The eMTB: a Deliberate Approach

The eMTB: a Deliberate Approach

Here at home of late there has been a pretty vigorous debate about e-mountain bikes. Nothing I encounter on social media can generate an ALL CAPS response as quickly as someone shooting down the utility, legitimacy and sensibility of the machines, not to mention the resulting manhood of the user as an eMTB.

Before I go any further I want to lay out two simple facts.

  1. In Europe people ride them on trails and no one blinks. Fists are not raised. Invective is not shouted.
  2. The eMTB is a thing here in the U.S. Bike companies are selling them and they aren’t going to stop. So whether or not you, I or anyone else likes them, they will be out there and no matter how many exclamation points someone uses on Twitter, they aren’t going to be pulled from dealers’ floors.

I’ve avoided weighing in on this topic because reasoned discourse on this topic has been in shorter supply than housing in Sonoma County. In this context, the accepted spelling of eMTB tends to be MOTORCYCLE!

Hits forehead with dictionary.

However, fact #2 suggests that someone ought to weigh in on the subject without getting emotional.

Nearly every conversation I encounter contains within it three threads. The first concerns what the thing is and results in the worst of the insults and ALL CAPS usage.The second concerns legitimacy and what circumstance could result someone use one without losing their humanity. The third addresses the issue of access and where they should be allowed.

So what is an eMTB? Well it’s not a motorcycle. We like to refer to the boost you get as the hand of God. It’s help and most systems offer four different levels of assistance. While it is possible to buy an eMTB with a throttle, that’s not what any of the big manufacturers are selling here in the U.S. So when we talk about what an eMTB can do and can’t do, well, it can’t roost. Riding one isn’t going to result in mud slung 50 feet and motorcycle-like ruts. That’s not a thing. Having ridden one on trails I can also report that the extra power can allow you to ride up a steep grade more smoothly, reducing the sort of trail damage that a traditional mountain bike can cause.

Let’s look at the legitimacy question. For all those who want to dismiss them as the domain of the lazy, I charge that is an elitist argument, and lord knows cycling needs more of that. Even if you don’t like the idea of some fat couch potato beginning to see the world and getting some exercise, what of the person recovering from knee or hip replacement? What about someone who has had their 70th birthday and just isn’t a badass anymore, but isn’t ready for a coffin? I mean, this aging thing isn’t working out for any of us. Another possible use I see is when someone begins to recover from a debilitating disease. In 1980 encephalitis nearly killed me. It was a year before I had enough aerobic capacity to skateboard again. An eMTB would be my first purchase if I contract meningitis. Think of all the vets who have lost limbs. I can imagine an eMTB would be a way to regain some of their former freedom. I’ve got balls, but I don’t have the balls to tell someone who gave a limb for our country that they shouldn’t be allowed to ride on trails

I’ve noticed some people attempt to make a couched rebuttal, suggesting that an inexperienced rider on an eMTB is more likely to get themselves into a pickle requiring rescue because the bike increases their range. This is an insincere straw man argument. Anyone making that argument isn’t really concerned for the well-being of the eMTB rider. They just don’t want them on those less-ridden trails.

Consider that cycling, as an industry, is in a slump. It’s been in a slump for nearly 10 years at this point. Last I checked, retailers are closing faster than new ones are opening. Why should you care? Well fewer shops means fewer jobs for people who want to work in the bike industry. It can also mean fewer bikes sold, though the relationship there is more tenuous. It means less revenue for bike makers and that also means fewer jobs. None of those may matter to you, personally, but these next points might: Less revenue means less money spent by manufacturers on advertising and marketing. Those dollars go to sponsoring racing teams. Maybe that’s your local club. Maybe it’s your favorite team at the Tour de France. Those dollars also sponsor events. Maybe that’s the killer gravel event that you rode in 2016, but didn’t happen last year. And last, and certainly not least in my book, those dollars get spent on advertising at the media outlets you like. It can mean the difference between reading your favorite cycling writer or not.

So even if you don’t like eMTBs, the revenue that results from their sales can be good for your favorite sport.

Here’s another reason to like eMTBs: one of the single biggest obstacles that the cycling community faces in advocacy for trail access is our sheer lack of numbers. The International Mountain Bike Association is dwarfed in size by groups like the Audubon Society and the Sierra Club. Politicians pay attention to the loudest group. It’s a rule somewhere. You want to have a seat at the table when trail access is under consideration? Showing them a community with 20 million members will make a difference.

Imagine if an IMBA membership was given to each new purchaser of an eMTB? That would give them an incredible degree of clout. It would also help to educate their purchasers to a variety of advocacy issues, not least of which would be where to ride their new bike responsibly.

I apologize if any of you have pulled all of your hair out as you read my rah-rah for eMTBs. That ends here.

We do have a problem with eMTBs. It’s the way they are being sold. Retailers aren’t doing enough to educate purchasers on where they can and cannot ride their new bike. Do I fault the retailers? Not really. It’s easy for us to say they have a responsibility to educate their customers. But honestly, they have a bigger concern, and that is keeping the sales reps for their lines happy. Walk into a Specialized or Trek dealership and what you see are eMTBs front and center.

I have a big problem with that. The bikes that get that most valued space on a retailer’s floor are the ones the manufacturer is pushing. And dealers have to make their numbers or risk being bumped down a dealer level, and that affects availability and pricing.

