Don Kelley, 65, rides his Haibike electric mountain bike on a trail in Chatsworth, Calif. He rides at least three times a week near his Winnetka, Calif., home.<photo caption>
Michael Kelley has jumped on a mountain bike almost every weekend since off-road bicycles were invented in the late 1970s. This year Mr. Kelley, 71, purchased a new one powered by an electric motor, which pushes him uphill when he gets tired.
"It takes me so long to ride to the tops of the hills now that it wasn't that fun anymore," says Mr. Kelley, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. "I've been riding for decades and I hope to be riding for decades more."
Electric mountain bikes—commonly called e-mountain bikes in the cycling industry—are relatively new to the U.S. market. Manufacturers say the bikes will attract new participants and help older riders like Mr. Kelley stay in the sport.
The bikes, however, have ignited a dispute between manufacturers, mountain bike advocacy groups and riders. The argument hinges on whether the bikes should be allowed on the same trails as traditional mountain bikes.
The debate hasn't slowed early adopters from purchasing the bikes. According to Larry Pizzi, chairman of an industry group called the Electric Bicycle Committee, at least nine companies plan to sell e-mountain bikes in the U.S. in 2015 to meet demand, up from five in 2014.
"They make mountain biking accessible to people who don't want to work hard or can't work hard," says Mr. Pizzi, who also sells e-bikes through his company, Currie Technologies. "It's a huge opportunity to get more people on mountain bikes."
E-mountain bikes carry a hefty sticker price. Felt Bicycles' Lebowske model retails for around $5,800, while Haibike's Xduro line ranges from $4,000 to $9,500.
Whether the bikes crack into cycling's mainstream depends on trail access. In many states, the bikes aren't permitted on many trails because they are considered motorized vehicles, similar to motorcycles.
The bikes have yet to win the support of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, mountain biking's lobbying group, which has persuaded land managers such as the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to allow traditional mountain bikes on trails.
Steve Hall, a BLM spokesman, says the agency views e-bikes as motorized vehicles, so they are prohibited from trails designated for foot traffic, horses or mountain bikes.
"If there is significant public interest, the BLM could consider changing the designation," he says. "It's safe to say the consensus in the recreational community right now is that what we regard as mountain bikes don't have motors."
The mountain biking association also has regularly battled with the Sierra Club and other hiking advocacy groups that want to keep mountain bikes off trails. Many land managers now use the distinction "motorized" and "nonmotorized" to regulate trails.
Association representatives recently said the group wouldn't lobby land managers on behalf of e-mountain bike manufacturers or riders. "We remain true to the position that mountain biking is a human-powered and nonmotorized sport," says Mike Van Abel, president of the association.
Electric bicycles have been popular in Asia and Europe for decades. U.S. distributors have advertised e-bikes as environmentally conscious commuter vehicles since in the mid-1990s. Fueled by heavy lead-acid batteries, earlier e-bikes often weighed more than 50 pounds and suffered from a lack of power.
Recent advancements in lithium-ion batteries have trimmed weight and new pedal-assisted motors have added oomph to the bikes. European manufacturers began producing e-bikes four years ago that used strong motors, fat tires and shock-absorbing suspension. Unlike their utilitarian predecessors, these e-mountain bikes were designed specifically for recreation, not commuting.
The Haibike, from Germany's Winora Group, was one of the first e-mountain bikes to hit the market, in 2010. They reached the U.S. in 2014.
Susanne Puello, the company's chief executive, says some manufacturers laughed at the concept. Elderly riders were first to buy e-mountain bikes, she says, but they quickly attracted younger buyers.
"We saw right away there was a huge interest from cyclists, so you really can't make fun of it," Ms. Puello says. Sales of e-mountain bikes generate 40% of the Winora Group's total annual revenues of $256 million.
It's no surprise that U.S. distributors see an opportunity to jump-start flat bicycle sales, which have vacillated between $5.8 billion and $6.1 million since 2005, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
Lifelong motorcycle rider Don Kelley, a general contractor in Winnetka, Calif., who isn't related to Michael Kelley, says the e-mountain bikes hooked him on mountain biking. He disputes the argument that e-mountain bikes are similar to motorcycles. "People think you hit the gas and the bike just takes off and that's not even close," he says. "It assists you when you pedal. It slowly picks up speed."
Still, opponents remain concerned about everything from trail damage to safety. "There are trails for ATVs and motorcycles that would be very appropriate for e-bikes," says Emil Walcek, a 65-year-old advertising executive who mountain bikes near Atlanta. "I suspect with the additional power, e-bikes will have a greater impact on the trails."
The trail-use debate has kept some manufacturers from jumping on the e-mountain bike bandwagon.Giant Bicycles, one of the world's largest bike manufacturers, sells an e-mountain bike in Europe but hasn't brought the product to the U.S. Andrew Juskaitis, senior product marketing manager for Giant, says he will do whatever he can to keep the bike away from U.S. riders.
