Are Class 1 E-Bikes too Fast for Certain Trails? Some Think a Slower Class is Needed

With more than one type of electric mountain bike on the market today, some bikes might be more appropriate for certain trails than others.

Blake Melton isn’t against e-bike trail access. Quite the opposite, he recently bought an electric Trek Fuel EXe mountain bike for himself.

Melton is the Chairman of the Board for Standing Boy Inc., a non-profit based in Columbus, Georgia that’s working to protect and preserve a massive piece of land bordered by the Chattahoochee River and managed by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR). His group has a master plan for developing 25 miles of singletrack on the property with trails designated for riders of all abilities. The trails are also open to Class 1 e-bikes, at least for now, on a trial basis. But Melton is personally concerned Class 1 bikes, which provide pedal assistance at speeds up to 20mph, are too fast and powerful for the rolling terrain at Standing Boy.

“We were just worried that for a trail system with, let’s say, 200 feet of usable elevation change, that is within the city limits of Columbus, eventually, people being able to go a lot faster than people historically have gone on bicycles was going to be a problem.”

A few others have been making similar arguments about e-bike speeds being too fast for trail riding, including industry veteran Joe Vadeboncoeur. In an interview published by Bicycle Retailer and Industry News in February of 2020, Vadeboncoeur suggested the European Class 1 e-bike designation, which limits speeds to 20kph (about 15.5mph) is more appropriate for trail use.

Considering how quickly and widely e-bikes have been adopted in Europe compared to the US, and given the differences in maximum speed limits, some wonder if there could be a correlation. So why are the e-bike classifications in the US and Europe different, and how did the US system settle on a 20mph maximum speed for Class 1 e-bikes?

The history of the US e-bike classification system

In 2002, almost a decade before the first commercial e-mountain bike would arrive, a number of individuals, including Dr. Malcolm Currie, the former CEO of Hughes Aircraft and Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering from 1973-77, worked to craft federal legislation amending the Consumer Product Safety Act and wresting control of electric bicycles from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). On December 4, 2002 the bill passed, codifying at the federal level the definition of a low-speed electric bicycle.

According to the bill, “the term `low-speed electric bicycle’ means a two- or three-wheeled vehicle with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts (1 h.p.), whose maximum speed on a paved level surface, when powered solely by such a motor while ridden by an operator who weighs 170 pounds, is less than 20 mph.”

Further, the bill states “a low-speed electric bicycle (as defined in section 38(b) of the Consumer Product Safety Act) shall not be considered a motor vehicle as defined by section 30102(6) of title 49, United States Code.” This suggests e-bikes — at least according to the federal government — are not motor vehicles, despite having well, motors.

Larry Pizzi worked with Dr. Currie at his eponymous company, Currie Technologies, in 2002.

“My understanding from that era, when I went to work for them, was that the speed and power were determined based on what an athletic cyclist could do on a paved level surface,” said Pizzi.

E-bike classes

While the 2002 Federal Low Speed Electric Bicycles (LSEB) Law defines what an electric bicycle is and gives the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) oversight over their sale, it does not address their use. That is, the laws, at a federal level, simply allow the products to be sold in the United States. Regulating how the bikes are used would be up to each state, or in many cases even lower down at the city level.

As a member of the board at the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association (BPSA), which would later merge with People for Bikes, Pizzi was tasked with helping states understand this new product category as they considered usage regulations.

“We envisioned a way to sort of address the concerns of local municipalities and bicycle advocates and in the industry, and we developed these three classes,” said Pizzi. “The three classes were configured based on what we had inherited out of this public law that already set the bar at 750 watts and 20 miles an hour.”

At the time the classes were being considered, the European e-bike market was much more mature, and the US industry looked at their classification system to see what was working. It was decided that Class 3 e-bikes would have a top speed of 28mph, which is the same speed as “Speed Pedelec” bikes in Europe that are limited to 45kph. (Today Europe calls these Class L1e-B bicycles, and they are required to have a lighting system among other safety features.) Essentially Europe and even parts of the US regulate these as motor vehicles given their top speeds, and in practice Class 3 bikes have seen limited adoption in the US. Since the Federal LSEB law states electric bikes can go 20mph when powered solely by the motor, 28mph is technically still e-bike territory as long as the rider is providing the power that’s generating the additional speed.

The Federal LSEB laws set the maximum speed of an electric bicycle at 20mph, though they don’t specify whether that’s pedal-assisted speed, or if a throttle can be used without the need for pedaling. Given that the BPSA is a bicycle group, members at that time felt bikes with throttles were too far removed from the traditional cycling experience, and more akin to motorcycles. So, the group set aside Class 2 for throttle-controlled electric bicycles that were already legal under the 2002 LSEB law.

“When we spoke to cycling advocates and public lands managers, everybody was really concerned about a product that had a throttle, and what kind of environmental impact that it would have on a natural surface trail,” said Pizzi.

In the United States, most of the electric bikes sold — and nearly all eMTBs — fall into the single remaining class, Class 1. These bikes offer pedal assistance up to 20mph, at which point the motor shuts down and the rider must provide 100% of the power. It’s the class that most states, municipalities, and land managers refer to when granting electric bike access to everything from bike lanes to singletrack trails.

