Over a Beer: Why Ebikes Are the Spawn of Satan (mostly)

Photo: Jeff
Photo: Jeff

Editor’s Note: “Over a Beer” is a regular opinion column written by Greg Heil. While Greg is the Editor in Chief for Singletracks.com, the opinions expressed in this commentary are his alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Singletracks.com.

“Ebike” is probably the most controversial word that you can utter in mountain biking circles today. That’s compounded by 10 times if you follow it with the word “Wilderness,” but for today’s discussion we are going to leave Wilderness largely out of it. What’s curious to me is how hot the topic has been in mountain bike circles over the last couple of months. Part of me wonders, “why now? Why is this an issue now… why are people just now realizing that ebikes could be a serious problem?”

Because I first rode–and started writing about–ebikes quite some time ago. In fact, my first ebike ride was during Interbike 2013–which will be 3 years past when the next rendition of Interbike rolls around. So it’s nothing new on my radar, but apparently, only now is it a big deal to mountain bikers at large since Specialized has launched several ebikes in the US, and Trek and Giant are poised or bring their ebike offerings to North American shores. Yes, they (esp. Trek) already had e-mountain bikes (eMTBs for short)… they just haven’t sold them in the US yet.

It’s also surprising to me how few people have even tried out an ebike yet–even within the bike industry. In a recent video produced by Vernon Felton, Vernon even says that he hasn’t ridden one yet, so he can’t form his own opinion. Fair enough, Vernon, but as I dive down the rabbit hole, I need to make one thing clear: I have ridden ebikes. Several of them, in fact, and as recently as Outerbike this past fall, to see if and how the technology has developed over time.

The author gaining some perspective aboard an e-fat bike at Outerbike 2015.
The author gaining some perspective aboard an e-fat bike at Outerbike 2015.

So, just so you know: my opinions haven’t been formed based on what people have told me. They’ve been formed from personal experience. They’ve been formed from riding ebikes and seeing how they perform. They’ve been formed by keeping an eye on land access issues across the nation and observing how various land management agencies have dealt–or not dealt–with the ebike issue. I’ve been watching, observing, and keeping tabs for the past three years, and here are the opinions that I’ve formed.

And while perhaps articles like this one can help you shape and form your own opinions, I encourage you to do the same things I did: test an ebike for yourself. Pay attention to trail access issues, both locally and nationally, and observe what happens as trails are closed to mountain bikes, and riders fight to maintain access to singletrack across the nation. Get out there, and form your own opinions for yourself.

But since you asked, here’s my long-form take on why ebikes are the spawn of Satan (mostly).

Motor + Bike = Motorbike

Before we go further, let’s be clear: if you have a motor on your bike, it’s a motorbike. It is no longer a bicycle, and it is especially not a mountain bike.

The inherent problem with ebikes is that the companies that make them, the people that ride them, and indeed, even some government entities (we’re looking at you, State of California) are trying to define pedal-assist ebikes as bicycles, aka nonmotorized vehicles.

This isn’t even an opinion, guys, it’s a fact: if your vehicle has a motor, then it’s a motorized vehicle.

“Well no shit,” some of you are thinking. And while I personally don’t feel like I need to argue this further, there are plenty of people and companies who are, in fact, arguing that these mini motorcycles are actually bicycles.

I would have no problem with ebikes, ebiking, ebike manufacturers, and ebike riders, if we called ebiking what it is: Its own distinct sport. I would be cool with it if we acknowledge that ebikers are a category of trail users wholly separate from mountain bikers. If ebikers had their own advocacy organizations. If they had their own manufacturers, their own media outlets. The problem is, none of the ebike parties involved are taking that approach.

The Sea Otter Classic's first dirt bike race. Photo: Jeff
The Sea Otter Classic’s first dirt bike race. Photo: Jeff

The “Mostly”

Now here’s where the caveat “mostly” comes in. Since ebikes are motorized vehicles, ebike owners are already totally free to legally ride anywhere that motorized vehicles are already permitted. This includes roads, and motorized trails.

As a short aside, I think ebikes on pavement are friggin’ genius for commuting purposes. Let’s say that you live 15 miles from your job, and you’d like to bike to work. Now of course if you really sack up, you can commute 15 miles each way. Even at a decent clip, that’ll take you roughly two hours round-trip on a road bike. Not only can an ebike cut down that commute time, it can also keep you from getting nasty from sweat, and let’s face it: most people aren’t going to pedal a 15-mile commute every day. But if you can do it in 30min each way on an ebike (most ebike motors are limited at 28mph from the factory), not only are you enjoying the wind in your hair and the sun on your face, you’re reducing carbon emissions from your car, and reducing traffic on the road. Heck, it’s a win-win-win. I have absolutely no argument against ebikes for commuting purposes.

