Three e-bikers, right, share a path in Grand Teton National Park with a rider on a conventional bicycle. (Angus M. Thuermer, Jr./WyoFile)

The first time I saw an electric bike — better known as an e-bike — I was struggling up a hill. Suddenly, a silver-haired man came whizzing by in regular city clothes. I felt a wave of envy as he left me in the dust.

Opinion

That was probably five years ago, and since then e-bike use has exploded. In 2020, e-bike sales in the United States for just the month of June totaled roughly $90 million, up 190% from the previous June. 

It’s hard to remember, but regular mountain bikes didn’t become commercially available until the 1980s, and when the early adopters hit trails previously used only by hikers and horseback riders, conflicts happened fast.

People claimed the bikes increased erosion. They worried about collisions and scaring horses. They theorized that mountain bikes would frighten wildlife. Today, those same arguments are being used against electric mountain bikes.

Once again, the controversy seems to stem from the fear of change, perhaps some arrogance and maybe a little jealousy. After all, since I suffered to get to the top of the climb on my own power, shouldn’t you?

In 2017, the International Mountain Bike Association, which had said that e-bikes should be considered motorized vehicles, softened its stance. Instead, it proposed that local land managers and user groups should determine — on a case-by-case basis — whether to allow e-bikes on naturally surfaced trails. Many members canceled their memberships. Some comments were harsh.

One wrote, “If you’re too old to still ride the trails you love, do as many beforehand, reminisce about the good old days and encourage the young. Don’t throw them and our public land under the bus.” That kind of attitude does not bode well for land managers to find an easy compromise.

So, what are the impacts of electric mountain bikes? Do they harm trails, or cause more accidents? 

In 2015, IMBA studied the environmental impacts of mountain bikes, both electric and self-propelled, and found no appreciable differences between the two in terms of soil displacement on trails. Overall, bike impacts were similar to the impacts of hikers. 

Horses, motorcycles and off-road vehicles do much more damage to trails. 

The whole thing reminds me — a skier — of the controversy that erupted after snowboards appeared at ski resorts.

As for problems caused by speed, traffic studies show that accidents and their severity escalate as differences in speed increase. But do electrified bikes go that much faster than traditional bikes? 

To find out, Tahoe National Forest measured the top speeds reached by intermediate and advanced riders using both kinds of bikes. Differences on the downhills were small. On uphills, traditional bikers averaged 5-8 miles per hour, while electric mountain bikes traveled 8-13 miles per hour. This was a difference, but not enough of a difference to cause more accidents, especially if bikers alert others to their presence and ride in control.

Rachel Fussell, program manager of the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, says that more than a battery boost, speed on trails reflects rider skill as well as trail design. She believes all users observing proper trail etiquette would avert most potential conflicts. 

Celeste Young has been a biker all her life and now coaches mountain biking. Her fleet of bicycles has recently grown to include an electric mountain bike. 

“The most negative thing I’ve heard is, ‘Oh, you’re cheating,’” she says. “But it’s just another way to be out there. You get an extra boost going up these really hard trails, so it makes a challenging trail fun, rather than demoralizing.”

It’s a puzzling notion that someone accused her of cheating. It would be one thing if you secretly put a motor in your bike during a race, but when it’s an amateur rider going out for fun and exercise, how is having an electronic boost cheating? 

The whole thing reminds me — a skier — of the controversy that erupted after snowboards appeared at ski resorts. They were new and fast, and their rhythm on the slope was different from skiers. 

We didn’t like them, and I doubt they liked us. But we’ve worked it out. Now, public land managers face the knotty problem of how much access to allow e-bikes, and where, or whether to segregate them to their own trails. Welcome to the crowded West.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Molly Absolon

Molly Absolon is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. She writes in Wyoming.

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  1. I like e-bikes and pedal-only bikes, own both. There are several issues that certainly need top be addressed in regards to e-bikes and regular bikes.

    1) Irresponsible riders on both types of bikes.

