Dirt Rag Magazine

Bless Me Father For I Have Sinned

photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

Disclaimer: When an invite simply entitled “Back to the Future” came in from Specialized to go to Moab, Utah, for a few days to test out a new bike that it dubbed “the latest technological breakthrough in mountain biking,” it was the worst kept secret in the industry. This was the U.S. launch of the brand’s new, off-road specific e-bike. Heck, this super high-zoot Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie was already on the company’s website. Some media flat out declined participation and I almost did, as well. But, after some internal discussions at Dirt Rag headquarters I realized it was my responsibility as a journalist to attend so I could intelligently explain my stance on e-bikes with this experience in my pocket rather than having to shrug my shoulders when asked, “well have you ever ridden one?” (Until now, I had not.) 

Here are nine things I learned:

1. E-bikes are fine (and fun) on OHV trails

Make no mistake, I had fun. But, I also fully believe in and support limiting e-bikes to OHV (off-highway vehicle) trails. The bike I rode isn’t the rattle-can e-bike we’ve seen from some other companies; it’s such a cutting-edge, extremely fast bike that savvy mountain bikers can actually keep up with and even pass dirt bikers on slower, technical trails. Specialized’s Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie is a full-on trail bike that you can go really fast on.

2. It does have a throttle

I was scolded for making throttle twisting motions with my right hand and talking about pinning it before I actually rode the bike. Sure, there is no twist throttle, but it’s still a throttle—only through pedaling to gain extra acceleration and power. But you have to give to get back. The harder you pedal, the more you’ll get in return power. The power is also adjustable with Eco, Trail and Turbo modes to meter output and battery life.

During the presentation, there were some mixed messages. The usual condescending phrases like “wives, girlfriends (or both), less fit or out of shape people and older riders who can’t keep up” were explained as target buyers, as well as concepts like, “This is a bike for everyone. With pedal assist you can do your normal four hour loop in two hours if you drill it—those long rides are now lunch rides thanks to so much additional speed uphill and on the flats.”

And then we went out and rode some of Moab’s really hard trails really fast: Sovereign, Amasa Back and Slickrock. Without a high level of experience you could get in real trouble riding one of these. The rides were not beginner-friendly, plus you had to pedal hard and work a near 50-pound bike through difficult terrain to get the benefits. And be careful with a soft half pedal on super tight switchback—the motor will kick in and lurch you forward.

Specialized brand manager Sam Benedict shows what an e-bike do in the right hands. Photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

Specialized brand manager Sam Benedict shows what an e-bike can do in the right hands. Photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

3.  In the proper setting, the Specialized Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie is really fun

Face it, we all like to go fast and that’s very possible on the Specialized. It uses the same chassis design and suspension as the standard Stumpjumper FSR 6Fattie with custom tuned damping for the additional weight (the Expert shown here is 48.5 pounds, size medium without pedals). It has normal trail bike geometry and a “classic” parts spec consisting of a SRAM XX1 or X01 drivetrain, depending on price point. It works and feels just like a mountain bike.

4.  It’s hard work to ride one

Specialized explained it this way: “We didn’t want an electric bike; we wanted a mountain bike with pedal assist.” That’s exactly what this is. If you stop pedaling, the motor shuts off. What you put in is what you get back from the motor. “You get your watts back; if you push harder you get more power,” says Specialized.

But, just because there is a device on the bike that limits power depending on rider input rather than a twist throttle doesn’t make it not an e-bike. It is still an e-bike, just with a pedal-controlled throttle.

Speaking of, average power return is 250 watts but with some work you can reach a 500-watt return. In order to comply with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration regulations and qualify as an electric bicycle and not a motor vehicle in the U.S., there’s a speed limiter and it’s 20 mph. Go above that and you’re pedaling all under your own power. No matter how much I wished and tried, the rear wheel wouldn’t kick up a rooster tail of dirt at any power under acceleration. The bike isn’t any easier to wheelie under power, either. It is, in fact, harder to wheelie.

It also takes a bit of relearning to ride one. The best way is to never stop pedaling, with a higher-than-normal cadence. Also, accelerate up to and over tricky terrain. To accommodate this style, the slight geometry changes are a 7 mm higher bottom bracket matched to 170 mm cranks (almost all mountain bikes have 175 mm crank lengths) for better ground clearance while pedaling. Everyone there also ran their Specialized Command dropper posts one click down while climbing and on flatter sections (about 10 mm lower than normal ride height); it was just more effective for some reason.