I have plenty of arguments against eMTBs in all forms and fashions, but my arguments aside, legally you should still be able to ride them anywhere that motorized vehicles are allowed. This includes jeep 4×4 roads, ATV trails, and even motorized singletrack that’s already open to dirt bikes.

Now in some parts of the country, there are very few places to ride singletrack on your dirt bike. But here in the Rockies, we are flush with excellent singletrack dirt biking opportunities. In fact, some of the most popular mountain bike trails near my hometown of Salida, Colorado are motor-legal, including the world-famous Monarch Crest trail. So, if you owned an ebike, you would be completely within your legal rights to ride the Crest, as long as you don’t descend Silver Creek, Starvation Creek, Fooses Creek, or Little Cochetopa trail off the Crest. Please note, that still leaves you two epic singletrack descents, Green’s Creek and Agate Creek, as well as three different dirt road descent options.

And then you start talking about other moto-legal trails that are awesome to ride like the Rainbow Trail and Canyon Creek, and you quickly realize: there are plenty of places to legally ride ebikes.

The Problem: Ebikes on Non-Motorized Trails

“So if ebikes can ride on all these motorized trails, what’s the problem?”

The problem, then, is all the riders, companies, and government agencies who want to get ebikes allowed on non-motorized trails, because it is adding unnecessary complication to our mountain bike advocacy efforts.

The waters have already been muddied for decades with mountain bikes being equated to motos in the amount of trail damage we do. Sorry moto guys, but it’s true: motorcycles cause significant trail damage. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, cause about as much impact as a hiker. Finally, land managers are starting to understand the distinction between mountain bikes and motos

Now along come ebikes, and the waters are muddied again. As we fight to maintain access to trails around the nation and bike companies are claiming that their ebike is a bicycle not a motorcycle, the environmentalists ask, “why should we allow you to continue using this trail, or have access to this trail that was closed to bikes at one point, if you want to bring motors along with you?”

The problem is, from the vast majority of mountain bikers, the answer is “we don’t want motors on our trails either!” But if you listen to the marketing hype from companies like Felt and Specialized, just to name a couple, they aren’t satisfied with their ebikes being labeled as “motorcycles.”

Arguing against eMTBs in all forms and places.

At this point, I’m going to take a turn with this article, and I’m going to argue that eMTBs are the spawn of Satan in all applications–even where they’re legal. Again, I have no issues with ebikes for commuting, as the sheer utility of it is simply genius.

But on a personal level, I have issues with the simple existence of ebikes. But arguing that ebikes suck, even where they’re used legally, is a bit of a stretch, I’ll grant you. So if you have a problem with this, please refer to the disclaimer at the beginning of this article–this is my opinion, so feel free to take it or leave it.

But since you asked, I think that ebikes are the spawn of Satan.

Why don’t you just buy a moto?! AKA ebikes are slow and expensive.

If you’re buying an ebike and you’re only going to take it on motor-legal trails, I’ve gotta ask: why don’t you just buy a dirt bike?!

Ebikes aren’t cheap–they range from around $3,000 on the low end for a hardtail up to over $7,500 (and even more) for a full suspension ebike. Compare that cost to a used dirt bike, which can often be had for less than $1,000, and factor in that you can go so much faster and you don’t have to pedal it, and I’m left scratching my head about why anyone would buy an ebike. Heck, I just saw a his & hers pair of dirt bikes for sale on my local Facebook buy/sell page for $3,300. A little over three grand for a pair of quality dual sport dirt bikes in great condition. For that price, you can pick up a low-end hardtail ebike with mediocre components. Just one ebike, mind you.

Simply put, if I want a motor, I’m going to ride a motorcycle. But if I don’t want a motor helping me, I’m going to ride my mountain bike.

These Satan-Spawn Contraptions will Destroy the Soul of Mountain Biking

It’s true that what mountain biking is is different for everyone who participates in this great sport of ours, but in my mind, these Satan-spawn contraptions will destroy the soul of mountain biking if we let them.

To me, mountain biking is all about the challenge. Part of that challenge is the technical challenge of the trails, the speed, and getting down the mountain as fast as possible. But another part of that challenge–perhaps even the biggest part, depending on how you look at it–is getting up the mountain, before you go down.

At its very core, I think mountain biking embodies the yin and yang between pain and pleasure. We mountain bike because of the euphoric adrenaline rush, but that adrenaline rush is made all the sweeter by the pain endured on every single ride.

In the video mentioned above, ebiking was referred to as “fast forwarding through the commercials,” aka the climbs. Isn’t the desire to skip the difficult challenge of the climbs, so we can enjoy the sweet reward of the descent as soon as possible, so symptomatic of our fast food, instant gratification culture? Perhaps ebikes aren’t the problem, then. Perhaps they’re simply the solution that a bunch of lazy wannabe riders have been begging for because they don’t want to endure the pain of the climb.

