One hot topic in the Colorado outdoor recreation community is the debate of whether or not an E-bike should be allowed on mountain biking trails around the state. Let’s take a look at what E-bikes are, as well as why some think these vehicles should be allowed on the trails and others think they shouldn’t.

What’s a E-Bike?

Simply put, an E-bike is a bicycle that’s powered or assisted by an electronic motor. They’ve been around for years, but only recently have e-bikes gained public notoriety in the world of outdoor recreation. As technology has evolved, the bikes have become cheaper, more efficient, and more varied in design – three factors that have attributed to their recent boom in popularity among the general public.

While some E-bikes have a feature that allows the bicycle to move while powered solely by the electronic motor, the motor is generally advertised as an assistance tool, easing the higher level of energy that would typically be spent if the bike were to rely only on legs pushing pedals to move.

A few key differences to note between e-bikes and standard bicycles include:

  • Many e-bikes are quite heavy, making them difficult to operate with no use of the motor.
  • The weight of the E-bike may also impact the bike’s ability to slow down or stop in certain situations.
  • E-bikes are generally very quiet, even when operating at a high speed.
  • Due to regulations, e-bikes travel by motor at a speed under 25 miles per hour.
  • E-bikes vary in design, with some acting more like a road bike, while others can tackle off-road trails.

A Stage for Debate

Much of the debate about e-bikes seems to revolve around determining whether or not this vehicle should be considered a bicycle or a type of motorbike. While the e-bike can be operated and controlled by pedal like the standard bicycle, it’s got a motor like a motorbike. Granted, the average motorbike wouldn’t have a human-powered option, and it would probably be used for different tasks than the standard bicycle, especially when it comes to outdoor recreation.

By definition, a bicycle is “a vehicle with two wheels tandem, handlebars for steering, a saddle seat, and pedals by which it is propelled,” while a motorbike is described as a small motorcycle, or an “automotive vehicle with two in-line wheels.”

And thus, the grey area is created. An e-bike can be propelled by pedals and many (but not all) can be automotive, or completely self-propelled. That being said, the e-bike can also be operated without the use of the motor.

To some, it’s important to determine where the e-bike falls as this might allow the established set of rules to govern the presence of this new vehicle on the trail. But then again, perhaps an entirely new set of rules needs to be formed to address this creation.

The Argument for E-Bikes on Trails

One major point of support for allowing e-bikes on trails is the accessibility factor. E-bikes allow people to cover long distances quickly and efficiently, opening up new areas for outdoor recreation, while also allowing others to access outdoor recreation that may have previously been limited for them by physical factors. For example, while many might not be able to tackle 5 miles of uphill mountain biking on the standard set-up, they may be able to complete the trail with the pedal-assistance of an e-bike. This is a popular pro-e-bike argument among the older demographic in the biking community, as e-bikes may be an option that allows this group to keep biking for more years despite injuries and fatigue that come with old age.

Others argue that the e-bike can be a great training tool for bikers, whether they’re hitting the trails after a long off-season or looking to test out their abilities on new terrain. Because the e-bike has a motor, it allows bikers to push themselves past their limits, while still having a crutch to lean on if they get into trouble.

The Argument Against E-Bikes on Trails

Others argue that e-bikes should not be allowed on the trail because this may open the door to a variety of issues including safety, trail maintenance, and disrupting bike culture.

Because e-bikes are often heavy, they can be difficult to maneuver in tight spaces. This could prove to be quite problematic on crowded trails where rough terrain is present. Coupled with the speed capabilities of an e-bike, and you’ve got potential for major safety issues.

There’s also the question of trail maintenance. Because e-bikes are heavier and faster than normal bicycles, an e-bike is likely to cause more trail erosion, potentially leading to increased costs associated with trail maintenance.

Another argument that often gets brought up against the e-bike is that it could disrupt biking culture. By making the difficult trails more accessible, some worry that their own accomplishments in biking may be overshadowed. The question of “does e-biking really count as biking?” seems to get brought up frequently in my own mountain-biking circles, and I’m sure that mindset isn’t one that’s restricted to Colorado Springs.

A Possible Solution

Here’s my opinion, and it’s just that, an opinion.

Having ridden an e-bike a few times, I’m always shocked by two things – how much they’re able to do and how unnatural riding one feels in relation to what I’m used to – my 29er hardtail mountain bike.

To get one thing straight, these things have some power. They’re able to charge up hills with ease, and with the right tire set-up, can cruise over a variety of hazards that would typically pose problems for someone on the standard bike.

However, with that speed comes a lot of power and a lot of potential for a bad accident. Because the bikes tend to be heavy (or at least the models accessible to most), they tend to be a bit clumsy, making fine tuning of power, direction, and speed a bit uncontrollable.

To me, allowing e-bikes on the trail or not isn’t a black and white issue. While some single-track trails might be able to handle the average e-bike rider, others will simply be too dangerous, especially those with limited visibility and two-way traffic. It seems like the reasonable thing to do is to have an expert determine which trails should remain solely human-powered, which trails should remain motorized, and which trails can handle hybrid options like the e-bike. Currently, trail designations are, for the most part, arranged by either motorized or non-motorized when it comes to bicycles, with no in-between.

The Final Note

There are two clear sides in the argument of whether or not e-bikes should be allowed on the trail. On one hand, the e-bike can be a great way of making trails more accessible, while on the other hand, they can pose safety risks and threaten trail maintenance efforts. One thing is for sure, the need for cheap and efficient public transportation solutions isn’t going away soon, from the motorized scooters now found in many US cities to public bike systems allowing individuals to rent by the hour. Perhaps the most practical implementation of the e-bike is off of the dirt trail and on a paved on, but time will tell.

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