Electric bikes have become exceptionally popular over the past few years, and this trend has extended into the world of mountain biking. The current market share of eMTBs is currently around 5.13 billion, and this share is expected to grow to 9.27 billion by 2028. Although e-mountain bikes have been widely accepted in Europe, they are still a controversial mode of transportation in the United States. Currently, e-bikes are only allowed on roads and trails that allow motorized vehicles on National Forest land. Their use is not allowed on other biking trails. The exception to this rule is for ski resorts that operate on special use permits on National Forest property, in which case they are allowed to set their own rules regarding e-bikes.
E-bikes come in three different classifications. The most popular class for mountain bikes are Class 1, which is defined as having a pedal-assist motor (aka no throttle) with a maximum motor-assisted speed of 20 mph. While these bikes are meant to provide seamless assistance for the user, public opinion has generally seen these bikes as damaging to the environment and fellow bike-path users. The University of Vermont, in conjunction with PeopleForBikes and Fellowship of the Wheel, released a study regarding the acceptance and use of e-mountain bikes. Here are their key findings:
- TRAIL ETIQUETTE: Respondents to the intercept survey described the trail etiquette of eMTB riders as generally positive, though less positively than traditional mountain bike riders.
- OVERCROWDING: Respondents to the statewide survey also expressed concerns over increased crowding due to eMTB usage. However, focus group discussions noted increased usership generally, outside specifically eMTB use, and noted positive aspects of growth of the sport.
- SAFETY: Some respondents to the statewide survey shared concerns about the safety of eMTBs, but participants of the intercept survey were neutral over whether or not eMTB introduction added safety concerns. Focus group discussions reinforced the neutral perspective, which emphasized that it comes down to the decisions of the individual rider, regardless of the bike they are on.
- TRAIL IMPACTS: Both statewide and intercept survey results highlighted rider concerns on the physical impact eMTBs have on trails. In the focus groups, participants largely disputed the perception of negative trail impacts from eMTBs but noted that justification for their views was only anecdotal or hypothetical. Participants agreed that more data is needed to back up statements about the physical trail impacts of eMTBs.
- ACCESSIBILITY: Intercept survey participants neither agreed nor disagreed that eMTBs make the sport of mountain biking more or less accessible, indicating respondents may perceive “accessible” by both physical and financial means. Focus group participants were largely against limiting eMTB riders to only those with a proven disability or designating them to specific trails only.
Based on these findings, the impact and perception of e-bikes is surprisingly neutral to positive. So why do I, an eMTB owner and overall terrible mountain biker, strongly support the sweeping allowance of Class 1 e-mountain bikes? Unlike the findings of this study, I have personally experienced the increased accessibility that eMTBs offer. Limiting eMTBs on trails significantly restricts the usage of people who require an electric-assist, adding additional stress and difficulty in engaging in the sport when already dealing with a disability. Let me provide you with two personal examples:
I recently spoke to a coworker about the joys of biking here in Colorado. This individual told me about a time he and a friend were biking on Forest Service land. My coworker was on a regular mountain bike, and his buddy was on an eMTB. They were stopped by a forest ranger, who was ready to deliver a hefty fine for using a eMTB on a trail that prohibited them. This individual, who shall remain nameless for identity protection purposes, had significant surgery on their leg and could no longer operate a regular bike. Fortunately for him, he had extensive documentation of his physical limitations and defended his use protection under the Americans with Disabilities Act. As a result, the ranger let them go.
My other example is, unfortunately, even more personal (and probably TMI). I have a cardiac arrhythmia, aka my heart beats too fast. I look to be a decently athletic person on the outside, and my 70+ days of skiing each season paired with my brief stint as a professional equestrian would support this notion. However, my cardiac limitations make uphilling on a bike almost impossible. With my eMTB, I can make ascents that I would never have thought possible. I might be slightly faster than people on a regular bike, but the difference in speed is marginal. While I have accessible trails near me, finding those trails is a burden that I wish I didn’t have to experience. I’ve excluded myself on group rides when my friends selected a trail that explicitly prohibits e-bikes. It’s frankly annoying to experience this exclusion, as I really am no different on my eMTB than a regular Joe on an analog bike.
I have several “normal” friends who own eMTBs (including my husband), and they describe their use as similar to mine. They remain in control with marginally higher speeds, and their experience is overwhelmingly positive. They typically aren’t trying to make impossible climbs happen, but rather have an easier time on normal trails. From what I have seen, there use is no more impolite and environmentally damaging than my regular MTB friends. With their relatively normal usage paired with the difficulty I’ve experienced with eMTB acceptance, I’m of the opinion that Class 1 eMTBs should be allowed wherever regular mountain bikes are accepted.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to convert anyone into the cult of e-biking. I just hope by sharing my personal story, you will think twice before making mean remarks to the next e-biker you encounter.