What I don’t see are the big manufacturers taking a proactive stance and advocating for their access to trail networks. Even if they were doing that, it doesn’t change the fact that they are fouling their nests. The divide the eMTB issue is creating in our community is ideal for the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. As long as we are fighting within our ranks, they don’t have to fight us. As a result, Specialized, Trek, Haibike, Yamaha, KTM and everyone else making eMTBs gets an “F” at endemic PR. The simple fact that there’s so much hate for eMTBs on the part of dedicated cyclists shows they haven’t done enough to sell us on them.

There’s an understandable reason for that. Look at how many cyclists there are. Now look at how many fat Americans there are. The eMTB represents a potential for market expansion that could dwarf their current mountain bike sales. Here’s why the endemic PR—that is, PR aimed at existing cyclists—matters: If dedicated cyclists get the impression that they are irrelevant to the goals of the manufacturer, they are apt to turn their backs on those brands. And holy cow, is there another brand people love to hate more than Specialized?

The long, the short, is that the industry has introduced a product that has the potential to make the cycling market healthier and more vibrant while increasing our numbers, which could be dynamite for advocacy efforts, not to mention dollars spent on marketing and advertising. That is, more cyclists would be great for advocacy except for one little detail. Every environmental group in the U.S. will paint the whole of cycling with the same brush they use on motorcycles if we include eMTBs in our advocacy efforts. Given how contentious current advocacy efforts are, I can appreciate why people would want to keep eMTBs out of the mix.

The only solution I see will require a truly proactive effort at advocacy on the part of the manufacturers. It is solely their responsibility to solve this. The moment a trail gets closed to all mountain bikers because of eMTBs being ridden on it, I’ll understand if people descend on Waterloo, Wisconsin, and Morgan Hill, California, and elsewhere, with torches and pitchforks. Until the manufacturers figure out how to sell cyclists on eMTBs they have no chance on selling environmental groups on them.


Image: Ciclismo Italia

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  1. Jake Bayless

    “Every environmental group in the U.S. will paint the whole of cycling with the same brush they use on motorcycles if we include eMTBs in our advocacy efforts.“

    Nail on the head.

    I have one quibble though: it’s not up to manufacturers… if people who ride eMTBs would like to change the rules (which is a what would be required in most places), it’s up to them. It’s up to them to organize, to build coalitions, to manage and maintain Trail.

    Of course, perhaps it’s a gross over generalization, I suspect someone who buys a bike with a motor isn’t going to be inclined to wield a Pulaski or a McCleod. So, good luck with that.

    And get off my lawn.

    1. Author

      As it stands, I don’t think most eMTB riders want to change the rules. That’s because they not only don’t know the rules, many don’t give a damn. So we have to go back to those who stand to suffer negative consequences: the manufacturers. Now if park rangers start ticketing ebike riders on what are otherwise legal trails, those consequences will cause those riders to start to care in a big hurry. Right now, though? They have no reason to give a rat’s keister.

  2. Marc Lindarets

    As a former land manager (but someone who respects you and your writing a great deal), I’d like to weigh in with a different perspective. And to preempt the default responses, I have ridden e-bikes off road. And yes, they can be fun. That said…

    In a country where the delineation between use categories is between motorized and non-motorized, e-bikes fall unambiguously on the motorized side. In their lowest classification, the motor can provide up to 73% of an e-bike’s total output. So claiming that the motor just provides an assist downplays the reality of the situation. Not only are e-bikes motorized, they are majority motorized. Claiming otherwise simply undermines our credibility as a user group.

    The throttle mechanism is neither here nor there- a regulatory workaround with a strong scent of red herring. Consider: if one were to remove the battery and replace it with a pedal-throttled gasoline engine, would cyclists be nearly as sanguine? I find that hard to imagine.

    Don’t get me wrong- I welcome the arrival of quieter, lower-impact, and lower- (or at least displaced-) emission motorized recreation. And I believe that lower-output e-bikes should probably be exempt from registration on road and off. But I don’t harbor any illusions that riders will start with motorized cycles and eventually remove the motor. If experience is any indicator, they’ll move very much in the opposite direction. As motorized vehicles, e-bikes have a clear place within most US public lands’ regulatory framework: on motorized trails.

    Mountain bikers have spent the past thirty-five years trying to convince land managers and other trail users that bicycles are a low-impact, nonmotorized mode of recreation that is compatible with backcountry and even Wilderness access. To clam that a clearly motorized form of transportation (in the eyes of land managers, trail users, and -yes- the law) is ‘just’ a bicycle is to engage in the sort of self-sabotage that the bicycle industry seems especially fond of.

    1. Author

      You make great points, to be sure, but your argument drills much deeper than most of the current conversation being conducted today. We’re currently dealing with such a level of misunderstanding and misinformation that getting to that level of granularity just confuses people who are currently dealing with this from a knee-jerk reaction. I encounter people constantly who think there’s a throttle that will let you sling mud skyward. Until we can correct that perception, we can’t have a particularly informed perspective about the rest. The degree to which the are motorized is at this point too esoteric to really explain. Let’s get people educated on what they really are and then at that point we can begin a much more illuminated conversation about how to frame their use.

    2. AC

      but…but… IMBA now says they’re ok on a nonmotorized trail, if the land manager oks it.

      Coincidence that all but one ‘above and beyond’ level sponsor of IMBA has a financial stake in ebikes sales?

    3. AC

      @Padraig “The degree to which the are motorized is at this point too esoteric to really explain.”

