An electric bike rode into the backcountry. Now there's a nationwide turf war
Updated 9:19 am EDT May. 31, 2022
FOUNTAIN HILLS, Arizona – A gray-haired dude jumped on his mountain bike and began pedaling into the Sonoran desert along a rocky, single-track path.
The trail at McDowell Mountain Regional Park wound past towering saguaros, around paloverde trees in blooming splendor and through sand-filled arroyos. There was no sound except the grind of tires on gravel, the gush of a May breeze and the occasional call of sentinel quail.
Mile after mile, the ride seemed easy. Even as he climbed steep hills, 73-year-old Rand Hubbell barely broke a sweat. In fact, thanks to the bike’s inconspicuous electric motor, his ascent was relatively effortless: Hubbell could remain seated while a 750-watt battery let him use as much or little leg power as he chose.
Electric mountain bikes, known as eMTBs, are more than just welcomed in this 21,000-acre playground; they’re encouraged. The county park’s 40 miles of trails include specialized tracks for competition, plus rest stops with air pumps and spare inner tubes. More than half of the visitors are cyclists. A plaque at one canopy urges, "Of all the paths you take in life, make sure some of them are dirt."
Next door, the McDowell Sonoran Preserve shares a border with the regional park. It, too is laced with miles of hiking trails.
Yet that park has a giant sign at its entrances featuring a picture of an e-bike with a slash through it: “Electric Bikes Prohibited.” It is run by neighboring Scottsdale, where a municipal ordinance bans battery-powered bicycles on all 225 miles of trails. Adjacent properties. Opposite policies.
Adding to the confusion, numerous trails from the county park lead over the mountain crest and into the preserve's no-eMTB zone.
The two grounds might as well be a symbol for the turf war that has emerged with the infusion of electric mountain bikes into America's backcountry.
Over the past five years, smaller and stronger batteries have powered a booming market for electric bikes, or ebikes, of all kinds. And, especially since COVID-19 lockdowns, America’s backcountry trails have seen a proliferation of the dirt-ready variety.
While there is only partial data on the phenomenon, experts agree that cycling has skyrocketed, with electric mountain bikes the most popular model. Bicycle shops nationwide ran out of inventory during the past two years, with prospective buyers on months-long wait lists. The trend is so powerful that Scottsdale bike salesman Jeff Frost jokes about eMTBs as cycling’s “gateway drug.”
According to PeopleForBikes, an advocacy organization for manufacturers, suppliers and cyclists, electric mountain bike sales increased by 1,000% from 2015 to 2019. LEVA, another analyst, reported more e-bikes were sold in the United States last year than electric cars. Mordor Intelligence predicts the worldwide market for battery-powered mountain bikes, valued at $5 billion in 2020, will double by 2026.
The onslaught of motor-assisted cyclists has generated a surge of traffic not only on streets, but on trails revered for serenity – trails where, often, motorized vehicles have been considered off-limits.
Thus began the turf wars.
When U.S. Forest Service managers tried to open trails near Lake Tahoe to e-bikes three years ago, the agency wound up in court – sued by the National Horsemen’s Association.
When the Department of the Interior announced that eMTBs would be treated as nonmotorized vehicles and allowed on trails in National Parks, government employees filed another lawsuit.
In Utah, America’s Mecca for mountain biking, state lawmakers tried to devise a statute this year that would clarify rules on e-bikes and single-track trails. The proposal got battered from all sides, said state Sen. Todd Weiler, who introduced the measure. Laughing, he described what followed as a "show," but with an unprintable adjective.
“My lesson?" Weiler said. "Don’t run an electric bike bill ever again.”
On Mackinac Island in Michigan, e-bikes are banned unless a rider has what's known as a "mobility disability" — a medical condition — or an inability to walk more than 200 feet without stopping.
Back in Scottsdale, when city staffers suggested last year that the Sonoran Preserve might open some trails to e-bikers, conservationists stormed social media and bombarded City Hall with emails — most of them rabidly opposed to any motorized traffic in the parklands.
The proposal was promptly tabled, and no one has dared bring it up since. “It’s a very passionate discussion,” observed Scott Hamilton, manager of the preserve.
During a rest stop, Hubbell mentioned that in 1998 he helped write the city ordinance banning motorized vehicles from the preserve. Later, he served on a commission overseeing its trails. And from 2003-15 he was supervisor of the adjoining county park.
Hubbell said he became an avid mountain biker after retirement. But age and health issues took a toll until the morning rides just sapped his strength: “My wife’s list of to-dos didn’t get done.”
That’s when Hubbell started noticing e-bikes as they passed him on hill climbs, sometimes with older riders. “I thought, ‘That’s pretty cool.’” he recalls. “I’m working hard and these guys are going right by me. And they’re smiling.”
Manufacturers, vendors, riders and other advocates insist that, while eMTBs have motors, they are really just bicycles. They contend electric bike ownership is dominated by older people who travel slower, with less danger and trail damage. And the battery allows disabled or weak riders to enjoy the great outdoors while getting moderate exercise.
Those who oppose e-bike access to single-track trails include not just environmentalists and hikers, but equestrians and others who argue that eMTBs are faster, heavier, more dangerous and more destructive than regular mountain bikes. The motor also transports cyclists deeper into the outback, with increased impact on nature.
