Why E-Bikes Are a Threat to Mountain Bike Trail Access


Image courtesy of Honda

The typical discussion on the question of e-bike access to non-motorized trails typically goes something like this:

Proponent: “Why are you against e-bikes? They are quiet and don’t damage the trails”

Anti: “Because they will hurt our access to trails”

Proponent: “They shouldn’t – they are just like regular mountain bikes but with some help for the rider – they don’t hurt the trails”

Anti: “They are motorized – don’t you get it? They will get faster and faster as technology improves”

Proponent: “But they don’t have a throttle”

This typically goes on and on and there is never a resolution just like most discussions on social media. Multiple government agencies have come out with rulings that e-bikes should not be allowed on trails that exclude motorized vehicles. The whole motor vs non-motor seems obvious to me but some agencies haven’t ruled on the issue and some do allow e-bikes on trails. Some specifically allow them for people with a disability. I assume that the rules on e-bikes will be clarified over the next 2-3 years as the industry ramps up their offerings. E-bikes won’t sell unless people have a place to ride them so there is a fair bit of money lining up to change the laws to allow e-bikes on more trails.

I’ve been involved in MTB advocacy in some form or another since 1993 and I do see e-bikes as a threat. The sky is not falling – YET – but manufacturers and some vocal e-bike users want to change the laws so that e-bikes are allowed on trails that don’t currently allow them. It’s very hard to believe that this effort won’t affect those of us who choose not to ride with motor power. In general, the proponents argue that because e-bikes don’t have a throttle and are battery powered that they should be treated as a different class from internal combustion motorcycles. Industry types and some agencies may buy this distinction but I think it will be lost on the general public who, sensibly, will see a bike with a motor and ask, “Why can’t I ride my motorcycle on those trails?”.

My imaginary conversation between a member of the public and an elected official or administrator goes like this:

Public: “I was out on the Crest yesterday and I noticed that there were several people on electric mountain bikes. That’s really cool that you allow motor bikes up there now – thanks!”

Administrator: “Well, actually those are e-bikes – they are pedal-assisted bicycles, not motorized bikes”.

Public: “I don’t understand – they have motors, right?”

Administrator: “Well, they have 750 Watt electric motors but they don’t have a throttle”

Public: “So how do they work if they don’t have a throttle?”

Administrator: “Well you have to pedal and the motor helps out – sort of like the old mopeds”

Public: “So how do you know that the motor is only 750 Watts?”

Administrator: “Well we don’t know unless we inspect them”

Public: “How often do you inspect them?”

Administrator: “Never – we don’t have the budget for that”

Public: “So, riders could modify the drive system to make it faster?”

Administrator: “In theory, yes, but we haven’t seen that happen.”

Public: “So I’ve got a CRF125 and it would be great to ride it on these trails with my daughter on her CRF50 – so it’s OK if I ride up on the Crest?”

Administrator: “No – sorry – it has a gas motor and a throttle so you can’t ride it on non-motorized trails”

Public: “Wait – you just said that bikes with electric motors are OK – I don’t get it”

Administrator: “Yes, but those don’t have a throttle”

Public: “That seems totally arbitrary – they have a motor but you allow them on non-motorized trails??!! I need to talk to someone at the Forest Service – this is ridiculous. If they can ride electric motorbikes up there I should be able to ride my dirt bike there, too.”

Like I say this is my imagination working – the conversation won’t go exactly like this but will likely be similar. Next step is that the people who ride dirt bikes get their lobbyists and industry groups involved and Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, Husqvarna, etc. see an opportunity to sell MX bikes and ATV’s in greater numbers. The government gets pressured and are left with a simple choice – allow e-bikes and other motorized vehicles or do a blanket ban on all motorized vehicles. A few people decide to use e-bikes on multi-use trails even where they are not allowed. Hikers and equestrians complain to the administrators. Since the administrators can’t easily tell the difference between (for example) a Specialized Turbo Levo Fattie and a non-motorized MTB, they are left with no choice but banning all MTB’s from those trails.

That’s one way you may lose access. Do you have other scenarios? Let me know.

5 thoughts on “Why E-Bikes Are a Threat to Mountain Bike Trail Access

  1. As an avid mountain biker I used to look at e bikes in the exact same way until I rode one. I also own and have raced motorcycles for years. E BIKES are in no way even close or a facsimile of a motorcycle. The only way to get “”assist” on an ebike is to pedal. There isn’t a throttle and if you stop pedaling you coast just like a normal bike (except slower…these bikes are 20lbs heavier). I’ve seen many test that show top pro mtn bikers are way faster and produce more torque than regulated ebikes. As stated earlier…ride one and then state your opinion…you may find that not only do you like them…you’ll also get a better work out than you get on your normal bike.
    One avid mtn biker…e or otherwise


      • Wow, that cunningham article is poor even by his low standards. How can someone so involved in the sport has such consistently poor insights?
        It’s often asserted without evidence that eMTB threatens trail access for non-assisted bikes. So far there is no objective reason to believe that, but the question really should be “so what?” Why should some forms of bicycles get access when others don’t? Public lands are for all to enjoy, and no one experienced and objective about eMTB’s can justify why one bike deserves access when others do not.
        The fastest, and objectively best, way to a proper and inevitable outcome is for MTB trail access to become directly tied to eMTB versions of the same. After all, there is no difference in any concern between the two types of bikes. Bikes should be judged by their function, not their parts.


      • I think it’s reasonable to define bikes with motors and bikes without motors differently. The bike industry and the government do that. With your logic we could treat all 2-wheeled vehicles the same – would you say that a human powered bike is the same as a 450cc dirt bike?
        One of the first articles I read after the DOI ruling last week on e-bikes actually suggested that if e-bikes were a concern on a particular trail, well then it was ok to ban all bikes there. Read Stienstra’s last paragraph here https://tinyurl.com/y4qzddut
        I just don’t want to lose access to any trails due to an e-bike that assists up to 28mph.


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