This is going to be a little bit different article for me to write, as I have never written an open letter to the industry.  I would guess that I am going to see a bunch of emotional comments at the bottom of this, in both directions, and that will be at least partially justified.  But, nonetheless I feel that I have to put this down somewhere, so here goes. 

I think that the bicycle industry is half cocked on our position on electric mountain bikes.  I say our position, because I have been part of the industry for a long time, and I would say that I even need to own some portion of the industry’s position.  “They are much closer to bicycles, and should be regulated as such”, is the most common bicycle industry position.  Unfortunately, that is way too shallow and not thoroughly vetted for all of the potential impacts (present and future) when it comes to offroad use.

Let me start by saying, I am an advocate for ebikes.  After a nearly 3 decade career at Trek bicycle and my consulting business, I have built/designed and promoted ebikes, I have advised companies and entities on ebikes, I have consulted with businesses to help them get ready for or promote ebikes, I have helped retailers understand and become part of the ebike community.  I have owned ebikes, and will own them again in the future.  I truly believe that ebikes are a good thing for the users, the communities that embrace them and of course the industry. 

Additionally, I actually think the industry has done a good job with advocacy and regulations around ebikes for ON ROAD use.  My issue with the industry’s position is entirely in regards to offroad use.

Let me also start by saying that I feel that the constant barrage of articles by pro-ebike representatives, attempting to convince the non believer cycling enthusiast that they should embrace ebikes, is completely pointless.  It is completely pointless, because it just doesn’t matter.  No amount of articles telling them that they are wrong or being narrow minded is going to change anyones mind.   Haters are gonna hate – get over it.  This whole issue is no different than skiers hating snowboarders, bow hunters hating crossbow hunters, rock-n-roll lovers hating country music enthusiasts etc…  Some people are going to hate people that are different than they are, and arguing with them isn’t a solution.  (Kinda reminds you of our current political leaders, and their followers, and the social media debates that rage, eh?)  Constantly stirring the pot between the haters and the promoters,  makes all of us in the cycling world seem like a bunch of bickering cry baby cyclists.  It presents to the outside observer or land manager or legislator that we cyclists cannot even agree on what we want as a cycling group, and clouds our position with our real challenge in regards to eMTB. 

Our real challenges with eMTB are big and not easily solved by just saying “they are closer to bicycles…”. 

I am currently the Board President of the Chequamegon Area Mountain Bike Association (CAMBA).  CAMBA is one of the largest trail networks in the midwest with over 120 miles of singletrack, 200+ miles of mapped gravel roads and 70 miles of winter groomed snowbike trails.  We like to think of ourselves as an offroad mecca.  CAMBA manages all of that infrastructure in Northern Wisconsin across 2 different County Forest systems, in a section of National Forest and on sections of private land.  CAMBA is proud to have fostered a fantastic relationship with all of those land managers.  The trails we have built and gravel routes that we have mapped are a hugely important economic driver in a part of the state with sparse population.  We are in the middle of a year long economic impact study, but our early estimates are showing more than 15k visits to our trails.  Our early estimates also show an all in year round impact to the community of well over $10m per year from MTB’s.  In a community of just 5000 year round residents, the trails and MTB lifestyle are enormously important and a huge community economic asset. 

In my role with CAMBA, I have had the ebike conversation with our other board members, other trail groups, our land managers, government officials, private land owners and the membership of CAMBA.  CAMBA has organized informational eMTB meetings as well as an ebike demo with those land managers and land owners.

In other words, our trail group has taken direction from national advocacy organizations to have a healthy positive conversation with our land managers about eMTB, and created educational opportunities for everyone involved.  Those conversations point out what the real issues/questions actually are in regards to eMTB.  The industry insisting that eMTB be regulated as bicycles is not thoroughly vetted and potentially detrimental to MTB access in the long run.  As far as I can tell from my chair, the cycling industry is not visibly addressing the majority of the real issues.

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If we want these signs to go away, we need to address the real problems with eMTB.