After two days of multiple rides I was pretty cooked because, indeed, I didn’t stop pedaling. I was on an electric assist bike so of course I wanted all the power I could get to go as fast as I could. Additionally, because of the weight, I was also using a lot more upper body strength to muscle the thing up and over stuff compared to a “normal” mountain bike.

While I was generally missing being on my “classic bike” (what Specialized has taken to calling the normal mountain bike we all know and love) a change of opinion came on Slickrock. With so much traction on those steep pitches, the assist was awesome to power up and over everything (note that Slickrock is open to motor vehicles and that motorcycle riders mapped out most of the original loops).

Photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

Photo by Specialized / Colin Belisle

5. This is next-level technology

Specialized has never held back with cutting-edge technology and this is no exception. The aluminum frame has a downtube cutout that houses the eight-pound battery, which is clicked into place via a cam-lock and a 15 mm thru-axle. It locks in securely, doesn’t rattle and is not a structural part of the frame so the bike can be ridden sans-battery. Specialized designers were very specific in making this look like a “regular” bike so you won’t find any bulky display units, gadgets or thumb controls scattered all about the handlebars. The three modes are easily accessible by push button on the side of the battery. There is also a small handlebar remote available as an option, as well as a new Garmin computer that can control the modes on its touchscreen. Plus, Strava has now added a new “e-bike” tag to its dashboard to go along with this.


But, wait, there’s more. Specialized developed its own Bluetooth and ANT+ Mission Control phone app that becomes the system’s brain and talks to the battery. You can perform diagnostics, check the battery level, track rides, record your power numbers with the motor’s integrated power meter and even tune pedal assist output by changing mode outputs and how the power comes on. This feature gives you the ability to manually set assist response for each level. Stock setting is 20 percent for Eco, 50 for Trail and 100 for Turbo. I kept Eco and Turbo stock but inched Trail up to 60 percent for a bit more grunt.

There’s also a program called Smart Control that works like this: if you want to ride 25 miles and make sure you’ll have battery power the whole time, you would program in “25 miles” and choose a percentage number to finish with (let’s say 15 percent juice) and the app will communicate with the battery every 10 seconds metering power output over the terrain to insure you end the ride with your chosen percent. You can also choose hours instead of miles. While this setting eliminates any fear of losing pedal assist power, the longer you plan to go the less assist you’ll get. You also have to make sure your phone is with you and its battery is completely charged since it is controlling the bike’s battery.

Whew … that’s a lot to think about on a bike ride.

Batteries need some recharging after the first ride of the day. Photo by Mike Cushionbury

Batteries need some recharging after the first ride of the day. Photo by Mike Cushionbury

6.  Battery life is important

If you run out of juice, you end up just riding a nearly 50-pound bike. Specialized mixed and matched electronic components to get the best battery and motor system in the business. In fact, the battery itself is made by the same company that makes Yamaha’s e-motocross bike battery. It sourced a motor elsewhere.

Range varies depending on a host of variables including terrain, what mode you use most, wind and rider weight. Specialized says you’ll get 5,000 feet of climbing on a charge. Time wise, in Moab we were all averaging 2.5 to 3 hours on a charge (it takes about 3.5 hours to recharge). Obviously, being a bike launch event, Specialized had multiple batteries on hand so all we had to do was switch them out between rides. Extra or replacement batteries retail for $900 and you’ll get 700 recharge cycles before needing a new one. That means if you rode the battery completely empty every single day you’d get a two-year life span, so estimates are probably 4 to 5 years on a battery. After 700 recharge cycles, it still works but, just like an old computer battery, it will start running dry quicker than when it was new.

7. Airline travel with an e-bike is tough

Air travel will be hard. At the bikes’ weight, any top-line travel bag or box is most likely out of the question unless it’s international and you can go over the 50-pound weight limit, and that’s expensive. In a cardboard box you should be fine because you have to remove the battery anyway. I asked Specialized about it and they said you can’t take the battery on a plane—you have to ship it FedEx, UPS or USPS separately in a special battery box.

