OPINION: E-bikes should be allowed on trails

E-bikes Should be Allowed  on All trails



I’ve ridden dirt motorcycles  all of my life, and I greatly enjoy the outdoors, especially in the 20+ years that I’ve lived in Colorado. However, due to my age and various medical issues, I seldom ride dirt motorcycles anymore and have switched to mountain bikes. But with the elevation ranges in Colorado and the trails that often have significant elevation gains, I found it more and more difficult to ride most trails. I was then introduced to e-mountain bikes (e-MTB) by a friend who, like myself, had some health issues which necessitated him needing the assistance of a small electric motor.


I bought an e-MTB and began enjoying riding again. I was riding safer, longer, and more often. I subsequently purchased an entry-level e-MTB for my wife as well.  She had never been much of a bicycle rider, but with the assistance of the e-MTB she found that she really enjoyed getting out on the trails too. It’s now an activity we can often enjoy together. We have since ridden trails all over Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and California! 


As I got more into riding e-MTBs, I slowly became more aware of the resistance to allowing e-MTB’s on natural surface trails, otherwise known as single-track trails. The only reason I’m allowed to ride mine is because I’m a disabled veteran. My e-MTB serves as an assistive device, so therefore, it’s protected under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA states that any device which assists with mobility is considered a mobility device regardless if the device was originally designed to be assistive, as is the case with a powered wheelchair. Because of the ADA, I’m allowed to ride any trails on my e-MTB. Those without a disability, however, have more restrictions.


e-MTB’s are classified as follows:


Class 1 – These are pedal-assist only, meaning they still require pedaling by the rider. If the rider stops pedaling, the assistance immediately stops. There’s a  variety of battery assistance levels, but it’s limited to 750 watts (W) or less, which is equivalent to only 1 horsepower (HP). The electric assist also turns off when the rider exceeds 20 miles per hour (mph). Past 20 mph, you can still pedal the bike but with no assistance.

Class 2 – These are also limited to 750W and 20 mph, but along with the pedal assist, they also have a throttle which can power the bike for a short time without pedaling.

Class 3 – These are limited to 750W but can go up to 28 mph with pedal assist. They also have throttles that can be used with or without pedaling, and they are required to have a speedometer to monitor its speed.  

Class 4 – These can exceed 750W and have no speed limiters. Most states require these bikes to be licensed and registered and have age limits to operate them.

Currently, the city of Colorado Springs allows only Class 1 bikes on “improved trails”, which can be described as commuter trails that are often paved and designed for urban bikes, strollers, and walkers/runners more so than mountain bikes. Natural surface trails prohibit all e-MTB’s. I hope to advocate for Class 1 bikes to be allowed on all trails in which analog bikes (non-electric assist) may be used. I believe the arguments against e-MTB’s are based on incorrect assumptions and misinformation, and I hope to allow for more open-minded consideration concerning the use of e-MTB’s on natural surface trails.  


Myth 1: Class 1 e-bikes are similar to electric motorcycles. Two popular electric off-road motorcycle models are the KTM Freeride and the Zero FX. The KTM uses a full-size motorcycle frame, wheels, tires, suspension, etc. similar to a gas powered KTM dirt bike. It develops about 25 HP and weighs 244 pounds. The Zero FX is also a full-sized motorcycle and has 46 HP and weighs 247 pounds. In contrast, my e-MTB uses the same wheels, tires, brakes, handlebars, seat, etc. as an analog bike, while developing only 1 HP and weighing just under 50 pounds. There are some e-MTBs weighing as little as 34 pounds, only 1/7 of the weight of an average electric motorcycle.


Myth 2: Class 1 e-bikes should be classified as “motorized vehicles”. The main propulsion of an e-MTB is still provided by the rider, with only up to 1 HP of assist. Additionally, the original designation for “motorized vehicles” were for vehicles powered by gas or diesel engines. The Colorado Department of Revenue describes a Low Speed Electric Vehicle as such:

Low Speed Electric Vehicle as defined in Colorado Revised Statute 42-1-102(48.6) is a vehicle that:

  1. Is self-propelled utilizing electricity as its primary propulsion method,
  2. Has at least three wheels in contact with the ground,
  3. Does not use handlebars to steer, and
  4. Exhibits the manufacturer\’s compliance with 49 CFR 565 or displays a seventeen-character vehicle identification number as provided in 49 CFR 565.

e-MTBs clearly don’t meet this classification. They also don’t require the same licensing and registration that other “motorized vehicles” require, further supporting that e-MTBs do not deserve to be part of that category. I believe calling them “motorized vehicles” was simply a convenient way to keep them off the trails.


Myth 3: Class 1 e-bikes are super fast. As I’ve previously mentioned, the bike assist turns off when the rider exceeds 20 mph. Any faster than that, the bike is just like an analog bike and the speed depends entirely on the exertion of the rider. I’ve observed while riding with a local bike club, which contains both e-MTB and analog riders, that while I do have the advantage when riding up long hills, the analog riders often go much faster than me on flatter areas and the downhills. This indicates a rather weak correlation between speed and the type of bike.


