Hot dang—I’m ripping!
I’m boosting side hits, nearly blowing corners, my face is sore from smiling and laughing—and I haven’t even pointed the bike downhill yet. Instead, I’m climbing one of my favourite ascent trails faster than ever before. My heart rate is up there, but not through the roof and, I’m almost surprised to admit, my first off-road e-bike experience is already a lot of fun.
But don’t say that too loudly… in the past few years, as e-bikes have come from fringe to forefront, opinions on them have varied wildly. On one end of the spectrum, riders with chronic injuries are rediscovering their love for the trails. On the other end, die-hard mountain bikers steadfastly believe e-bikes have no place on the trails: they’ll never ride one and you shouldn’t either.
And in the middle: the rest of us. Controversy is no stranger to the cycling world, and with differing opinions on what an e-bike even is, let alone where they should be ridden, the burning question right now is, Who is right this time? And, what does it all mean for the tens of thousands of riders ready for another summer on the trails? Are we teetering on another ‘War in the Woods’?
Riders have been fighting for their share of the singletrack pie in the Coast Mountains since the ‘90s and earlier, but in the past few years the sophistication of their approach has improved significantly. Attempting to clean up the renegade image of mountain bikers out in the forests nailing boards to live trees and destroying the environment, advocacy groups now spearhead trail building and maintenance while highlighting economic benefits through business and government partnerships.
And the results are impressive. Despite the occasional misunderstanding, relationships with other trail users are better than they’ve ever been. Yet, with the emergence of e-bikes, volunteer-run advocacy groups are dealing with conflict from… other mountain bikers. Some see e-bikes as a threat to all the hard work that’s brought us to this point. Why risk years of cooperation and compromise just so the new kid on the block can party on our trails? Won’t having motors allow people to ride extra distance, putting extra wear and tear on those trails? Why would we chance an increased risk of user conflict after all these years of effort? Where will the line be drawn between electric mountain bikes and traditional off-road motorcycles? And are we on the brink of a slippery slope where regular pedal bikes will go the way of the dodo?
“Where will the line be drawn between electric mountain bikes and traditional off-road motorcycles?”
Human nature has a habit of finding fault in others, rather than attempting to understand. This idea of ‘othering’ and its divisive ‘us versus them’ attitude pervades all corners of society, and it has been driving wedges between various outdoor enthusiasts for decades. Skiing vs. snowboarding. Ski touring vs. lift skiing vs. snowmobiling vs. heliskiing. Fly fishing vs. bait. Cross country vs. downhill mountain biking. The list is far from short.
And leave it to the marketing-driven, bottom-line focused bicycle industry to throw a wrench in the gears. In a classic case of the cart before the horse; e-bike technology has advanced far more quickly than the bureaucratic hoops could be jumped through, and now we’ve got ourselves in a bit of a mess.
Believing the best way to understand a problem is to take it head on, I borrowed an e-bike and dropped into this issue with a few questions in mind. First, how different is the pedal–assist ride experience? Second, where are the various advocacy groups at with their work on this bureaucratic quandary? Third, can a case be made for pedal–assist bikes as another tool in the outdoor adventurer’s toolbox?
Along the way, I found many compelling reasons for choosing an e-bike.
[DEFINING THE OTHER]
One of the easiest criticisms of electric–assist mountain bikes is that they’re basically motorcycles. We don’t let motorcycles on hand-built singletrack, so why would we let these things on our trails?
Well, it’s not that simple. There are actually three classes of electric bicycles. The current wave of electric assist bikes, available from dozens of big bike brands, are Class 1 e-bikes. These bikes only provide power when you pedal, and the motor assist is limited to a speed of 32 kilometres/hour. Class 2 e-bikes give power by throttle and are also limited to 32 km/h. Class 3 e-bikes are pedal–assist only, no throttle, and limited to 45 km/h.
These classes of e-bikes were developed primarily for the urban environment in Europe, where electric bikes have been the norm for years. From a regulatory perspective here in BC, Class 2 and Class 3 e-bikes are considered Motor Vehicles, while Class 1 e-bikes are considered Motor Assisted Cycles and are given the same treatment as regular bicycles. E-bikes available on your local bike shop’s showroom floor are essentially all Class 1 e-bikes.
