E-bike debate rages across Colorado, splitting communities

An e-bike meet up group takes the Santa Fe Trail to Palmer Lake. Photo Credit: Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

As part of her decision-making to allow electric bikes on trails in Jefferson County, Mary Ann Bonnell would sit at home reading survey responses.

“There were a lot of late nights screaming at pieces of paper,” she says.

They made her think of a webinar she viewed. An advocate from Europe, where the charged-up wheels are commonplace, had spoken on differing attitudes he observed in the United States.

Now they were tangible for Bonnell.

“In America, there’s this whole, ‘I earned it, I am getting my Strava times and all this by sheer me, and how dare you come in and use an e-bike to get the same time as me that I’ve earned, or how dare you get the same access as me.’

“It’s sort of that mentality that I saw in writing. The contents just made me feel icky.”

Ego may or may not be relevant to the fervor rising around Colorado, rising with the wave of electric motor boosts that purists see as cheats to their sport.

To Kurt Schroeder, maintenance and operations manager for Colorado Springs parks, it’s not a wave. “It’s a tsunami,” he says.

And to Dave Wiens, the angst isn’t about ego.

“We don’t look at that at all,” says the racing legend and executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association. “We’re concerned about access to trails, and that’s where it comes from.”

IMBA recently updated its official stance. Class 1 e-bikes — defined as “low-speed, pedal-assisted” with the motor stopping at 20 mph — could be allowed “as long as access is not lost or impeded for traditional mountain bikes,” the association decided.

“That’s our deal-killer right there,” Wiens emphasizes.


Colorado lawmakers defined three classes of e-bikes in 2017:

Class 1: Electric motor powers when pedaling, stopping at 20 mph

Class 2: Motor powers without pedaling, stopping at 20 mph

Class 3: Power provided up to 28 mph

Loss of access fears

The worry is shared in Colorado Springs. Here, e-bikes are confined to paved commuter paths. But with a change, cyclists foresee a dangerous free-for-all in the hills, where etiquette is ignored for uphill joyrides and where rage festers against all bikes.

Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates President Cory Sutela is like many: happy for e-bikes commuting, not for them traveling the backcountry.

“We believe that unregulated e-bikes on mountain bike trails will lead to a loss of access for mountain bikes,” he says.

Bonnell found access to be the root of some fears in her sociological review. Back in the ’70s and ’80s, when mountain bikes were widely deemed nuisances, riders battled for the freedom they have today.

“The gen 1 riders remember when they weren’t allowed on trails,” Bonnell says. “So they worry about another visitor group coming in and reawakening that urge to ban bikes. That comes from a very real place.”

But Bonnell, a Jefferson County parks ranger, reports so far so good in the first year of Class 1 e-bikes being allowed on the local trails. No noticeable increase in conflicts. No accounts of e-bikers getting themselves stranded far afield, as opponents suspected would happen.

In 2018, Boulder County Parks and Open Space took cues and launched a similar review. With the rate of cycling incidents high in the foothills, e-bikes were tried on the plains’ wide paths.

“What we found, perhaps counterintuitively, was e-bike speeds are not greater than conventional bikes in most cases,” says program manager Tina Nielsen.

While pointing to a “massive caveat” in the small sample size of 12, she provided data showing average speeds of 13.8 mph for e-bikes, 14.5 mph for conventional bikes. While a conventional rider was clocked at 26 mph, rangers recorded the fastest e-bike at 17 mph.

Boulder County commissioners this month will decide on allowing Class 1 and Class 2 (powered up to 20 mph without pedaling) e-bikes on those plains trails. That will be Nielsen’s recommendation, despite a 57% majority of survey respondents opposed to the move.

The resistance stems from general “bike hate,” Nielsen says. “There’s a lot of anxiety about bikes. It’s not just e-bikes.”

She adds: “It takes a while for things to shake out, and over time, I think people are gonna find that e-bikes, they’re just bikes.”

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Debate spreads

That’s a view fiercely opposed in pedaling circles.

“There is a clean line you can draw between having a motor and not having a motor,” Sutela says. “Once you start saying e-bikes are just the same as bikes, there is no way to effectively regulate that.”

Such is the heart of debates raging in wilds beyond cities.

In August, Interior Secretary David Bernhardt proclaimed “e-bikes shall be allowed where other types of bicycles are allowed” on Bureau of Land Management and national park lands. That shifted agencies’ previous treatment of e-bikes as motorized vehicles.

The order incited outrage, with the Wilderness Society penning a letter signed by dozens of other conservation and recreation groups. E-bikes would “forever change the backcountry experience,” the letter read, and “send agencies down a slippery slope toward allowing further motorization of trails.”

While in national parks the ruling mostly meant e-bikes joining traffic on roads, stakeholders have been meeting with BLM officers to determine the fate of nonmotorized singletrack they deem threatened.

That includes Scott Winans, president of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association, which comprises five chapters dedicated to trail networks across the Western Slope.

“We question whether or not the current motorized and nonmotorized designation in the federal system is really up to the task of managing what I think of as a hybrid sort of product or vehicle,” Winans says.

He’s aware of an IMBA-led study in Oregon that found soil displacement by e-bikes and traditional bikes to be “not significantly different.” He’s aware of findings in Jefferson County.

But both have “a very limited scope,” Winans says, and “for many considerations, can’t be taken to clearly mean these types of machines have the same impact in all cases.”

Discussions should happen at local levels, he says. And discussions don’t seem to be going away, not with e-bikes becoming a potent market force.

In cycling’s $5.9 billion U.S. industry, they make up the most growth by far, according to NPD Group. Researchers reported e-bike sales at $77.1 million in 2017, up 91% from the previous year. For mountain bikes, the increase was 3%.

And leading e-bike companies have determined Colorado to be an ideal home. QuietKat has made its manufacturing base in Eagle, for example, and, in September, Italian builder Fantic moved its North American headquarters to Denver.

Cost (QuietKat’s all-terrain models exceed $4,300) seems to be a barrier to greater growth, says an email from Nathan Fey, director of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Industry office.

“(A)s is the uncertainty about where e-bikes are allowed,” he writes.

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‘They’re there’

Recently in the Springs, Mark Smith was pleased to get the city’s OK to offer e-bike tours on Garden of the Gods dirt opened to other bikes. It was a new line of business sought by his shop on the west side, Amp’d Adventures.

Schroeder, with city parks, says the tours are “a rudimentary effort” to scope out the possibility of e-bikes on other trails. “Just to give us a little firsthand understanding if anything can be construed from it,” he says.

But Sutela calls it a “meaningless” effort — paling in comparison with other Front Range programs that compiled several data from several sites where guides were not a factor.

It’s true, Smith says: The study at the Garden “is extremely limited. I don’t know how scientific you can be.”

But like his industry counterparts, Smith longs for e-bikes to be green-lit everywhere.

“My approach is, it’s all gonna change,” he says. “I don’t think there are any questions in my mind that people are going to come to the conclusion that, no, these aren’t the evil stepchild.”

City parks is taking notes from Jefferson and Boulder counties. With master planning for Austin Bluffs Open Space, people are being asked if they would support e-bikes there as part of an analysis.

To be sure, rogue e-bikes have come to the local hills. They can be easy to miss, the motor quiet and hiding between the frames, but “they’re there,” Schroeder says.

“And, you know, today it’s e-bikes and tomorrow there’s who knows what.”



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