Photo by Mike Cushionbury

Photo by Mike Cushionbury

8. The details

In its Turbo Levo e-bike line, Specialized will be offering three levels of Stumpjumper FSR 6Fatties for $5,500, $7,500 and $9,500. There will be a 6Fattie hardtail for $4,000 and a fat bike for $5,000. In the women’s category there will be an FSR 6Fattie for $5,000 and a hardtail for $4,000. Specialized told me it will be bringing in about 10,000 bikes to the U.S. and is expecting to sell half of those.

9. In conclusion

As I said, I had fun riding the bike on OHV trails but, ultimately, I won’t be trading in my “classic bike” anytime soon—I was very happy to get back to non-motorized riding. That’s not a knock on the Turbo Levo 6Fattie; it’s an amazing bike with incredible technology, it’s just not the technology most of us will choose while riding in the woods.

The biggest issue for the future is land access. These bikes must be limited to OHV trails or we’re all going to lose. The simple fact is that it will only take a few incidents on open trails to throw real mountain biking back to the dark ages. We run the risk of Joan and John Q. Public trail user umbrellaing all mountain bikes as motorized. That would shut down all we’ve worked for in a fraction of the time it took to get what we have now. Specialized realizes this and pleads that buyers adhere to local rules and regulations. That said, as these bikes get more stealthy and silent (from a distance this looks like any other FSR 6Fattie) it will get harder to police this, so we can consider that giant can of worms now opened.

Do these bikes have their place? Certainly. They’re great for city commuting and for a select group of riders who are legitimately limited in ability. A few weeks ago, I came across a disabled rider on a hand bike out on the trails and couldn’t help but think that would be a great application for e-bike technology. Not just so you can rip about the trails faster, which is what will start to cause problems in most user areas.

Admittedly, this was a hard story to tell. I sat on it for days and almost pulled the plug on the whole thing for fear of crucifixion, but e-bikes are here and—no matter how I feel—it’s a story. Will they stay or go away a few years down the road? I’m guessing they’re on their way to becoming here for good. The question to ask is, “Who will be buying these to ride on OHV trails opposed to just getting a motorcycle?”

For Dirt Rag, we see these as a whole new category that is outside mountain bikes and bike culture as we see it, know it and experience it. We might occasionally report news on e-bikes when appropriate (such as this story) but will not be doing e-bike tests in our pages.

Do you agree with this?



Sea Otter adds e-bike race for 2016. Do motors belong?

Sea Otter Classic, the California event that “kicks off” the road and mountain bike race seasons each April, has announced it will host an e-mountain bike race at next year’s event. While plenty of battery-powered technology has seeped into mountain biking via electronic shifting and suspension adjustment, this move strikes me as ominous.

The manufacturers pushing e-bikes on natural-surface trails need to get their stories straight. I sat in on a well-attended e-mountain bike panel presentation at Interbike this year. Bosch, maker of e-bike motors, kicked off the festivities with a video depicting highly talented mountain bikers ripping e-bikes on European singletrack in a backcountry alpine setting.

The panel then followed up the shred-fest video with an explanation that the U.S. audience, which they claimed is 4-5 years behind Europe, is primarily people who can’t keep up on a regular mountain bike either due to age or lack of fitness, or those who aren’t serious riders and still want to get out into the backcountry. That, and a handful of hunters and nature photographers, according to Felt Bicycles founder Jim Felt, who sat on the panel.

Bosch MTB-1

The argument currently being made is that e-bikes should be allowed on natural-surface trails because they won’t be ridden by rippers and Strava hounds. They’re too expensive to be an N+1 bike and they’re too heavy for all but the strongest riders to enjoy maneuvering. They’ll be Sunday drivers out for a cruise, so we need not fret about our precious trail access or the inevitable tinkering by home mechanics hacking factory motor settings to make them exceed power limits set by federal laws.

But the Sea Otter race betrays what is coming. E-mountain bike racing is already popular in Europe and the manufacturers are hankering to get into the U.S. market at a level much greater than “your mom on a mountain bike.”

Meanwhile, the question continually flowing through the industry is, “Who is buying the things? Where is the consumer clamoring for this expensive, niche product?” Other than a handful of individuals here and there, we don’t seem to know.

Felt did say that e-bikes (in general) are the fastest growing segment of the industry, but I would like to see that data as I can imagine quite a few caveats. “Fastest growing” is easy to claim if a company sold five e-bikes last year and 20 this year.

