As an Olympian, World Cup racer, two-time national champ and winner of multiple mountain bike stage-races, Andreas Hestler is no slouch on knobby tires. He can race through roots and rocks faster than most, but when he jumped on an electric mountain bike he still saw the potential.
“They’re a lot of fun,” he says. “They open up a lot of possibilities and new kinds of riding and open the sport to people who wouldn’t ride otherwise.”
Hestler is not unbiased. He works for Rocky Mountain Bicycles, which launched a motorized version of its Altitude mountain bike this year. Hidden in the drop-tube of the bike is a small electric motor that’s integrated into the bike’s gear system. When the rider pedals, the motor kicks in about one horsepower of assistance, enough juice for any of us to keep up to someone like Hestler. (Most e-bikes max out at about 30 km/h.)
It adds distance for people without the time or inclination to build the stamina themselves. Which is why they’re selling. According to one retail tracking company, mountain e-bike sales in North America increased from $500,000 in 2015 to $2.5 million in 2017. Just about every major brand sells a mountain e-bike now. There are even e-bike categories at some races, and a dedicated magazine.
The problem is where to ride them. Even whether to allow them on paved bike paths has cities conflicted. When it comes to mountain bike trails, uncertainty paralyzes land managers and clubs as they fret over everything from increased traffic and corresponding trail impact to how to allow e-bikes without opening networks to electric dirt bikes.
A sure sign of the indecision comes from the International Mountain Bike Association Canada, the grand poobah of mountain bike advocacy.
“It’s a very challenging topic to have a consistent, country-wide recommendation for clubs,” says AJ Strawson, the group’s executive director. “What might make sense in one community might not in another.” He notes that everything from traffic, terrain type, drainage and weather and other factors come into play.
Generally, most trail networks consider e-bikes motorized, which makes them illegal on human-powered trails, though many jurisdictions are reviewing their status. The biggest issue with changing the rules, says Strawson, is liability, which generally rests with mountain bike clubs or land managers.
“Right now trail networks are designed to use distance as the filter, putting harder trails farther away or at the top of long climbs” he says. “Only the strongest, fittest and most skilled riders can get to them. E-bikes disrupt that system.”
Not all clubs think that will be a problem. Rob Sanders, general manager of the Mountain Bike Club of Kingston, one of Ontario’s largest clubs, says none of the 1,400 members have asked about e-bikes yet.
“Most people that mountain bike do it for the workout,” he says. “The guys who are going to buy these bikes are the ones that can barely get around our easiest loop right now. They’re going to give a group of people who couldn’t mountain bike otherwise a chance to get on the trail.”
On busy trail networks that’s enough reason to ban them. “Our trail builders are telling us they can’t keep up with maintaining the trails with the usage they already have,” says Strawson. “Adding another user group is not something they’re ready for.”
But, as motors shrink further it will become difficult to tell an e-bike from a normal one. Then there is the blurring lines between pedal-assist and throttled electric dirt bikes. Where to draw the line between what’s allowed and what’s not, how to distinguish between the two and then how to enforce any rules is only going to get harder.
In some ways the tables have turned. For three decades mountain biking fought for legitimacy with other user groups and land managers. Now mountain biking is one of the most popular sports in the woods. Mountain bikers learned to share the trails before and they will figure it out again, says Hestler. It will just take time.
“The problem,” he says, “is that everything is changing and growing so fast in this sport it’s getting harder and harder to keep up.”