You’ll be seeing a lot of those Class 1 e-bikes this summer. Of course, anytime something new hits the mainstream, it goes without saying someone else has already been riding that wave for a while. Bjorn Enga and Christian Bégin witnessed the the birth of freeride mountain biking here in BC two decades ago, and today they’re at the forefront of the e-bike world.
Freeriding saw daredevil riders from Kamloops, Vancouver’s North Shore, and the Kootenays breaking all the rules of the era and riding harder than anyone had ever imagined, forging new territory, and pissing a lot of people off in the process. Bégin and Enga’s Kranked series of films showcased a revolution that would change mountain biking forever. Now, 20 years later, they’re part of yet another revolution in the sport.
In 2011, when the freeride buzz had all but subsided, Enga was wandering the dark corners of Interbike, the cycling industry’s biggest tradeshow, when he happened upon a company from Austria selling bolt-on electric bike kits. Nursing a bad hip from years of hucking and wondering if this might help him get back on the trails, he purchased a kit and hit the trails near his home on the Sunshine Coast.
Almost immediately, Enga recognized the value of electric-assisted mountain bikes and by 2013 he was strapping throttle-controlled electric motors onto long travel downhill bikes. “I was having the rides of my life,” he says. “I realized the potential of this thing was crazy awesome.”
Before any of the major brands were making electric–assist mountain bikes, Enga went from having one electric bike, to importing a few kits, to becoming the North American distributor for the Austrian company, to developing his own e-bike kits. At the time, many in the mountain bike world saw Enga as a kook, but he had endless enthusiasm for the possibilities his electric bikes were creating. And he couldn’t help but share that enthusiasm with his old buddy Christian Bégin.
Back in 1997 with Kranked, people were telling Bjorn and I that we were destroying the sport of mountain biking,” Bégin explains. “That freeride was never going anywhere, and that dual suspension bicycles weren’t there to stay. I’m hearing the same stories now with e-bikes.”
Echoing my own experience on my borrowed e-bike, Bégin tells me he’s seen many skeptics change their tune as soon they ride one for themselves. And he believes in e-bikes so much that he’s now running a rental shop in Squamish. “People quit the sport because it was too hard on them, because of physical difficulty or illness,” he says. “Now they’re back mountain biking! It’s changing people’s lives.”
[THE OLD FRIEND]
And it’s that life-changing potential that found me on a bike with an old friend for the first time. Todd Fiander—better known as Digger—is a humble hero and integral piece of the local mountain bike community, particularly on Vancouver’s North Shore where he has been quietly making trails better for nearly 30 years. I’ve known Digger for more than a decade, but I had never ridden bikes with him until this day.
A lifetime of hucking rigid bikes to flat and chasing the freeride movement down the slopes of the North Shore with his own video camera was not easy on Digger’s knees. He blew them out then ground them to a paste building iconic trails right here in his hometown. Digger still builds for the North Shore Mountain Bike Association but, for many years, actually riding a bike was a pipe dream for him. After a double knee replacement and the arrival of e-bikes, Digger is back in the woods again and suddenly I’m out pedaling with a friend whose riding days were once long gone.
“I couldn’t ride a bike for years,” Digger tells me. “Now I’m riding every day again. It’s changed everything.”
These days, harmony is the goal for trail associations: at the end of the day everyone wants to enable high quality experiences in the outdoors that take advantage of the incredible terrain we have here in the Sea to Sky. The overwhelming consensus from the people I spoke with at the trail associations from North Vancouver to Pemberton is that the rise of e-bikes on public singletrack trails has been a thorn in their sides, partially because it can’t be properly addressed until the province, municipalities, and other land managers decide what type of use to allow on their land. The advocacy groups can lobby for certain policy on e-bikes, but in the end it’s the land manager who decides.
Looking to the provincial government for direction turned out to be a long waiting game, but when the province finally stated their rules in April 2019, few were surprised to see that it doesn’t really change much. On trails under provincial jurisdiction, Class 1 e-bikes are allowed on all trails where bicycles are currently allowed, unless specifically prohibited. This opens up the opportunity for case-by-case exceptions to the policy—something that will definitely be on the table for trail associations now.
In Whistler, Whistler Off Road Cycling Association (WORCA) and the Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) have already established that the alpine trail network—that is, anything above the Flank trail—will be off-limits to e-bikes, as will the Whistler Interpretive Forest trails. The RMOW is aware that recreation on municipal land is already a mix of human and motorized: chairlifts enable visitors to ski in the winter and mountain bike in the summer, so riding a bike with a motor is somewhat similar from the recreation perspective.
