Thursday, August 31, 2023

Should E-Bikes Be Allowed on Nature Trails?


A member emailed our bike club a photo of a trailhead sign banning e-bikes. This spawned a brief debate among our members about whether it’s reasonable to ban e-bikes, but not regular mountain bikes, from multi-use trails. In this post I provide my two cents … for free.

What is an e-bike?

Part of the problem here is that not all e-bikes do the same thing. The most subtle version is the illegal racing bike with a tiny motor hidden in it and I won’t go into that (other than to say I kinda want one). Among consumer products, there are three major types of e-bike, as described here. Class 1 helps out when the rider pedals, and can get the bike up to 20 mph. (This is the “pedal-assist” model called out in the photo above.) Then there’s the Class 2 that doesn’t even require you to pedal, and can also reach 20 mph. This is the kind that might have huge tires, and the rider is often just slumped over the thing, slack-jawed, languid, sometimes almost catatonic, his only input being the hand on the throttle. The final type, Class 3, doesn’t require pedaling unless you want to hit its top speed of 28 mph. And then there are the rogue companies putting out e-bikes that can go 55 mph if you snip a wire or otherwise disable their governor. So they’re basically motorcycles in disguise.

If a community wants to regulate e-bike use, the most practical way is across the board, even if the Class 1 might not be a particular menace.

What are e-bikes for?

Let me just say I love the concept of e-bikes. I’m not some purist who gets annoyed when some dude blows by me on the road, his cadence having nothing to do with his speed, like he’s just kind of floating along, pretending to exercise, like the person on the Stairmaster at the gym supporting all his weight on his hands. Who cares? At least he’s on a bike.

That said, I think the sweet spot for e-bikes is commuting. Sure, the world would be a better place if everybody were super fit and commuted everywhere by regular bicycle. (It would be Holland, basically.) But if somebody isn’t fit enough to ride to work in a reasonable amount of time, and/or just doesn’t want to show up red-faced and sweaty, and/or has a big hill that’s too much to handle after a long workday, and/or has cargo or a pet or a kid to carry … go for it! I’m not comparing this rider to a Tour de France racer; I’m comparing him or her to a car, which takes up too much space and wastes too much energy and somewhat endangers cyclists and pedestrians.

This isn’t to say I’d begrudge anybody for using an e-bike for exercise. Cycling is hard, and my favorite rides around here feature serious climbs. If I somehow lost half my fitness, and had to choose between riding on the totally flat Bay Trail on my current bike or continuing my beloved hill climbs on an e-bike, I guess I’d choose the latter (at least until I could somehow get my fitness back).

E-biking on trails? I’ll get to that in a minute. But first:

Whom are e-bikes for?

I’ve been Mr. Nice Guy so far but now I’m going to be less generous: e-bikes are not for the young. First of all, if a kid or teenager doesn’t have the energy to schlep himself or herself around on a regular bike, he or she isn’t being parented properly. Buying your kid an e-bike is just throwing in the towel on their poor fitness. It’s also, arguably, endangering your kid. Check out this article about the disturbing uptick in bad accidents involving teenagers who lack the skill to pilot an e-bike safely, and lack the sense to even try.

Safety is why allowing e-bikes on trails is problematic. I don’t have an issue with older folks taking up road cycling, though if they choose e-bikes they’d better be careful. (I wouldn’t want to tell them not to do it, since managing the risk is really their business. If they hit a car, it’s not like the driver is gonna get hurt.) I also have nothing against older folks taking up mountain biking—after all, as a high school mountain bike coach I actively recruit parents as assistant coaches. But these parents are not on e-bikes, and that keeps things safe. Given how rigorous it is to pedal up a steep dirt climb, new riders develop gradually, and their skill builds along with the range they can cover. This is all for the best. Older folks learning how to ride off-road on e-bikes is just a recipe for trouble, and the danger extends to other users of the trail, who don’t have two tons of steel protecting them.

Then you’ve got your ageing former bikers, who at some point put on fifty pounds and gave up the sport, and now want to drop $10K or so on a fancy e-MTB and pick up where they left off. I was on the backside of China Camp a couple years back and came upon one of these guys. The backside has some gnarly descents, but the climb getting to it hits pitches of over 20%, which normally keeps the novices, and the out-of-practice, from partaking. This (rather stout) dude had motored his way up there and found out the hard way how much his skills had atrophied since the last time he did this descent. His collarbone was clearly broken and he was being carried out by EMS.

What, and whom, are trails for?

Now let’s step back and come at this issue from the other direction: the purpose of nature trails. I love mountain biking, and I also love (well, like) hiking. There’s a fundamental difference, in my opinion, between road cycling on the one hand, and mountain biking or hiking on the other. On the road, you have to contend with cars, along with other aspects of humanity like buildings and of course the road itself. So even though it’s super fun, it’s not exactly communing with nature. Biking on a trail, I can enjoy more of a Grizzly Adams experience, and have a relief from the crush of humanity I normally have to tolerate. (Yes, I’m an introvert.) And when I’m hiking, free of the need to operate a machine, I suppose I’m even closer to this bucolic bliss. I don’t appreciate being spooked by a bicyclist whose sense of a safe passing speed may be radically different from mine, but fortunately this is a rare occurrence.