In no certain order, what follows are the issues and questions that I believe are not being addressed by the industry.  These are either direct questions asked by land managers that our trail advocacy group cannot answer, or a summary of issues eMTB on trails present:

1.) Do eMTB’s do more damage to trails than regular analog pedal bikes? People for Bikes and other organizations point to an IMBA study that was done a few years ago, and present that as proof that eMTB do not do any more damage to trails than regular bikes.  Unfortunately, one very controlled study doesn’t really answer this in a way that gives land managers assurance.   Because the limited extent of data that the industry can provide, Land Managers are looking to their trusted partners – the trail advocacy groups – to help them understand this new entity.  Of course we do not have information or data to present, so we are left with a concern on the part of the land manager that the trail group cannot answer.  

2.) What kind of trails are safe to mix pedal bikes and eMTB on the trails?  What proof is there that the type of recommended trails that will be mixed, are actually safe to mix the different users on those trails?  How do the sight lines need to be adjusted if there are users going at a high speed in both directions?  When do trails need to be one way?  As a trail group, we certainly do not have these answers, and it appears that the industry is not trying to answer these questions.  But, representing a trail group I can assure you we do not have the funding to be building all one way trails.  (I have been reminded more than once, that the ATV trails went through something similar when the business switched from a 38” wide ATV that would go 25mph, to a 54” UTV that will go 100mph)

3.) Many trail groups have a history of asking land managers to allow the group to create separate trails from motorized user groups, from a safety and user experience POV.  I know that is certainly a piece of CAMBA’s 25 year history.  Now that same trail advocacy group is going back to those same land managers and trying to reason with them that this motorized user group (eMTB users) is ok.  The industry needs to understand this history and understand that it is the trail advocacy group who is now spending their chips with land managers, not the bicycle companies.  Risking that trust that has been built over time with land managers, is not something that an advocacy group will take lightly, nor should the industry.

4.) Many trail groups have received public or private grants along the way, to build the trails they are managing. Sometimes, those grants were specific for building trails for non motorized use.  Again, trail groups are now faced with going back to those same granting agencies and trying to justify that eMTB are ok.  Remember, these grants are important funding mechanisms for the trails that all MTB riders use.

5.) Class 1 ebikes in NA are too powerful and accelerate too fast when on the top boost setting, for some trails and certainly some users.  If you hold an ebike demo on single track with forest service managers (who are not cyclists), you will quickly see this to be true.  You will find yourself, as the demo manager, fearing that the demo riders will attempt the “turbo” setting.  Inevitably they will use the higher settings, and they will come back terrified for the beginner cyclist on the trails and the liability situation with their land.  This only reinforces the question in their mind that the trails may not have been built to handle eMTB.

6.) There is no guarantee that the cycling industry will not upgrade the eMTB’s available to class 2 or 3 or something beyond that.  There is no way for the trail advocacy groups or the Land Managers to enforce the rules if one of those entities decided to limit the trails to something like class 1.  In fact, I would challenge anyone outside of the industry to be able to tell the difference between any of these classes of bikes at a glance.  Land managers see this as a potential they will not be able to control once they open the doors to eMTB (remember they have seen this movie with ATV’s and UTV’s that will go 100mph).  As a trail advocacy group, there is nothing that we can say to change this fear, because their fears are probably real that without some sort of official regulation, they will probably become faster and more powerful in the future.

7.) The industry presents that ebikes will bring more people into cycling.  I would love it if that is true, but I fear that inevitability at the same time.  I do not know when the amount of use on our trails will put us over the tipping point for what can be managed.  As an example, in our part of the country, building trails costs $3.5 – $7 per foot (depending on the ground make up, the topography and the type of trail being built).  Our maintenance bill is about $1 per foot, every 3-4 years, when our trails need to be rehabbed.  If we were to double our users on the trails, our overall trails budget would potentially need to double.  In todays world, I do not know where that funding will come from or if it is sustainable. 

The risk is that we could lose trails if advocacy groups are no longer seen as positive stewards of the land because we cannot afford the maintenance costs. 

These are the top issues that our trail group has been able to identify.  They may not be the only issues, but they seem to be the biggest issues. 

