Nonmotorized access laws were instituted to limit trail access for gas-powered motorcycles, quads/four-wheelers, and other off-road vehicles that are noisy and damage trails. Other levels of access exist for such human-powered activities as hiking, trail running, mountain biking, and, in some regions, horses. These distinctions were clear and well-defined for years, until the recent introduction of a class of mountain bike that seems to blur the lines. That new segment is electric mountain bikes, or eMTBs. Such bikes have an electric-assist motor, but one that is activated only under human power, not like a throttle on a traditional motorized vehicle. Now the question is, Should this new segment of mountain bikes be allowed on mountain bike trails or limited to motorized access trails. Well, who is actually asking the question, and where does the problem arise?

Traditional mountain bikers are fighting with eMTB riders about trail access and the definition of a motorized vehicle. Hikers, trail runners, and horse lovers are watching what is essentially a spat between step-siblings. This division is just what other groups could exploit and say, “These two groups that have more in common than not can't agree on their own bikes, so until they figure it out, why even allow them on the trails?” Such results would hurt access for all MTB riders.

In doing research and talking to dozens of people over the past two years both in person and on-line, the question of eMTB access is not really even coming from hikers and equestrians; it's coming from traditional mountain bikers -- the segment that would actually increase and gain strength by including pedal-assist bikes in their numbers. I have been following the discussion on this site along with many others since I tried my first eMTB. I immediately saw pushback from traditional mountain bikers saying that eMTBs are not allowed on the trails; some even claimed possessively that “they built” the trails, so eMTB riders need to build their own. Most of this resentment has been online, not what I hear when talking to people out on the trails. For the past two years, 90% of my riding has been using my regular mountain bike, and the other 10% has been testing e-bikes to review. If I saw an eMTB, I would stop and ask about their experiences with hikers, horseback riders, and other mountain bikers. The replies I received were pretty interesting and somewhat consistent: the vast majority of negative replies were from other mountain bikers, not hikers, runners, and riders, who view an e-bike as just another bike.

This is where I believe that traditional mountain bikers need to take advantage of the strength in numbers and accept that eMTBs are here to stay. Adding more bikes and more support will make things better for all mountain bikers. We should be united, not divided into subsegments. As I mentioned earlier, when talking to eMTB riders, almost every one of them was a long-time mountain biker; many had shed their own sweat and blood (and/or money) in order to build to the trails that they were riding. All understood trail etiquette, and unless you noticed the oversized down tube or bulbous bottom bracket, you would never know their bikes had a motor. Electric MTBs are mountain bikes, and no matter why people ride them, their goals are the same as those who prefer a traditional drivetrain.

Here are the idealistic notions that some traditional mountain bikers are holding to:
  • E-bikes are cheating. This isn’t a race, unless we are actually talking about a race. Seriously, who are they cheating? If someone uses a vehicle shuttle to a peak for a downhill or even to access a trailhead, couldn't that also be considered cheating?
  • It’s illegal. To the letter of the law, you are right, on some trails. I am questioning the spirit of the law. I will be glad to have the “legal” conversation with anyone who has never gone over the speed limit, come to an incomplete stop at a stop sign, driven after having one too many, smoked something before it was legal, taken more than one when it was “one per customer," etc. etc. Plus, laws change.
  • Because they are heavier, eMTBs will do more damage to the trails. Is there a weight limit on trails? If someone weighs 220 lb and rides a 30lb bike, Isn’t that doing more damage than someone else being 180 and riding a 50lb e-bike? If someone is going to ride 20 mi, which is better: riding the same trail four times at 5 mi each, or doing one long 20-mi ride and not repeating the same trail? *IMBA study on the environmental damage to trails, HERE.
  • E-biking is not exercise. Some people ride to just ride. They are out for different reasons or may not have time for a 3- or 4-hr ride.
  • E-bikes are too powerful. This I can agree with. There is a valid concern that a 625Wh battery and a 85Nm motor can be too much, but rarely do most riders get out of the lowest two power levels when actually on the trails. Whenever I have used the highest levels of the assist, it is not on the trails but on the roads to access the trails. And this point can be combined with the next one: power does not equate to speed. Some cars have 100 hp and others have 700 hp, and they coexist on the roads just fine. It comes down to the operator.
  • E-bikes are too fast. I am nowhere near as fast as a high-level racer on a trail or even someone looking to beat their best Strava time. Many downhill trails easily see speeds exceeding 25 mph; eMTBs have a max assist of 20 mph. I have followed Strava times, and the average eMTB rider is not close to the top riders.
  • E-bikes are motorcycles. Just stop it.
  • Their riders have poor etiquette and are inexperienced. Most eMTB riders I have run into are actually experienced riders who are aware of proper trail etiquette. They are no less polite and are actually more aware of their surroundings; they give the right of way because they know they can restart easier. As far as inexperienced riders, I have seen more on traditional bikes in the past few months than on e-bikes. Riders in general just need more education.
  • They change trail flow. Actually they can help trail flow. Instead of someone stopping on the trail in front of another rider and impeding their momentum, the eMTB rider can actually keep the flow going.
  • You have to “earn” your way to better trail access. Ah, the hazing mentality that some riders cling to …“I had to bust my ass to get on tougher trails, so you do, too.”
  • People will be riding more and the trails will be more crowded. Isn't getting people off the couch and out in nature a good thing? Because of Covid 19, right now there are simply more people on the trails. This has nothing to do with eMTBs -- they are just an easy target.
Most bike brands are doubling down with eMTBs because that is where the industry sees the growth. Santa Cruz, a traditional and well-respected brand, just announced that by the middle of the decade, 50% of its production will be eMTBs. Electric MTBs are an evolution, just as mountain bikes evolved from 60lb modified beach cruisers in the mountains outside San Francisco to what they are now, sub-30lb 180mm-travel full-suspension mountain-crushing machines. Will the traditional riders also evolve? In skiing, we had traditional straight skis, and some said they would never use those newfangled parabolics -- but most everyone has succumbed. I don’t see the same acceptance from all the purist mountain bikers, but the percentage will be higher than most are currently willing to admit.

Moving forward, everyone wants more trail access, no matter what your preferred type of bike. Let's work to build a bridge toward a common goal rather than a wall of division, which is how all mountain bikers could lose access to the trails we love to ride.

*Added 7/24/20