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photo: Jeff Barber

While the debate broils hot in the US over e-bike access to trails and to the overall cycling market, sales and representation in the EU continue to grow rapidly. Brands like Fox are seeing 35% of their OEM (direct to producer) sales across Europe go to e-bike models, and those numbers are growing steadily every quarter. In France, e-bike sales increased by 50% in 2017, while Italy saw a 25% increase of electric-assisted sales throughout the peninsula.

The 2018 Eurobike floors were carpeted with e-bikes from wall to wall. Brands fought hard to get their latest electric offerings ready for the show, occasionally at the expense of analog bike models. This year’s Eurobike theme was aimed at enhanced mobility and transportation alternatives, and batteries were decidedly a means toward those ends.

Scott had a reasonable mix of e-bikes and traditional pedal bikes at Eurobike 2018

Across the Atlantic, the US and Canada have cooked up an eMTB debate nearly as rich as those surrounding school uniforms and pet-leash laws. Mounting electric motors to mountain bikes has created stalwart cultural and political camps for and against the burgeoning genre. With heated arguments over trail access and cultural ideologies around “laziness” and what the pure sport should be, brands as large as Trek are keeping their e-bike offerings exclusively in the EU market, for now.

This disparity between North America and Europe, arguably the top two MTB-loving continents, makes me wonder why have these user groups and markets are approaching the e-bike in such different ways.

In Europe, it’s not only e-bike sales that are on the rise; participation in e-bike race categories appears to be growing, and e-bike rentals and demos take the main stage at cycling events across the EU. I had a chance to chat with a few anonymous industry professionals and lifelong cyclists from the US and the EU to unpack their thoughts on why there is such a disparate response to the “new bike on the block.” My hope is that with pure anonymity these folks can share a snapshot of why the bikes are so distinctly embraced or rejected.

In

Why do you think cyclists in the EU embrace e-bikes while many in the US oppose or dislike them?

Europeans embrace bicycles

I received a handful of responses to the above question that all centered around a unique cultural ethos toward cycling in the EU that doesn’t exist in the US. One where commuting by bike, and being a cyclist is not only normative but is a respected means of transportation.

One longtime European cyclist I spoke with had a practical urban-environment view of the continental difference of opinion. “In Europe, the bike is more a way to commute and get around without the car, and older folks who are not fit enough want to use an electrical system. For some road and mountain cyclists, this simply carries over [into recreational use].”

A second avid mountain biker replied, “Probably in Europe we have a more widespread and deep cycling culture than in the United States. There is a generally widespread enthusiasm. This is to say that there are a lot more people that love the bike (in a general sense I am not speaking only of extreme enthusiasts.) But many do not like to struggle, so they see the solution in the e-bike. In the USA probably that passionate part exists, but at the same time the lazy user is missing.”

An Italian friend of mine who teaches yoga to cyclists mentioned that “I would say it’s because in the EU, e-bikes are seen more as an incentive to tourism for those who are not in shape. Also, in Europe there is a much older population overall.”

An Italian bike shop owner who lives near me also mentioned the positive tourism attributes of e-bikes, stating “it’s fun, it requires less training, people can go anywhere, but with a bike”.

This response from a lifelong rider in the US is fairly in line with the others, with the added emphasis on social class perceptions of cyclists in the US. “Disregarding the elephant in the room, ie pedal bikes are more popular in the EU than the US, I think it boils down similarly. Probably perception. If you ride a bike or take a bus in the US, you are poor. (Generally) that provides poor optics for any company trying to sell e-bikes as a method of transit. But if there were a Rapha-style branding of an e-bike, for a regular consumer, it could be different. Also, they look clunky”.

A good friend who is Dutch and lives in Portland, Oregon had some insight on how the industry arrived at its current state in the EU. “I see an interest that was sparked by the commuters and then pushed into other markets by the industry. As in, the industry was playing more and more with e-bike options for the road and then created some off-road options just to see if there would be any consumer interest there too. There was, and so the industry jumped on it big time (not unlike the way the industry has been pushing gravel bikes on us).”