So what do I think the industry needs to do if they would like to move the issue of eMTB access forward?

1.)  There needs to be clear policy and regulations around ebikes usages and power outputs/speeds, that include eMTB and use on trails that are not governed by the DOT of a state, not just a voluntary class structure that manufacturers agree to follow.  I know that organizations like PFB are pushing that those regulations become uniform across all 50 states, but as far as I know those regulations would only be voluntary for offroad use.  I do not know how to do it, but there should be regulations that are compulsory for offroad use.  Preferably, those regulations would be imposed at a level above state levels so that there is consistency from one trail network and one state to the next.  That consistency will allow trail advocacy groups to speak with land managers and assure them that we are going to be responsible with their resources.   From the POV of a trail advocacy group in the midwest, where our trails are tight and have restricted site lines and by nature are often times 2 way,  we would also prefer that eMTB be officially limited to class 1 only. 

2.)  There needs to be much more research and data on impact to trails, impact to other users on the trail and safety statistics of mixing digital eMTB and analog pedal MTB.  We need multiple studies and data now.  We need real data from the trails that are allowing eMTB already, to be able to present a convincing argument on these points to land managers.  This is research and data that the industry has a responsibility to fund and to produce.  This cannot be left to the trail groups.  And if trails need to change, the industry needs to provide the funding to help define those changes as well as the funding for trail advocacy groups to do the work to update trails to those resulting standards.

3.)  Trail advocacy groups can do the work, and we will do the work on the trails.  But, speaking for the advocacy community, we do not have the tools or resources without the industry’s help to raise the funding necessary to insure all of our continued access to land for trails.  It is time for the Industry to work with states and the federal government to develop funding mechanisms to help with building and maintaining trails.  When I look at my ATV or Snowmobile or Fishing or Hunting counterparts, I am jealous of the state money they can tap into to help maintain their trails.  The MTB trail access world needs those same kind of funding mechanisms.  

Pay to play is a difficult concept for the MTB community, but other recreational groups have successfully made that leap.  It is time that the industry move the needle on funding for trail access.

4.)  Stop showing eMTB shredding.  In fact, statistically nobody shreds on a MTB (e or otherwise).  The majority of riders will never get their wheels off the ground or hit a huge drop or bash through a berm.  But of course the industry never tires of showing that as industry endorsed use of the bikes sold.  Let’s be a little more responsible in our advertising and promotion and represent how the majority of use actually occurs.  Take a look at the video below.  I love a super steep descent as much as the next person, but do you think this is how we want the industry to be viewed by the rest of the world?

5.) Stop denying that eMTB are motorized, they are.  That does not mean that the Industry needs to allow eMTB to be lumped in with other motorized vehicles.  To my understanding, a class 1 eMTB puts out a maximum of 750 watts (250 watts in Europe, but that is another discussion altogether).  A small motorcycle puts out a maximum of as much as 10x that amount.  Although the eMTB power is alot lower, it is still power provided by a motor.  Let’s admit that an ebike has a motor and get over that aspect.  The industry also needs to stop presenting that we are somehow better than motorized users, because we have to pedal to access that power.  It is immaterial that a motorcycle does not have to be pedaled.

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It is a motor after all.

The pedaling is not what will protect our trail access, it is the limited power that will protect trail access.  Lets stop trying to say we are better than the motorized users because we still have to pedal, and let’s admit that we are using power as well but we are going to see that rules are put in place to always limit the amount of power that can be put out by an eMTB.  This will go further than the pedaling vs throttle argument could ever go, to assure land managers.  And, if we put rules in place that insure we are always limited to class 1 for vehicles that are classified as eMTB (vs. offroad motorcycles), we will be able to look land managers in the eye to assure them we are being responsible.

Lastly I will go back to my very first point, we all need to stop worrying about convincing the haters to not be haters, it is not productive – and you can never win.  So, more articles telling the ebike hater cyclist to just get over it and accept that some day their mother or they themselves will want/need one, or that more people on bikes is a good thing for many reasons, are just stirring that pot and actually counter productive to the real issues at hand.

