The Balance: Sir, This Mountain Biker Requests Permission to Use a Motor

Matt takes a look at the culture surrounding eMTBs in mountain biking and attempts to answer what it means to be a mountain biker.

photo: Jeff Barber

Any opinions expressed in this piece are the author’s own, and may or may not represent the opinions of

It’s my first year working in the bike industry and it’s forced me to take a hard look at e-bikes. Mostly, I’ve been skeptical of them. I haven’t let them come at me with open arms, nor have I turned them away with a cold shoulder. Mountain biking is a hard sport and every ride in the first few years is a rite of passage to prove ourselves.

For me, the sport has changed my life for the better. It’s made me more confident, more secure, more competitive at times, more relaxed at others, and mountain biking has given me a reference point for many of life’s achievements. I am more confident in my ability to do new things, because I have proved to myself that I can mountain bike.

Unfortunately, I think this same concept of using mountain biking as a proving ground has turned the sport into a militaristic sort of society that thinks no one is a mountain biker unless they can ride uphill without a pedal assist, as if mountain biking is a pass or fail test.

When I was in the Marine Corps, this is the attitude we loved, cherished, and endorsed. You are not a Marine until a drill instructor hands you the sacred emblem on the final day of boot camp after three months of blood, sweat, and tears. It was hard, and it was earned, and God forbid you let any Marine catch someone in public committing stolen valor by falsely claiming to be one of us.

But, guess what? Mountain biking is not the military. If you own a mountain bike and ride it a few times per year, then you’re a mountain biker. Maybe you’re a casual mountain biker at best and certainly not an athlete, but the defining factors after this point are modifiers and “enthusiast,” “downhill,” “athlete,” or “e” and so on let everyone know what type of mountain biker you are.

[see_also id=’230513′]

I read it in comment sections at least once per week. “E-bikes are for cheaters,” “e-bikes are a sign of a softer America,” and, “e-bikes are for (insert degrading adjective).”

Trail sign in Moab, Utah. Photo: Greg Heil

Mountain bikers everywhere have taken it upon themselves to create their own definition of the sport for everyone else to live up to. Thanks, guys, for adding more barriers to a sport that’s already full of them.

To be fair, there are reasons to be concerned about e-bikes on mountain bike trails. Access for us is never guaranteed and we are still second-class recreationalists in many places. But as e-MTBs grow in popularity, it’s land managers that are the decision makers, and to date I don’t know of any cases of said land managers revoking access to all mountain bikers because they are concerned or confused by eMTBs.

[see_also id=’232262′]

Actually, as of writing this, my home county, Jefferson County, Colorado just approved eMTB access to all mountain bike trails after a trial period. This has been approved in a county with an exploding population and insane increases in the number of both hikers and mountain bikers on existing trails.

In other words, there are now way more people on the same number of trails, which should be the red-flag warning to an increase in user conflict that commenters fear. JeffCo, in their study, haven’t seen it.

When I was in college, I had a criminal justice professor who used to describe laws and libertarianism with a short sentence. “Your rights end where mine begin.”

When my rights to trail access are threatened or appear to be threatened by people riding e-bikes, then I’ll take a hard stance against them. Until then, I’ll worry about being the best mountain biker – and person I can be without putting down others for what kind of bike they ride.