For decades, mountain bikers have worked diligently and diplomatically to maintain access to “nonmotorized” trails throughout the state. The very nature of “nonmotorized” is central to an original tenet of the sport, which is self-sufficiency.
However, a new generation of electric bikes — or e-bikes — threatens to disrupt that hard-earned access, often pitting cyclists against cyclists, advocates against advocates, and even bike shops against bike shops.
E-bikes are “pedal-assisted” bikes, not motocross rigs with throttles and big engines. They’ve gained traction in the road and rail-trail markets, allowing folks with disabilities, injuries, or flagging fitness more opportunities to ride.
With technological advances, major manufacturers are introducing e-bikes designed for off-road use. These e-mountain bikes look similar to traditional mountain bikes and fat bikes, with an electric motor the size of an egg-carton and enough power to reach 20 miles per hour. By comparison, mountain bikers typically travel less than 10 miles per hour.
“They’re great,” said Russell Polsgrove, an e-mountain bike owner who lives in Canton. “It’s like having someone putting a hand on your back and giving you a gentle push.
“Some might believe riding an e-bike is similar to a motorcycle, but my experience is the opposite,” Polsgrove said. “My e-bike — a Specialized Levo — has a governor of 18 miles per hour, but I rarely get close to it kicking in unless I’m on a paved road going down a steep grade.”
But it’s the word “motor,” and the potential trail damage it can cause, that many mountain bikers object to, even though e-bikes come in several classes and most have speed restrictors.
“Our position is that e-mountain bikes are motorized, and should be managed as such,” said Philip Keyes, executive director of the New England Mountain Bike Association (NEMBA). “If e-mountain bikes and [human-powered] bikes begin to be managed as a single category of use, I believe it would be next to impossible to open up new areas for mountain biking, especially on land trust and conservation lands that don’t allow motorized use.”
Spokesman Troy Wall said the state Department of Conservation and Recreation doesn’t permit motorized vehicles on nonmotorized trails, but acknowledged the agency will be reviewing the policy. That review will solicit concerns and suggestions from the public, park advocacy groups, and other stakeholders.
Meanwhile, the e-bike debate has moved beyond the trails to the Internet and local bicycle shops. Even shop owners and managers don’t always see eye-to-eye.
Some wouldn’t comment at all. “We do not have any interest in weighing in on this issue,” wrote Belmont Wheelworks manager Clint Paige in an e-mail.
Brandon Krebs, manager at Landry’s Bicycles in Braintree, said: “I don’t believe in e-mountain bikes on nonmotorized trails, as there is currently a ban, and violating it could damage access for all riders.”
However, he added, e-mountain bikes would allow more people to get onto those trails, and the bikes themselves could be policed in terms of motor size or horsepower.
“There could be very specific parameters about what a pedal-assist mountain bike is, which is the farthest thing in the world from an electric dirt bike,” said Krebs. “In these cases, not just disabled or elderly people, but people who ride infrequently but would love to join their friends without holding them back could benefit.”
John Stanwood, owner of Woody’s Cyclery in Middleton, said he uses his shop as a “bully pulpit to foster a positive position regarding mountain bikes, along with sharing and maintaining the trails we use.”
“That battle has been a long and tough one around here,” Stanwood said. “E-bikes likely would only muddy the water for a lot of work already done with regards to land access and shared use.”
Conversely, Mike Hauser, owner of Pedego Electric Bikes Boston in Belmont, said “the hard-line stance against e-mountain bikes by associations like NEMBA is a serious problem, as it is full of negativity and exclusivity.”
The perceived “sharp dividing line” between mountain bikes and e-mountain bikes “does not really exist,” said Hauser. “To most people, a typical mountain bike and a typical e-mountain bike look the same and ride the same.”
Keyes disagreed with Hauser’s depiction of the mountain bike association’s position.
“I don’t believe our position to be hard line, but rather based upon the reality that e-mountain bikes are motorized,” he said.
The association’s guidelines, sent to retailers and land managers, maintain that “mountain biking is a human-powered form of recreation and e-bikes are, de facto, electric ‘motorbikes.’ It does not matter that they are power-assisted or that their throttle is controlled by pedaling.”
Traditional mountain bike advocates said the debate must be cast in concrete terms, since allowing certain motors will make the difficult job of enforcement even tougher.. Ashland resident Brian Forestal, a member of the mountain bike association’s Blackstone Valley chapter, opposes opening nonmotorized trails to e-bikes because of the speeds they generate.
“And when there is a conflict with other users on a trail, that bike won’t be labeled as an e-bike, but as a mountain bike,” he said. “When the land manager has to decide how to make the problem go away, it will be to ban mountain bikes, not just e-bikes.”
Forestal and others acknowledge that some riders with health issues, or older riders, might benefit from e-mountain bikes. However, they add that any changes should be done through proper channels, with state review.
“Even if e-mountain bikes were regulated, I see this as a slippery slope of motor modifications, and damage to trails that we work hard to maintain and protect,” said Quincy resident Steve Cobble, of the association’s southeastern Massachusetts chapter. “I can also see a newer demographic coming down the trail who have no skills or courtesy towards other trail users, things that are now deeply ingrained in mountain-bike culture.”
Hauser said the current models of e-mountain bikes are easily distinguished from larger motorcycles or motocross bikes, but acknowledged that the motors “are getting smaller and more powerful and will be easier to hide in the bike in the future.”
Acton resident Chris Li, co-owner of the Bikeway Source in Bedford, said he used to ride motocross bikes, and is concerned that “the potential is still there” for e-mountain bikes to do damage if the motors become more powerful.
Some shop owners say the pressure to sell e-mountain bikes is coming, in part, from manufacturers.
“The bike industry is pushing e-bikes onto independent bike dealers,” said Brian McInniss of JRA Cycles in Medford.“E-bikes are already on our trails. It’s nearly impossible to patrol... I put the blame on the bike industry, and bike shops that sell them knowing they’ll be ridden on the trails illegally. I see this as incredibly short-sighted.”
Meanwhile, the mountain bike association is lobbying bike shop personnel to educate buyers about where e-mountain bike can be ridden legally.
“It’s up to the shop to disclose that there are limitations to any kind of e-bike,” Li said.
Currently, there are four state properties in eastern Massachusetts that allow motorized vehicles on designated trails: Wrentham State Forest, F. Gilbert Hills State Forest in Foxborough, Franklin State Forest, and Freetown State Forest.Brion O’Connor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.