      There is nothing esoteric about ‘it has power the rider didn’t produce’.

    4. Vincent

      I would like to call into question your main assertion. That eMTBs fall under the ‘motorozed’ Category of vehicles. Under federal LAW they do not. Federal law defines a motorized vehicle as one that is ‘self-propelled’ eMTBs are not self propelled. You must pedal and input human power to have them function. Yes, the BLM has perpetrated a ‘rule’ that says eMTBs are ‘motorized’ vehicles but that rule is without support under the law.

    5. mike dills

      All ebiker riders were mtb’ers and earned the access for the newcomers. So pull over, this 60 year old is going to smoke you uphill and downhill.

  3. Seano

    One challenge I’ve seen falls under operator error (educational error?) – but still adds to the challenge with regard to advocacy efforts: more people bombing descents / using the emtb to shuttle. With bigger tires and another 20-25#, they make for one stable descent rig and the speeds look to be quite a bit higher for many that I’ve seen. Add this to the fact that many (most?) are under new riders, I worry about even more trail conflicts causing more challenges for advocacy/access.

    The New York ban/crackdown on ebikes was due to reckless riding concerns… sorta sounds familiar…

    1. Jake

      The NYC Ban on E-bikes was based on the food delivery service, using throttled E-bikes. Created havoc trying to get their pizza, chow mein, etc to their customers in record time.

  4. Ron Reed

    I have a hard time seeing that the sale of motorized bikes will help cycling per se, although it will certainly help manufacturers sell this other type of product. Will e-bike riders segue, as it were, over to riding regular bicycles? It doesn’t seem at all likely to me. Why would they?
    Will component manufacturers put as much money into developing light, accurate bicycle parts when the sales shift to heavier e-bike parts? Some time ago Richard Cunningham wrote a powerful article on, “History and Deception” that I have not seen a successful rebuttal to. Richard is hardly a firebrand. This is the link, if anyone is interested:

    1. Rod

      Wow. That is remarkable.

      Intuitively, I know the difference between a bicycle and a motorcycle – the latter runs on power you didn’t produce. But the pinkbike article puts it much more clearly. All these e-bike makers are trying to pull a fast one by piggybacking on the MTB moniker; they are not bicycles. KTM is ahead of the curve there – makes both, choose a platform.

      And nothing wrong with that, I’ve ridden small underpowered bikes on trails and mud. Lots of fun, top speed around 40 kph and a cloud of smoke. But they are not bicycles – where I rode them some parts had full access to these minibikes, some were restricted to human powered travel. I like that approach. Calling them bicycles is a deception – why not gasoline powered bicycles? diesel powered bicycles? hydrogen powered bicycles?

      I ride winter trails (fat bike) shared with snowmobiles, and some doubletrack trails shared with quads/dirt bikes. No issues there, other than understanding I can’t fatbike on ski trails, for example. But that’s precisely the argument being pushed here, that their motorcycle is the same as my human powered vehicle, that they are practically the same so much that the name is separated by an e and a dash, that it’s elitist to segregate these modes. And that is the deception alluded in the pinkbike piece.

    2. Author

      I’ve spoken with dealers who have told me stories of selling ebike owners bikes as they became more fit. I suspect these conversions will always be a minority, but it is something happening in a segment that hasn’t reached maturity. That said, I don’t think it really matters if they move on to traditional bikes. More people on bikes is a good thing. To me the question is where all those bikes are ridden. And that is a huge question.

  5. Marc Lindarets

    Thanks Padraig.
    I think that what I would like to communicate is that from a land management perspective (and in the eyes of our fellow trail users) “motorized” is a binary criteria. Even if it weren’t, e-bikes fall on the motorized side from both a rounding (nearly 3/4-motorized in their lowest regulatory category) and sniff (does it have a motor?) perspective.

    While it’s not my place to read too much into the motives of those advocating for e-bikes, the crocodile tears for injured and aged riders are very much at odds with the advertising materials being used to sell them. And the loudest voices are regularly coming from those who stand to profit from expanded or unquestioned access rather than those who would like to see continued or (dare I say it aloud?) expanded backcountry bicycle access.

    Those who are uncomfortable (or comfortable but open-minded) with the way in which e-bikes are being pitched by the industry would do well to read editorials by Richard Cunningham over at Pinkbike (someone who comes very much from a moto perspective) and Jimmy McIlvain’s words after resigning from his position at Mountain Bike Action after being pressured by his publisher and advertisers to push e-bikes.

  6. AC

    shops could include IMBA membership with MTB purchases too, could have for years. The potential to do so is not a reason to embrace ebikes. Ebikes are simply motorized. It doesn’t matter how the power is accessed or how much it has, it is still motorized. That is a BIG (there, all cops use on something that isn’t an acronym) deal when trail designations are commonly done on a motorized or nonmotorized basis. MTB advocates lose all credibility when nonmotorized suddenly means ‘well, except for these small motors… just pretend they don’t exist’.

    For commuting, sure, I can see the merit. Even there however, they are motorized bikes at best. The distinction does matter, especially for those of us who care about riding backcountry non motorized trails. Personally I am far more concerned about having access to high quality backcountry trails (Wilderness-like, for example) than I am about Specialized needing something else to sell.

