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.