Other than where one falls on the “how much do press fit bottom brackets suck” scale, no subject is probably as controversial in mountain biking right now as e-bikes and specifically e-MTBs.
There are a range of viewpoints on the subject, but most seem to fall into one of two categories:
On the surface these viewpoints each have their strengths and weaknesses. While it’s great that e-MTBs could bring in new customers, their cost would seem to blunt that ability. While there may be some issues with e-MTBs that need to be addressed, some opponents go full Godwin's law and act like e-MTBs had been invented by Nazis.
But if you peel back the supposed positives and negatives, there are some real issues with e-MTBs that, for urban mountain biking trails especially, create some real conundrums. Those conundrums make e-MTBs something that can’t just be slid into a positive or negative category.
The Motor Conundrum
What, really is a motor? This matters as an e-MTB has a motor. But that motor is connected to a crank mechanism for human input. That human input not only provides power via the crank, it’s also the throttle for the motor. So, is that motor really a motor?
Here is the definition for a “motor” per Dictionary.com:
But this is where it gets confusing…
In 2002, the Congress of the United States enacted HB 727 which revised the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s definition of a bicycle to include:
A two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.
So, at least on a federal level, an e-MTB is technically a bike. Notice the words, “on a federal level”. That is an important description as each state, thru their organs of governance have their own set of laws and regulations. At the time of this writing, 31 states have some form of e-bike regulation. But even then, those regulations only apply to state regulated locations: roads and state property. That means that properties and locations owned by a county, a city, a regional governmental unit or a private party would not be covered by those regulations.
This understanding of who manages what matters, especially for e-MTBs and most specifically e-MTBs in an urban setting because often lands within the city are owned by the city or a regional governmental unit. It also matters because for most cities, they only allow non-motorized usage of trails and paths. In practice this gets even more confusing as many cities are trying to encourage e-bike usage on paved roads and paths while trying to discourage e-MTB usage on soft surface trails in parks.
The Grant & Funding Conundrum
In many states, mountain bike trails and especially those trails within a city, are partially or completely funded by mountain biking clubs. While some clubs do have fund raisers that can self-fund an entire trail system, oftentimes these clubs rely on grants or other sources of funding that are for human powered recreation.
For existing trails that were paid for with these type of human powered recreation funds, some sort of legal opinion from the fund or grant originator would need to be obtained to legally allow e-MTBs.. That originator would have the ability to decide if e-MTBs would qualify as an acceptable use for the trails they paid for, in part or in whole.
The big question for grants and funding isn’t so much trails on the ground, its trails in the future. The biggest fear is that a lot of grantees that are currently allowing mountain bike trails to qualify as human powered will rescind that allowance and those sources of future funding will disappear.
The Perception Conundrum
If you think that mountain bikers have some feelz about e-MTBs, talk to a hiker for about 5 minutes. This is a real problem as most urban mountain biking trails are shared in some way: fully shared, preferred or hybrid. Should the perception (or maybe the assumption) be that e-MTBs are incompatible with hikers, then there could be some issues on trails that currently are quite peaceful.
It’s been suggested by some e-MTB advocates that this belief that e-MTBs and MTBs are so much different is a completely American phenomenon. Even a cursory glance shows otherwise. Here is a report from Switzerland:
Other than the fact it’s not in English, that is a segment that could be part of any local news in the United States. Unlike many European countries, the United States does not have any form of right to roam or historic pathways. In other words, our access as mountain bikers can often depend on not only ourselves and our actions, but other user groups and their beliefs regarding our actions.
The Stealth Conundrum
As the technology has pushed forward on e-MTB one thing has certainly changed faster than anything else: the lengths that companies go to hide the fact you are riding an e-MTB. The generous answer to why this is happening is that companies with for a similar visual style across their lineup. The less generous answer to why this is happening is that companies realize that there are places that e-MTBs aren’t allowed or that they are controversial, creating stealth e-MTBs would reduce the ability of others to discern it’s an e-MTB. Regardless of the exact reason, the stealth e-MTB design philosophy is having unintended consequences.
The first being that anti-mountain bikers have begun to suggest all mountain bikes are motorized. While that is factually untrue, it still matters. Most anti-mountain bikers get their playbook straight from Agitprop, so they are seeking to take a small truth and conflate it into a truism that supposedly contains the whole. The fact is that they are speaking to audiences (such as city officials or older neighbors) that know little to nothing of mountain biking. If they hear that most mountain bikes contain a motor and do a Google search on the subject, the results will not be pretty.
The second consequence of stealth e-MTBs is that land managers can find themselves confused about whether the bike shapes things on their trails are mountain bikes, e-MTBs and, if e-MTBs, what classification. So far that confusion hasn’t resulted in any trail loss or other negative effects. However, as the batteries and motors get smaller, there will come a tipping point where it’s impossible to tell what is human powered and what is motorized. When that happens, there might be some land manager revolts, especially in properties where e-MTBs can never legally be ridden. If e-MTBs have been stealthed up to the point its impossible to tell the difference, the only recourse a land manger might have is the ban all bike shaped objects.
Conundrums Don’t Have Easy Answers
The fact is simple: none of the above conundrums have easy answers. There isn’t and won’t be a “one easy trick” for these problems. There won't be a Part 2 to this article with all sorts of simple things to help you choose the management strategy to address these conundrums.
Whether you view e-MTBs as a net positive, are neutral, or a net negative, it’s important that you understand the conundrums, discuss them and figure out how best to deal with them for your trails, your lands and your city.
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