  7. Nick Nesbitt

    The industry doesn’t take trail advocacy seriously. A few notable exceptions do and also do not manufacture eMTBs. Maybe it’s a coincidence, maybe not. Many manufacturers like to use the illusion of advocacy for PR purposes but you’ll likely see that messaging a page or two (or click or two) away from a guy destroying trails as a means to get people excited about their products. If they don’t do real meaningful advocacy now why would they do it to sell ebikes?

  8. Les.B.

    Where eBike style motorcyles are to be allowed, it will be impossible in practical terms to enforce the parameters, e.g. power, percent of total power from the motor, presence of a throttle. Where eBike motorcycles are allowed there will be all manner of ePowered cycles and the authorities won’t have the staff to enforce nitty gritty details. Just how many riders would cheat the rules is hard to say, but it would likely grow over time.

    This is strictly ME, but I’m 75 now and am not capable of what I could do just a few short years ago, and I miss that level of riding sorely. Still, I would feel quite silly using an eGBike motorcycle to go where I am not able by my own power.

    1. mike dills

      Lets see you go fifty miles old man. Ride your bike 35 miles each way to work. That is where the ebikes trump push analog 200 year old bikes.

    2. Author

      This would be when the adult in the room steps back in to remind everyone (especially the newcomers) that we have commenting guidelines. Rather than direct you to a link some may not follow, I’ll just include them right here.

      RKP’s comments section is a place for intelligent conversation. The more civilized and cordial your comments are, the more likely others are to join in the conversation. We’re pleased that part of RKP’s reputation is based on the almost complete absence of idiocy in our comments section.

      So, here are a few requests:

      1) Think of RKP’s Comments Section as a dinner party, an event at which polite engagement is the norm. I expect everyone present not to insult my family (contributors), friends (readers) or the food (posts). That’s not to say you can’t disagree; we just want the comments to remain civil and be constructive so that they drive the conversation forward, rather than shutting it down. Put another way, think of the comments section as a paceline. We’d love for you to take a pull and contribute, but if you’re not going to help, please don’t screw it up for everyone else.

      2) Similarly, please contain your comments to the subject at hand. That also means that if we review a jersey from Company A, your review of a jersey from Company B isn’t an appropriate comment. We’ve had to clamp down on this especially hard because we have no way of knowing if said review is written by an employee of the manufacturer in question.

      3) If you feel a need to review something yourself, or your comment is turning into a 500-word essay on the nature of man, we ask you to reconsider it. Brevity helps the conversation move. If your comment is more than a couple of hundred words, you might be in need of a blog of your own, or you might consider sending us a query. Robot got started with a query; think how much less interesting this site would be if he hadn’t.

      4) Just to reiterate: Feel free to disagree with us or with another reader; all we ask is that your comment be both civil and constructive.

      Because RKP is a private enterprise we are under no obligation to publish comments from trolls. If we can’t find anything constructive in your comment, it will be deleted.


  9. Niko

    Not to oversimplify but any cycle with a motor, whether it be gasoline or electric needs to be categorized as a motorcycle. At one time the same argument was used by the moped industry, in that their vehicles belonged in a special category because they could be powered by pedaling. Didn’t make any more sense then than it does now.

  10. Winky

    If e-bikes get people out of cars, then I’m all for them. As utility and commuting vehicles they seem to offer a lot for many people. I see them as replacing cars not bikes. But e-mountain-bikes don’t get people out of cars, so that reason for support is moot.

    I’m not personally invested in trail access issues as I don’t mountainbike, preferring to experience the mountains and forests on foot. Having said that, I see the emergence of e-bikes as likely to reduce trail access for mountain bikes generally as hikers push back. Whether this is good or bad is not for me to say.

  11. Tom Aguirre

    Padraig, your comments about Europeans integrating e-bikes into their trail infrastructure is spot on. I am now 71, but lived in France from 1958-61. At that time, the dirty two cycle 50cc engined Moped was ubiquitous on the streets and trails. There was not a divide between pedal powered and non pedal powered groups. Everyone simply got along. In the U.S. we seem to want legislation on everything from trail use to licking a postage stamp. In any group, there will be the arrogant few. They will be astride pedal powered as well as engine powered two wheelers. No form of legislation will eliminate entirely this group. For myself, I will not be astride an e-bike for the reason that if I crash, it will be likely be at a higher speed which increases the probability of injuring or breaking a body component that will take much longer to heal. It is for this reason I never rode a motorcycle. I welcome riding a bicycle at slower speeds in my dotage. I adore the feeling of the direct connection between my body and my machine. No e-bike can replicate that. But if others want e-bikes, to each his own. The universe is a process of addition, not subtraction.

  12. Jim

    1. A higher percentage of people smoke in Europe than in the US too. Irrelevant.
    2. “So whether or not you, I or anyone else likes them, they will be out there and no matter how many exclamation points someone uses on Twitter, they aren’t going to be pulled from dealers’ floors.”
    Actually our opinion matters immensely. If we choose not to purchase them, they will be pulled from dealers’ floors.

    1. Author

      If I may, I’d like to point out that RKP readers aren’t exactly the target market. The market for ebike sales is growing without your (or my) endorsement.

