Mountain biker, love thy e-neighbor

Why banning e-MTBs from trails could hurt mountain biking

Mountain biking and trail access, two highly controversial subjects in some areas of the US, and now another wrench is being thrown into the spokes: electric-assist mountain bikes.


While I wholehearted agree with Josh Patterson and his call for e-bike trail education, I feel as though cyclists might be jumping the gun on this, making it a bigger deal than it is.

There’s a term my wife and I use when one of us is getting ahead of ourselves: prevenge. Prevenging is when you predict the future, often negatively, when the outcome may be different. Basically you are striking pre-emptively from a place of fear, to ‘get them before they get you.’

In my two decades of riding trail it seems that most conflicts happen on the downhills, or when one user doesn’t give the right of way as expected.

First and foremost, mountain bikers need to support their own. There are plenty of MTB-hate groups parading as environmentalists, so we should be the last ones to condemn anyone wanting to get out on relatively silent, non-polluting bicycles.

By dictating which group of riders gets to ride where, we’re dumping fuel on an already scalding hot set of coals. Group A always loves it when the opposing Group B has fissures within itself. It’s like fish in a barrel to point out, “half of their own group thinks they shouldn’t be on trails!”

Now hold on, I can hear you saying, “all it takes is one jerk to get a trail closed,” or “if we wait, then it’ll be too late.” I absolutely don’t want fewer trails, and I really can’t stand the typically insane access-issue politics, but jumping on a new segment of bikes, a segment that could potentially get more people turned on to riding, seems a bit ironic. This is chapter one, page one of the line of attack by hikers and equestrians since mountain bikes weren’t around back in the good ol’ days. It’s kind of reminiscent of the new kid at school phenomenon.   

Here’s the thing — e-MTBs still kind of suck. I’ve ridden numerous e-bikes — road, mountain, hybrid, cargo, you name it — for the last 10 years. And I’ve yet to ride one that is more fun than a regular bike, especially off-road. Yes, I’m acutely aware that all electric bikes, including e-MTBs, will get better. 

But there’s another stumbling block: It will be hard to ban e-bikes on certain trails. Unless the rider on an e-bike is shouting, “Derr! I’m on an e-bike! E-bike rider coming through! E-bike master right here, look out!” chances are most riders and even more hikers and/or equestrians will never know. E-MTBs don’t look that different to regular mountain bikes. To those outside of the industry, they look exactly the same.

Ups and downs

So what about on-trail conflicts? In my two decades of riding trail it seems that most conflicts happen on the downhills, or when one user doesn’t give the right of way as expected.

First, the downhill scenario. Current e-MTBs aren’t that fun or all that capable downhill. They’re heavy, cumbersome and top out at 28mph; going any faster is solely up to human power. Sure they can crush some uphill, but how often have you upset a hiker while going uphill?

As for the right-of-way issue, this is 100% on the rider, not the machine underneath them. Saying e-MTBs will cause right-of-way issues is like saying commuter e-bikes are more likely to run stop signs.

“But, but… they have motors on a bike, so therefore they’re motorbikes.” Yes, technically that’s true. However, e-MTBs are not to the point of being able to roost a corner, or spin out. Some motors don’t even start working until your cadence is 20rpm. The studies that have been done suggest that e-bikes’ impact is similar to regular bikes, which is similar to hiking. 


Currently, the bulk of the e-bike market is made up of 50-65 year olds. Those with more disposable income and possibly a bit more time on their hands who are  either returning to cycling, are excited about being able to keep up with their friend or spouse, or who are just wanting to experience something new. So let them. Let’s not give the anti-MTB zealots any fuel. Let’s research, study and educate, not throw down blanket exclusions.