At this point, there's no getting around the fact that e-bikes are here to stay, especially in Europe. Nearly every brand, including industry behemoths like Specialized and Trek, have electric-assist mountain bikes in their lineup, and the advertising campaigns are in full swing, touting the benefits of riding a battery-powered bicycle.
Here at Pinkbike, there's been no shortage of internal debates and meetings attempting to figure out just how to address this elephant in the room. Can they be ignored? I wish that were the case, but I'm afraid that now that the Pandora's box has been opened, it's going to be really, really hard to close. I've aired my opinions on e-bikes before, but given Matt Wragg's recent op-ed it seems now is the time to dive a little deeper into the topic.
Yes, you can get airborne and sideways on an e-bike. But would a lighter, non-motorized bike be a better choice? I think so. Photo: Harookz.
Let's start by looking at a few of the arguments that are commonly used to promote e-bikes.
You Can Get More Done In the Same Amount of Time
It's true; an e-bike allows you fast forward to the best part of any ride, speeding up the climbs and getting you to the descent faster than even the world's best riders could on their own power. And yes, that speed boost makes it possible to cover more ground in a shorter amount of time. But to what end? Are our lives so busy, our attention spans so short, that we can't take the time to appreciate the pleasure and the pain that a long ride can bring? Modern mountain bikes have evolved into incredibly light and efficient machines – why weigh them down again with a motor and a massive battery?
It's Going to Help Grow the Sport
I'm not at all sold on the argument that e-bikes will grow the sport of mountain biking. Honestly, how many riders will purchase an e-bike, and then somewhere down the line decide, “You know what? I wish I didn't have a motor so these hills would feel harder.”
Matt Wragg mentioned it in his article, but if you're going to shell out thousands of dollars for a bike that makes going uphill easier, why would you purchase the equivalent of an off-road moped? Why not go all-in and purchase a dirt bike? Especially when you consider that in the United States, e-bikes are prohibited from many areas where 'regular' bikes are allowed, relegating them to the same spots populated by dirt bikes and ATVs. I don't know about you, but I'd feel pretty silly showing up to a trailhead with a tiny electric motor on my bike when I could have a 450cc engine between my legs and a throttle to twist. Rather than being a way to get riders into mountain biking, I see it e-bikes as being more likely to convince riders to pick up a dirt bike instead.
The best way to help mountain biking grow? Take the R&D money being dumped into electric motors and spend it on getting more kids on bikes. Invest in middle and high school race leagues. Focus on lowering the cost of entry into the sport, and on producing well-equipped, reliable mountain bikes that don't cost an arm and a leg. It may not have the immediate return on investment, but I'm positive it will be worth it in the long run.
They're Fun. How Can You Be Against Fun?
Of course e-bikes are fun. Why wouldn't they be? I'm sure ripping across a pristine snow-covered meadow in a Wilderness area aboard a snowmobile is a blast too, but that doesn't mean I need to endorse it. It's the baggage that e-bikes bring that I'm opposed to, the fact that they can't be easily maintained out on the trail, the looming access issues, not to mention the fact that you need to charge your bicycle after every ride, or risk being stranded miles from a home with a 50-pound hunk of metal and plastic that's a massive chore to pedal.
Cruising through the forest on a non-motorized machine. Photo: Paris Gore.
Chasing the Dollar
Part of the reason that e-bikes leave a sour taste in my mouth is the way that they're being marketed, and how many companies are scrambling to add them to their lineup with little regard to the possible repercussions. Mountain bike sales haven't exactly skyrocketed in recent years, and the end of the wheel-size war has caused bike companies to look for other avenues to explore in search of the almighty dollar.
I recognize how difficult it is to survive in the bike industry, but it pains me to see how quickly companies are willing to sell out and start producing e-bikes. “If we don't do it someone else will,” is the refrain I've heard multiple times from smaller bike brands who are working on e-bike projects, hoping to avoid missing out on 'the next big thing.' Why not look to the running industry for inspiration? It's one of the simplest sports in existence, and there's no shortage of suffering when you lace up a pair of running shoes, but you don't see companies suddenly jumping ship to start producing rollerblades.
Last season, a large European brand named after a geometric shape provided the photographers covering the Enduro World Series with e-bikes in order to help them cover the distance between stages more quickly. On the surface, it seems like a generous offer, but you can't tell me they weren't banking on the fact that photos of those bikes would show up in the race reports. The scheme worked, and if you look at the coverage of the course recon days, you'll see plenty of e-bikes in action. It's a Trojan horse style of campaign, similar to what Specialized did with their elite athletes, sending them Turbo Levos to try, 'no strings attached.' In many cases the athletes or photographers weren't under any explicit obligation to do anything with the bikes, but don't you think that if the source of your income, someone that can choose not to renew your contract at the end of a season, sent you an e-bike, you'd figure out a way to include it in a cheeky Instagram post or two? I sure think so.
The headlong charge by the industry to produce e-bikes reminds me of the years that ski companies started producing snowblades, those super-short skis that were meant to keep skiers from defecting to the rapidly growing snowboard scene. In case you missed it, it didn't work, and snowblades ended up becoming the Razor scooters of the ski world.
There are plenty of pros who have accepted e-bikes, the legendary Nico Vouilloz included.
But luckily Sam Hill hasn't been spotted on one... at least not yet.
This is the big one, the most important aspect of the whole e-bike debate in North America, particularly the United States. Across the US there are thousands of miles of trails that are currently designated as being for “non-motorized vehicles only.” In many locations, getting the approval to ride mountain bikes in these areas took years of negotiations by dedicated cyclists, and even after getting the green light that access often remains tenuous.
What happens when an e-bike rider who's decided that the rules don't apply to them has a run-in with an elderly hiker while racing up
the trail? In our litigious society, it's easy to envision a land manager deciding to ban bikes of any kind rather than trying to spot which bike has a motor and which one doesn't. Once access is revoked it will take another endless round of mind-numbing meetings to get it restored again, if at all. There's also the fact that as e-bikes become more common, so too will the hop-up kits that allow riders to bypass the speed limit that's imposed on them by the manufacturer, increasing the risk that incidents will occur between different user groups - just imagine how a horse would react if a nearly silent two-wheeled vehicle came speeding up the trail without warning.
As far as trail wear and goes, I don't see any reason why e-bikes would cause any more damage than a regular bike, except for one thing - remember the point about being able to do more laps in the same amount of time? Well, that's double or triple the amount of use on that particular trail, which means that maintenance is going to be required sooner than it would have had only non-motorized bikes been used. It's not as strong of a sticking point as the potential for user conflicts and losing trail access altogether, but it's something to bear in mind nonetheless. What's Next?
With all that being said, what does the future of e-bikes look like? Well, I can say that it's getting more and more difficult to name a company that's not producing or planning on producing an e-bike – it doesn't look like they're going to disappear any time soon.
In an ideal world, I'd like to see e-biking positioned as an entirely different sport, rather than being lumped in with mountain biking, at least as far as media coverage goes. Yes, traditional and e-mountain biking are similar, but you don't see Skiing magazine covering the latest snowboard technology, do you? That may be the wishful thinking of a Luddite whose idea of a mountain bike is one that's fully human powered, but I'd like to keep the motorized and the non-motorized aspects of the sport separated as long as possible.
Overall, I don't want to see the sport that I've been fully immersed in for the last two decades diluted, watered down and ultimately cast aside by companies searching for another way to make money as quickly and easily as possible. Mountain bikes are human powered, and I'd like to see it stay that way. Here's hoping.Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Pinkbike.com. For an alternate take on this contentious topic, you can read Matt Wragg's opinion here.