  13. Michael

    I was recently diagnosed with a severe heart condition and will need to have my aortic valve replaced soon. On paper, I should be part of the target audience for a eMTB; I could keep up with my friends on our weekly MTB rides. However, I still can not support the use of eMTBs on non-motorized use trails. Our local trails are restricted to use by non-motorized uses such as pedestrians, equestrians, and bicycles (I didn’t specifically say MTBs because you can ride a road bike on some of the trails and an adventure bike on all but the most technical sections). Bicycles are by far the fastest use on these trails. The further development of full suspension technology has made MTBs faster still. One of the first things that someone says in one of Specialized’s (I am not picking on Specialized here) videos for the Turbo Levo is that the motor makes the bike faster. It is difficult to say with a straight face that an eMTB that goes faster than a non-motorized MTB is the same thing as a non-motorized MTB and should be afforded the same access.

    1. Author

      For a given rider there can be no doubt that an eMTB will be faster than a traditional mountain bike. However, I suspect that many of the purchasers will be people who look at a traditional MTB and think they just won’t be able to go fast enough to enjoy themselves. Regardless, we need to find a constructive way to deal with their emergence. I don’t know what access for an eMTB should be, but if we alienate owners of eMTBs, the cycling community will just end up with yet another enemy—and we have more than enough of those.

    2. AC


      I have seen mention from numerous current motorcycle riders who scoff at riding slow MTBs and pedaling uphill, that ebikes would let them go faster and have more fun. They also get excited about the ability to ride emotos in places that traditional motorcycles can’t due to noise. Places like mtb trails (from an emoto promotional video on you tube)

      I am not worried about ebike owners as enemies of cycling. I am worried about ebike owners fueling the fire of existing cyclist haters and creating still more of them. It’s really hard to see how the nonmotorized cycling world benefits from these devices.

    3. Author

      Great points. All I’m advocating is that we consider what our relationship to those devices and their owners should be. They will be out there. They will align themselves with some group. It seems likely that any group they might align themselves with—other than us—is reasonably antagonistic to us. I’m unclear on the solution, but I can say for certain that bike companies selling eMTBs without educating those users about where they can and cannot ride is doing the cycling community a disservice.

  14. Brian Ogilvie

    As a member of Mass Audubon and a contributor to the Sierra Club, and an active cyclist, I don’t like the way that you frame this issue antagonistically. I like hiking, I like trail running, I like riding my bike, and while I don’t currently do mountain biking (though some of the discontinued dirt roads I ride on D2R2 and when I encounter them otherwise might qualify as MTB trails), I support mountain bikers’ rights to access to trails. But I think we need to take a breath and think more deeply about the purpose that restrictions impose.

    Audubon Society reserves prioritize wildlife conservation, so they limit activities that disturb wildlife. That includes running, which is off limits at Mass Audubon sites. There’s a hierarchy of disturbances, and depending on the reasons why land is conserved, sometimes you won’t get in at all, sometimes you’ll be limited to hiking, sometimes you’ll be limited to running, sometimes you’ll be limited to cycling, and sometimes all hell will break loose (i.e., ATVs). In the winter, there’s an analogous hierarchy.

    The point is to ensure that active recreation is compatible with the reason that land has been preserved. In most cases where human-powered bicycles are allowed, I don’t see a problem with also allowing pedal-assisted electric bicycles (pedelecs), where the assistance depends on pedaling. But it depends on conservation restrictions; in some cases, the noise or speed that e-bikes allow might be a problem. In any case, it’s an issue that will need more attention in years to come.

    1. Author

      I hope you can appreciate that the antagonism that I’ve described isn’t cyclists for either the Audubon Society or the Sierra Club, but their position toward cycling. I’ve encountered literature produced by the Audubon Society (and I wish I still had it), that positioned mountain biking as incompatible with all conservation efforts. It was unambiguous in its antagonism toward cycling. I’d love to find a way to bring these user groups under one roof, but until they are willing to accept us, no progress will be made.

  15. Shawn

    I am all for eBikes where they get people out of cars (commuting) or make life more convenient (deliveries, etc.), or let the disabled ride again. But as far as trail access, I’m with the Drunk Cyclist: motorized is motorized. Keep it off the trail.

    As you argue, eBikes might be good for the bike industry, although Cunningham’s piece is a cautionary tale. Nonetheless, I’m far more concerned about what’s good for cyclists (i.e., me) than what’s good for Specialized, and I don’t see much good coming to the MTB masses coming out of the eMTB movement, unless being caged to the trails in dedicated offroad parks is someone’s idea of good. It’s not mine.

  16. Brady

    First point I want to make is that this is not Europe and we are not Europeans. I’m not going to pretend that I understand why Europeans are so welcoming to eMTBing when compared to their American counterparts. Maybe they’re not fighting anti-cycling advocacy groups like the Sierra Club or a wealthy minority of equestrians. Maybe they value their wilderness experience differently. But the fact remains that our access situation is obviously different than theirs in the first place.

    I have had the opportunity to ride eMTBs on some awesome trails and I will admit and concur that they can be very fun indeed. The power assist not only takes the sting out of a climb, but actually make climbing fun for a fat American like myself. In fact, I would make the perfect eMTB customer; overweight, adventurous and would be stoked on doubling the amount of downhill in any given ride. I also would not refrain from riding one in an acceptable environment. Even a natural or wild one as there are different levels and facets of wild spaces.

    However, as a long time outdoorsman (on and off the bike) I am pretty far on one side of the fence when it comes to allowing eMTBs on our currently accessible non-motorized roads and trails. You mentioned the potential for additional advocacy based on a larger riding public, but I think this is beside the point of the motorized trail use argument. The whole point of non-motorized trail designations is to keep these spaces as wild as possible. To keep traffic to a minimum. To keep noise to a minimum. To keep the experience as natural as possible. I wholly believe that non-motorized cycling adheres to this intention and I believe that this is an argument that we can continue to win. Electric motors an empirically motorized. There’s no way around it. And if this is the battle were fighting, we cannot suddenly introduce motors and continue the same argument, pretending it’s the same thing or a moral high ground.