Vibram Five Finger shoes were a fast-growing segment of the shoe market when they were introduced, but it didn’t mean they were a good idea, and they have all but disappeared. (In fact, they might have been a bad idea, and Vibram has had to pay out millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit over false health claims. The marketers won the battle, then reality won the war.)

I’m looking at this almost entirely through an advocate’s lens and I fear that the manufacturers aren’t understanding that America is not Europe. You know when a band says they’re “big in Europe” that you can’t trust them? It’s the same thing. In the U.S. of A, all trails are local; almost all trails are volunteer-driven; almost all trail battles are unique in some way.

Remember that the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) was birthed in America by pot-smoking, cruiser-klunking, long-haired Californians who got themselves banned from all trails in the 1980s and realized things were only going to improve if they organized. They didn’t ask any existing trail user group to take on their cause; they took in on themselves because they had a passion for something.

European mountain biking doesn’t have that level of grassroots, gritty history. IMBA Europe is a thing, but you wouldn’t recognize its formal structure. The bicycle industry can more easily drop technology on the landscape across the pond and not have to worry so much about causing problems for the volunteer advocates and trail builders doing much of the heavy lifting.

I worked at IMBA for five years—up until this past August—and never once did I hear from an IMBA chapter leader (there are almost 200 of those groups) that they wanted to take on supporting e-bikes. The pressure on IMBA to re-think its hardline stance against any bike with a motor—which dates to 2010—is coming from the top down.

The sour taste in my mouth is that I’m convinced the bicycle industry is forcing this one on us on its own timeline because new wheel sizes and fat bikes and five or six or whatever number of confusing and made-up mountain bike categories aren’t giving them the sales numbers they want.

Yes, you can say the same thing about suspension and carbon frames and the now-dizzying array of wheel sizes—that they were forced on us—but those things mostly just annoyed the purists; they didn’t threaten trail access which, depending on where you live, might still be tenuous or downright terrible. Those technological developments didn’t threaten to frighten land managers who function under a motorized vs. non-motorized mindset, or burden already over-stretched volunteer mountain bike advocates who work tirelessly under the banner of human-powered recreation.

As it stands, there is still not nearly enough money or muscle (either political or physical) to do all that is needed to have great trails and great access for human-powered (only) mountain biking. Layering e-bikes onto the current advocacy landscape—without a groundswell of real people seeking e-bike access and stepping up to help—would further stretch thin resources and complicate already complex efforts.

We’ll see who turns up to race in April.



Elephant In The Room: The Great E-Bike Controversy

elephant web

By Jeff Lockwood. Ilustrations by Stephen Haynes

One should never dwell too deeply on any polarizing statement frivolously tapped out in the comments section of any online article or posting. The stunning language, poorly argued opinions, hilarious misspellings and ill-informed “facts” expressed by virtually anonymous people can boil the blood of even the most level-headed, stable person. This is especially true with hot-button topics such as the emergence of electric-assist mountain bikes.

For example, read this Facebook comment posted in regards to a Dirt Rag mention of the Lapierre Overvolt electric-assist mountain bike:

The first one of these that I see on the local trails I’m taking out. See, you need to cull the heard of weaker less capable bikes (or ones that allow weaker and less capable people on the trails). Remember, it’s much more humane to cull the heard of early in the season than let some fat ass tourist run out of go-go 10 miles from the trail head.

A lot of the fear, concerns and opinions rest on the misconception that people will be out tearing up the local trails on a slimmed-down version of a motorcycle—a vehicle lacking any human effort to propel it.

It’s safe to assume that no bicycle manufacturer, advocacy organization, land manager, professional athlete or casual rider will ever want to see Harley-Davidson’s recently announced electric motorcycle ripping around Kingdom Trails in Vermont, Gooseberry Mesa in Utah or your local ribbon of buff singletrack. What we’re investigating in this article are bicycles: machines that are moved by the use of actual leg muscles, yet also feature a small electric motor to augment its forward movement.

There are at least a few different technologies from various manufacturers that use a motor somehow engaged by the rider to assist with movement of the bike. That means real effort is still required to turn the pedals. Electric-assist bicycles do not move forward by themselves.

For simplification, clarification and efficiency with regard to this topic, we’ll generalize all of this technology and collectively refer to it as “electric-assist.”

