We Asked Four Major Trail Organizations for their Thoughts on eMTB Trail Access

The prevalence of electric mountain bikes and the trails that they're legal on in the US has only grown since their introduction, and things don't look to be slowing down any time soon. How do trail advocacy organizations feel about these developments?

Photo: Matt Miller. Location: Vail Resorts, Colorado

It has been a busy few months of eMTB news. While we know that the topic can be divisive, controversial, and provocative, the growing prevalence of eMTBs in the United States has challenged land managers, mountain bike organizations, and politicians to find ways to integrate them into land management plans and operations.

Like it or not, it is happening right now, and it would be irresponsible of us to filter the news from readers who might not like it, or to turn a blind eye, as Singletracks has always covered what’s going down on the trails, in terms of access, and letting readers know where they can ride.

Most recently, we talked about the allowance of eMTBs on National Forest land around Lake Tahoe, and of course the recent decision by Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt to allow all three classes of e-bikes on land that the Interior manages, including National Parks and BLM land.

While we have covered these eMTB access “victories,” or why some people don’t like eMTBs and how they could potentially harm access, and readers have left countless arguments for or against eMTBs, we hadn’t yet spoken with many of the actual trail advocacy organizations who have taken mountain biking so far, and have had their hands deep in paperwork and dirt. Largely, a lot of arguments out there — for or against — are based on assumptions of what trail advocates might say.

In order to cut straight to the chase, we spoke with four trail organizations, two of which represent national interests, while the other two represent local interests, to get varying perspectives.

Dave Wiens, International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA)

Most informed mountain bikers should be familiar with IMBA and with Weins. IMBA first rolled out a stance on eMTBs and surveyed members back in 2015, but as Weins also said in our discussion, four years ago qualifies as “eons” in terms of electric mountain biking.

Most recently, they updated their position around eMTBs, which was essentially a reaffirmation after Secretary Bernhardt opened the gates on classes 1-3 on National Parks and BLM land.

From IMBA’s perspective, what seems to be the attitude around eMTBs?

In short, it’s evolving. Generally speaking, mountain bikers are the group that know most about this topic. They know the class system, they know the difference between a pedal assist and a throttle, they understand why these bikes are appealing to a broad group of users.

We’ve been talking about e-mountain bikers as mountain bikers for a number of years, but it’s only in the past two years, and more particularly this summer, become a reality on the trails. You rarely saw an eMTB before that, but now more mountain bikers than ever have at least tried an eMTB and have that perspective to help form their perspectives and opinions. And the topic is getting a lot more attention outside of the mountain bike world.

Has it altered IMBA’s mission in any way?

No, it hasn’t altered our mission at all, but it’s something that we have to take into consideration, because it’s on the landscape. To a casual observer, they look just like a mountain bike. It’s not like it’s this totally different thing that came along, it’s very similar to a mountain bike and they’re designed to be used on the same terrain as a mountain bike. While we’re not advocating for their use, we’re certainly involved in understanding how they fit into the bigger picture of trail access.

Is IMBA communicating with land managers about eMTBs?

We’ve only had a resource area on our website, but IMBA doesn’t do anything specifically, like demo days. Land managers are more in tune with eMTBs, more so those that manage trails. Locally, our BLM has done their due diligence to understand eMTBs and they’ll get several offices together and go ride eMTBs on local trails to understand exactly what it is.

And, what we hear is that riding them is a big step in people’s minds, not necessarily in accepting them, but understanding them, and what the technology is and what it isn’t, particularly class 1.

Is there pressure on IMBA to advocate for eMTB access?

There’s certainly pressure and that pressure can come from a variety of areas. In the extremes, on one end, you’ve got mountain bikers saying ‘we don’t want anything to do with eMTBs,’ and the other saying ‘we want these things to be everywhere, they’re just like a mountain bike,’ and as an advocacy organization, we hear them both.

We’re keenly aware that this category of mountain bikes is not going away. I know that the US is not exactly like Europe, but if we look to Europe for at least an inkling of what may be to come, we’re going to see nothing but growth on the eMTB side.

To better position our organization and to protect access for traditional mountain bikes, we can’t stick our head in the sand that these things don’t exist. When I say “we,” I’m talking about IMBA Local organizations, and basically local mountain bike organizations across the country, mountain bikers, and IMBA. That’s the collective that is already being impacted one way or another by more e-bikes on the landscape.

We hear it frequently from the side that says “e-bikes are not mountain bikes.” Well, there is a pedal-assist element to them, sure. There is a motor. You can point to it. But, other than that, if a group of riders goes by and five are on e-bikes, and five are on regular bikes, they kind of all look the same and they’re going for a ride on the same trails.