    Accessibility is definitely a tricky issue. To say that everyone accept for the physically challenged should have access to wild spaces is definitely elitist and sounds dickish…especially as I write it in this comment. At the same time; are we going to provide heli drops for the handicap to the top of Mt Whitney? Install an winch at the top of El Cap to pull up the elderly? I sure as heck hope not. And I don’t believe that’s being elitist. What it comes down to is: where does it stop? Access restrictions are what allow us to have these wild spaces and places to being with. Otherwise private ownership and development would prevail. We have to draw a line somewhere whether European, American or any other ‘an’. Easy access means accelerated erosion, more graffiti, more concrete, more trash and more pollution of our wild spaces. Not to mention more stress on the wild plants and animals that call these places home and are absolutely necessary to keeping these spaces intact. I believe this is an inarguable fact that needs to part of the conversation.

    Lastly, I think the main reason that cyclists have issues with eMTB (once you remove ego from the discussion) is that allowing them on wilderness trails and including them in our advocacy for access is a huge gamble. While that gamble could theoretically pay off for cyclists and manufacturers alike, the risk of slowing, all together stopping or even reversing our access efforts (even in the short term) is not worth including eMTB along with the MTB argument. Its fine to have the eMTB conversation, just not in the context of non motorized cycling. They must be separate, but are almost impossible to separate.

    I think that most cyclists would agree that they are not anti-eMTB, just like they are not anit-car or anti-motorcycle. We are not saying the eMTB shouldn’t be. Were just saying they shouldn’t be everywhere.

    Sorry for the long winded comment. Maybe I should have my own blog 😛

  17. Grouty

    call me crusty, a Luddite, an anacronism. I despise the e-bike. But, to what end? This is just another example of Schopenhauer’s three stages of truth. I’ve been cycling since the 80’s, I’ve been fortunate to see the entire evolution of the pastime. I read and listened as the debates raged over aluminum, suspension forks, full suspension bikes, disc brakes, carbon fiber, air shift, electric shift, downhill, free ride, 29’er’s, single speeds, fixed gear, fat bikes… in short much beating of chests and gnashing of gears. The gear that worked has stayed (mostly) the junk has been washed out (somewhat). Cyclists, like everyone else, continue to be divided by the narcissism of small differences and manipulated by corporate markets. Throw in a little confirmational bias and next thing you know non-electric bike will go the way of the 26″ and everyone will make fun of the throwbacks.

  18. Author

    Everyone: thank you for your comments. To all those of you who have stated your desire to keep any motorized bicycle off of the trails, I completely understand. I’ve left my personal opinion about encountering eMTBs on the trail out of this. How I feel about that doesn’t much matter. I’m going to encounter them. The question is, what will the world of cycling do?

    Also, for the record, I’ve contacted two of the largest bike companies out there for comment and it’s been nothing but crickets.

  19. Jeff Dieffenbach

    I look forward to reading History and Deception–if it changes my tune, I’ll come back and change my tune here.

    Up to a point (max speed of X? max power of Y?), an e-assist bike is more like a bike than a motorcycle. We shouldn’t get hung up on the word “motorized”–instead, we should consider why motorized vehicles have been prohibited. I’m guessing that it’s some combination of trail damage, speed-related danger to others, and noise. It strikes me that a reasonably-limited e-assist bike falls on the acceptable side of all three.

    1. Debbie

      Totally disagree. If it has a motor, it’s motorized. When you start making choices based on a gradient of what looks more like a bicycle and what looks more like a moto, then you’re no longer debating motorized versus non-motorized. My sister’s ebike has a standard button (turbo or throttle or boost, ?) button that applies power without pedaling. But even an electric motor “assist” is above and beyond human power.

      Reliance on a speed/power governors is misplaced. Everything is defeatable. And as for max speeds and max power, Moore’s law is already in play.

    2. Jeff Dieffenbach

      I’m not disputing the “if it has a motor it’s motorized” definition. I’m saying that that definition isn’t as important as the objective of the rules allowing/limiting use. I’m curious to hear comments on whether e-assist bikes fly in the face of the intent of non-motorization rules.

      Horses go much farther above and beyond human power than any real example of an e-assist bike does.

    3. AC

      I agree that horses are more egregious than ebikes. However horses are unambiguously not motorized. More importantly, horses are not a new use being introduced today. IMO, if we lived in a world with only hikers and human powered bicycles on trails, and horses were the new user group on the block, they would be soundly kicked to the curb. Not because of speed on the trail, but because of damage to the trails that directly impacts other uses experiences and their demand that other users treat them with kid gloves.

      More directly to your point, in my view, drawing the line at nonmotorized seemed to have been done to keep out a group known for noise and speed. Ebikes solve one of those issues. The 1.0 models can take a rider with a 250 watt output (which is already a very generous assumption) and give him an additional 750W. That is the 1.0 model. They are only going to get faster and more powerful.

      I’ll leave this question. Is this a motorcycle or a bicycle ? And does this “We will be offering an easy to install pedal kit in the next few weeks.” change the answer?