Bicycles sporting some form of electric enhancement have been around for a long time. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lee Iacocca, once the head of Chrysler and Ford, led one of the first companies to bring a serious electric bike to market, branded as “eBike.” Iacocca brought a high level of business acumen, lots of money and a certain level of legitimacy to the electric-bicycle concept. While eBike eventually folded, it did prove that the concept was ready for the big time.

Today, electric-assist bicycle technology comes in a few flavors. There are versions like the BionX system, which is an aftermarket product that retrofits any current bike by adding a battery to the frame and an electric motor in the hub of the rear wheel. Currie Technologies, owned by the Dutch bicycle mega-company Accell Group, also offers systems that can be retrofitted to current standard bicycles while also offering more integrated solutions to the likes of Haibike. Bosch, the company that provides the electrical system for many automobiles, now licenses a very slick and rather aesthetically unobtrusive electric system based around the bottom bracket. And, clinging to the inherent independent nature of mountain biking, you also have smaller start-ups delivering custom electric-assist technology and complete bikes, such as Kranked, based in British Columbia.

Personal Concerns

On a very basic level, some riders feel personally threatened by the mere existence of a bicycle equipped with any sort of motor. Some mountain bikers seem to have a potent combination of delicate egos and well-trained bodies. While struggling up a difficult climb, seeing a less-fit person breeze by using anything other than oxygen, muscle and determination will leave many riders seeing red and dismissing the offending rider as well as whatever new technology is carrying him or her up the hill.

Rob Kaplan is vice president of sales and marketing for Currie Technologies. It’s his job to be aware of the criticisms of the electric- assist mountain bike and to debunk the myths. One of the most audible knocks against the concept is that “it’s cheating because it’s an electric motorcycle.” Kaplan counters that thought by reasoning, “It is not cheating, as these are ‘assist.’ You must pedal, and pedal hard at times. It simply amplifies your output, allowing you to do more than you otherwise could.”

While so many of us cyclists love new gadgets and concepts to improve our ride experience, the dirty truth is that many of us cling to tradition and remain very stubborn when it comes to emerging technologies on or around the bicycle.

Gary Fisher is one of the forefathers of the mountain bike and a proponent of many technologies that were once considered disruptive, but are now taken for granted on our bikes. Fisher fought early and fought strongly for the 29-inch mountain bike wheel concept and faced lots of resistance. He said, “There would be 50 mountain bikes this guy would have in his shop. Two of them would be 29ers. They looked like orphans. ‘Who’s going to buy that?’” He also ran into friction when he tried to spec suspension forks on his bikes. “I was the first maker to put it [a suspension fork] on a [production] bike, and all my internal sales guys thought I was crazy, thought I was stupid,” Fisher remembers.

It’s obvious that we’re seeing the same kinds of battles today when it comes to electric-assist mountain bikes, and Fisher recognizes that these bikes are very disruptive to the status quo of mountain biking. Yet he sees electric-assist mountain bikes as inevitable—and a positive evolution. “People will try it and say they had too much fun: ‘I’m out of shape, I wanted to go do the high altitude.’ We’ve got hardcore stuff here in the States, man. We have high altitude, baking-hot weather. That bike is gonna make everything easy,” Fisher predicts. You go out with a group of people and three of them that aren’t normally so fast are on electric bikes. That’s cool. Believe me. This stuff is gonna come.”

Fisher’s statement touches on an important point: inclusion. And it’s something that bicycle companies are eager to capitalize on. We all ride at different paces and enjoy mountain biking for different reasons. Yet we have to admit that mountain bike riding requires significant physical commitments, which can be prohibitive to a potentially huge market.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t ride mountain bikes because getting themselves and the bikes up and over some hills and other obstacles is just too difficult.

The fact is that a lot of people don’t ride mountain bikes because getting themselves and the bikes up and over some hills and other obstacles is just too difficult. Sure, a whole category of our beloved sport sees riders being toted up a hill in the back of a pickup truck or on a ski lift for the sole purpose of bombing down the mountain. But most mountain bikers—and potential mountain bikers—also enjoy the simpler act of riding trails, exploring the woods and making a day out of a bike ride. The argument goes that if you help alleviate some of the physical challenges of mountain biking, the sport will “see more butts on bikes.”