"All you need is one rider to get busted riding an e-bike on a restricted trailand it will set off a maelstrom of anti-mountain biking sentiment," Mr. Juskaitis says. "It's going to create access issues that are already tenuous."
Mr. Pizzi of the Electric Bicycle Committee has proposed a compromise. At a recent IMBA meeting in Colorado, Mr. Pizzi presented a plan for discussing e-mountain bikes with land managers. Under the plan, bikes powered by pedal-assist motors that travel no faster than 20 miles an hour would have the same trail access as traditional mountain bikes.
Michael Kelley also attended the IMBA meeting to promote the bicycles. Mr. Kelley helped found the group, served as an original board member in 1988 and still works as a local policy advocate in Northern California. He admits he is in the minority on e-mountain bikes, but believes age could persuade others to change their views.
"I'm not in favor of restricting mountain biking to a small demographic of limited age range," Mr. Kelley says. "If explored prudently, I think these bikes could expand our population."
Could e-MTBs damage trail access for all mountain bikers? Suppliers need to take care.
It’s been apparent for some time that Eurobike could knock out the “uro” in its name and rebrand as Ebike. The number of electric bikes in Friedrichshafen would certainly allow the Messe to organise a standalone “pedelec” show. Eurobike started as a mountain bike expo, and adding motors to MTBs has created a product category that’s highly lucrative – some parts of the European bicycle business are making an awful lot of money out of e-MTBs. It’s not a category that’s impacted in the UK yet. Sales of any electric bikes remain small beer compared to sales of non-electric bikes but here’s a prediction: e-MTBs have the potential to do a great deal of damage to mountain biking as a whole.
Let me get something straight – in this column I’m talking about electric mountain bikes not electric bikes used for transportation. Many e-bikes are perfect for some consumers, and the biggest thing holding them back in the UK (apart from the price) is not demand per se but infrastructure. Countries with lots of separated cycling infrastructure – such as the Netherlands and Germany – have very strong markets for e-bikes. Power-assisted bicycles can bring many new people into cycling or, just as likely, attract back those who felt cycling was no longer for them. The worries I’ll expound on here do not concern cycle-to-work e-bikes or those used on asphalt recreational trails.
Electric mountain bikes are a whole different kettle of coconuts. They currently have access to off-road trails that are meant to be used by non-motorised users.Many of the e-MTBs on display at Eurobike were powerful beasties, motorbikes in all but name.(Fat bikes were everywhere at Eurobike, too, and, of course, there were electric fat bikes as well. Next year at the show we’ll probably see a folding electric fat bike.)
Years of diligent land management diplomacy, by organisations such as IMBA, could be wiped out by overnight by a few twats on e-MTBs. In Germany, epicentre of e-mountain biking, hikers complain of being spooked by mountain bikers riding uphill, fast, on heavy DH machines. They also complain about mountain bikers on XC machines but at least XC MTBs are human powered.
Perhaps Germany has enough mountain trails to please everybody, but in countries where trail access for cyclists is more fragile, the appearance of motor-powered mountain bikes could lead to blanket bans for all bicycles, electrified or not.
Mountain bike magazines will come under increasing pressure, from publishers and consumers, to increase coverage of the e-MTB sector and it’s likely we’ll see editorial rifts appearing as “traditionalist” human-powered stalwarts kick back against commercial pressures to give more editorial space to batteries and the like. Such rifts are already appearing. In America, veteran editor Jimmy “Mac” McIlvain resigned his long-time editor’s post at Mountain Bike Action due to his publisher’s insistence that more space had to be allocated to e-MTBs. (On his Facebook age Jimmy Mac wrote “The publisher is expanding the magazine’s coverage to motorized mountain bikes and I just can't go along with his logic. Mountain biking is a human-powered activity.”
My beef with e-MTBs isn’t just their speed – if it was I’d also fret about bans for whippet mountain bikers, and on descents, let’s face it, e-MTBs won’t go quicker than DH machines – it’s the possibility they will sow land-management confusion. E-MTBs will be conflated with MTBs. Down the (off) road this could lead to access restrictions for all MTBs.Suppliers with shed-loads of e-MTBs to sell will no doubt dismiss my concerns but, at the very least, I hope they will be careful how they market these machines.
When the next stealth wave of silent E-Mountain Bikes takes wheelhold inside our forests -- does anyone really believe any of the above concerns will matter anymore? Our politicians and public land managers sold out to the mountain bikers long ago, when they handed the "keys to the forest" to the mountain bikers (NSMBA, etc.) It won't stop because E-Mountain Bike advocates insist on inclusion on and off the trails. It will only get worse... Pure insanity.
Plus, the original renegade mountain bikers are getting older...