    Watch riders in Jackson Hole and it is clear that even at busy intersections with traffic there are too many bike riders who think they can run red lights and stop signs.

    And there are too many riders riding against traffic, often on sidewalks, and often crossing side streets without stopping or slowing down for side-street traffic.

    Many of the drivers in our community are tourists. They are not expecting high-speed e-bike “traffic” from the right side of the road as they look left at on-coming traffic and wait for an opening to turn into traffic.

    Most locals are used to these irresponsible riders but even they can be caught off guard by an e-bike (or pedal-only bike) that appears out of nowhere and moving fast.

    Rolling-stop laws that allow bikers to slow down to a very slow rolling stop at intersections that have no opposing traffic, or no traffic, seem reasonable but after watching local riders in Jackson it is clear that too many are incapable of self control in a responsible manner. Several states have those laws. They seem to work well in areas with little traffic to begin with like neighborhood side streets in small towns. They should not be used in places like Jackson Hole. Cops should crack down on irresponsible bike riders that ignore basic safe riding practices.

    And then you have high speeds on pathways which is totally unacceptable and inappropriate. But, give an e-bike to a kid (and many adults) and they only know one speed: maximum. Same is true with many riders on traditional bikes. Heavy e-bikes means a greater chance of more serious injuries should an accident happen.

    2) Damage to the enviroment and harm to wildlife when used off trail.

    Head up Teton Pass. It is a favorite place to ride off trail in Jackson Hole. Moose hang out by many of the trails that mountain bikers have cut into the hillsides. Many riders are incapable of managing their speed to avoid wildlife. Often, jumps are designed to be hit at full speed. The extra weight of e-bikes means greater threats to wildlife should a collision happen.

    E-bikes going uphill at faster speeds will do more damage to the landscape. Hikers on multi-use trails are rarely in favor of faster uphill bike traffic for obvious reasons.

    3) Many, but not all, e-bikes are much more dangerous than regular bikes due to weight, speed, a throttle, etc. They are electric motorcycles with pedals, and often that pedaling requires no real effort, or there is no pedaling at all. Just as a Tesla is not much different from a gas-powered car, an electric bike is not all that different from a motorcycle. E-bikes riders should have an motorcycle driver’s license to ride an e-bike. It is a motor vehicle.

    The issues will only get worse as more people use e-bikes if regulations don’t address irresponsible and inexperienced riders.

    I love the idea that physically challenged folks can enjoy the pleasures of bike riding, or e-bike riding, especially off trail. But, there is a time and place for everything. Some places should not have e-bikes even if pedal-only bikes are allowed. Some places should not have any bikes.

    I would rather see more off-road trails for electric wheelchairs than e-bikes but both may have a place for an aging population.

  2. I love my RadCity e-bike, and use it for commuting and shopping between Wilson and Jackson. It’s an enjoyable means, essentially, for helping to reduce unnecessary car traffic. But e-bikes simply don’t belong in trails, for the same reason that motorbikes don’t (and for reasons nicely outlined in many of the comments here). The trail off Mt. Elly is one example of a trail that is no longer an enjoyable hike — due to the abiding fear of descending mountain bikers, and the bike-damaged condition of the trail. I’m tempted to ask mountain bikers — and e-mountain bikes only extend their reach — if they have been able to identify any of the flowers they’ve passed along the way. Can they possibly pay attention to anything other than the orientation of their front wheels?

  3. Well “ebikes” are motorcycles with some duplicitous marketing. What’s the difference if it is gas or electric? Time and again I see the trenches motor cycles dig as the rider sits on the back wheel and rips up the hills. They’re great for commuting but a veritable pandora’s box when it comes to backcountry recreation. If you’re too out of shape to ride that particular trail, walk the hard bits or find another. I certainly do!

  4. To say, “motorcycles …. do much more damage to trails” makes no sense. E-bikes ARE motorcycles.

    If the argument is about the noise or smell of a gas motor vs. an electric motor, say so. On the spectrum from “no wheeled vehicles of any kind” to building a tram to the top of the Grand Teton (the European model), public lands managers need to find an appropriate balance among resource damage, user experience, and accessability. But we need to be honest in our classifications and consistent in how we draw the lines.

