E-bikes are Important Forest Accessibility Tools

E-bikes allow a wider group of people to enjoy mountain biking and the forests it rolls through.

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Throughout my too-many-years at university, the first dean of our sociology department was an equally loved and revered human. Professor Sullivan’s lecture courses were famously more difficult than they needed to be, to “prep us for graduate school.” In his graduate courses, the highest grade most students could earn was a B, and receiving a B- was a welcomed relief since a C meant you had to retake the class the following year. The phrase “suffering makes us stronger” may have been a screen saver someplace in the main office, and I learned as much about perseverance as I did research methods during those biweekly lectures. Surely students around the world have a similar narrative about their favorite teachers.

Professor Sullivan had an intimate connection with suffering and adversity that many of us navel-gazing future social scientists couldn’t fathom. He had lost the use of his legs due to disease and moved through the world for roughly half of his life in a wheelchair. He never once mentioned what the disease was, and everyone in my graduate cohort agreed that he wouldn’t want us to ask. He clearly wasn’t defined by his physical ability and maintained a kindly professional tone with his students that included a reasonable modicum of personal distance.

I lived in the same neighborhood as Dr. Sullivan, deep in Northeast Portland, Oregon, and would occasionally run into him and his son. I was typically on my bike, and they were often out for exercise or on their way to church, depending on the day. One afternoon, while spinning home from another wet and chilly ride in Forest Park, I crossed paths with him as he was also spinning through the rain. We stopped in the middle of the street and chatted for a while under an ever dependable PNW drizzle. I remember greeting him nervously, given the fact that I should have spent the afternoon writing a paper instead of training. He told me a story about how much he loved riding bikes back when he was in college, and I shared some stories about our collegiate cycling team that I raced with at the time. Once our heart rates both slipped to a shiver we said our goodbyes and rolled the few remaining blocks to our respective homes.

Reheating myself in the shower later I realized that every time I saw Dr. Sullivan around the neighborhood he was in the street. Even when he wasn’t exercising he didn’t use the sidewalks. I glanced out my window and embarrassingly recognized one part of the reason for that. In addition to the fact that the street is a less interrupted place for all of us to exercise, there were no curb cutouts in our neighborhood. He couldn’t have used the sidewalks if he wanted to.

That naive lightbulb-moment has since helped me think about ability, accessibility, equity, and accommodation in more corners of life. It’s likely the most memorable lesson that I learned with Dr. Sullivan, despite our long hours spent discussing quantitative data analysis and other academic matters. I recently had a similar realization, equally belated and humbling, about e-bikes as important tools for accessibility, equity, and accommodation in our lovely two-tire sport. In addition to being a fun way to get into a new activity for a lot of people, e-bikes also create a proverbial curb cutout for folks who would otherwise not be able to access forests and other outdoor spaces.

Over the past two years, I have been on countless adventures with friends who are able to ride longer trails and to maintain pace with faster riders, all thanks to a little electric assistance. Whether due to their physical abilities, age, current fitness level, or time constraints, they wouldn’t be able to enjoy trails in the same way that I can without a little power generated between their feet. E-bikes provide a small accommodation to make or keep mountain biking possible.

A handful of the older folks I ride with love being able to join group rides and chat with friends in the forest, thanks in part to their e-bikes. One friend in particular broke her back several years ago, and can’t push on the pedals for more than an hour without extreme pain. The e-bike triples her forest exploring time. Several other e-bike riders I’ve talked with have rekindled their love of mountain biking after knee surgeries and injuries kept them from riding for a number of years.

My prior, albeit deeply myopic, understanding of e-bikes was that they make a sport easier that is supposed to be hard. As a former cross-country athlete, I subscribed to a glibly purist notion that mountain biking is about suffering, and in order to participate you have to be willing and able to endure “type II fun.” Fortunately, I was wrong. For a majority of riders, now including myself, mountain biking is about enjoying nature, overcoming fears, hanging out with friends, learning new things, exercising, and a host of other wonderful attributes that don’t revolve solely around suffering. While a little physical adversity is often necessary, it’s not the focal point.

Getting more riders into the forest benefits all of us, and e-bikes are an important accessibility tool that increases the joy ratings and the population numbers in tandem. More mountain bikers means more trail funding for longer and better singletracks. It means more people experiencing the awe of our natural world, which may inspire them to vote in favor of environmental protection and industry regulations that also benefit our sport. It means more people exercising and improving their health instead of couch compressing. It means more minds innovating and improving our industry and related activity. It means individual mountain bikers can support accessibility, equity, and accommodation in our sport by including fellow e-bike riders.

While writing this I took a lunch break and hopped on the chairlift to quadruple my descending time for the day. I often enjoy hopping on a shuttle or chairlift to the top of the trail to increase the fun factor of a ride. People on e-bikes have that feature built in. In short, you don’t have to ride an e-bike to be pro e-bike. Those little motors are assisting our sport in a positive direction.