Lastly, another former professional dirt rider from the US echoed the above theme, that bikes in the US are toys for fun, while in the EU they are an integral part of urban life. “Because so many more people commute on bikes (and mopeds and by foot) in European cities, and [bikes] are so ingrained in the culture. They’re more of an actual vehicle used for practical purposes, AND for fun, AND for competitive sport. So bikes, in general, are more widely accepted, so the transition to e-bikes is easier. Whereas in the US they’re mostly a recreational piece of sports equipment. A bike [in the US] is a ‘lifestyle’ choice. ‘I’m going into the woods with my friends and my MTB.’ It’s just more of a purist mentality. I don’t think anyone cares about e-bikes in US cities. It’s just [that] putting them on busy popular trails, with slower riders, is when the actual issue arises”.

Trail access differences

No lift lines with a DH e-bike

A second theme from responses to this question centered around the differences between trail and riding types, and trail access between the two continents.

I spoke with a professional mountain bike racer from the US, now living in the EU, who formulated a response in two parts. “1. There is generally less trail user regulation here in Europe. Pedestrians, equestrians, and bikes all share most trails here. Reduced regulation and reduced conflict leave the culture more open to any sort of recreational activity. 2. There are far fewer loop trails, ridge trails, or up trails in the European mountain bike scene. Generally, we ride up a very, very steep gravel roads to get to the singletrack descent. We don’t have well-maintained and enjoyable trails to climb. If the goal is to enjoy yourself, and the enjoyment comes on the descent, why not remove some of the burdens of the strenuous climb?”

Another avid shredder from the US who lives in Italy had this to add, “I’d say it’s mostly because of the type of riding most people do in Europe. In the states, most rides on the MTB are at trail centers (In the US I used to ride almost exclusively in state parks with trails built by NEMBA), and I think most people drive there, unload their bikes and ride around. In Europe, most rides are ‘tours’ Considering that there are fewer dedicated parks or trail centers, but rather more long-distance multi-use trails [and] cycleways through open-access land, you can link up trails to get to some amazing places and ride some epic terrain, but this often involves riding a lot more distance to the same amount of quality singletrack.”

All of the e-bike specific bits in one place.

Still another group of folks I chatted with took the opportunity to trash talk e-bikes, but I will let them save those responses for the comments section, as I am not looking to fuel that fire herein. One European industry professional I spoke with mentioned his own personal reasons for not switching to the e-bike just yet. “I’m not ready. I like hurting myself on the bike, and although I’m probably limiting the things I can do trail-wise… I’m just not ready for a whole new sport that is advancing so fast that my investment is out of date in a year.” This particular friend has ridden many e-bikes, but says that for his own personal bike he will wait until the new and shiny glare fades a bit before he purchases a motorized version.

Your thoughts, please

In summation, Europeans generally have a different cultural respect and acceptance of cycling that carries over into the sport, and bikes are more directly integrated into their lives. The types of trails available on both continents vary drastically, and this may have some effect on how people chose the bikes they buy. These two response categories paint a decent picture of the e-bike love story, but I am curious if there are other important elements to consider. Please share your thoughts and ideas on the e-bike trend in the US and Europe, and why the bikes are being received in such divergent ways.

Comment away!

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# Comments

  • vapidoscar

    “If you ride a bike or take a bus in the US, you are poor.” – Oh my gosh, is that what people think of me? Nooo!

    Don’t forget drunks who lost their license.