  5. There is a little more to the question: “should” we, as well as “can” we. The discussion bears only superficial resemblance to the snowboard/ski argument (“argument” was the proper term at the time) and goes, in the end, to the definition of and desire to preserve “wilderness.”

    Skiing(alpine)/Snowboarding are both activities designed for areas designated for human entertainment. The mountain can’t really distinguish between one board or two – and it doesn’t really matter. Trails are a different matter and the terrain, the habitat CAN tell the difference between human footfalls and motorized travel in terms of damage done (both immediate and cumulative) . E bikes, if allowed at all, should be limited to those existing trails in national forests already designated for motorized vehicles: trucks, SUVs, ATVs, dirt bikes. National Parks: not allowed (off pavement). Period.

    Wilderness is a progression deeper and deeper into a place – both conceptual and physical – less and less to, hopefully, not at all – impacted by human prioritization of activities. It is not possible to point to a place and say,
    “Wilderness begins here.”
    It is a place that can only be accessed gradually. As a result the protection afforded wilderness has to be gradual. This behavior stops here, another behavior a little further on and so on – until the traveler reaches those places only accessible by the most fundamental of unmodified human action. Of course it would be interesting to have space unavailable even to that….but not likely.

    “In wilderness is the preservation of the world.” (Muir). The “world” includes us. We all benefit from it, even if we can’t understand it. It behooves us to preserve it.

  6. Your article has definitely showed your side of the issue but as many who espouse the glories of the e-bike, you fail to mention the effects of the added bulk of the e-bike. There is also the wisdom of “growing old gracefully” and maybe if you can’t power up the hill on your own legs it’s time to move to less steep rides or walk!? Do you want to ski the harder runs and would do so if there was a way to get a “boost” to do so?
    My biggest issue with e-bikes is that there is often riders who are unable or have the skills to manage the weight of the bike and the electric power gets them into terrains they should not be in and wouldn’t most likely have gotten there on their own power.
    No, I have to state that on the back-country trails there should be wild places that the electric bikes are not welcome. I am approaching the years where I will soon not be able to ride every steep trail but I will keep trying and decide when the choice of trail needs to be changed.
    The analogy between skis and snowboards does not resonate at all for me either?? Two gravity assist sports compared to a motorized versus non motorized issue?
    E-bikes do not need to be used on all the mountain bike areas but rather as a choice on designated pathways and bike parks. Instead of labeling this as a “purist” belief, maybe it is the difference between earning the downhills versus not.

  7. I’m 62 and can keep up with my ultra-fit son going uphill on local MTB trails on my electric MTB. I’m still much slower going downhill. In my particular case, I know that having an electric bike makes more trails accessible to me. I’m not going any faster than a fit rider on a regular MTB. I’m in favor of allowing Class 1 electric bikes on all trails that presently allow bikes. I am not in favor of allowing Class 2 or 3 (throttle) electric bikes on trails.

  8. I think ebikes are great for folks with limited mobility. Getting people outside on bikes is generally a great thing. In urban areas ebikes could help us get away from planet and quality of life destroying cars (gas or electric). All good things, that said there is a difference between what we should consider a bike and what we should consider a motorcycle with pedals. If an ebike helps a rider do what an otherwise able bodied rider can do and with comparable speed and braking abilities, I think they should generally be welcomed where bikes are welcome. If the “bike” is capable of much faster speeds and or slower braking distances than they should be considered motorcycles and have to follow the regs and rules created for them.