I do not mean to present that all of our problems will pass under the bridge if we make these changes.  There is alot of hard work to be done to solve these issues, and then to make them reality in the MTB world, and I am sure there are more challenges out there.  But, I do know that if the industry can act on the 5 points I have noted above, we will be way ahead of where we are now on this topic, and then we can all go back to worrying about the head tube and seat tube angles on our bikes.

About the Author Joe Vadeboncoeur

Passionate outdoor industry veteran, looking to help you with your business.

5 comments

  1. Joe, Good thoughts to get the conversation started. Nothing is Black or White as many would like it to be…… Accommodation of eBikes in some form is the future, no doubt.

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  2. On point 3

    Snowmobiles and ATV’s have State money available as they pay for licensing and permits to ride and park at trail heads and snow parks. In some states, you are required to take a safety course and carry a rider card. The money collected from all of this maintains trails, trailheads, campgrounds, bathrooms, and snow grooming. Oh yeah, the trail grooming for snowmobiles is usually all done by volunteers of clubs.

    I’m all for e-bikes! I’m just not sure ATV trails will be ideal place for them. The speed differential compared to “motorized” vehicles will be the issue. I would be worried about the injuries from head on collisions as bicyclists helmets and body protection is not up to the task.

    As a mtb of 30+ years, I am pro e-bike. Between aging friends, and some with disabilities, I believe they have a place. If we look at the evolution of mountain bikes, haven’t they gotten faster? Should we restrict certain trails by wheel size? There is a huge speed differential of both uphill and downhill riders due to ability, fitness, and equipment.

    No matter what you ride, trail courtesy and etiquette still applies! Respect your fellow human. Respect your local and neighbors trails.
    -Hopper

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  3. I’m 64, have been riding motorcycles for 54 years and bicycles for as long but not nearly the same amount of seat time. My seat time on bicycles increased when my professional dirt bike racing career dictated I do it for injury rehab. The best thing that happened to me as I got into bicycle racing (on and off road) as well as long distance cycling. I rode PAC Tour in 93, Everett Wa to Yorktown Va, 3,400 miles in 24 days. I pay to ride dirt bike on trail systems all over the country including federal lands. It’s a No-Brainer, that’s where trail funds come from. I paid over $5,000 for my emtb and wouldn’t hesitate to pay a trail permit fee. Is it because I’ve done it so long on dirt bikes? No, it’s because I have common sense and want great, safe trails!

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  4. Great article. My main concern with e bikes is the step back we will take with trail access, The main reason we have lost access to numerous trails in Colorado is because hikers, horseman and often land managers do not like the conflicts we bring to trails. We ride too fast and scare them. We don’t yield very well. We rarely stop when we should. Adding e bikes, who often can go faster and are sometimes ridden by inexperienced riders, will just make these tensions worse. Before we add e bikes to non-motorized trails, can we please do a huge national outreach on trail etiquette? Every trail needs a sign. Once we see an improvement in trail manners (amongst all user groups), then we can consider adding e-bikes.
    Also – I wish the industry would promote using your e bike on the hundreds of miles of gorgeous motorized roads and singletrack we have in our state. It would make riding a jeep road so much more fun.

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  5. P4B has model ebike legislation, but states adapt it to local whims. E.g., Wisconsin’s pending ebike legislation will allow Class-3 on every off-road path and trail in the state regardless of surface, width, or jurisdiction. The burden is placed entirely on local trail managers to either set & enforce speed limits (ha!) or ban Class-3 e-bikes. Of the 20+ states to adopt P4B legislation, Wisconsin is the only one to blanket allow class-3 off-road.

    While I applaud P4B for pushing ebike standards, I loathe them and the larger ebike industry for pushing supersized 750W and 20/28 mph standards on the USA, rather than matching the long-established European standards. In Europe, 250W and 16 mph are the norm, and power assist diminishes as one approaches max speed. Anything more powerful must stay on the road and requires a drivers license, license plates, and insurance. The result in Europe is that ebikes place no strain on existing bike infrastructure.

    What does the USA get? 750W motors, whiskey throttle, trail erosion, and rockin’ youtube highlight reels.

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