    • FredCook

      Man, I sure see a lot of poor people riding $5,000 mountain bikes on the trails…

  • Phonebem

    Yay I get to start! While I don’t own an ebike or have any real desire to own one (see below), I can see a benefit in allowing pedal assist bikes on more trails.
    First why I don’t want one for me, most of my riding is more cross-country oriented and I genuinely get an enjoyment out of the climbs. If I’m itching for more DH oriented riding, I happen to live in an area with ample options for lift-served access.
    Now why I’m OK with the idea of ebikes… Unless the logistics are near impossible (think The Whole Enchilada), I’m really not a fan of shuttling. Not all, but some tend to think of shuttle runs as DH courses and ride accordingly. I may be giving a benefit of the doubt; but I think if they spent some time on the climbs instead of just combing down them, they might develop some awareness of where a when to be ready for uphill traffic. I also accept the reality that the further toward the enduro/light-duty DH end of the spectrum you get, the less realistic riding uphill riding becomes (I DH raced in the early 2000’s, those bikes didn’t like being pedaled up a wheelchair ramp, much less an actual climb). So… yeah, I don’t think it’s the all-or-nothing debate it’s been made into.

    • Phonebem

      Addendum: I also recognize that not everyone lives in both and area with good DH/tough enduro trails and lift-served access. In some places, even shuttling gets tricky due to road access. I do see a potential for ebikes to open-up more riding opportunities for a lot of people.

  • Brad Beadles

    I’ve flipped by stance on ebikes as of late. as someone who enjoys some good old type 2 fun, i dont personally see the attraction of the ebike. but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve a place in the industry. every mountain biker i’ve talked to seems to understand the advantages of an ebike for people who are less physically capable. in my opinion, the more people on bikes the better, electric or not, because it means people are getting off the couch and getting outside. my major gripe about ebikes that is not elaboratedon in this article is the price. mountain biking already has an affordability issue and these $6k builds do not help. if we intend to get people off couches and into the outdoors, we have to offer something more reasonable, which makes me very excited to see these $1k decent quality hardtail builds popping up as of late (ie salsa timberjack)

    to me, the main issue seems to be surrounding the regulation. the idea of wilderness areas and single use trails limits access when we should be thinking about how we can get more people involved. ebikes dont tear up trails any worse than regular bikes and they’re much quieter and cleaner than the motos that we like to group them with. i understand the technical definition of a vehicle with a motor might put it in the same category as dirtbikes but cmon. lets be real here. the two are not one in the same.

    also, this is called evolution. its gonna happen. for instance, take a second and think back to when we started riding with suspension. or gears. or pneumatic tires. or two wheels of the same size. take any argument about ebikes and replace it with a technology of the past, and see how silly it sounds. why don’t we all still ride rigid singlespeeds??? isn’t that “more pure”???

    • Jerry Stoeckigt

      I would call that argument silly. All the other advancements still use the same source of energy, you. E-bikes use an electric motor. Totally different type of advancement, in fact it makes a different class of vehicle – motorized.

  • Lee Lau

    My experience in North America is limited to BC and to interactions with bike advocacy organizations throughout Western Canada and the US. My experience in Europe is limited to Switzerland (Graubuenden, Bern, and Valais) and Northern Italy (South Tyrol).

    Many of the advocates in NorAm I know say their concern is trail access. Ie if e-bikes don’t hurt trail access and the land manager permits it then that’s fine. That is my attitude also. I can’t speak to the European advocates. Maybe they will chime in here.

    Why the difference then? In Noram when I started as a volunteer bike advocate 2 decades ago many people looked askance at mountain-bikers as kids and/or hoods in the woods. At best we were viewed semi-suspiciously as new kids on the block without a history. Now we’re viewed (and in my opinion correctly so) as a legitimate outdoor recreation group. And in large part that is because we’ve put in the time & effort to earn this respect. We are looked on by land managers and other user groups as hikers who just happen to have wheels. My opinion and experience is that the motor part of the e-bike quite literally confuses the issues for land managers and other user groups who then have the perception that mountain bikes will become motorized thus opening trails to motorized users.