  9. Valid points! Bicycles have always been a huge part of my life. E bikes are just the next evolution. Guess what… They are here to stay! They are enjoyable and dont hurt the environment or my knees! I dont ride fast… I just ride. The cool thing is that Now I’m able to actually look around and enjoy the Vistas that i had missed. Someday, as the Nay Sayers get older, they’ll appreciate the ebike for what it is … not what it isn’t. Come on in … the water is fine >

  10. You say that snowboards and skiers have worked things out but what do you say to people who have been either hurt or killed in collisions. I recently read about a man who lost both his wife and small child while they were cross country skiing. A snowboarder came out of no where suddenly hit and killed them. I’ve started back hiking recently. We were doing a lot of hiking in Southern Utah but found that the trails were busy not only with lots of hikers but horses, groups of mountain bikes and now you want to add electric to the mix. We quit going on these trails. It wasn’t the hikers that were the problems as much as the people on bikes and horse that seemed to think you needed to get out of their way whether you saw them or not. Usually they were moving at such a fast rate that they were just suddenly there without much warning, often racing down the face of a boulder. I never really enjoyed those hikes. I hate to see that kind of trail traffic come to Wyoming. Over in Sweetwater County they have multiple trail systems set up just for mountain bikes so why not let those types of trails be used for the e-bikes as well. When did it become bad to just want to be able to take a nice walk or hike without the worry you are going to be run over. We ran into this same situation even on supposed paved walking trail systems in cities and canyons that are wonderful and all over southern Utah. But again there are skate boarders, e-bikes riders that come racing down the path racing around corners and the walker or hiker is expected to get their butt out of the way. Recently we spent a week exploring Sweetwater County. Love walking the river walk there. We were curious about the mountain bike trails near Green River but it was specific to mountain bikes so we didn’t go hiking there. We weren’t supposed to walk or hike there. It was literally posted. Couldn’t that type of respect be given back to those individuals who want to walk and hike for their exercise. By the way, in my mind it has nothing to do with ‘cheating’ I could care less if someone is using their own body energy or electric when a bike comes racing toward me from behind and I suddenly hear them shout on your left. To me it has to do with safety and my right to hike or walk without constantly having to give the right of way to someone racing past me on the trail.

    1. Thank you Kacey for making the point hikers do not enjoy sharing trails with bicycles regardless of type. Having hiked for many years I now find hiking with my grandchildren enjoyable but scary. Children are enjoying the simple wonders of a small flower a flitting butterfly.
      It is not always possible to clear the trail. Safety has always been a concern and bicycles and hikers need different trails.
      Everyone does not need to be together it is an accident waiting to happen.

  11. One thing I have noticed over the past four decades is how and where trails in the back country become degraded due to severe erosion that starts out as an innocuous long shallow rut.
    Two things create those ” seed” ruts that quickly become runoff channels, excavating themselves deeper and wider with every flush of rain or spring runoff: domestic livestock being trailed in or out of the high country, and mountain bikes. In the case of the former, wooly sheep are the worst offendors. Their sharp hooves might as well be small picks and shovels. There are long-used domestic sheep trails in the Owl Creek Mountains and the upper Greybull River of the western Big Horn Basin that are 3 feet deep with newer detours paralleling them , adding to the erosion problem over time.
    Mountain bikes do it quicker…the skinner the treaded tire the worse … starting out as surgical cuts the micro-ruts from ATB’s quickly become stream channels. Fat tire wheels provide some mitigation , but not enough. I can’t see where powered E-bikes grinding their way uphill on the trails provide any relief.
    Bottom Line is : Bike and sheep rip trails**.

    ** -don’t get me going on infernal combustion ATV’s and their propensity to tear up the ground everywhere they roll. I encounter way to many slobs driving them like they own the land . Too many in the wrong places.

  12. Molly: a good article, many good points. I am an ebike (pedal assist) rider & love it. Always, the purists are quick to respond to the new (in any endeavor, hiking, skiing, backpacking etc). The baby boomers are aging but they still want to “get out”. People must realize that people now riding ebikes are part of the bike lobby & advocacy for bikes. I personally (@72) am so happy with my ebike rides, long distances, sustained workouts (at any heart rate you desire) & beautiful country to see. Thanks for the open perspective.