Bjørn Enga, owner of Kranked, sees the writing on the wall. “Everyone that has tried my electric bikes has loved the experience; [it] blew their minds. The market is so much bigger than the bike market caters to at the present moment. The number of people on this planet that can actually ride their bike up a hill, let alone a mountain, is tiny.”

It’s a safe argument to make that the spirit of mountain bike technology lies with the tinkerers, the visionaries, and those willing to take risks. That’s how mountain biking was “invented,” that’s why the 29-inch wheel is so ubiquitous now and that’s why we’re starting to see electric-assist mountain bikes. While much mountain bike innovation might come from these independent minds, it’s not exclusively their domain.

“Electric-assist mountain bikes are turning on new riders and adding to the growth of cycling. It will be another entry point or maturation point for the overall cycling market,” says Travis Ott, Trek global mountain bike brand manager. Trek currently produces three models of electric- assist mountain bikes, which are powered by the Bosch system. While the hardtail Powerfly+ is currently available only in Europe, Trek is carefully watching the U.S. market for the moment when it makes the most sense to release an electric-assist mountain bike stateside. “If it gets more people on bikes, enjoying off-road riding, extending their ability to ride, getting them back into riding, enabling them to go further, riding with buddies they wouldn’t otherwise be, whatever, I’m all for it,” says Ott. “The more people in the sport, the better.”

Electric-assist bikes in a more urban setting are definitely starting to catch on in the United States. But Europeans have embraced electric- assist bicycles for several years. Mike Defresne publishes an electric- bicycle magazine in Belgium. He also publishes O2 Bikers, the largest mountain bike magazine in the country. Defresne explains that cycling in Europe is a very social activity and that electric-assist mountain bikes allow people to go farther and spend more time with their friends.

“Organized recreational rides are very popular, with distances going from 10 to 80 kilometers [6 to 50 miles],” he explains. “People like to do that, and with electric-assist mountain bikes, they can do longer distances and [ride] later in their lifetime. Now you see people that are 50 years old and beyond buying electric-assist mountain bikes because they don’t have the condition anymore to suffer on the bike. Because biking is a social thing, electric-assist mountain bikes will help them biking with their friends.”

Defresne is quick to point out, however, that electric-assist mountain biking in Europe is not quite an electrical utopia. “It’s a little like bringing back motorbikes into the woods, which is not good for our image,” he admits. “Plus, our market is performance oriented, so bikers are still embarrassed to admit they need electric assistance.”

While some people may perceive electric-assist mountain bikes to be a threat or an embarrassment, more and more people are also seeing them as opportunities.

Todd Gallaher was a cycle courier in Seattle and a professional mountain bike racer. Bicycles provided his livelihood. While leading out a teammate during a local criterium road race, Gallaher hit the deck. Hard. In addition to several broken bones and abrasions, he suffered a fracture on the distal end of his femur and a broken patella. He had to keep working, and putting some electric power on his mountain bike allowed him to work, rehab the injuries and recapture some of the fun of riding. “The add-on power plant to my race mountain bike let me fly along with my right foot clipped in and the broken leg on a platform pedal,” he says.

Environmental Concerns

While lots of sensitive (and vocal) mountain bikers may have their egos threatened by someone rolling past on an electric-assist mountain bike, most riders are more concerned with the potential impact that electric-assist mountain bikes will have on trails. Physics dictates that trails will deteriorate more quickly because electric-assist mountain bikes create more torque. More torque means wheels will turn with more force. More wheel force at the contact point with the soil negatively impacts the trails. And if the sport of mountain biking sees a sudden influx of riders like everyone is expecting, existing trails might not be able to handle more people. The situation is complicated by the fact that many new riders might not be up to date on their trail etiquette and rule following.

If [the trail] is made for mountain bikes with no motor assist, and people are using [electric-assist] on the trail, then I think it’s going to be bad for cycling in general.

Professional mountain bike racer and ardent trail advocate Mark Weir explains one of his concerns: “If it’s a green-sticker trail—a green sticker refers to California’s classification of allowing off-highway vehicles, motorized or not, to operate on public lands year-round— then electric-bike people are going to have to start doing trail work. But if [the trail] is made for mountain bikes with no motor assist, and people are using [electric-assist] on the trail, then I think it’s going to be bad for cycling in general.”

