There’s been a lot of vitriol thrown at electric-assist mountain bikes. The arguments against allowing e-MTBs on singletrack run the gamut from the somewhat elitist and intangible view that they’re not 'real' or 'pure' mountain bikes to the much more valid (and worrying) claim that, if not managed responsibly, e-MTBs could cost all mountain bikers access to the trails we love to ride.
For readers outside of the United States, this issue may not apply to you. The US is blessed with thousands of square miles of public land — many times larger than some countries — that are administered by a complicated web of federal, state and local land management agencies. Rules on land use can vary dramatically and can take years, even decades, to change.
In general, e-MTBs are classified as motorized. This makes sense as they do, in fact, have an electric motor. Early research shows that their impact is comparable to traditional mountain bikes, but whether e-MTBs should only be allowed on trails that are also open to other motorized users, or if they should also be permitted to pedal alongside their non-motorized brethren isn’t the point, at least not for now.
For now, the primary concern should be making sure that anti-mountain bike zealots can’t turn e-MTBs into a reason to run the rest of us off the trails. Pedal-assist mountain bikes might empower some riders to go farther and faster, but this is not technology worth losing hard-fought ground for. The best defense against trail closures is educating e-MTB riders on where they are currently allowed to ride and in this, the cycling industry is falling woefully short.
A reponsibility to educate
Are e-MTBs allowed on my trails? In some cases that’s a murky question, but one that must be answered. In my opinion, the responsibility for educating riders on responsible electric-assist mountain bike use falls squarely on the shoulders of the bike companies pushing their acceptance, not on overworked and underfunded advocacy organizations.
To the bike companies peddling e-MTBs: it’s time to take a slice of the pie from the marketing budget and put it toward educating your customers.
Imagine if you just plunked down thousands of dollars for a motor-assisted mountain bike only to get yelled at by fellow mountain bikers, ticketed the minute you rode onto singletrack, or worse, became 'that guy' who got an entire trail network closed to fellow cyclists. Not good, right? And ignorance is no excuse.
Specialized, for one, is acutely aware of what’s at stake.
"We need to make sure we’re out ahead of any conflicts," says the brand’s global public relations manager, Sean Estes.
Dealer education is the company’s primary approach to preventing e-MTB use in prohibited areas.
"Our biggest concern is getting the information to retailers, since they’re the touch point for most riders. We’ve been really clear with retailers to not jeopardize trail access," Estes adds.
Specialized has developed what it calls the 'Turbo Levo Retailer Toolkit', which encourages bike shops to inventory existing trails in their area that are open to e-MTBs and begin a conversation with local land managers about responsible e-MTB use.
This is a commendable first step. But the reality is that efforts by one manufacturer, even a large one, are not enough. All the companies promoting e-MTB acceptance need come together to spearhead the development, or at the very least, pony up the cash, to create a platform that lets all e-MTB riders know where they can and can’t ride. Technology is creating this conflict, but it can also be used to solve it.
In short, there needs to be an app for that.
The most practical option would be to use existing platforms, such as MTB Project, which allows riders to browse trail networks all over the world. It would take some work, but it would be possible to have a filter that shows only those trails that allow e-MTB use.
Trailforks, another popular trail app, already has plans to add this functionality. "While many of us are not thrilled about the rise of e-bikes, it’s a good idea to start indexing where they are allowed to reduce user conflict," says Trailforks administrator Trevor May.
Creating an inventory of which trails allow e-MTBs is a massive undertaking and one that’s important enough that these major trail databases shouldn’t have to have to work independently of one another to compile a list of legal e-MTB trails. I challenge bike companies to work together to fund the development of an e-MTB trail database. Given what’s at stake for all mountain bikers, this should have been in the works long before the first pedal-assist mountain bike rolled off the showroom floor.
In the meantime, if you are thinking of purchasing an e-MTB, please do your homework before you buy — know which trails you are permitted to ride, which are off-limits, and steer clear of areas where the regulations are unclear. Talk with your local mountain bike club, advocacy organizations and local land managers to ensure continued access for all mountain bikers.
Enjoy riding your pedal-assisted mountain bike, but please don’t ruin this for the rest of us.