Invasion of the E-Bikes. Coming to a Trail Near You, Maybe.

Mike Lavery | CycleCycle
Crushing on an E-bike. Photo: Cannondale

E-bikes are the fastest-growing segment in the cycling industry today. Some companies are reporting that e-bikes account for up to 25% of their annual sales. That’s huge for a category that has really only taken off in the past few years. The bike industry as a whole is struggling, but people really, really want electric bikes.

Out for a ride last week on National Forest trails, I was passed by two people on e-bikes which got me thinking. Are they appropriate, or even legal, on non-motorized trails?  Should they be treated like normal bikes, or is their increased speed just fuel for more conflicts? We reported last year that Mammoth is opening their bike park to e-bikes. Some are celebrating the move, others see it as the first step in the end of the human powered trail experience.

At the moment, Europe has quite a few regulations on E-bikes, but in the U.S. things are mostly regulated by the states and the laws are inconsistent. The Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA), has created a three class electric bike system to help define e-bikes. Class 1 and 3 are basically the same, other than the speed the motor provides assistance to.

Class 1 – a bike equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when pedaling, and ceases assistance at 20 mph.

Class 2 – a bike equipped with a motor that may be used without pedaling up to 20 mph.

Class 3 – a bike equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when pedaling, and ceases assistance at 28 mph.

The class system has been adopted in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Utah, and Washington. In other states, they’re either considered a normal bike, or a motor vehicle. It’s all very confusing. Further complicating things, regulations depicted on the map above only apply to e-bike use on roadways, paved infrastructure, and “bike paths.”  E-mountain bikes are not addressed in state vehicle codes and the difference between a “path” and a “trail” is open to interpretation, leaving eMTB access in a gray area.

No E-Biking in Moab. Sorry. Photo: Drunk Cyclist

Where things are clear is on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management federal public land. Both agencies classify e-bikes as motor vehicles, meaning they are not allowed on non-motorized trails. The people that wizzed by me last week did so illegally, but to be fair, I didn’t know the rules and I doubt they did either.

If you scroll through the websites of big manufacturers like Trek and Specialized, there is model after model of e-mountain bike, so where are people supposed to ride them? Right now, there’s not many options. Polls done by the International Mountain Bike Association show over 75% of mountain bikers are against allowing e-bikes on their trails, yet barely anyone polled had actually ridden one. Those that had were much more supportive of allowing access. Caught in a tough spot, the IMBA recently shifted their support to allowing Class-1 bikes (20mph assist), but only on select trails where deemed appropriate. At this point, that is up to local and state government to decide.

A Trek Powerfly. Photo: Trek

Steamboat Springs, Colorado voted to open two paved “trails” inside the city limits to Class 1 bikes back in April 2018. A year long study did not produce any major conflicts, and the city hopes it will encourage people to ride more and drive less. Seattle is considering a pilot program to allow e-bikes on 5 paved trails throughout the city, and a similar program in Durango, Colorado is already underway. A quick internet search popped up dozens of other cities around the country in the same boat. Even though this isn’t yet a move to allow e-bikes on unpaved trails, it’s the first step in allowing motorized traffic into places it was once prohibited.

Mammoth Mountain, California, is the first and only major resort to open their mountain bike trails to e-bikes (Class 1 only) in 2018. With ski areas increasingly cashing in on the summer season, it makes perfect sense to start renting bikes and selling passes to people that would otherwise not ride.  Interestingly Mammoth was able to pull this off even though it operates on US Forest Service Land. A number of resorts like Steamboat and Winter Park Colorado, and Bear Valley California already let you ride e-bikes on their trails – but only with a guide. I have no doubt other ski areas will follow Mammoth’s lead in the future, especially those operated on private property.

mammoth, e-bikesMammoth Mountain Bike Park. Photo: Mammoth Mountain Resort

Personally, I believe that a bike should not have a motor, but I can see things from both perspectives. E-bikes getting people riding is a great thing for bike advocacy, trail work, reducing car traffic, and the overall health of our country. If you’ve never ridden one, they’re pretty darn fun (and I was a very hard skeptic). On the negative, there’s already enough trail conflict from mountain bikers riding too fast. Giving people the power to ride even faster could compromise trail access for bikes all together. Opening trails to e-bikes also starts to blur the line when it comes to other forms of motorized access. First, it’s e-bikes, then what? It’s a tough call.