    In Europe the use of the ebikes has not seemed to opened up this same confused can of worms. Why is that I don’t know

  • ACree

    Nice article that missed a couple of huge points. First, in the US, many, if not most, of our MTB trails are designated as nonmotorized. Ebikes are motorized. Pretending otherwise is false logic that will cause a loss of credibility with other trail user groups. Ebikers and their sellers are getting pushback because instead of forming advocacy groups and trying to change ‘nonmotorized’ to ‘low impact’, which would be logical, they’re instead arguing that small motors don’t count as motors (even though 5 – 750 watts is 2 to 3 times what a normal rider can put out – far more than a mere assist). Second, the US adopted a different power limit that is higher than Europe and Canada. If the bikes were limited to provide just an assist, like say 20 or 30% of the power the rider is already producing, as is so frequently stated, it would be one thing, but instead we have bikes where merely turning the pedals can get an ‘assist’ of 5 – 750 watts, and that is just class 1. I think most who’ve been around the sport very long can recognize that this will change quickly, and that a class 1 limitation will never be enforceable or likely even recognized by users. It will basically be a free for all of electric power, if allowed at all. Third, many in the US view the manufacturers pushing these things as chasing sales at the expense of existing trail access. They see our nonmotorized use threatened by those insisting that ebikes also belong on nonmotorized trails, and are dismayed that the brands want to sell these bikes but spend nothing on advocacy beyond bikebelong and IMBA, their industry groups. Meanwhile they ignore Sustainable Trails Coalition and perhaps diminish the chances of their hard work actually being successful.

    • Jeff Barber

      “our MTB trails are designated as nonmotorized. Ebikes are motorized. Pretending otherwise is false logic that will cause a loss of credibility with other trail user groups.”

      The BLM and Forest Service have already made exceptions that make it clear they do not see this as such a black and white issue. The BLM in particular seems to be working toward a third designation for e-bikes that’s in between motorized and non-motorized.

      The power difference between US and European models is something I hadn’t heard before…

      Regarding your third point, while it might not be publicly visible, you can bet that the industry is lobbying land managers intensely on this issue. It’s actually pretty impressive to see, and shows that with enough funding, a lot can be accomplished. Unlike traditional MTB advocacy which has always been mostly grass roots and slow moving, industry lobbying on e-bike access appears to be swift and efficient.

    • ACree

      Jeff, while it may matter as far legality whether the USFS and BLM view it as black and white, I think it will matter a lot more how other user groups view it, and the reality is that it is a slippery slope once any form of power is allowed.

      A quick google search “Class 1: Pedal Assist
      The electric drive system on the ebike can only be activated through a pedaling action and is limited to relatively low speeds. The sensor usually measures pedal movement, pedal torque or bicycle speed (sometimes all three) and sensors are located in the bottom bracket, rear hub or rear wheel. In parts of Europe this class is limited to 15 mph (25 kph) with motor wattage <= 250 watts. In America, because of our more liberal vehicle definition, this class is limited to a motor powered speed of 20 mph (32 kph) with motor wattage of <= 750 watts. Due to the low speed of operation and required pedaling action this class should benefit from the same rights and access privileges as non-assist bicycles and should be able to be used on streets, bike lanes, multi-use bike paths and off-road trails."

      And in Canada, I thought I just read that Whistler was looking at the issue and class 1 there was 500 watts. So a US bike would be illegal in Canada.

      I don't find it impressive that the industry is lobbying hard on this, I find it sad that they will act so rashly to chase short term sales at the potential expense of their long term customers.

  • hansi

    where can I buy these signs 😉

    e-bikes became a real plague the last 2 years. people with no skills ride tracks not made for them.
    the munich section of the DAV refused the loading of e-bikes this summer at their huts in the Alps, they say: if You cannot make it on Your own, You don’t deserve being here.

    on the other hand: in 10 years, when I’m 74, an e-bike will be a choice.
    take a look: http://www.moustachebikes.com/en/electric-bikes/samedi-27-trail

    for open trails, greetings from germany

    • Brad Beadles

      people with no skills ride regular mountain bikes as well…..