“Our intention from an industry perspective was that Class 1 e-bike should have access to cycling infrastructure where a bicycle can go.”

Still, this leaves the US e-bike classification system at a mismatch with the European system. However, while Class L1e-A bikes in Europe are limited to a slower 15.5mph, they are allowed to utilize a throttle, unlike the faster but pedal-assist-only Class 1 bikes in the US.

Trail access issues

Trail access for eMTBs is far from a settled issue in many parts of the USA despite the BPSA’s early efforts to solicit feedback from land managers. And the recent pandemic-related explosion in trail use around the country only exacerbated concerns about the potential for trail user conflict, specifically when it comes to speed.

As Melton and others acknowledge, mountain bikers have been riding fast since the beginning, easily exceeding 20mph on downhill trails with an assist from gravity. But on flat and rolling terrain — like the terrain found at Standing Boy — trail users aren’t expecting to encounter bikes traveling at those types of speeds, especially on flat traverses.

“It’s like you’re trying to turn that flattish section of trail into this downhill-type experience with the motor,” said Melton.

This is true. I’m sure I’ve written something to the same effect, noting in at least one review of an e-bike I was testing that it made flat trails ride like downhills. Yet trail design and safety considerations for downhill trails are very different than for flat and rolling trails.

Speed concerns are not new when it comes to e-bikes and there’s evidence that land managers in some areas have said no to Class 1 e-bike access due to their 20mph maximum speeds. In 2018, Boulder County Parks and Open Space in Colorado solicited community feedback on opening trail access to e-bikes, and dozens of opposing comments keyed in on the higher speed of the bikes. In the end, Boulder County decided to restrict e-bikes altogether from most singletrack trails including the ones at Betasso Preserve, Heil Valley Ranch, and Walker Ranch. If e-bikes were restricted to a lower speed — say 15.5mph — would concerns about the bikes’ speed be as acute? Realistically there’s no way to know.

In nearby Jefferson County, however, e-bikes are allowed on most singletrack trails following a trial period to solicit community feedback and monitor for issues related to things like user conflicts. Perhaps most tellingly, a 2017 county survey found 65% of trail users were unable to detect the presence of a Class 1 e-bike vs. a regular mountain bike, speed differential or not.

That two contiguous counties in Colorado can end up with such different stances toward e-bike trail access likely says as much about politics as it does anything else. However it does illustrate how land managers make access decisions in part based on community sentiment and local conditions, weighing everything from user experience and population density to soil types and topography.

Two camps

Photo Matt Jones.

Today, electric mountain bikes seem to be coalescing around two camps: gravity-oriented bikes with big, powerful motors and even bigger batteries, and lighter weight, trail bikes that are meant to look and feel more like traditional mountain bikes. It’s that second group that Melton sees as more appropriate for a trail system like Standing Boy. Bikes like the Trek Fuel EXe, Pivot Shuttle SL, and Specialized Turbo Levo SL. Ultimately Melton hopes to advocate for an eMTB classification system that further distinguishes between electric “trail” and “enduro” bikes.

All the eMTBs on the market today, whether they’re more gravity- or trail-oriented, are working with the same Class 1 limited, 20mph maximum speed. While some of the lighter, trail-style eMTBs do have less powerful motors than their electric gravity cousins in a bid to cut weight and battery size, most do not, nor is there a requirement to do so. With just a single class of e-bikes available, concerned land managers can only hope to lean on other approaches like educating trail users on responsible riding, or using trail design to help manage e-bike speeds.

In a note about e-bike usage published on the Standing Boy website, Melton says “If you own one of the 50lbs, maximum-powered class 1 e-bikes, please use all that power and speed judiciously.  Stay out of turbo mode.  Maintain reasonable speeds on the flats and ups, brake early and gradually for corners (i.e., don’t lock up the wheels and skid), etc.” As one commenter wrote in response to a recent e-bike op-ed, e-bikes don’t cause user conflicts, riders do.

Pizzi concedes that having Class 1 e-bikes on multi-directional trails can be an issue. “We do see the problem that you’re calling out, it’s more of a problem on multi-directional trails,” he says. “First and foremost, we’re the bicycle industry, we’re not the e-bike industry. We wouldn’t want to do anything to jeopardize access for mountain biking. We’d be shooting ourselves in the foot if we did that.”

Today IMBA and other trail groups are working to design many new trail systems with e-bikes and flow in mind from the start. One-way trails are a key part of the playbook, as are longer sight lines so that riders and other trail users have more time to react to one another, and technical trail features that force riders to slow down.

I asked both Melton and Pizzi if they thought it would be possible for the U.S. e-bike classification system to modified, or if perhaps a new class could be added to give riders and land managers more than one choice when it comes to the trail experience.

Melton, for his part, is cautiously optimistic. “It might be doable politically,” he said. “I’m going to pitch the idea of a e-trail bike classification that land managers could use to clearly articulate that low/mid power e-bikes are allowed.”

Pizzi, however, is doubtful the classifications will be changed, particularly at the government level.

“I think it’s pretty much set in stone,” he said. “It’s hard to get regulatory stuff modified once a lot of states have already adopted this class system.”

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