With all this in mind, as a mountain biker I do my very best to respect the hikers I encounter. I slow way down; I offer a greeting so I don’t startle anyone; I am gracious when a hiker doesn’t feel like acknowledging me. We MTB coaches teach our student athletes that they need to slow down enough that when they say hi, the hiker has the chance to say hi back. (This is a lot to ask of a teenager but we’re tenacious about it, and they generally behave.) With this as the model, I believe that mountain bikers deserve the privilege of sharing trails with hikers. That being said, I’m totally fine with some trails being for hikers only, and I’m stoked to have encountered a few trails specifically set aside for bikers. But not e-bikers, because of the…

Unique problems e-bikes present on trails

Since I started mountain biking in the early 1980s (when the sport was brand new), I have observed how tenuous the relationship can be between bikers and hikers. In the mid 1980s, I loved riding the Shanahan Ridge and Mesa trails in my hometown of Boulder, Colorado … until the city heard from too many angry hikers and closed every single trail to bikers, a ban they still uphold. (I attended the city council meeting where this was argued about, and—being an unprepared, clueless teenager—made an absolute ass of myself and was laughed at by the entire room, which is why I have so much character today.)

The debate about regular mountain bikes on trails will never end, which is why I think we need to be really, really careful when it comes to e-bikes. This technology presents several unique problems.

First of all, as I mentioned before, part of why regular mountain bikers do okay on trails is that they have to pay their dues, fitness-wise, before they have a lot of gnarly descents to contend with. By the time they’re passing hikers on a steep downhill, they’ve acquired the skill they need not to lose control and take somebody out. With an e-bike they’re going everywhere, ready or not.

Second, with increased speed comes extended range, which means more total encounters with hikers. I mean, if I could ride twice as fast on an e-bike (which I probably almost could), I’d go twice as far, and automatically pass a lot more people. And as careful as I try to be, I’m going to encounter some hikers, usually older people, who cannot abide mountain bikers in any form. Even on a regular mountain bike, with all the politeness I can muster, I can’t do right by some of these folks. I could dismount my bike, greet them kindly with a tip of my helmet, hand them a $100 bill and say, “I’m pretty sure you dropped this, even if you don’t remember doing so,” and then give them some homemade chocolate chip cookies and a hand-knit sweater for their dog, and they’d still scowl at me with a look that says, “Go back to your gutter, you filthy vermin.” Meanwhile, at the other end the spectrum, you’ll always have a few mountain bikers who are rude and/or incorrectly gauge the socially acceptable passing speed. If, due to a surge in e-bike popularity, the trails suddenly had twice the number of bikers going twice the distance, the number of pissed off hikers would surely increase, and as I said before, this d├ętente between hikers and bikers is already precarious. In a nutshell, I don’t want e-bikers tipping that balance and ruining the party for us regular bikers.

Third, e-bike motors are allowed to produce up to 750 watts, which is half-again more than Lance Armstrong could sustain for a single climb at the height of his dope-fueled career. This kind of power could surely enable an e-biker to spin the rear tire on climbs, not just half a pedal revolution at a time like I might accidentally do here and there, but more like a motorcycle can. They could totally peel out and some yahoos probably would. I suspect this could really damage a nature trail, which is not designed for such stuff. (And remember, not all e-bike manufacturers play by the rules, power-wise, to begin with.)

Finally, there’s the douchebag factor. Some e-bikers just wanna pretend they’re motorcyclists and will get all armored up and go treat the trail like it’s a motocross course. I was hiking at the Rockville Hills Regional Park, where e-bikes are disallowed, and this dork on an e-bike with a full face helmet and knee and elbow pads was riding with his buddies who were on regular bikes. He kept zipping on ahead and passing my wife and me, and then circling back to rejoin his friends, then passing us again. My impulse was to knock him to the ground and beat him about the head and shoulders with his bike, but it would have been too heavy given my spindly bike-racer arms. Lucky for him, I didn’t think of seizing his battery pack and flogging him with that. Granted, the prohibition against e-bikes hadn’t stopped him from riding there, but presumably the park rangers are licensed to kill and that dumbass is no longer bothering anybody.

What is to be done?

The majority of trails I encounter that allow mountain bikes also allow e-bikes, so far. It appears that the trail managers are either struggling to figure out how to regulate e-bikes, or are adopting a wait-and-see approach. As you have surely gathered by now, I’d favor something more assertive. Fire roads are fine, as there’s plenty of room for everyone, but any single-track trail that allows mountain bikes today should err on the side of caution and ban e-bikes initially, until they’ve figured out the best way to govern them. Anyone wanting to use an e-bike for exercise can go buy an (albeit sexist) Pinarello Nytro and pick on old school roadies like me, or do their shopping on an electric cargo bike. Leave the trails for nature lovers.

(At least, that’s my take, for now. I hope I’m more thoughtful than in my teenaged years, with that disastrous presentation at the Boulder city council meeting.)

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