Opinion: My first encounter with e-mtbs and thoughts on having them on our trails

By Jeffrey Stern

Shaded, lush redwood forests with endless singletrack connecting open spaces to mountain tops and beyond, Santa Cruz, California is somewhat of a mountain biking mecca. At least in California it is. With multiple mountain bike and cycling related companies based in and around the Santa Cruz mountains, only ninety minutes south of San Francisco, the outdoorsy college/ town nestled adjacent to the Pacific has prime conditions for some of the best year round mountain biking anywhere in the world. It makes sense then, that new trends in the industry are seen here relatively early in their life cycles.

Mid-morning on a Saturday earlier this summer, I was looking for just those shaded singletrack sections as I set out from my friend’s Westside home. Climbing up to and cruising through the Pogonip forest next to the University of California at Santa Cruz campus at the beginning of my ride, my mind was full of the world class mountain biking trails I was about to shred here and then further into the mountains at Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park. Before even making it to the top of the first trail, I became astonished by not the number of mountain bikers, but the sheer amount of riders on some form of e-mtb or pedal assist bike.

My first thought was that of annoyance, and then I must admit, a bit of agitation; they were all over the place. Not a single regular, human powered mountain bike on the entirety of the first trail. “How can this be?” I thought to myself, “Did the proliferation of e-mtb’s sail right past me overnight?”

I’m all for getting more people on bikes, but my biggest argument is that many of these riders appeared to have little to no control over their bikes on the trails. I actually did not feel safe with the pure number of riders and lack of overall handling skills. They weren’t only endangering myself, but all other trail users. I even saw a few hikers and runners a bit scared, edging onto the shoulders of the trail as a few wobbling riders went zooming past. I had to end my ride short and come back on a weekday to escape the masses and collect my thoughts on this important issue.

That day, the majority of riders I witnessed evidently did not have the fitness required to get up the hill under their own strength, which is quite honestly part of the fun. Earning that flowy descent, feeling the sweat on the back of your neck cooled by the speed of the trail and knowing you’re going to use your strength to climb back up to the top of another trail and do it all over again is a gift, not a right.

Earning that gift requires practice, training and fitness. All things that come with an investment of time and that can also be extremely rewarding. Progressing from the bike path, to the park, to the trails and mountains can take a lot of hard work, but it’s beyond worth it.

E-mtbs skip too many of these steps for people often not even familiar with basic bike handling skills on flat roads, that go in relatively straight lines.

All bicycles, especially mountain bikes, are fun, fast and dangerous toys. They should not be taken lightly, but practiced with adults and those with years of experience. This holds especially true for kids and older riders just learning for the first time.

How can we keep our trails safe as they become more and more crowded? We want more people riding bikes, but we don’t want to sacrifice safety for increased use and sales of more bikes to help our struggling industry. It could have the opposite result we’re all looking for.

Photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle, taken during a press camp in 2016. Check out this article by former Dirt Rag editor Mike Cushionbury on his first e-bike experience.

Should there be a class and licensing system put in place for new e-mtb/bike purchases? What about for rentals? Let’s get this conversation going in the right direction for the health and safety of everyone trail user affected. I can’t imagine my experience was an anomaly, please tell us about yours and any thoughts you might have in the comments.


Keep Reading: More Dirt Rag articles on e-bikes here.

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6 Comments

  1. Is it possible the e riders were part of some introductory experience to ebikes and trails?. I have been riding an ebike for 3 and a half years on roads and single track in 2 states and have not come upon another Ebike. I have been diagnosed with 2 rare illnesses which left me without the muscle power to ride a regular bike and the e bike has virtually saved my life. I have yet to hear a valid reason why e bikes should not be permitted to use the same roads and trails as regular bicyclists. It is too easy to label entire groups of riders that are deemed to be unsafe. People seem unwilling to share the roads and trails; auto drivers hate bicycles, skiers hate snowboarders and now bicyclists hate e bikers. The writer should be happy that he is capable of riding steep hills while he can, not all of us are as lucky. I am not sure why the writer blames only e bikes when the speed of Lycra wearing young riders often exceeds safe limits when others are using the same trail. Gift, not a right;not sure where that even comes into play.

  2. Ebikes are a great innovation for commuting and leisure on trails or paths where motorized vehicles and mopeds are allowed.

    However, I keep seeing the argument of the previous comment and it is absolutely a very vocal, yet very minuscule minority. It is impossible to logically contemplate any situation where E-bikes will NOT be a massive trail access and safety issue.

    There very well could be a valid argument for handicapped use of E-MTBs but that introduces the problem people out on trails that, should a mechanical failure happen out on the trail, are incapable of extraction under their own power and are stuck with an excessively heavy bicycle to attempt to extract as well.

    Anyone who has been in the industry for any amount of time, as I have, understands that the majority of Emtb purchasers will be the well-off desk-jockey type who spend far more time shopping the trends than actually pedaling a bicycle. These are the slow, out-of shape, gnarly-bro-wanna-be’s that will be skidding all over the trail recklessly and ruining trail access for everyone that earns their turns.

    I also disagree with the author’s sentiment that the bicycle industry is “struggling.” Despite the teachings of capitalism, lack of growth or slow growth is not a bad thing. Homeostasis is a necessary fact of life and if your business can’t survive without growth maybe your business model or board of directors needs adjustment.

  3. This is likely a touchy subject for some based on the above. I have been on a trail where an ebike user is flying up a long 1K ft climb laughing as he is telling people to get out of the way. That was a turn off for me. Part of the fun in mt biking is riding what was difficult, or something that at one time you felt was undoable.

    People like Berek who have some sort of physical issue, make a good point for using ebikes, and I support that.

    If you don’t need an ebike, then you should be pedaling. If you need it, different story, and I support it.

  4. I realize I am replying to an older thread but this topic has come to mind many times lately as my local bike shops begin carrying these type of bikes and actually, regardless of their high price point folks are buying them. Here is my main argument which I believe was mentioned by others, but also a few others:

    * These machines have the power to take people of any sort of fitness very far with less effort than they would EVER walk, hike or go on their own, 100% power. What will they do when they find themselves very far out, tired, possibly cold/hot/dehydrated and forced to backtrack 12 miles pushing their now disabled 60 lb. bicycle??

    * Having ridden one of these superbikes they accelerate rather quickly up to a speed that I found myself, with some deep guilt, giggling at how fast I was going with such little effort. So what happens when you hit the first very technical terrain?? Broken bones? Scrapes, gouges…or worse. Are they familiar with what a true MTB accident can do and what safety gear they should be using?? Uggg…

    *Trail etiquette. This is learned by most true to the sport and taught by few. Good luck and hope for the best on this topic. With(assisted)power comes great responsibility.

    And lastly my dang sacred, hard earned (not assisted) Strava times for goodness sake!!

    Thanks for listening.

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