Can we live with electric mountain bikes on trails? 

By Molly Absolon

The first time I saw an electric bike — better known as an e-bike — I was struggling up a hill. Suddenly, a silver-haired man came whizzing by in regular city clothes. I felt a wave of envy as he left me in the dust.

That was probably five years ago, and since then e-bike use has exploded. In 2020, e-bike sales in the United States for just the month of June totaled roughly $90 million, up 190 percent from the previous June.

It’s hard to remember, but regular mountain bikes didn’t become commercially available until the 1980s, and when the early adopters hit trails previously used only by hikers and horseback riders, conflicts happened fast.

People claimed the bikes increased erosion. They worried about collisions and scaring horses. They theorized that mountain bikes would frighten wildlife. Today, those same arguments are being used against electric mountain bikes.

Once again, the controversy seems to stem from the fear of change, perhaps some arrogance and maybe a little jealousy. After all, since I suffered to get to the top of the climb on my own power, shouldn’t you?

In 2017, the International Mountain Bike Association, which had said that e-bikes should be considered motorized vehicles, softened its stance. Instead, it proposed that local land managers and user groups should determine — on a case-by-case basis — whether to allow e-bikes on naturally surfaced trails. Many members canceled their memberships. Some comments were harsh.

One wrote, “If you’re too old to still ride the trails you love, do as many beforehand, reminisce about the good old days and encourage the young. Don’t throw them and our public land under the bus.” That kind of attitude does not bode well for land managers to find an easy compromise.

So, what are the impacts of electric mountain bikes. Do they harm trails, or cause more accidents?

In 2015, the International Mountain Bike Association studied the environmental impacts of mountain bikes, both electric and self-propelled, and found no appreciable differences between the two in terms of soil displacement on trails. Overall, bike impacts were similar to the impacts of hikers.

Horses, motorcycles and off-road vehicles do much more damage to trails.

As for problems caused by speed, traffic studies show that accidents and their severity escalate as differences in speed increase. But do electrified bikes go that much faster than traditional bikes?

To find out, Tahoe National Forest measured the top speeds reached by intermediate and advanced riders using both kinds of bikes. Differences on the downhills were small. On uphills, traditional bikers averaged 5-8 mph, while electric mountain bikes traveled 8-13 mph. This was a difference, but not enough of a difference to cause more accidents, especially if bikers alert others to their presence and ride in control.

Rachel Fussell, program manager of the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, says that more than a battery boost, speed on trails reflects rider skill as well as trail design. She believes that all users observing proper trail etiquette would avert most potential conflicts.

Celeste Young has been a biker all her life and now coaches mountain biking. Her fleet of bicycles has recently grown to include an electric mountain bike.

“The most negative thing I’ve heard is, ‘Oh, you’re cheating,’” she says. “But it’s just another way to be out there. You get an extra boost going up these really hard trails, so it makes a challenging trail fun, rather than demoralizing.”

It’s a puzzling notion that someone accused her of cheating. It would be one thing if you secretly put a motor in your bike during a race, but when it’s an amateur rider going out for fun and exercise, how is having an electronic boost cheating?

The whole thing reminds me — a skier — of the controversy that erupted after snowboards appeared at ski resorts. They were new and fast, and their rhythm on the slope was different than the rhythm of people on skis.

We didn’t like them, and I doubt they liked us. But we’ve worked it out. Now, public land managers face the knotty problem of how much access to allow e-bikes, and where, or whether to segregate them to their own trails. Welcome to the crowded West.

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring discussion about Western issues. She lives in Victor, Idaho, and has worked as a wilderness educator, waiter, farmer and freelance journalist to support her outdoor recreation habit.

Mountain biker Celeste Young takes a break along the Big Hole Crest Trail in Idaho. 2022 image. Photo courtesy Molly Absolon

This column was published in the following newspapers:

09/05/2022 Logan Herald Journal Logan UT
09/05/2022 Steamboat Pilot Steamboat Springs CO
09/06/2022 Explore Big Sky Big Sky MT
09/06/2022 Denver Post Denver CO
09/06/2022 Adventure Journal CA
09/06/2022 Hillsboro Times News Hillsboros OR
09/06/2022 Beaverton Valley Times Beaverton OR
09/06/2022 Forest Grove News Times Forest Grove OR
09/06/2022 Columbia County Spotlight Scappose OR
09/06/2022 Vail Daily Vail CO
09/06/2022 Craig Daily Press Craig co
09/08/2022 Grand Junction Daily Sentinel Grand Junction CO
09/07/2022 Salt Lake Tribune Salt Lake City UT
09/07/2022 Moscow-Pullmand Daily News Moscow-Pullman ID
09/07/2022 Daily Interlake Kalispell MT
09/07/2022 Yahoo sunnyvale ca
09/08/2022 Carlsbad Current-Argus Carsbad NM
09/08/2022 Taos News Taos NM
09/08/2022 Aspen Daily News Aspen CO
09/07/2022 Greeley Tribune Greeley CO
09/07/2022 Jackson Hole News & Guide Jackson Hole WY
09/08/2022 Moab Times Independent Moab UT
09/08/2022 Twin Falls Times News Twin Falls ID
09/09/2022 Sierra Sun North Lake Tahoe CA
09/09/2022 Wyofile WY
09/09/2022 Bozeman daily chronicle Bozeman MT
09/09/2022 Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman Wasilla AK
09/09/2022 Aspen Times Aspen CO
09/10/2022 Sky-Hi News Granby CO
09/10/2022 Tahoe Daily Tribune South Lake Tahoe CA
09/11/2022 Madisonville Messenger Madisonville KY
09/11/2022 KPVI.COM Pocatello ID
09/08/2022 Idaho Mountain Express Ketchum ID
09/09/2022 St. George Spectrum St. George UT
09/08/2022 Boulder Daily Camera Boulder CO
09/09/2022 Pagosa Springs Sun Pagosa Springs CO
09/10/2022 Livingston Enterprise Livingston MT
09/12/2022 Bandon Western World Bandon OR
09/05/2022 Kingman Daily Miner Kingman AZ
09/06/2022 Tigard Times Tigard OR
09/13/2022 White Mountain Independent Show Low AZ
09/13/2022 Centralia Sentinel Centralia IL
09/14/2022 Glenwood Post Independent Glenwood Springs CO
09/14/2022 Curry Coastal Pilot Brookings OR
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Jean
21 days ago

I think Molly Absolon is correct in her assessment and I love that she uses data to support it. At 68 I purchased an ebike because I wanted to be able to enjoy going up hills like I did when I was 40. It’s an assist. I’m not racing just enjoying my ride again! Thanks

Clara
21 days ago

I’m a hiker. I have never minded mountain bikes on remote backcountry trails in the Sierras, Rockies, Cascades; I have been mowed over (literally in some cases, and figuratively) on the more congested single track trails of wilderness areas in southern California. And this year I got an e-bike — the wonders of which are dazzling. But my understanding of that fuels my concern for what it would mean for my hiking safety on those more congested trails. (I hate saying it: but I don’t want to share the tighter busier trails with e-bikes).

Sha
20 days ago

Thanks for opening a discussion on this topic.

Two additional things influenced my opinion: 1) Momentum of a eBike could be 2x a mountain bike or greater (mass x velocity). That could be the difference between a broken bone and a bruise in a collision. 2) Someone pedaling is more likely to be huffing and puffing on the way up which hikers can hear.

I think it is unfair to ask hikers and manual mountain bikers to be hyper alert. It’s also unfair to the native wildlife in my opinion.

Joel Dukes
20 days ago

Exciting times

Last edited 20 days ago by Joel Dukes
Neil Gleichman
19 days ago

I never put the paper in the recyc. bin until I’ve read your piece. AND I always save it till I’ve read the rest of the section, that I may savor it. Thanks for your propensity toward the finished and polished essay.
On your latest piece re. E-mountain bikes: you finished in that familiar space of pro vs. con being unsettled as yet.
I too have struggled with the issue. I think you actually hit on the salient point without acknowledging it as such. Despite my personal judgment that someone is “cheating,” that is subjective and has nothing for the question of whether electric mountain bikes should be allowed on trails (or paved pathways for that matter).
The crux of the conflict from my perspective is that riders on bikes cannot handle their machines at the greater speeds they so freely realize.
Rachel Fussell nearly hit the bullseye and may have dismissed the meat of her own thesis… Hard to tell because you don’t quote her directly. You slide into a fantastical future tense with “…would avert…” This reminds me of the concept that there would be no more wars if everyone would just get along.
The very reason I can trust the approaching pedal bike is that if that rider is THERE, going at THAT RATE, over THAT TERRAIN, it means he or she has served the long apprenticeship (the 10,000 hours to borrow from Malcolm Gladwell) to have the capability to manage sharing the trail when they encounter me.
An e-bike can sneak up fast, with or without warning and simply not be able to handle the situation. There IS an increasing rate of accidents because no apprenticeship was served, no commensurate skill required, no sense of exclusion from an environment that requires credibility to be earned, not purchased.
Willi Unsoeld posed the issue this way back when there was a wave of paving going on in national parks so that wheelchairs could access some of the gem hikes: Imagine a wheelchair trail to the summit of the Grand Teton.
If that sounds ridiculous, you may recall the number of gems that were paved for awhile. Angels Landing in Zion comes to mind; now the NPS is uncomfortable with any trail to that destination. Closer to home, a snow machine has dropped into Corbets Couloir.
E-bikes will have greater power and battery life over time. The skill-less rider WILL continue to strain the logical boundary. We never will get to “…would avert…” because it is not in our genes to avert.
Every technology ever invented has been deployed toward, and beyond, their own limits. It is up to those of us who have built our own skill base over years to dismount and dive out of the way or hazard the consequences.
You have provoked another rich brain harvest. Thank you!

bgee
16 days ago
Reply to  Neil Gleichman

With the longest comment to date, thank you for your perspective and thoughtful comments. As a long time road biker, after long self debate, I finally capitulated and bought an E (pedal assist) gravel bike for two reasons. First, I finally overcame the “cheating” mentality and have come to realize that the “assist” can be dialed back as much as I want, but the comfort of knowing that I have “assist” available, encourages me to ride more often, and enables me to ride further than my 59 yr old legs would be able to take me without “assist”. Second, I am making a concerted effort to bicycle in areas that avoid pavement and automobiles for fear of collision and injury.

As someone who would like to ride an “e-bike” on well established trails to avoid cars, I am disappointed to hear debate from cycling purists and equestrians who argue to limit or prevent e-bike access. While I agree that e-bikes enable newbie cyclists to ride on terrain where they may be over their heads and endanger others, dangerous situations are not caused by e-bikes alone, but by the skill and speed of the rider. Therefore, instead of limiting access to all e-bikes, the community could consider other forms of regulation such as: differentiating between pedal-assist and throttle “e-bikes” when determining access; speed limits for bikes, horses, runners, etc.; cycling skills tests and certification (e.g., like a automobile driving license with different skill certifications) to name a few. But most importantly, in addition to respectful debate, more civility and grace to all who want to enjoy the public outdoors in a healthy manner.

Ric Bailey
19 days ago

“Ebikes” are a motorized vehicle, little different from a dirt bike (motorcycle). They are power-assisted by an electric motor. They will result in more vehicles on trails, bringing more conflicts and more impacts. The issue isn’t whether a motor-assisted bike is ‘cheating’ non motorized bikers, the issues is whether we’re going to besiege public lands with every new mechanized toy that comes along.

Bill Gray
8 days ago

Lots of good comments here, so I’ll try to make my addition brief.
Let me take issue with the conclusion taken from the Tahoe National Forest study that showed average speeds uphill of 5 to 8 mph for traditional bikes and 8 to 13 mph foe “e-bikes.” They (or you) conclude that this is “not enough of a difference to cause more accidents…” Let’s move the decimal point one place to the right to show how ridiculous that conclusion is. Imagine a right-of-way where traffic averages 50 to 80 mph. Now add a different kind of traffic on the same already used right-of-way that averages 80 to 130 mph. It would be hard to imagine anyone concluding that this is not enough difference to cause problems, even though the percentage difference is the same as the bike speed study.
The speed differential conclusion goes on to add “especially if bikers alert others to their presence and ride in control.” That’s quite a hope. I’m a life-long biker, and bought my first mountain bike in 1985. At that time, and even 20 years later, I always felt confident that the vast majority of bikers alerted others to their presence. Now it seems as if you’d be lucky if 50% of them did that.
I think any competent traffic engineer would tell you that traffic safety on a given road is affected more by speed differential than by the average speed.
And while I completely understand your reference to the introduction of snowboards to ski slopes, having lived through that, that’s not a particularly valid comparison. If you want a better comparison set on the snow, you have to use your imagination (for now). Imagine, as a cross-country or back-country skier, that the trails and terrain you’re using were opened to electric snowmobiles.

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