From Whistler to Ymir to Europe, the debate over the electric mountain bike’s impeding impact on your favourite singletrack runs from love to loathe. KMC‘s Vince Hempsall digs up the dirt.
Sweet Sally’s a bitch. For a mountain bike trail, it has very few redeeming qualities – it’s a seven-kilometre skid track strewn with loose rock that parallels Sproule Creek near Nelson, BC, much of it at a back-busting nine percent gradient. The only reason anyone rides it is to access the scenic Vallelujah trail. But on this particular day I’m in love with Sally. I’m zooming up it on a Pedego Ridge Rider electric mountain bike and with each push of the pedal I’m jettisoned further and faster than I’ve ever ridden uphill before. The only thing marring my ride is the fact I shouldn’t be here.
Electric motors are one of the most hot button topics among mountain bikers right now. Whether it’s an add-on kit like the Bion-X system or purpose-built dual suspension rides like those offered by Cube (and soon every other major bike manufacturer), debate rages as to whether they belong on non-motorized trails like Sweet Sally.
To be clear, electric mountain bikes are not motorcycles: they’re defined as bicycles with electric motors that do not exceed 500 watts. And in places that have already enacted legislation for use in non-motorized recreational areas, such as California, they cannot have a throttle. Instead the motor engages when you churn your legs as a form of “pedal assist.” They’ve been around for years but only started catching on in 2010 with advancements in lithium-ion battery capacity.
Today electric mountain bikes can be found everywhere in Europe and they’re starting to be marketed in North America. It’s still early days though, which is why they cost over $4,000 and are as heavy as the burliest downhill rig. (The hard-tail Ridge Rider I tried weighs about 50 pounds, despite it’s tiny three-inch front fork.) The distance you can travel on one charge depends on such factors as how much you weigh and the effort you put into pedalling, but in my case I rode up a hill for 12 kilometres and the battery still read half full. All this is moot though if there’s nowhere to legally ride.
“It’s a totally different sport. Sure you have two wheels but you’re no longer human-powered. Imagine you’re struggling on this climb and then some electro douchebag who doesn’t have the same trail skills zips past like you’re standing still?”
– Rory Belter, Rossland
“A lot of people are worried electric mountain bikes are going to blur the lines with the whole motorized thing and then all bikes will be banned from the trails they fought so hard to access,’” says Ymir resident Tim Voth who’s been an avid cross-country biker since 1985. In September 2015 he purchased a full-suspension Cube Stereo e-bike and within two months had logged 900 kilometers, mostly on FSRs and singletrack. And in that time no-one he met on the trails even recognized he was on an e-bike.
He didn’t run into Rory Belter though. Rory’s a mechanic at Revolution Cycles in Rossland and says electric mountain biking is not at all like regular mountain biking. “It’s a totally different sport. Sure you have two wheels but you’re no longer human-powered. Imagine you’re struggling on this climb and then some electro douchebag who doesn’t have the same trail skills zips past like you’re standing still?” He goes on to say it’s a slippery slope and that nothing good can come from allowing any kind of motor, no matter how small, on local trails: motorbikes will inevitably follow and trails will erode faster.
During my ride on Sweet Sally I don’t think the e-bike caused any more erosion than a normal bicycle. The back tire never spun out (a difficult maneuver without a throttle) and once at the top I turned off the motor and rode down as if on a regular hard-tail. (The ride was relatively smooth and I didn’t notice the extra weight of the battery but my butt did register the lack of a rear shock.)
Later, when I spoke to Charles Arnold, the manager at Gerick Cycle and Ski in Nelson, he offered a more political view of the debate. “Electric mountain bikes could open up the sport to older people or those who’ve been injured and the more people there are in the cycling club, the more power we have and the more money we can go after to make more trails.”
Obviously manufacturers are proponents as it opens up a new category but Mike Clyde, owner of Nelson-based Pedego Electric Bikes Canada offers a unique view because his company specializes in commuter e-bikes rather than mountain bikes. Granted, he does sell the Ridge Rider, but I can speak from experience that it’s Mickey Mouse by Kootenay standards and not suitable for long-term use on local trails.
“I understand the resistance because I too ride a downhill mountain bike but I think people’s fears are overblown,” Mike says, adding that banning them won’t work and policing the trails will require too many resources. Instead, he recommends educating users about etiquette and proper usage. For example, don’t blast past someone on the uptrack screaming, “On your left!”
Distributors such as Mike, as well as riders and retailers are watching with interest what Whistler plans to do about electric mountain bikes. Currently they’re banned from cross-country trails in town but a pilot project has maintenance crews riding electric Cube bikes. “They’re less expensive than ATVs and they replace the use of the truck,” says Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. Her council is looking at such factors as trail impact, accidents (none so far) and conflicts that arise before deciding whether to allow them permanently.
Until then, the debate goes on. But in my opinion, if it requires pedalling, it isn’t motorized. And the fact is, an e-bike made riding Sweet Sally fun – so they can’t be all that bad.
For a German rider’s opinion about electric mountain bikes and the proper etiquette for riding one, check out the “Uphill Flow II” video: