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.
- In Europe people ride them on trails and no one blinks. Fists are not raised. Invective is not shouted.
- 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