Society, oppose traditional bikes as well. That argument doesn’t withstand a thoughtful examination unless you believe equestrians are doing 55mph on your favorite singletrack

    eMTN bike’s most significant hurdle to overcome is a syndrome, nothing more.

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