Yet, of all the advocacy groups, WORCA has the firmest stance: they do not consider motorized recreation under their jurisdiction. WORCA acknowledges in its published position that e-bikes can result in “increased use/distance, increased risks (real or perceived), and increased potential for conflict”. They’re not expecting to be able to keep e-bikes off the trails, but they are preparing for an increase in maintenance because of them.
In Pemberton and in North Vancouver, the Pemberton Valley Trails Association (PVTA) and North Shore Mountain Biking Association (NSMBA) have until now taken a more reactive approach, waiting on provincial policy before putting in too much work. The NSMBA acknowledges e-bikes as a valid user group, but is clear that e-bikes are outside their jurisdiction. Currently their stance is not against e-bikes on trails; instead they state that they will “monitor and re-evaluate if necessary based on studies or assessment of on-trail conditions.”
It did not come as a surprise for me to hear that, of all the riding areas in the region, Squamish has the most open-minded approach to integrating e-bikes. Squamish is already an excellent example of well-integrated motorized and non-motorized recreation, with trials bikes and dirt bikes sharing the trails with hikers and mountain bikers. The Squamish Off Road Cycling Association (SORCA) represents more than just the mountain bike community—they are the primary trail advocacy group in town. SORCA president
Jeff Norman even mentioned the possibility that they may take e-bikes in under their jurisdiction, “providing us with a better opportunity for education on responsible use and keep them involved in trail stewardship through membership.”
SORCA’s approach to all this makes me wonder if there really is a bubbling user conflict happening, or if we all just need to work better on sharing the outdoor space we value so much. The bottom line in the advocacy conversation is that most groups involved, including the provincial government and other land managers, are reserving the right to adapt e-bike policy as the
[THE BUSINESS OWNER]
Beyond city halls and conference rooms and back out on the trails, I come upon another old friend for whom the e-bike has greatly changed their mountain biking experience. Monika Marx is a business owner, mother, coach, and elite athlete. As the owner of a strength training studio frequented by many in her local mountain bike community, Marx has found herself a fly-on-the-wall for many ‘topic of the day’ discussions. Over the past years, she’s seen the tone around e-bikes change from fear to curiosity.
“People are afraid of it but they have no first–hand experience,” she says. “The fear is often a regurgitation of what others say and it’s not always factual.”
In her studio and out on the trails, Marx knows a number of elite athletes in various stages of training and preparation. It’s an age-old dilemma for athletes at this level to choose between sticking to their training program or riding just for fun. Particularly for endurance athletes, mountain biking’s high intensity is often outside what’s considered “smart” training: if you want to get fast in the long term, you can’t go mountain biking in the short term. Marx has discovered her e-bike allows both.
“I think you can build proper endurance on an e-bike,” she says. “It’s not cheating. You can take the work you would usually do on a road bike or stationary bike and do it on the trail instead.”
In Marx’s world, e-bikes take scheduled training rides not just outdoors, but into the woods. To me, that’s a very compelling use case.
[WHERE ARE WE GOING?]
So where does this leave me with my questions around e-bikes? One of Bjorn Enga’s favourite phrases is, “You can’t keep a good shred down,” an adage that applies equally to the current e-bike wave as it did the freeride fiasco-turned-revolution-turned-mainstream.
“We way never get away from that us-versus-them ‘other’ mentality, but no matter what happens, the e-bike revolution is just hitting its stride.”
Coming back to my own experience—yup, I rode an e-bike and risked my friendships—the pedal–assist motor took me on rides I wouldn’t otherwise have had time to do as well as ones that would have normally left me shattered at the end. But most importantly, my eyes were opened to possibilities I hadn’t even considered. What if this was the adaptive technology that allowed us to get out of our cars more often, to avoid shuttling, and to get people riding who have been off their bikes for years—or even decades?
I’m still not sure what to think of the fear that e-bikes open difficult-to-access terrain for those who don’t “deserve” it or haven’t “worked for it”. But it isn’t until you see a compelling reason for someone making use of an adaptive technology that you consider it in a different light. We may never get away from that us–versus–them ‘other’ mentality, but no matter what happens, the e-bike revolution is just hitting its stride. And when the dust finally settles we can start gearing up to hate on the next new thing.
I’m just happy to be out in the woods with my friends. —ML