If it’s Hartman Rocks here in Gunnison or Cement Creek up in Crested Butte — trail systems that are open to motorized use — then it’s all good. You have a whole bunch of people enjoying mountain biking, some of them just happen to be using a bicycle with a small motor and pedal assist.

Is there pressure from the bike industry to advocate for eMTB access?

The Hub Bike Shop, Pisgah Forest, NC. Photo: Aaron Chamberlain

No, and the reason for that is that less than ten percent of our annual budget comes from the industry and a very small portion of that comes from brands that are really interested in seeing more acceptance for e-bikes.

Since I came on, and the current team, we’ve had this discussion many times. We have a mission. We’re not an industry trade organization, we’re for mountain bikers, so we need to be unencumbered by pressure and influence from financial supporters. We’re very clear up front that your support for IMBA does not buy a particular decision or direction.

Some of the biggest eMTB brands are also not supportive of IMBA at all. Other brands do have an eMTB interest, but aren’t asking us for anything. We’re 100% not impacted by the industry, which is a great place to be in.

Does there need to be some sort of education on eMTB access or use for eMTBers?

Absolutely, but will it be? How effective can it be? If someone buys or demos a bike, hopefully that retailer educates the buyer on where they can take it and where it’s appropriate to ride, and where they can’t take them. Education is a huge part of it, because they’re not allowed everywhere currently. But it’s a tall order.

Have you seen any instances where eMTBs have threatened traditional MTB access?

We have not, and that’s a big part of our position. We’re supportive of class 1 eMTB access as long as traditional MTB access isn’t threatened. The second part of that is we don’t want to see class 1 eMTBs and mountain bikes become one and the same and there is a movement that wants to see that happen. We feel like that has the potential to be dangerous to traditional mountain bike access, and that’s not the best for growing eMTB access, if they’re combined.

If that happens, we would never get them apart again and if there were access issues for whatever reason, then access for all bikes, class 1 and traditional, would potentially be threatened again.

Ted Stroll, Sustainable Trails Coalition

Ted Stroll is the president of the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC), a long time mountain biker, attorney, and advocate for allowing bicycles in federally-managed Wilderness. The STC formed in 2015 to advocate specifically for this cause.

What is STC’s stance on eMTBs?

We are pretty agnostic on them. We don’t have any official institutional position of any kind […]. [D]espite all the industry jargon […] [they are] low-powered motor vehicles.

The Wilderness Act forbids the use of any kind of motorized equipment or transportation, and we respect that. Our critics say that we’re working to undermine the Wilderness Act, but we’re working to reaffirm it. Originally, and the way that Congress passed the law, they intended for human powered travel to take place in Wilderness. We’re trying to restore the Wilderness Act to its original intent. Electric bikes are clearly contrary to the Wilderness Act.

How does your membership feel about eMTBs?

What we see on our Facebook page is that members seem to be just as divided on e-bike access as the larger mountain bike community. We have STC supporters who disdain them. We have supporters who think they’re really valuable.

Does e-bike advocacy seem take away from non-electric bike access?

Photo: Jeff Barber

The advent of e-bikes presents another challenge STC’s mission a little more uphill than it would already be. And that is because unsurprisingly, the people that oppose what we’re doing, trying to get human powered travel in Wilderness areas, say that it won’t be possible to keep e-bikes out, and they have a point.

It makes our work a little bit harder, but that’s just the way it is. And, we don’t oppose e-bikes simply because they make our work harder, it’s just another challenge.

At the institutional level, it probably makes our work worse, but in terms of mountain bikers getting kicked off the trails in California, I haven’t seen any evidence.

Actually, on the trails, for all the irritating behaviors that e-bikers can exhibit, in the state of California, I see very little backlash from hikers. The backlash doesn’t seem to have materialized on the trails, people don’t seem to care very much.

What is your outlook on the future of eMTBs?

Before long, they’re going to minimize the batteries so they don’t have that bulbous downtube, and it’s going to be hard for anybody, including the land managers to tell.

And, we live in a society where people will circle around the parking lot to park 50-feet closer to the store. I was in Switzerland 20 years ago, and I couldn’t believe it, I did this rugged 20km hike and there were all these people in their 60s and 70s going up this hill, it was like a traffic jam.

But, the US just isn’t that kind of country. If there’s some labor-saving device out there we seem to gravitate to it real quick, and I think they’re just going to gain in popularity.

Yvonne Kraus, Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance

Bellingham, Wa. Photo: Jeff Barber.

Yvonne Kraus is the executive director of EMBA, the nation’s largest statewide mountain bike association, made up of eight different chapters. The introduction of eMTBs has been difficult for Kraus and EMBA to navigate, and while dealing with them seems completely possible and also unavoidable, Kraus believes that it’s going to take time.