Photo: Jeff
Photo: Jeff

Responding to Arguments

One common argument made for ebikes and how they make the ride easier is that they’ll allow people with handicaps to ride who couldn’t otherwise. I call BS on that argument. Not only do you still need all of your faculties to control the bike, but there are plenty of badasses out there who mountain bike without an arm, with an injured or partially-amputed leg–you name it, a mountain biker has probably overcome that injury.

It is possible that an ebike could help someone who is out of shape or past their prime travel further than they could under their own power, but again, if you can’t get there under your own power, where’s the sense of accomplishment in achieving that feat thanks to the use of a motor? And personally, I don’t count anyone out, no matter their age: there are plenty of guys and gals out there who are twice my age and can probably smoke me on the climbs. Saying that you’re too old to ride is, in my mind, simply another cop out.

See Also: Discovering Mountain Biking at Age 65

One final application where ebikes may make a lot of sense is for riders who have some sort “cardiopulmonary, neurological, or musculoskeletal disability,” as Michael Paul, our resident doctor, so succinctly put it. And as long as people with such disabilities are using ebikes on motor-legal trails (see above), these machines make absolute perfect sense! However, arguing that because a person has a disability that they should be able to use a motor vehicle on a non-motorized trail is a dangerous argument to make.

Rather, I think we need to realize that sometimes life deals us a crappy hand. I personally haven’t been injury-free in over two years, and that has seriously limited my ability to travel to the wild and beautiful places that I so love. But at the same time, I realize that that’s life, and sometimes life sucks. Sometimes we don’t have choices about what our bodies are capable of.

I think when we hit the limits of our bodies’ capabilities, we have two choices in how we respond to that challenge. Number one, we can work harder to overcome our obstacles. Number two, especially if number one doesn’t work, we can learn to accept that we have biological limitations, and find a way to be happy and whole despite the possibly bad situation that we’ve been dealt. I do not think that one of our choices is to risk damaging others’ enjoyment of wild places by demanding to use a mechanism that has been deemed illegal in a specific area. The last thing I would want is to selfishly argue that ebikes need to use non-motorized trails, and subsequently have all mountain bikers banned from that trail as a result of my actions. Instead, I would rather simply take my ebike, and use it in a place where it is deemed legal.

Some may equate the argument I just made about not fighting for ebike access and claim that I’m contradicting myself, since I advocate that we should fight for mountain bike access in Wilderness areas. However, this is not the same situation, because mountain bikes do not currently enjoy access to Wilderness trails. Arguing that mountain bikes should have access to Wilderness does not carry the risk of removing any current user groups, aka equestrians and pedestrians, from their current use of those wilderness trails. Whereas the danger posed to the current user group of mountain bikers by the introduction of ebikes as a part of that user group, is very real (see “The Problem,” above).

One final common argument for ebikes is that these contraptions, since they do make the climb easier, will help our sport to grow and help more people to enjoy mountain biking. I’ve already argued that we don’t need any more mountain bikers, and if we have to cater to laziness and sloth in order to attract more people to the sport, than I would doubly assert that we don’t need those people in our sport or our industry. Let them keep doing whatever they were doing before–not everyone needs to be a mountain biker.

And if they do want to be a mountain biker, tell them to either pedal up the hill, or see above: buy a motorcycle.

eMTBs Suck to Ride

The final nail in the coffin, the final insidious act of these evil-incarnate machines, is that they simply suck to ride. Most ebikes–even with the latest technology–weigh about 50 pounds. This extra weight is obviously due to the battery and motor. And while the added power counters the extra weight as you climb, my real beef is when it comes time to descend. These absurdly-heavy bikes are awkward and cumbersome to maneuver when the actual fun part of the ride arrives. As a result, the part that we discussed above as the blissful reward isn’t actually so blissful.

Forget getting air. Forget skimming nimbly over the tops of rocks and roots. Instead of flying down the trail, descending on an ebike feels more akin to navigating a boat through a sea of roots and rocks, ploughing through the waves of the singletrack as you slowly make your way ever downwards.

There are plenty of other technological issues, such as distance limits and bugs in the system, that contribute to ebikes’ overall suckiness to ride. I’ve expounded on the possibility of getting stranded on your ebike here, which at the time was theoretical. Since I wrote that article, I’ve heard several stories of this exact scenario happening to ebike riders.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I’d have no problem with ebikes if they kept to themselves, created their own sport and culture, and were only used on motor-legal trails. But since ebike manufacturers seem hell-bent on convincing us that these motorcycles are actually bicycles, yeah, I have all kinds of hate for them.

Electric mountain bikes are in their infancy and they are already confusing our advocacy efforts, they cater to and enable our instant gratification culture instead of attempting to destroy it as we ought, they’re stupid-expensive even on the low end, and they simply suck to ride. I can only conclude that they are the spawn of Satan.

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