eBikes: Motorized Vehicles or Power-Assisted Bicycles?

Dale Campbell, Bent Fork Co-Editor

With the acceptance of eBikes for commuters and recreational street riders, this question may or may not be relevant (a bit more on that at the end of this article).  However, if you’re a mountain biker, which many of us here in Colorado are, then the question will be one that may or may not potentially impact the future of mountain biking and trail use.  Here’s the background…
The article, found in the Thursday, 25 September print edition of the Wall Street Journal, is titled “The Fight to Bike Up the Mountain, Battery Included.” Commenting that electric mountain bikes are relatively new to the US, the article did note that the number of manufacturers providing E-mountain bikes (eMTB) in the US is expected to almost double, up from five in 2014 to at least nine in 2015.  However, the prices are still somewhat “astronomical” at this time.  For example, the Lebowske model from Felt Bicycles  has a list price of $5,800.  And the Xduro line of E-mountain bikes from Haibike  runs from $4,000 up to a hefty $9,500.
So, what is the debate about eMTBs?  The issue at hand is one of acceptance on the trails.  As noted in the Wall Street Journal article, many states actually prohibit eMTBs from trails, labeling these types of two wheeled transportation as motorized vehicles.  Without trail access, acceptance of these types of mountain bikes into the marketplace and into customer acceptance/adoption will not occur.
With eMTBs being labeled motorized vehicles, some think these bikes should be relegated to trails reserved for off-road motorcycles and ATVs.  But with the differences between Motorcycles/ATV and eMTBs in power and responsiveness, mixing these types of recreational vehicles on the same trails raises questions of safety and compatibility.  As quoted in the article, Don Kelly, a lifelong motorcycle rider notes that “People think you just hit the gas and the [eMountain] bike just takes off and that’s not even close.  It assists you when you pedal.  It slowly picks up speed.”
Regarding acceptance, there are two major groups that do not endorse eMTBs on the same trails as conventional mountain bikes.  The US Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the agency responsible for managing the lands where many trails are located, considers eMTBs as motorized vehicles.  With this designation, the eMountain Bikes are prohibited from trails designated for hikers, horses or mountain bikes.  Steve Hall, a BLM spokesman, does note that “If there is significant public interest, the BLM could consider changing the designation.”  Is this a case of what comes first?  Will increased public interest promote sales and thus BLM acceptance, or will the sales need to occur to lower prices and increase interest, thus prompting BLM to reconsider their designation of eMTB?
Another significant organization that has not yet positioned itself to support eMTBs on mountain biking trails is the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA).  Recent comments from IMBA representatives provide insight into IMBA’s position.  For the Wall Street Journal, Mike Van Abel, the Associations president, stated “We remain true to the position that mountain biking is a human-powered   and nonmotorized sport.”  The official position is stated in IMBA’s Motorized/Nonmotorized Recreation Policy Statement .   While the “official” IMBA position is as started, there have been several interesting blogs on this subject, including “Electric Mountain Bikes - Coming to a Trail Near You?”  and “Tech Wars: Electric Mountain Bikes Versus Strava” Take a look at these and consider where your perspective might be on this subject.
From an individual perspective, there are definitely benefits with eMTBs.  With the power assist, age and physical condition are not as critical to enjoying some of the more scenic views found on many mountain bike trails.  An additional benefit (or perhaps a liability?) is the ability to ride farther and longer.  And as one of the blogs referenced above considers the Pro’s for eMTBs, suggesting eMTBs have the “same impact as a bicycle” and such a bike “doesn't interfere with other riders.”  I’m sure that folks reading this article can probably suggest a few more Pro’s (as well as some Con’s, too).
So, what do you think?  Motorized or power assist?  Allow on established mountain bike trails or restrict to trails allowing motorcycles and ATVs?  From my perspective, you still have to pedal to engage help from the motor.  So, I think they are power-assisted.  If you want to express your thoughts on the subject, just let me know.  Your input is welcomed!
Let me now get back to the other question raised at the beginning of this article - “are bicycles with electric motors considered motorized vehicles or power-assisted bicycles for commuters and recreational street riders?”  In the US, this distinction has not generally been established yet.  However, the European Community has moved forward in defining their position and subsequent laws on this subject.  In Directive 2002/24/EC, the European Government has stated that eBikes with a motor- assist rated beyond 25 km/h and with a maximum design speed exceeding 25 km/h (15.5 Mph) are classified as conventional mopeds and thus fall under laws governing those types of motorized vehicles, which would then involve additional regulations in regards to licensing/registration, insurance, helmets, driver’s license requirements and age restrictions.  Will laws in the US follow this pattern?  Only time will tell….
Volume 7, Issue 5 - October 2014

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