What seems to be the attitude towards eMTBs in your area?

We have a good amount of people embracing the technology and are seeing more eMTBs on trails. And there seem to be just as many steadfast opponents who are adamant that a hard line must be drawn at the motor. My inbox has about an equal amount of pro and con emails. Our community remains fairly split in terms of adopting eMTBs on trails, but over the past two years, I have noticed a softening of anti-eMTB comments and support for increased adoption and access [has] become more positive.

Most pro-eMTB arguments I receive focus on the technology offering increased access and diversity to the sport, and the request for Evergreen to advocate for increased eMTB legal trails.

Others argue that mountain bikes belong on non-motorized trails and while Class 1 access would be human-powered, the fact that there’s a motor makes access delineation and enforcement more difficult.

A lot of people are concerned that providing access ultimately leads to increased trail conflict and pressure, which could threaten overall mountain bike access to non-motorized trails if our community chooses not to abide by the rules. With ongoing technology advancements and the battery technology becoming ubiquitous, eMTBs could advance quickly, and to the point where they will be seen as no longer compatible on non-motorized trails.

There’s a good amount of opinion on both sides of the scale. But, interestingly in completing recent panel presentations at conferences, audiences have been more accepting than I anticipated, and the most vocal opposition comes from within the mountain bike community itself.

What is EMBA’s stance towards eMTBs?

We haven’t created a public position statement, and that’s because we are not land managers. Our role is to best advise our land managers on the impact of their decisions to allow e-MTBs on their trails. But we’ve taken a very active advisory role: being part of the legislation process and recommending class 1 access only; only where it makes sense; and only if it does not affect the quality trail experience for other users on multi-use trails, and to plan from a baseline of “closed unless signed open.”

I see our role as a facilitator to help slowly, appropriately, and sustainably introduce this technology. By doing that, we’re not taking a hard stance, but we’re recognizing the fact that the technology is here, and it’s gaining popularity all over the world, and adoption here makes sense. But it cannot be rushed and it cannot be done without industry investment. And in my personal opinion, it shouldn’t be done blanket-style for all eMTBs under existing non-motorized management objectives. Throttles on non-motorized trails are just not okay.  Having separate management objectives for eMTBs is key to success. Then, we can work with land managers to introduce them where it makes sense.

Is eMTB advocacy taking away from regular MTB advocacy?

I think there is little awareness of the amount of work it takes to maintain access for traditional mountain biking on trails in certain areas. This technology provides renewed reason for trail user groups to argue that the sport of mountain biking is no longer compatible [on non-motorized trails].

My access conversations are now not only about providing e-bike legal trails, but also include a renewed level of effort for keeping access on existing non-motorized trails and defending our right to be there. That is purely based on a renewed sense of fear, particularly after the recent DOI decision allowing access for all three classes of eMTBs.

So yes, this is taking my time away from doing development on regular mountain bike trails. I now have to do development and advocacy work on e-bike trails and issues, simply because of community pressure, and our Trails Director is spending time calming down or responding to social media comments. This week was all about e-bike comments, pulling together a WA State coalition to respond to the DOI ruling, and restarting a Board special committee on our eMTB response. And no joke, this delayed 8 contracts for new trails and pump tracks that are on my desk awaiting my review and signature.

We don’t get any industry help. Most stores simply ignore the fact that they’re creating a problem and do not educate their customers. Other stores who support EMBA would like to get us more engaged because they’re seeing the market change. And none of the e-bike stores, brands, or manufacturers are offering to help pay for creating access. They may be lobbying at a national level, but they are not stepping up to address the impact of their products on local trail systems.

It’s tough because as the ED of an advocacy organization, without direct industry support, why should I push for e-bike legal trail systems if they aren’t helping to pay for that access? And at the same time, it’s personally emotionally challenging when I have to tell people that they can’t ride their brand new eMTB on a trail they are obviously enjoying.

What is your outlook on eMTB access in the future?

Hopefully over time the technology will be ingrained, and over time sellers and buyers will play by the rules. I do think that eventually things will settle out in a way that’s sustainable, and that for Evergreen, staying relevant for our future members means embracing the technology. But, I think that without industry help, the burden on how to do it right falls on us.

So, can they provide match-grant funding for things like building an e-bike legal trail on public land, which doesn’t take resources away from other trails we’re working on?

E-MTB legal trail introduction on a brand new trail system, where there is no historic use, is a no-brainer. Why wouldn’t you adopt it if it’s brand new trail, and built to today’s wishes and technology? New trails can built specifically for eMTB use: wider uphill turns for example. And if you’re not an e-MTB fan, you don’t have to ride there.