“It’s alarming people because it goes against why some of these places were set aside and protected,” noted the late John Freemuth, a Boise State University land policy expert. “There’s obviously a place for e-bikes… But there are places, perhaps, where they shouldn’t be allowed because other people go to national parks for experiences that don’t include whipping around on bikes at 20 mph.”
Some of the fiercest eMTB critics are regular mountain bikers — young purists who view the battery boost as “cheating.”
A 2020 article in Gear Patrol pointed out that mountain biking had once been the “drunk uncle” of outdoor activities, with riders disdained as “trail punks” by hikers, conservationists and horsemen.
After decades of diplomacy and trail-building, regular mountain bikes gradually gained acceptance. “But here we are again,” the article noted, only now e-bikers are the pariahs."
In Washington state, the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance lobbied for a bill prohibiting eMTBs from all “natural surface trails.” The reason, as explained in Singletracks magazine, was a fear that if e-bikes are permitted then land managers might close trails to all bicycles.
Amid the sound and fury, government officials have concocted a chaos of rules and policies from Alaskan to Florida, with neighboring Arizona properties as classic examples.
The regulations and enforcement are so confusing, so inconsistent, that even vendors warn customers not to purchase electric mountain bikes until they’ve checked with city, county, state and federal land agencies to learn whether they’ll have places to ride.
What is an eMTB?
In one sense, the dilemma is like any conflict that arises with disruptive technology: A new product or invention encroaches, prompting backlash.
Years ago, snowboarders fought for access to ski slopes. Today, drone operators struggle with flight regulations aimed at protecting privacy and public safety.
But eMTBs are particularly fraught because the technology places them in a gray area. Are they motorized vehicles, or bicycles?
The dispute has churned up a mini-culture war, which is nothing new. Bicycles were invented in 1817 but did not gain popularity until the 1890’s invention of pneumatic tires allowed for a less bouncy ride.
As women began cycling during the Victorian era, wearing modified bloomers, bikes became a symbol of liberation. Anti-feminists of the day promulgated claims that the two-wheel contraptions made females walk funny, endangered reproductive ability and even caused a condition known as “bicycle face.”
The first electric bikes also were patented in the 1890s. But, for a variety of reasons, they did not catch on until more than a century later.
Today, e-bikes are ubiquitous in Europe and Asia both as commuter vehicles and outdoor toys. The United States is playing catch-up, especially with knobby-tired mountain bikes.
The modern version features a motor that either assists a rider in pedaling or can provide all the power. Most jurisdictions set a 750-watt limit to the battery and recognize three levels of eMTB:
Class 1: The motor kicks in only when the bike is being pedaled, and a governor caps battery-enhanced speed at 20 mph.
Class 2: A rider can rely fully on the motor, without pedaling. The top speed under battery power is also 20 mph.
Class 3: The motor delivers energy only when the cyclist is pedaling, and only up to a speed of 28 mph. (With wide support from industry groups and cycling advocates, Class 3 bikes are generally banned from natural, one-track trails.)
The e-bike is a techno nerd’s dream, with multiple different motor types and software systems. But all draw power from a rechargeable battery which turns a shaft, creating torque that propels a wheel.
Because those mechanics are so small, with batteries concealed in the frame, many e-MTBs are nearly impossible to visually distinguish from regular bikes.
At the road racing world championships in 2016, cyclist Femke Van den Driessche was suspended for six years after magnetic imaging detected a battery-powered motor on her bike. Today, the Union Cycliste Internationale and some mountain biking race organizers routinely check for what’s known as “motor doping.”
But there’s another x-factor with eMTBs: The governor, which is supposed to limit a bicycle’s speed, can be hacked and overcome with apps that are available at local cycling shops and online. That means the maximum speed may be phony.
"The after-market hacks for eMTBs these days are unbelievable. It’s a booming business,” said Frost, who works in an Arizona bike shop. “There’s nothing illegal about it — until you see one go by at 35 mph.”
Anyone who has ridden a non-motorized mountain bike on steep trails knows the sport is demanding, limited to riders in physical shape. Electric motors can dramatically reduce that stress, letting riders decide how hard they want to work during climbs — a godsend to those who have health conditions or limited ambition.
Of course, that advantage comes with a price: eMTBs start at around $1,000 for a hefty model with relatively cheap materials and parts, soaring to upwards of $15,000 for a premium ride.
Legislatures and agencies around the country have struggled to define and regulate eMTBs. Most states have designated Class 1 and 2 bikes as nonmotorized, but often with confusing exceptions.
Even cycling organizations seem conflicted, caught between members who bristle at e-bikes and those who love them. The International Mountain Biking Association’s policy position is noncommittal, supporting Class 1 electric bikes in the backcountry unless that means traditional bikes will be banned.
“We want to see eMTB access granted,” said Todd Keller, the association’s director of governmental affairs, “but it has to be in a responsible way.”
PeopleForBikes, which represents manufacturers and suppliers, touts a model policy that presumes eMBTs may use trails open to regular bikes – except where prohibited or restricted in the interest of safety.
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