Experienced trail builders
who work in secret can attest that there are three generations of users, each less respectful of the original builder’s intentions of how it should be used, and each less sensitive to the concept of secrecy which, in most cases, is essential to its continued existence. The first generation of users are directly related to the project. Perhaps they are diggers who lent a hand, or best friends of the builders, sworn to secrecy. First-gen users “get it.” They park away from the trail, stay quiet, sometimes carrying their bikes to the trailhead to mask the entrance point, and when they ride, they respect the line that the builders created. Once shared, however, there is no such thing as a secret.
When the original ten men and two women break their oaths and invite three of their most trusted friends to experience the “secret” trail, they create generation two. The second wave is schooled by gen-one about the tenuous relationship between local residents and land owners, so they respond with a greater degree of respect than they would give to a trail that “everyone” rides. They too, park off site and keep a low profile, but they arrive in groups and have beaten in a trail so they can ride to the new line. Gen two riders probably understand how much work it takes to make a trail and a few of them may have actually worked on one, but for the most part, they are accomplished shredders who are assumed to be trustworthy because they are part of the local scene, and therefore, deemed capable of not screwing things up. Generation-two keep no secrets, but they show respect.
Generation three are users, plain and simple. When the final wave of riders move in, the “secret” trail is referred to by name only and has been a popular post on Pinkbike, Facebook and Strava. Most gen-three riders have grown up in a world of readily accessible riding opportunities and have never experienced a land-access conflict. Those who have, probably cursed the inconvenience that one of their favorite trails was fenced off and simply drove to another location. Gen-three users park at the trailheads, shuttle regularly, arrive in groups, and treat the trail as if it were a public amenity. User-built ride-arounds ensure that mountain bikers of almost any skill level can enjoy it, and if the trail becomes popular enough, it begins to appear in publications and industry photo shoots. At this stage, there is an assumption among gen-three users that the trail has been around “forever” and probably always will be.
This opinion piece, however, is not about trail building. It is about electric mountain bikes and why there is a perception by powerful interests within the industry that they are good for the sport. If one considers mountain biking as a whole, and applies the trail user analogy, it can be argued that we are three generations in. The building period when early mountain bikers had to band together and fight for access, when mountain bikes were largely excluded from existing trails and were threatened to be banned from the back country altogether, has been largely forgotten.
Mountain bike access to public lands is considered a given in most of the world. Trail conflicts are local skirmishes that are most-often won by pro cycling lobbies who document “the larger landscape” - a string of success stories that stretch to the sport’s very origin - as proof that mountain bikers can coexist with other, sometimes conflicting, user groups. The common thread of respect, shared by gen-one and gen-two mountain bikers - that we once toiled to build a positive perception of our sport in a hostile social environment and that care should be taken to preserve the fruits of that labor - has long been severed. Our sport and the industry that supports it is all about generation three: a bold sense of entitlement, one which assumes that the natural world is a mountain bike playground.
Electric mountain bikes would have never flown when the crux of the land-access argument hinged upon the notion that we were human-powered users with the same rights to the back country as those who practiced other self-powered tech sports like skiers and kayakers. It would have been, “BOOM! End of discussion.” The only kind explanation that I can offer of why significant players in the mountain bike industry are touting electric mountain bikes as the next big thing, is that the decision makers responsible were either born yesterday, or were latecomers to mountain biking and don’t have a clue. I would hate to discover that marketing and management people, some of whom I have met and think highly of, have done extensive research and, in spite of the potential setbacks to trail access, have chosen electric mountain bikes as an opportunity to cash in on the sport. Yet, unfortunately, this seems to have been the case.
“So,” one may defend: “What trail access issues are you referring to? From what I can tell, the sport is growing in every country where it is popular, and new trails are being built every day. Electric bikes are simply another way to bring more non-cyclists into our sport. ”
Three triggers indicate that once bike-friendly land managers are under mounting pressure from internal sources, and externally from anti-bike groups, to curtail mountain bike trail access. The first is the rapidly growing unauthorized user-built trail movement, which was once largely relegated to remote areas, but now is rampant in more sensitive landscapes near urban centers. The second is user displacement from traditional, multi-use trail networks, primarily fueled by Strava warfare, where mountain bikers, intent upon busting out PRs and KOMs are intimidating non-cyclists from using the parks. The third is the fact that most ski areas have converted to bike parks in the summer months. Citing that because mountain bikers now have exclusive access to resources where they can ride at any speed and difficulty, land managers of nearby trail systems can now make a viable argument to ban bikes where their speed and operation is deemed incompatible with other users.
None of this has happened – yet – but any astute rider should be able to see the writing on the wall. The only reason that public and private land managers have not come down hard on mountain bikers already is that there are men and women in positions of power who were on that ground floor when mountain bikers grouped together to work alongside them – and who recall when organizations like IMBA went to bat for any administrator who could see things our way. These are the officials who vote pro-mountain bike behind closed doors. Under such rising pressure, however, our allies in high places are not going to find it easy to argue in favor of e-bikes on trails.
Behind mountaintop mining and overgrazing of livestock, motorized OHV sports are the most environmentally destructive elements that park land managers deal with. While the present argument for e-bikes is that they are “motor assisted” and thus not really an OHV, they are unregulated once they leave public roads. History shows that in every case, unregulated motorized vehicles quickly grow faster, more powerful and more capable. In their present form, personal experience shows that a Bosch-powered dual-suspension e-bike can shred on any mountain bike rider, anywhere on the mountain – and this is just the starting point for the genre. Straight-up, throttle-controlled electric-powered bikes are now readily available with six times the power of the best e-bikes. Presently, motorized bikes of any sort are illegal in the USA on trails designated for mountain bikes, hiking and equestrian use, and there are conflicting reports of whether they are legal off-road in Canada. Legal or not, all of them are now called “Electric Mountain Bikes” – and that is the poison dart which we, as a sport, will not be able to dodge.
Viewed from those outside the sport, a mountain bike is a mountain bike. Categories like downhill, cross-country, freestyle and enduro are not perceived by those who are either disinterested or opposed to their existence. I know this, because I have participated at public hearings and town hall meetings, more times than I would choose to recall, where the future of mountain bike access was being weighed by non-cyclists. We are all mountain bikers to them and we ride mountain bikes. When the day comes to ban electric mountain bikes as the latest upheaval to threaten the once-peaceful experience of enjoying a backcountry trail, we all will be lumped in with them. In the minds of anti-bike people, if one mountain biker can have a motor, it won’t be long before they all do. Logic and history supports them. Could you blame the park service for voting against mountain bike access in such a case? Help them help us, by removing any form of the word, “electric” from the term, “mountain bike.”
The moment will soon arrive when key land managers meet to determine if e-bikes should be banned from off-road use and from public trails. Sadly, some major bike companies will be there in-force, arguing in their favor – and their arguments will hinge upon the perception that they are electrically assisted mountain bikes, not motorized OHVs. I sincerely hope that there are enough riders in this, the third generation of mountain bike trail users, who understand and respect the efforts of those who helped found this sport and who have the courage to shout down electric mountain bike makers. The way I see it, mountain bikes are a form of human-powered locomotion with which to experience the wonders and the challenges of the natural world. Engines and motors have no place in that equation. Don't screw it up.