    4. Jeff Dieffenbach

      I’m not a big fan of limiting appropriate behavior by ruling out an entire category of use. People drive cars that can go well above the highest posted speed limit, yet we don’t prohibit those cars. We (should) enforce the speed limit.

      It a MTBer (without any power assist) rides dangerously, there should be a consequence. If a different MTBer uses power assist responsibly (safely, quietly, and without damaging trails), they should be allowed, IMHO.

      I’m fine placing limits on the level of power assist, having bikes be marked with that level, asking people to ride responsibly, and providing for enforcement when they don’t. Perfect? Of course not. But I prefer to err on the side of the inclusion of cyclists, including those who need a little help from their (battery) friends.

  20. Winky

    I actually think that the step from walking to biking is more significant than the step between non-motor-biking and motor-biking. For me the prime value of wilderness is about the experience the place, not the activity that is undertaken . That is best is done by walking (or paddling). Even non-motorised MTB is different in that it is largely about the activity, not the place. So I se a very clear distinction between access to non-wilderness (like the Northshore here in Vancouver, and the Whistler bike-park and trails), but an vehemently opposed to non-pedestrian access to remote areas. Allowing bike access (motorised or not) to wilderness, renders it not-wilderness to me.

  21. Roy M. Wallack


    Good stuff– totally agree. More cyclists — e or non-e — are better for us all. E-bikes keep hardcore cyclists in the game and bring new bikers into the sport. E-bike buyers have money and clout — they can lean on policy-makers for more bike paths and trails. Perhaps the anti-e-mountain bikers may not realize this or be old enough to have perspective.

    While interviewing people at an e-bike demo a couple months ago in Costa Mesa, I ran across three old guys from the BCI (Bicycle Club of Irvine), hardcore roadies, and told them I was surprised. “Hey, we can’t keep up anymore, but we still want to ride with our friends, ”they explained. “and no one gives us crap about it, because they like us — and will someday be like us.” I saw an old mountain biker there, too — plunking down $4000 for a new Cannondale e-mtb. He was in his late 60s– super fit — but the climbs were just wasting him too much

    Worries that the trails will be flooded with inexperienced kooks is much ado about nothing, anyway. Mountain biking is hard and dangerous, e or not. You need real handling skills. It scares away the skill-less. That alone will keep the trails safe for the “hardcore” crowd.

    1. Jake

      Roy, this is exactly the reality out there. The people buying these E-mtbs in big numbers are out there just to ride, at an age or at a physical level that is prohibiting them from riding at all. Bringing along a spouse who normally couldnt join them, a child who can now ride, or the simple ability to ride to that mountain top that they’ve only heard about – but never able to ride to. Ban them from trails? Really? You want to ban my mom from “your” trail? Because she needs a boost to ride to the top of the hill?

      This is driven by fear and fear mongers. Abusers of the E-Bike are Abusers in everything, E-bikes or not. The standard E-Bike user is not a problem. Lots of arrogant hatred happening here, misdirected at a class of rider that really is not a threat.

  22. Fuzz

    Who in the US is riding these eBikes? When I was in Germany last summer, I was shocked at the number of eBikes, both on the road and on the trail – around 50% by my estimation. But the people riding them were all riders I suspect would not otherwise be out riding if not for the electric assist. I watched two older guys who could barely swing their legs high enough to get on their eBikes, but once on were able to get to the somewhat remote bier garden on the gravel roads.

    On the flip side, last year I had a guy on a hybrid eBike go zipping by at great speed, and he sure looked like someone could probably could and should have been riding a conventional bike. In that context the eBike just seemed to make no sense.

    1. Author

      While I’ve taken some pains in my piece to explain how some people have a legitimate need for them, what baffles me is why anyone cares who is riding them. I get how being passed with inches to spare by a guy going 25 mph on the bike path is annoying. Totally get that. But the problem there is behavior not the bike. The guy would be annoying no matter what he was on. But why do we pass judgment on who should or should not be riding them?

  23. Morgan

    Thanks for the article. Industry does a significant amount to help inform this issue and provide advocates and land managers with the right tools. Visit to learn more.

    1. mike dills

      Thanks Morgan, next time tell them you work for People for Bikes who is still against ebikes as they are funded partially by the BPSA who are trying to still promote push bikes and protect old fashioned LBS.

  24. Steve Spiro

    Thank you Padraig for sharing your prospective and thank you Morgan for your (and Peopleforbikes) advocacy on behalf of e-bike owners and the e-bike industry. Many opinions have been expressed in the comments following the piece written by Padraig. Opinions that promote the idea of exclusion rather than inclusion to access public resources for the elderly or disabled are discriminatory. A couple reason why e-bikes of all kinds including e-mtbs are more accepted by Europeans is that in contrast, American’s are not as energy conscious. America is the home of the gas guzzler while European countries have been embracing scooters, motorcycles and bicycles as a significant mode of transportation for more than 40 years that I can personally remember. Also in America the health care system is extremely costly and inefficient. Big Pharma makes more money pushing pills at inflated prices than if the older population got fit from more people riding bikes. With private health care there is no government incentive (or partnership) to promote better fitness for the elderly. I heard lots of opinions here but nothing about what the current laws are. You can define an e-bike anyway you want but the only definition that really matters is the one that the law recognizes. In America the HR 27 states:low-speed electric bicycle (as defined in sec5
    tion 38(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act) shall not
    6 be considered a motor vehicle as defined by section
    7 30102(6) of title 49, United States Code Also in California and at least 7 other states (having recently enacted similar laws) with more coming such as AB 1096 allows class 1 and 2 pedal assist bikes on bike paths and trails. Opinions matter and everyone is entitled to their own opinion and I respect that. But laws are what ultimately provide access. Ultimately it will be the laws and Land Managers that will determine the access to trails by emtbs. As far as bike shops educating customers on where they can and can’t ride e-mtbs, currently most bike shops don’t have access to good information to know. At this time E-mtbs are allowed in California State parks except for in Angeles District where 1500 supporters have already signed a petition at against the e-bike ban there. has 250 members and is a growing group of that supports trail access for pedal assist e-mtbs. The maximum power of e-bikes in America permitted on trails is regulated by law and as a result E-bikes puts out a similar wattage to a solely human powered e-bike. To those that promote the idea that e-bikes should be excluded from trails I can only say that age and physical disability discrimination is against the law an ugly thing. All Americans can benefit from a more fit and more healthy population. That is the idea of getting outdoors and exercising and NO ONE should be excluded. The ADA requires equal access for all people regardless of handicap to public amenities.