Currie Technologies has been in the electric-assist bicycle game since 1997, and Kaplan is keenly aware of the delicate ground upon which electric-assist mountain bikes tread. “I was in the thick of the trail-access issues in NorCal in the ’80s. I know that trail access is a fragile thing and that most mountain bikers do not take it for granted,” he says. Kaplan’s approach to land access and electric-assist bikes is a positive one. “This category can help get more participation in our activity and more participation means more demand for infrastructure and more political juice.”

Frank Maguire is a former IMBA regional manager and has built many miles of trails with his own hands. He doesn’t necessarily see a problem with the actual electric-assist mountain bike product. As an advocate of open space and sustainable trail-building, he’s more concerned with the higher number of trail users and their impact on existing trails and how to manage that situation: “[The problem is] not the users saying, ‘Oh, they shouldn’t be here.’ It’s more along the lines of, ‘Can we actually accommodate them? Can we say this is OK?’ Because we’re going to have more people in more places where maybe it wasn’t a big deal before. But now that there’s more people there, it’s going to be a problem.”

It’s interesting to note that IMBA is not specifically against electric-assist mountain bikes. Instead of creating heated resistance, IMBA, through a recently published white paper, essentially explains that the organization wants to ensure that mountain bikes and anything with a motor are classified separately. The white paper explains, “IMBA is an advocate for the interests of mountain biking and the development and maintenance of singletrack trails. IMBA objects to land-management practices and principles that address mountain biking and motorized uses as a single class.”

While that statement doesn’t support electric-assist mountain bikes, it certainly doesn’t dismiss them. Mark Eller, communications director for IMBA, further explains the organization’s position by stating, “Mountain biking is a human powered activity. Anything with a motor or power assist is considered a ‘motorized’ form of recreation…pedal-assist or not. We are not against motorized or pedal-assist technology, but they are inherently different experiences. There’s a non-motorized experience that people crave. A bicycle is a simple machine.”

To illustrate this point, Eller explains, “Paddling a canoe and getting around with an outboard motorboat are two different ways to enjoy being out on the water. While they differ significantly and are usually separated, they are able to get along.”

Going Forward

Aside from some vocal opponents of electric-assist mountain bikes, the consensus seems to be that these forms of mountain bikes are coming and their momentum can’t be stopped. Bicycle-industry insiders definitely get a twinkle in their eye when they see the financial possibilities that lie within the largely untapped market.

With an aging and increasingly overweight population in the United States that’s transcending most demographics, we’re going to see more people with the need and desire to get outside and be active. According to a 2012 study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled “Prevalence of obesity and trends in the distribution of body mass index among U.S. adults, 1999–2010,” 35.5 percent of adult men and 35.8 percent of adult women were classified as obese in 2010. Between 1980 and 2000, the Centers for Disease Control tells us, obesity rates in children and adults in the United States doubled, tripling among adolescents. With information like this, some sort of adaption to the concept of a mountain bike needs to at least be considered for mountain biking to remain relevant.

As such, IMBA concedes that ignoring the electric-assist mountain bike trend is a fool’s errand. Eller explains, “We are considering [electric-assist mountain bikes] at the 2014 IMBA World Summit because we have no business burying our heads in the sand by pretending electric mountain bikes don’t exist. It makes no sense to ignore the issue. We [mountain bikers] are born out of an innovative approach to technology, so we need to continue to look at how mountain bike technology will change.”

Exactly how to change the mind of the consumer is something that will be up to the marketing departments and other proponents of the concept. “Legitimacy happens when riders, journalists, opinion makers and the opinionated experience the technology and have an amazing experience. This experience makes them adopt the technology,” explains Enga. While it’s true that seeing (or riding) is believing in many cases, the question of how to get people to give it a chance is the real trick.

Poison Spider Bicycles in Moab, Utah, is one of the premier shops in one of the premier mountain biking locations in the world. With more than 40,000 people coming through the doors of the shop each year to rent bikes, it’s safe to say that Poison Spider can be considered highly influential in the mountain bike world. Bicycle companies often provide rental fleets to renowned shops like Poison Spider to market their latest bikes to the public.

Electric bikes will also get people into the backcountry that should not necessarily be doing it by bicycle…this will bring up issues of not being prepared, not having the proper clothing, food and water.