In Europe, e-bikes are widely accepted. In fact, companies without an eMTB in their line up are not considered “core” mountain bike brands. Generally speaking, as long as the bike meets the EU e-bike regulations, it can go anywhere a normal mountain bike can. There’s even eMTB racing leagues popping up all over the place. The attitude and access are the polar opposite of in the United States.

E-biking in Europe. Photo: AWE360

I think the next step in the general e-bike access problem is to try it out.  Boulder County, Colorado is poised to be the first place in the U.S. to do just thatThe county recommended allowing class 1 and class 2 e-bikes on county open space and regional trails and last August. Without a doubt, there will be a backlash, but at this point, we need to stop speculating just give it a go.

With the lack of support from the mountain bike community, I don’t think we’ll be seeing eMTBs on Forest Service trails any time soon. As for the ski areas and local state land, the change is already underway.  E-bikes are here to stay.

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14 thoughts on “Invasion of the E-Bikes. Coming to a Trail Near You, Maybe.

  1. These bikes are seriously misunderstood by people who either have not ridden them and think it’s a dirtbike. It’s .3 HP at 250w output, think gentle push. A 50cc Honda Ruckus which goes about 30mph is 15x more powerful for example. An actual dirt bike at 250cc is nearly 160x more powerful than a class 1 ebike. There is no more damage, no more noise, and no more speed than a fit 20-year-old on a regular mountain bike. A pro biker puts out more power by far than the motor on an ebike.

    Afraid of access loss? Think about how many MORE advocated for biking will exist with ebikes bringing in all kinds of older people with sore knees etc that still want to bike but don’t want to limp around for a few weeks afterward. That .3 hp is just enough to take the strain off of old knees and make the experience enjoyable again.

    To the MTB crowd, look at yourselves. Your the hiker’s trying to ban MTB from trails for exclusive access. You’re that guy right now.

  2. Not sure why Americans have to be such a bunch of aholes about everything..governed bike are less a menace than KOM seeking strava bros.

  3. I live in a city and don’t have to worry about mountain trails. Going to pick up a few items at the store and riding in the local park for exercise….that shouldn`t be illeagal. My ebike tops out about 25 mph but I may ride about 20 or 30 miles every time I get on it. And at 72 years old, I think I deserve my motor !

  4. I just turned 68 and looking forward to putting a 750 watt motor on my Banshee.
    What’s this guy thinking boomers are going to muck things up ?
    If it wasn’t for boomers, there’d be no bike industry. You’d think gen x was responsible tech. Build a faster jet than an SR 71 with a slid rule.
    What’s the problem on the trail ? Being passed by somebody going 6 mph when you are doing 4 ? OMG.
    I’ve always been unsafe going downhill. On the weekdays when nobody’s around.
    I can’t imagine squeezing the throttle going down.
    Looking to put my over-sized Magura rotors, 210/180, to good use on the flats.

    1. With you all the way. I’m 73 and still ripping the downs, but can’t climb anymore. I rarely pass anyone going uphill on my e bike. Just so grateful to be able to keep up with the group now and go on rides I was missing.

  5. Please for the love of God don’t let the Boomers screw this up too. They see them and they don’t like them, they don’t know why so they make stuff up about how fast they are when any road biker can hold a 20mph constant

  6. Class 1 only on BLM and park service lands…
    Totally agree with the author though, ignorance about this issue runs deep, especially with LEOs

  7. This article is so last 2 months( lol).
    As of Sept. 3rd all access for ebikes has been granted on BLM properties.
    Now go out and try to ride Moab.

    1. Ignorance and holding your point of view. From a reasoned standpoint the ebike is not used to go faster down the hill they are used to not pedal up hill or someone who needs a boost cause of old age or injuries any one that thinks that people get these to go faster down the mountain is mistaken. No one not one person said oh I can’t go fast enough down the hill I wish I had a way to do that. Duh so stupid. They are made for the other times. Cars can go 100mph but they don’t because we have speed limits . Wait that doesn’t stop people speeding. Duh there will always be assholes and idiots and what usually makes you an asshole is when you think other people should listen to your illogical nonsense about a powered bike. The bike isn’t bad the rider is. Duh that what this is all about. If you ride with respect and safety in mind then all is good

  8. Not only was Boulder not the first place to “try out” ebikes, they *banned* ebikes from mountain trails. ebikes are only allowed on paved paths and *some* crushed gravel commuter paths in the non-mountain areas.

    However, Jefferson County, the next county south of Boulder, *did* legalize Class 1 ebikes on all trails, including the mountain trails and all paved and crushed gravel commuter trails.

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