The idea of staying relevant and meeting future user needs is very important to me, for Evergreen’s ongoing appeal and success. I’m trying to hone in on the reasons why exactly advocating for eMTB access is important. Sure, they are a lot of fun to ride and bring more people to the trails, but they are also at the moment spurring controversy and encouraging bad behavior that is not helping our community. I also hear the disability argument a lot, but I personally do not believe it should be used as a reason for access.

E-MTB technology benefits are limited to people with minor disabilities. For the most part, you still need working legs and arms to be able to ride them. The disability argument should include e-assist motors and trail modifications for all adaptive bikes. Evergreen is building an adaptive trail at Duthie MTB park in 2020, with support from King County.

True disability access means investing in wider trails, ensuring wide wheelbase bikes can clear obstacles and grades, and looking at ways the people with all disabilities can access the outdoors through our sport — adaptive bikes with e-assist handcranks for example.

I’m pretty unwavering in my opinion that disability access advocacy and investment for eMTBs only does not service the community we’re trying to reach. That investment must be more broad and encompassing. It’s wonderful that someone with a hurt knee can ride a little longer on an eMTB, or continue to ride with family members, but we can’t draw the line at disabilities at an eMTB, we must consider the full scale of adaptive bike access and investment to make that argument.

Gary Moore – Colorado Mountain Bike Association (COMBA)

Gary Moore is the executive director of COMBA, which is an IMBA Local chapter. While eMTBs are not legal across the board in Colorado, places like Jefferson County, which hold the state’s most-visited trails had a trial period for class 1 eMTBs last year and the bikes became permanently authorized on the county’s busy trails.

Moore’s summarized response to the questions:

Access to natural surface trails for Class 1 eMTBs is still hotly debated in Colorado’s Front Range. We think there’s still much to learn about the introduction of eMTBs to the natural surface trails and we are fortunate to have a front row seat to watch their implementation and to see what, if any, impacts they have both on the trails and their interactions with other trail visitor groups.

Both Colorado State Parks and Jefferson County Open Space, perhaps the busiest trails in the state with nearly 7M visitors annually, allow class 1 eMTBs on their natural surface trails and have for approximately the past year or so. That adds up to the better part of 300 miles of trails in our area and a lot of interactions between eMTB riders and the usual trail visitor groups.

Our members are split on the issue, with about 40% who see eMTBs as an essentially different mode of recreation that should be treated as such, and the rest are either neutral or in favor of welcoming motorized-assist bikes as just another bike in the quiver. To date, we haven’t found any need to advocate specifically for or against eMTBs. Purely anecdotally, eMTBs seem to be blending in well without the need for special considerations and we remain focused on pursuing world-class mountain biking in the Front Range.

Key takeaways

E-mtb legal trail riders in Idaho. photo: Jeff Barber

What surprised me the most about talking to each and every organization was how measured and objective they were regarding eMTBs — even Ted Stroll from the Sustainable Trails Coalition, whom I would’ve thought would be the least friendly towards the eMTB conversation. Although they are clearly counterintuitive to the STC’s mission, Stroll wasn’t riled up talking about eMTBs, and couldn’t validate the argument that they would hurt access for traditional eMTBs.

Yvonne Kraus’s statements gave me a lot to think about, however. Based on what she and others had to say, there is something lacking from the brand and retailer side of eMTBs, where they would obviously be financially interested in selling a bike and yet it is not their responsibility to enlighten customers on where eMTBs are actually legal to ride.

The end result is an under-educated rider that isn’t going to let their new several-thousand dollar toy just sit in the garage and collect dust.

Pivot donates a portion of every Shuttle eMTB bike sale to IMBA and has worked with organizations on eMTB education. Although this doesn’t directly increase rider education, or contribute directly to eMTB integration, it is one example of realizing that it’s not productive to introduce this technology onto sales floors and not pitch in anywhere else.

Perhaps the most important piece to chew on though, based on recent events, is that the integration of class 1 eMTBs on non-motorized trails does seem like it will happen regardless. Yes, they have motors. Everyone I spoke with agreed on that, but a class 1 eMTB motor does not equal that of a dirtbike, and it doesn’t have the same impact on trails.

Electric mountain bike technology will continue to improve over time, and the bikes will look more and more like non-motorized mountain bikes. And like Wiens said, eMTBs will be ridden by folks who look like regular mountain bikers.

Eventually, the only distinction to be made will be from core mountain bikers who can recognize the appearance of an eMTB, and assumptions be damned, still don’t want anything to do with them. In the grand scheme of things, that seems to be the least of our problems.