Getting electric-assist mountain bikes in a powerful shop like Poison Spider would surely tempt seasoned cyclists to consider buying and riding electric-assist bikes. However, Poison Spider is having none of it. Owner Scott Newton explains, “We already have access issues on certain trails, and we get categorized into the ‘no mechanized vehicles allowed’ classification,” he says. “If all of a sudden there are more electric bikes on trails that are built for mountain bikes, hiking, and horseback riding, it might ruin it for the non-motorized bikes.” The issue is compounded by the fact that the landscape around Moab can be extremely inhospitable to humans. “Electric bikes will also get people into the backcountry that should not necessarily be doing it by bicycle,” Newton adds. “This will bring up issues of not being prepared, not having the proper clothing, food and water.”

While Moab might not be the most welcoming place for people to demo electric-assist mountain bikes, private resorts could present the possibility of offering electric-assist rentals or demos. Ski resorts, which have special use permits with the U.S. Forest Service or other public-lands agencies, or situated on private land and have long been offering mountain bike programs during the summer to increase off- season revenues. If electric-assist mountain bikes were provided to the rental and demo fleets at these resorts, they could easily welcome a new generation of cycling enthusiasts.

Sara Burdon from Lapierre echoes the adage that riding is believing: “At the moment, we can’t make them fast enough. The key to sales is testing. At first, many people are skeptical. However, once they have tried them, lots of people change their mind. What’s astonishing is how many customers are coming over to electric bikes.”

For Ott, he feels a heavyweight personality or company can help push a trend into the marketplace. “Demand can be seeded many different ways,” he offers. “However, more often than not, it takes a big player to stick his or her neck out to really help things gain traction. With 29ers, it was Gary Fisher and Gary Fisher dealers who pushed 29ers for a decade before the market really caught on. With electric- assist mountain bikes, you’re starting to see those big players step in. And one of those players is Bosch, who’s helping to create a viable electric-assist drivetrain.”

Larry Pizzi, president of Currie Technologies, is fully aware of the impact, literal and figurative, that electric-assist mountain bikes can have on trails and access. “We [the electric-assist bicycle industry] certainly don’t want to do anything that would put trail access at risk and negate the great work that IMBA has done over the last few decades,” Pizzi says. “We are hoping that we can get IMBA’s help to promote electric-assist bikes and all of the places that electric- assist bikes can be legally used today, and then, as the category is better understood, begin to work on broader access in areas that make sense.”

Weir understands the passion, the politics, and the realities of the situation and that getting everyone to play along is a delicate job. “People are super passionate about losing where their spirit is,” he says. “But you can’t win with just force. You really gotta get in there and work it out with everyone so everyone’s happy.”

According to Gary Fisher, new technologies follow a roughly 10- year cycle before they’re commonly accepted. “It takes 10 years for just about everything. That front fork I was telling you about…it took 10 years,” he says. “We had a dual-suspension bike at the end of 1991, and that whole program didn’t sell until 2001 when Paola Pezzo won a World Cup on one. Took 10 years for carbon bikes. Ten years for titanium bikes. It’s all about the speed of the gray matter! Just relax and hit it right on time and you’re gonna hit the early adopters at the beginning.” He goes on to say, “There are going to be more people having fun…there are going to be more people buying our bikes! This whole sport is going to be bigger! I think it’s going to be great.”


­­­­Editor’s Note: The rapidly growing popularity of e-bikes on trails is ruffling a lot of feathers in the mountain bike community. In Dirt Rag #179 we took an in-depth look at the issue and received a lot of feedback. Here you’ll find the IMBA’s position on “motorized” bicycles. Dirt Rag magazine supports IMBA’s stance and believes electric-assist bikes should be limited to motorized vehicle trails only. As such, we currently won’t be testing any electric bikes off-road.



Inside Line: First ride on the Lapierre Overvolt FS900 Bosch-powered e-bike


If you don’t think e-bikes are a real mover in the bicycle marketplace? Look no further than the entry of Bosch in the marketplace to prove that some big brands are willing to invest serious resources in the growing market. For 2015 it has paired up with a few key brands to bring e-bikes with Bosch motors and control units—already a huge hit in Europe—to U.S. dealerships. Look for bikes from Haibike, Felt, and Lapierre, including this Overvolt FS900.

Read the full story

Back to Top