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.
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.
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 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.
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 that. The 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.