  • Jeff Barber

    Nice work Brian. The differences in how Europeans and Americans access trails is one I hadn’t considered, but it makes sense. E-bikes are probably a good solution for those who are riding to the ride vs. starting the ride at the trailhead.

  • harryman

    The fact that the article didn’t mention the major difference between the US definitions of an ebike and in the EU is a glaring error. As ACree noted, there are different nominal power limits and speed thresholds where the motor stops adding power. 250w ebikes are commonly peaking at 600-750w, a 750w nominal ebike will peak at 1500 – 2000w. They are not the same eibkes.

    In the EU, there are also tighter controls against the sale and use of an ebike that doesn’t meet their criteria, and serious fines for those caught. None of that exists in the US. As well, we have Class 2, which is exactly like Class 1 in power and appearance except you can use a throttle to turn on the motor. Throttles are not legal at all in the EU.

    If the industry here had adopted the same laws as the EU, there would have been far less pushback from land managers regarding access. As it stands now, to allow ebikes is to legally allow 750w ebikes. There won’t be a new class just for emtbs, it’s unenforceable and would take years to push that legislation through all 50 states. Like it or not, we’re stuck with Class 1-3.

    The issue with trails being off limits because they are non motorized is a real one. Grant money and easements can often come with non motorized restrictions, which are still valid, even if your state has legally defined an ebike as not being a motor vehicle. They are still motorized. The reality of trail access is different here than the EU along with the cultural differences.

    • Phonebem

      I should have been more clear in my earlier comment. You’re right in the pushback mainly being in the Class2&3 ebikes while power assist is just that… I should have quantified that I’m OK with it IF the rider had to be doing most of the work.

  • ganzdachhaus

    This really missed the mark on many points, but the biggest was on the trail regulation bit. The EU is by no means homogeneous on many fronts, trail regulations included, but to say that there is generally less regulation in Europe than the US isn’t even close to correct.
    Austria has a blanket rule completely outlawing MTB’s (or any bikes) in the forest – yes, the whole country. Bikes, regardless if they are pure people-powered or e-bike, are verboten in any forested lands there (we’re not talking special, protected national parks here… by definition, pretty anywhere with trees is a forest there). Going north into the largest e-bike market in all of Europe, Germany has exactly as many rules as needed to live up to their stereotypical love of rules would require. Take their third largest Bundesland (aka: State) – in Baden Württemberg, bikes are prohibited on any trails less than 2m wide (find someone of perfectly average height & have them lay down with their arms stretched out above their head. Fingertips to toes would be roughly 2m). That’s all bikes, not just e-bikes.
    Other countries are of course different, but to claim that there is less regulation is entirely incorrect. Yes, other countries (and regions, etc) have different rule, but, by and large, they all have rules (even if completely ignored). Could you imagine the outrage if a state tried to ban MTB’s on anything that we’d call singletrack? What if Washington state simply decided that Forest Work trumped all other uses & therefore bikes can not be in the forest? It sounds crazy, but that is exactly the level of regulation that is present in places in the EU.

    • davyrobinson4u@yahoo.co.

      You’re are correct about EU countries having differing regulations re MTB access. Here in Scotland we have ” free to roam” legislation which means you can walk / run / cycle just about anywhere as long as you respect the countryside and don’t invades someone’s privacy. The fear I have about emtb is that many trail have signs stating no authorised motor vehicles, to keep walkers and other users safe, the use of Emtbs may result in calls for all bikes to be banned from the hills/ mountains and be restricted to designated bike centres.

  • Noggus

    E-bikes for less fit commuters . . . I can understand that. More convenient for commuting & leisure riding. I get it. These aren’t necessarily the cyclists that ride to push their limits and challenge themselves.

    Riding E-bikes on trails and rough terrain . . . I don’t get it. Either embrace the challenge or don’t. For those with medical conditions who wouldn’t be able to do as much without some assist, I think E-bikes make sense.

