Some Comments about Electric Mountain Biking

Monday, July 22, 2019

Electric mountain biking is stirring up a lot of controversy these days as land managers, advocates, the bike industry and fellow riders try to get their heads around how they fit into the off road recreational mix.

The fact is, at least as of now, there are very few non-motorized singletracks where you can ride an e-bike. We created a short guide about where you can ride electric mountain bikes in New England to let riders know where they can ride.

Much of the controversy about electric mountain bikes is about what the essence of mountain biking is. For many of us, the soul of mountain biking is that it is a human-powered sport. We are the engine and we provide the watts: no motors, no electric assist. We climb the hills, we descend them. Once a bike has a motor, regardless of how powerful, it is by definition a motorized bicycle.

Being human-powered is important. It puts us on par with other non-motorized users, with whom we share the same rights and responsibilities. In fact, our trail access is based upon being part of the non-motorized trails community. As mountain bikers, we have had to work hard to prove that our impacts are similar to other non-motorized users, and we’ve spent a lot of time mitigating user conflict on shared-use trails. While the average speed of a mountain bike is similar to that of a trail runner, it is on the downhills that speeds increase and the potential for user conflict rises. With 750 watts of power and maximum power-assisted speed of 20 mph, uphill trails (as well as any flat section) can now be ridden by electric mountain bikes as if they are downhill flow trails, substantially increasing the potential for user conflict.

In Europe, where electric bicycling has become popular, e-bikes are limited to only 250 watts and a 15.5 mph maximum -- the US standard has three times the power and a third more top end speed before the engine cuts off--that’s a big difference.

The electric mountain bike offers a real benefit to riders with legitimate special mobility needs. As a mobility device, e-bikes offer great potential for riders with medical conditions to get outdoors, get needed exercise, and enjoy the trail. Also, as a vehicle for carrying trail maintenance tools, or for land managers who need to patrol their trails, the electric mountain bike is a perfect utility vehicle. 

Perhaps the greatest benefit of e-bikes will be their role in helping to find solutions to our cities’ transportation issues and sustainability. There is huge potential for making communities more livable by expanding transportation corridors and expanding e-bike use. 

E-bikes also can enable people who need assistance from getting into the woods. We wish everyone to enjoy the experience of riding on natural surface trails. Anyone who is mobility-challenged under the Americans for Disabilities Act should be able to ride an electric mountain bike on trails. Going a step further, it could be a good idea to allow riders who have health issues that impair their ability to ride a mountain bike to be allowed to ride an electric bike. Whether it's the elderly, or people with COPD, heart issues, etc., they could greatly benefit from electric mountain biking.

But motorized mountain biking on non-motorized, shared-use trails will cause problems and damage our sport.The potential for user conflict, safety concerns, resource impacts, and political fallout will prevent us from gaining access to new riding opportunities.Our requests for access will now be lumped into, and viewed as, requests for motorized access. While state agencies can easily regulate where electric mountain bikes can be ridden, there are many hundreds of municipal properties, conservation lands and land trusts that could be impacted by motorized bikes.

Many of these local land managers aren’t too keen on mountain biking in the first place, so why should they stand up for us? It might be easier simply ban “all wheeled vehicles” and be done with it. The larger trails community of bikers, hikers, equestrian and other outdoor groups have started to express their concern for electric bikes on trails, as exhibited by a recent joint letter by 350 outdoor groups opposing e-bikes on non-motorized trails in the US Forest Service, BLM land and the National Park Service.

Riding an electric mountain bike is not like riding a regular bike. They are heavy, they are fast, and have serious torque when compared to a mountain bike. While there haven’t yet been any peer-reviewed studies, the impact on trails, especially on climbs and in the corners, appears to be significant. In “turbo” mode, they can get to full speed (at least 20 mph) in six pedal strokes. In the hands of regular riders, eMTBs achieve speeds higher that elite riders. To understand how different eMTBs are from regular mountain bikes, you need to understand wattage. A 750w eMTB might not seem very powerful, but it is if you compare it to the wattage output of elite professional riders. The current record holder for the the Hour Record, Bradley Wiggens, averages 440 watts, well below that of what an eMTB generates. Top pro racers can put out short burts of 400-500 watts only.

Another data point about the relative speed of eMTBs can be seen on Strava. The data shows eMTB riders taking KOMs (King of the Mountains) away from experienced elite racers (note: we don't care about who takes KOMs from whom, but it does show that eMTB riders easily outpace high level riders). At a recent race at Highland Mountain Bike Park, one of the e-bike racers easily got three KOMs over the elite mountain bike racers. At the Barn Burner race at Adam's Farm, the fastest lap was set by an eBiker - 4 minutes faster than the fasted elite rider. The Electric Mountain Bike Network put a e-bike head to head with a 6-time UK National Champion and Olympian mountain bike racer. Yes, the eBike handily won. Of note, is that the e-bike wasn't a US Class 1 but a European Class 1 with only 250 watts of power and a top limit of 15.5 mph. In comparison, US models have three times the power and a third more top end speed (750w / 20 mph limit).

The speed differential between e-mountain bikes, hikers and other trail users will make it difficult to safely share trails. 

There is also a growing e-mountain bike segment that vastly outpowers Class 1 & 2 bikes at a pricepoint lower than most decent mountain bikes. These e-bikes boast 2000 watts and are being marketed as being stealth so they can be ridden anywhere. Others are being marketed as electric motorcycles with pedals and "deceptively small" engines. Land managers, strapped for personnel and resources to maintain their parks, are going to have a very hard time distinguishing between e-bikes and enforcing wattage/speed limits. The ex-editor of Mountain Bike Action, James McIlvain argues that opening trails up to Class 1 ebikes opens all trails up to all ebikes.

Electric mountain bike riders and the eMTB industry need to work together to create new places for them to ride. This can and will happen, but it will take a lot of work. We know because we’ve been fighting for our access for 30+ years.