Myth 4: Class 1 e-bikes are too heavy and tear up the trail. There are studies which show that a rolling tire actually compacts the ground rather than digging in and causing significant erosion. Additionally, e-MTBs are only going to add 20 pounds on average to the weight of an equivalent analog bike. With that in mind, it shouldn’t seem very relevant when considering that the total weight is all relative. You could have a 50 pound e-MTB being ridden by a 160 pound rider (210 pounds total) or a 30 pound analog bike being ridden by a 200 pound rider (230 total). Overall, the extra weight of e-MTBs on natural surface trails will not make a significant difference to the wear and tear of the trail.


Myth 5: Class 1 e-bikes cause chaos because they are capable of passing other riders. While it is true that riders on an e-MTB have a slight advantage, primarily on uphill trails, you could make the argument that a young, healthy 18 year old also has an advantage going up that same hill against a 70 year old rider. You could make yet another argument that a rider on a high end carbon fiber framed bike with an electronic 12-speed gear shifter also has the same advantage over a rider on an older aluminum frame bike with only a 3-gear set. The measure of chaos or superiority does not come down to the electric assist alone but rather a larger, multifactorial consideration. Any rider, on any type of bike, could overtake a slower rider in a rude or dangerous way.


Myth 6: Class 1 e-bikes are noisy. The electric assist on e-MTBs is almost silent. The most you may hear is a slight whirring sound which is often masked by the noise the tires make when traveling on dirt or gravel. Most people I run into on the trails don’t even realize I’m on an e-MTB because my bike looks and sounds just like an analog bike. A humorous study was conducted in Jefferson County after they allowed e-MTB’s on all trails. The e-MTB riders conducting the study would ride the trails and ask hikers and other trail users what their thoughts were on e-MTBs, specifically if they were disturbingly loud. They were often told “yes” despite the participants being naive to the fact that the riders asking the questions were on e-MTBs themselves. Hence, they must not be that disturbing.


Myth 7: Class 1 e-bikes can easily spin the rear tire and tear up the trail. In Class 1 e-MTBs, since you must be pedaling the bike to have the electric assist engaged, the rear tire will never spin on its own and create damage to the trail surface. More commonly, trail erosion occurs either when a rider locks up the rear wheel to slide around turns (usually when a rider is trying to go very fast on a downhill) or when rain/snow causes the trail to soften. Neither of these instances are limited to e-MTB riders. This article goes further in depth comparing the environmental impacts between analog bikes, e-MTBs, and motorcycles, concluding that while motorcycles made a significant difference in soil displacement and erosion, the difference between analog bikes and e-MTBs was not significant.


Myth 8: Class 1 bikes are too “easy” and don’t provide any cardiovascular or fitness benefits. Study after study has shown this to be false. Yes, the electric assist does provide a degree of assistance, but you still must pedal on your own to provide much of the power. Studies have shown that riders who ride e-MTB’s tend to ride more often and for longer distances than those on analog bikes. For example, I rode a trail a couple years ago in which we covered nearly 19 miles, riding for over 3.5 hours and gaining over 2,500 feet in elevation. There is no way I could have ridden a trail like that without the electric assistance, but in having the assistance on board, I gained all of the health benefits of having been on that ride at all.


I’m an older guy. I’ve had three knee replacements, three rotator cuff surgeries, and a 2-level surgical fusion in my cervical spine, along with other musculoskeletal surgeries. My cardio fitness level is also not what it used to be. But despite all that, I still enjoy going outdoors and enjoying the quietness and solitude of riding on the natural surface trails away from the hustle and bustle of the city. Making restrictions against the use of Class 1 e-MTBs is discriminatory not to the young, reckless, noisy, trailblazers, but to the older, disabled, intermediate riders that simply need the electric assist to enjoy the trails in the same way others get to. I’ve contacted many of the bicycle shops in town asking who the e-MTB customers generally were, and many shops confirmed that the vast majority of e-MTB buyers are folks very similar to myself. Many of the shop owners also question the validity of banning e-MTBs from single-track trails, although they admit they have stayed out of the debate publicly so they don’t alienate riders on either side of the debate.


In Europe, Australia, New Zealand, and other countries, there are little to no restrictions on the use of e-MTBs on any types of trails, and there has been no clear evidence collected in those countries suggesting that the e-MTBs have made any negative environmental or social impact. I’m disappointed that there is such a pushback here in Colorado where one of the greatest perks of living here is the enjoyment of the great outdoors.


In conclusion, I hope that providing this information will be productive in reversing the ban of Class 1 e-MTB’s on our local trails. I plan to petition the Parks and Recreation Department and other government entities to reverse the current ban on e-MTB’s. 

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