    During bow hunting season around here it used to be that you could only use a crossbow if you were over a certain age or had a permit due to a physical handicap. Otherwise, you better be able to draw and hold your bow steady. I could see a similar approach being applied to E-bikes on trails.

    Then again, they changed the regulations on crossbow usage recently. Now anyone can use a crossbow. No age requirement or special circumstances required.

  • FlagstaffDirtWorshiper

    I’d also be willing to bet that a lot of us in the states who have watched ohv areas either shrink or become closed to use all together due to increased use see some parallels. You can argue that increased use of trail systems is a good thing and we’ll get more trails built, but that hasn’t been my experience.

  • Sea Loam

    I promise you this ebike thing is going to complicate our trail access. The powers that be dont have time to fiddle around with the different style bike designations. When ebikes flood the trails ,and they will , hikers are not going to be able to discern exactly what went pass them on a climb at 20 mph and almost injured them. This is the lazy person’s excuse for mountain biking at thats it. Aside from disabled individuals no one should ride these on mtb trails. You ask isn’t more people riding a good thing? Only for the battery companies pushing hard for these things to get more mass acceptance here. And any bike company that sees $$$$$ because now you dont have to be fit to ride a mtb , you are going to ruin the sport and ultimately it’s going to come back and bite you in the ass.

  • Hap Proctor

    TREK ebikes are available at the LBS in Ocala, Florida. Mountain and commuter models available and being purchased. I would be surprised if this is the only outlet in the U.S.

    • Noggus

      I’ve seen e-bikes from Specialized in the shops here in the Midwest.

  • ColoradoKids

    Thanks for writing this article! Great way to get more people talking about the issue, and get different view points out. My wife and I recently switched to e-bikes at 40 years old. The huge benefit for us is that now we spend much more time riding together! Before our Class 1 e-bikes even though she is in good shape, and a good rider, we still rode at noticeably different paces. With the e-bikes if she starts falling off the pace (which used to be a reason to not ride together) she just bumps up the assist a little and is able to catch up or hold the same pace. We now ride 2-3 times a week together where before we only rode 2-3 times per month together.

    A thought I would like to leave with the hard core, purists who are not open to allowing class 1 e-bikes on trails is this: Before assuming that we who ride them are going to ruin your sport, and ruin trail access, talk to us! We also want to help be good advocates for the sport, are willing to put in the effort to preserve and maintain the trails, and ultimately go out and enjoy these remote areas of wilderness that two wheels allow us to see.

    Thanks and hopefully we will see you out on the trails! Luke, Conifer, CO

    • ACree

      So before ebikes, you were incapable of simply slowing down to her pace?

      It’s great that you like them and get to ride together. It doesn’t change them from being motorized vehicles. The irony of you mentioning that you enjoy them in the wilderness…

  • ColoradoKids

    ACree, was I incapable? No, I am completely capable. It is just a lot more fun when riding at a similar pace. I do enjoy them in the “wilderness” as that is where I ride them. In Jefferson County Colorado there is currently a pilot program that allows all class 1 e-bikes to ride the Jeffco Open Space trails. It is a great program that allows us to legally ride the single track trails in our area.

  • Whistlepig

    The article seems to really conflate on and off-road use. For a mountain biking site, it would make much more sense to focus on e-bikes as they relate to off-road trails. Discussing street use only serves to confuse the reader.

  • Whistlepig

    A lot of bike trails are built with grant funds that are earmarked specifically for non-motorized use. If e-mtbs get onto these trails, then that would likely jeopardize access as well as future funding. I haven’t seen any e-mtb advocates address this issue.

  • Sea Loam

    EBIKES just need to be on motorized trails thats it simple. Resolved , case closed ! Dont try and pretend it’s part of mountainbiking because it’s just a a motor bike in disguise. This is crazy…

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