    1. Gary

      Thank you for your insight and comments.
      You sir, have “hit the nail on the head”. The argument of what is motorized is clearly articulated in your response and critical to the signs used on many of the trails of No Motorized Vehicles.

  25. Jeff

    Great article Padraig well reasoned and evenly balanced. I am old enough to remember the early days of mountain biking 12 speeds on a Biopace chainring, The granny gear to my 20 yo legs felt like I could climb anything anywhere anytime. Such was born the mechanical assist bicycle and over the years more gears, lighter frames and advanced suspension pushed the mountain bikes capabilities further and further. To say today’s modern mountain bike is just human powered is already stretching the definition of what human power really is. The truth is without the mechanical advantage of gears most bikes wil not be riding where they are now.
    Four years ago I purchased four e mtb for my trail crew to access a lot of the areas we use to only hike or quad to. We carry all of our tools including chainsaws into backcountry areas and arrive completely ready for the days work without expending the amount of energy we used to on a conventional bike or having to drive gas guzzling quads. The response from hikers and bikers is always positive and it has changed how we do our jobs in a very positive way.
    Some of the findings we have discovered over the last 4years using ebikes are if you don’t have the skill to ride technical single track an Ebike won’t make it easier in fact it makes it harder. Ebikes do not damage trails anymore than regular bikes in fact ther is less impact due to lack of spinning tires on uphill climbs. These bikes are heavy ( 50 lbs) with a very limited range a 30 km day is average if you use too much assist. The argument of going further and faster doesn’t really wash unless you are carrying spare batteries or you are ready to pedal a 50 lb bike under your own power.
    Ebikes are here to stay commuters use them in every city in Canada , riding natural trails on a 250w system puts you in the same league of a strong fit biker you just get to be that longer into your life.

  26. Gary

    Very interesting and informative blog. Actually the best I have read on the eMTB subject. I am an Class 1 eMTB rider, I am 61 years young, fit and lean but not able to ride the distances or the handle the steep climbs anymore. I am capable to do them with my peddle assist eMTB, I know the techniques but could not keep the cadences up as the miles accumulated. On the trails I am courteous and respectful of everyone that shares the trail. I slow down and pass slowly making sure hikers and equestrians are not startled or disturbed. This is often more than I can say of the bombing younger MTBs who have no regard who they pass or fly by without any warning. Now, I am not saying all young MTBs are reckless, but I am saying that any eMTB user who is not ruining trails, disturbing the environment or being a nuisance in any way IF they act respectfully and responsibly. In fact any MTB user of the trail should be doing the same. This is the real issue here on the trails. I know there are MTBs who will hate that I am out there, but I have only 15 to 20 more good years left in my body before I am not able to share the trails that we all should be able to enjoy. So, in closing, hate me if you will, I will be kind and say hello to you when I see you out there, heck I will even help you if you need it, but I intend to ride my Class 1 eMTB till I can’t. Back in one of the replies someone said “careful you all will be there someday” this is all too true.

  27. Mike B.

    I’m just coming back to mountain biking. My last mtb was purchased in 1997.
    I recently rented a higher end mtb and 2 different emtb.
    Here is my perspective. Back in about 1968, the archery world was shaken by some new and radical technology. A man by the name of Jennings created a bow with 4 pullies on it. People thought it was a joke at first. Then they started saying it was a machine, not a bow. People who hunted said the accuracy was so much better as well as the range than a recurve or longbow that the game departments were going to shorten or do away with the dedicated bow seasons. Now 95% of archers use compound bows and in fact have their own Olympic category. I still hunt with a recurve because I enjoy the challenge and I still tease my friends with comments about when are they going to get a bow without training wheels but I don’t begrudge them using one.
    The point being technology changes things. If you’re upset about that then park your bike and walk or ride a horse.
    I had a heart attack on the 4th of July 2016. I wanted the mtb to work for me but that’s not realistic. It took me 58 minutes to go 2.7 miles on basically flat ground. I’m buying an emtb.

    1. Author

      That’s a lovely comparison. Good luck with getting back out there. I wish you continued recovery and lots of fun, or lots of recovery and continued fun.

    2. Mike B

      Thanks. I appreciate it.
      I should have also mentioned that compound bows increased the number of people participating in archery. More hunting seasons. Better technology in related accessories. A stronger lobbying group. It made the sport better.

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