The first time I saw an electric bike I was struggling up a hill. Suddenly, a silver-haired man came rushing past in plain city clothes. I felt a wave of envy as he left me in the dust.
That was probably five years ago, and since then ebike use has exploded. In 2020, ebike sales in the United States in the month of June totaled about $90 million, a 190 percent increase over the previous June.
It’s hard to remember, but regular mountain bikes didn’t become commercially available until the 1980s, and when the early adopters hit trails previously used only by hikers and riders, conflicts happened quickly.
People argued that the bikes increased erosion. They worried about collisions and spooking horses. They had a theory that mountain bikes would scare wildlife. Today, the same arguments are used against electric mountain bikes.
Again, the controversy seems to stem from the fear of change, perhaps some arrogance and perhaps a bit of jealousy. After all, when I suffered to get to the top of the climb by my own power, shouldn’t you?
In 2017, the International Mountain Bike Association, which had said ebikes should be considered motorized vehicles, softened its stance. Instead, it suggested that local land managers and user groups should decide – on a case-by-case basis – whether to allow e-bikes on naturally paved trails. Many members have canceled their membership. Some comments were harsh.
One wrote: “If you’re too old to still ride the trails you love, do like many before, remember the good old days and encourage the young. Don’t throw them and our public lands under the bus.” That kind of attitude does not bode well for land managers to find an easy compromise.
So what are the effects of electric mountain bikes. Do they damage trails or cause more accidents?
In 2015, the International Mountain Bike Association examined the environmental impacts of mountain bikes, both electric and self-propelled, and found no significant differences between the two in terms of trail displacement. Overall, the cycling impacts were similar to the impacts from walkers.
Horses, motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles do much more damage to trails.
As for problems caused by speed, traffic studies show that accidents and their severity escalate as differences in speed increase. But do electrified bikes go that much faster than traditional bikes?
To find out, Tahoe National Forest measured the top speeds reached by intermediate and advanced riders using both types of bikes. The differences on the descents were small. Uphill, traditional motorcyclists averaged 5-8 mph, while electric mountain bikes averaged 8-13 mph. This was a difference, but not enough to cause more accidents, especially if motorcyclists warn others of their presence and ride in control.
Rachel Fussell, program manager for the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, says that more than a battery boost, speed on trails reflects both rider skill and trail design. She believes that all users who adhere to proper trail etiquette would avoid most potential conflicts.
Celeste Young has been a cyclist all her life and now trains mountain bikes. Her fleet of bikes has recently grown to include an electric mountain bike.
“The most negative thing I’ve heard is, ‘Oh, you’re cheating,'” she says. “But it’s just a different way of being out there. You get an extra boost going up these really tough trails, so it makes a challenging trail fun instead of demoralizing.”
It is a confusing notion that someone accused her of cheating. It would be one thing if you secretly put a motor in your bike during a race, but when it’s an amateur rider going out for fun and exercise, how about having an electronic boost cheat?
It all reminds me – a skier – of the controversy that erupted after snowboards appeared in ski resorts. They were new and fast, and their rhythm on the slopes was different from the rhythm of people on skis.
We didn’t like them and I doubt they liked us. But we have solved it. Now public land managers face the knotty issue of how much access to allow e-bikes and where, or whether, to separate them into their own trails. Welcome to the stuffed vest.
Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring discussion on Western issues. She lives in Victor, Idaho and has worked as a wilderness instructor, server, farmer and freelance journalist to support her outdoor recreation habit.