The eMTB Controversy: Why do mountain bikers and their associations reject eBikes?

Mtn Biking The Colorado Trail

This is the second part in a series of articles delving into the controversy surrounding eMTBs and their use on mountain bike trails. Read Part 1.

I recently purchased an eMTB to help me get back into mountain biking after stabilizing my Lyme Disease symptoms. I was confused and devastated to find out that eBikes are prohibited on mountain bike trails in National Forests and BLM lands (see why I support these bikes on trails). Even further, the US mountain biking community is adamantly against eBikes sharing their trails. I wanted to know why. Why would the community of a sport that I’ve given my blood, sweat, and even a few tears to over the last 30+ years, shun the only way I can keep riding? After digging through a sea of forums and op-eds, I narrowed it down to the following:

  • Misperception
  • It’s cheating
  • Speed challenge
  • Trail damage
  • Technology
  • Righteousness
  • Unworthy
  • Ignorance

Are mountain bikers still not accepting that eBikes have evolved?

eBikes came on the scene in the late 1990’s as city bikes with strange designs. They were kooky and had little crossover to traditional bikes. Some riders probably still perceive these new highly capable eBikes as related to those initial bastards, or even worse, lump them in with those loud, blue-smoke-emitting, two-stroke mopeds that have sped around city streets in the past. The new generation of eBikes are bikes – not mopeds or self-propelled electric mini-motorcycles. Their geometry and most of their components are identical. Mine looks like a mountain bike except that there is a battery on the downtube where a water bottle holder would typically be mounted.

Is riding an eBike cheating?

When did we decide to race to the top? I just want to ride some trails. While it is quite clear that using an eBike in a mountain bike race would be cheating, on recreational rides it seems ludicrous to make this claim. To take this further, there are many reasons why eBikes are good for the sport. If eBikes can get new folks out on the trails to discover the joy of mountain biking, not only would their fitness improve, but maybe they would eventually leave the assist mode off for their entire rides or switch to a lighter, more nimble bike. What about our friends, spouses, and kids who want to join on big trail rides, but just don’t have the strength or endurance? If we allow eBikes, then it helps make up the gap between us. I know my wife would certainly like this if I was my old stronger self.

Is speed a problem with eBikes?

With my new eMTB, I expect that I will be riding the same speed as my non-eBike partners. The only difference is that my bike is making up for the power that my legs can no longer generate. And professional riders are probably much faster than any eBike rider could be. The owner’s manual for my new bike says the motor will not assist when the bike is exceeding 20 mph. I assume that other eMTBs have similar limitations as Type 1 classified eBikes. While I am sure an eMTB enables riders to ascend slightly faster (although probably not that much faster than a fit rider on an enduro bike), it is relatively slow compared to how fast mountain bikes can descend on single-track trails. I haven’t heard one person say these bikes weren’t a little bit clunky on the descent; it’s a compromise for help on the ascent. Excessive speed doesn’t seem to be a problem with these bikes.

Do they cause trail damage?

Back in the day, we would drive for hours to find trails described in the first mountain bike guides ever published and even take a chance on trails we found on topographic maps. Some trails we shared with horses, motorcycles, and even ATV’s. Mountain bikes do far less damage to trails than any of these. Horses with small hooves and 1,000+ pounds of weight obliterate trails. I have seen some of my favorite mountain bike trails absolutely destroyed by horses. eMTBs are slightly heavier than a standard bike (mine is about 50 pounds) and they have a little more torque for uphill riding, but they have the exact same footprint. In 2015, the IMBA released the results of an initial field study regarding trail impacts of eMTBs and concluded that, “for the most part, the soil impacts observed in this study were not greatly different from those of mountain bikes.”

Are eBikes just too much technology in the woods?

I have seen this mentioned in forums and I have to call bullshit. Handlebar-mounted bike computers have been commonplace for probably 25 years and they are quite sophisticated now. Mobile phones and/or Spot-type satellite devices (for deeper wilderness adventures) are the standard these days as a safety precaution. Like it or not, people also use their phones for scenic photos, action shots, videos, and selfies along the trails. Also, mobile apps track speed, elevation, and location data so riders can create maps and charts at home.

Then there is technology in the bikes themselves. From the motorcycle-inspired hydraulic disk brake systems to computerized auto-adjusting suspension systems to wireless shifters, modern mountain bikes are defined by technology. There is hardly any audible sound with eBikes so it can’t be that they are a sonic disturbance. The technology argument is just another excuse to avoid sharing trails.

Do mountain bikers have a righteous mindset or macho attitude they have to uphold?

I have seen other outdoor enthusiast groups display different levels of machismo that seems inherent to their chosen passions. It’s the idea that someone who does the same sport by a different means is somehow less than (think surfers to bodyboarders, both riding waves but one viewed negatively). I have always felt that mountain bikers were pretty down to Earth folks who didn’t need to be righteous about what they do. Maybe I was wrong. In Europe eMTBs have been embraced and are allowed to share all trails with standard mountain bikes.

Do eBikes deserve the right to use our public trails?

This appears to be one of the top reasons for shunning eBikes. One comment I recently read on an eBike related article says, “If you can’t get up the hill under your own power, pick a different sport.” Clearly some vocal critics think of eMTB riders as weak and not “real” mountain bikers. I have always been a fan of earning the right to the downhill by conquering the ascent. Back when I was a younger, this meant riding up logging roads or trails for as much as 4,000 vertical feet with the dangled carrot being miles of twisty downhill singletrack. We climbed so much that the only riders who could keep up with us on the uphill were experienced racers. Even though my abilities have changed with age and illness, my desires haven’t. On forums I have heard mountain bikers call eBike riders “wimps” and while I might not be able to ride like I used to, those are fightin words – should we take this outside?

Are mountain bikers just ignorant to their appeal?

I have to admit that if I were completely healthy, eBikes would not appeal to me. Riding up trails unaided is one of the greatest feelings in the world. I’ve stood on many mountaintops, simultaneously tired and full of energy, after pushing my lungs to their limit on a long, technical climb. But, after a personal paradigm shift, these bikes don’t seem so strange. There is no way I’ll convince the outspoken that they should hop on an eMTB, but I was forced to, and now I can see why sales are taking off. Still, my short rides near home aren’t a good enough test. Once I take my new eMTB out on some real singletrack and I’ll see how it compares to my regular mountain bike. My expectations are high.

Do you support or reject eMTBs?

Please share your reasons for supporting or rejecting the use of eMTBs on our National Forest, BLM, and other public mountain bike trails.

Related Articles