E-Bike 101 Including Some Research

Battery of e-bike. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, the Gazette.
The Colorado Springs Gazette had an article on E-bikes here. It’s pretty comprehensive. Note that Boulder and Jefferson County (Colorado) both did studies which led to different policies. I bolded the research results. Are you aware of other studies? If so please link in the comments below.

What’s all the fuss?
For every “supporting theme,” there’s an opposing theme. Speed, damage to trails and conflicts on trails were among top concerns drawn from that local survey.

At a meeting about e-bikes in the Springs last fall, one equestrian, Eleanore Blacketer, worried about “the ability for a bike to have higher speeds than what we might normally see.” The horse could perceive a threat, she said, and the consequences could be “catastrophic.”

While the promise of profit is there, Crandall at Old Town Bike Shop said he’s been “cautious” about growing e-bike inventory. The anecdotes he hears about are of “some people riding e-bikes that don’t know the etiquette, don’t have the knowledge of history and don’t have the skills to be going the speed they’re going on trails,” he said.

Crandall added: “There’s going to have to be some creative legislation, and maybe some money for enforcement to keep it from becoming a crazy world.”

He envisioned e-bikers traveling farther afield than they should, “having a lot more power than they do skill,” and requiring search and rescue crews. That was a shared fear in the survey.

Those are exaggerations, proponents say.

Kent Drummond, a longtime hiker in the region who has racked up 3,350 miles on his e-bike, said fellow enthusiasts weren’t as interested in the backcountry as opponents popularly believed. E-bike-riding El Paso County Sheriff Bill Elder agreed: “I think for the most part, people who are avid e-bike riders stay mostly to the urban (commuter) trails.”

But Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates, the local mountain bike advocacy group, has brought attention to the technology still developing, the capabilities still expanding along with the type of people wanting to ride.

In a statement, Medicine Wheel advised e-bikes “be regulated separately from human powered bikes” and warned “they bring the potential to significantly change the trail experience.”

A reality check was needed, Drummond said. “If there’s more traffic on trails, it’s not e-bikes. It’s bicycles in general. … E-bikes aren’t ruining anything.”

He and other e-cyclists report taking harsh, vocal scorn from other riders they pass.

“Some riders feel that riding a bicycle with pedal assist is cheating,” Wiens said. “But not everyone wants their experience to be a feat of endurance and fitness. They may just want to have some fun.”

Are they faster than standard mountain bikes?
The popular answer: Depends on who is riding.

“Typically, eMTBs are slower going downhill than traditional mountain bikes,” said Wiens, whose international organization supports e-bikes as long as access for other bikes is unaffected. “The majority of eMTB riders aren’t riding any faster than traditional mountain bikers, but of course there are always exceptions.”

Granting caveats, analyses by Jefferson and Boulder counties determined traditional mountain bikers traveled slightly faster on average.

But research is still early, and the answer to the question might vary across locales. A Portland State University study, combining data from Boulder, Tennessee and Sweden, determined “e-bikes are indeed faster on average than conventional bicycles.”

Chinese researchers published a study last year that showed human correlations with the machine. One conclusion: “As e-bike riding skill increases, the riding speed continuously increases and is constantly expanding.”

Are they damaging to trails?

Concluded a 2015 study in Oregon: “soil displacement and tread disturbance from Class 1 eMTBs and traditional mountain bikes were not significantly different.”

Again, Jefferson and Boulder counties found no increased harm in their assessments.

And again, because of the lack of it, research cannot be called conclusive. Some contend the weight of e-bikes, commonly 20 pounds more than traditional mountain bikes, pose greater risks to erosion, along with the motorized churning of a wheel.

10 thoughts on “E-Bike 101 Including Some Research”

  1. At the current level of E-bike development, they currently are slower than a gas powered motorcycle, but not by much. As technology advances in battery development, we will be seeing e-bikes that rival MX motorcycles. I used to race MX and the speed difference between someone blasting down the trail on a fast bike compared to hikers and horses is huge. I believe the potential for serious injuries is significant. However, if we are going to allow motorized vehicles on trails, why not open it to motorcycles too?

  2. Th e-bike controversy rages in our area, NW Wyoming. So far the USFS has stuck to its regulation that e-bikes are motorized and therefore allowed only on motorized routes. Though the trail impact may differ little from that of regular bikes, both have changed the trail system and the amount of energy the forest has to put into rerouting sections that were not designed for wheeled vehicles in order to make them sustainable. We have steep, erosive clay soils in many places, and bikes can quickly turn the trail tread into V-shaped ditches, as well as widening them by riding around others and over the trailside vegetation. It seems the main concern about bikes in general on trails is the social conflict, as there is a significant difference in the speed of bikes versus foot traffic. It works all right if everyone follows the rules (bikes yield to others) and there isn’t too much traffic on the trail.

    • Thanks, Susan. In places around here, there is also unraveling of soil from bikes, and bike-related trail widening. And also bike riders who follow the rules and are polite, and ones that don’t slow down or yield or say thank you when you move off the trail for them.

      I also think the amount of traffic is critical as you said. Stepping off the trail a few times in 20 mins is one thing, every five minutes is something else. Some of our local parks have instituted bike or hike only days on weekends, or other restrictions such as on Apex Park near Denver:

      “A one year management change will go into effect on September 10 2020 to improve safety and reduce visitor conflict. Enchanted Forest, Magic Mountain, Poco Calle, Rocker, Paydirt, and Smelter Trails are directional-use trails. Bicyclists are required to ride in one direction only (downhill/east) on even calendar dates. On even calendar dates only bicycles are allowed on the trails listed above. On odd calendar dates the trails listed above are only open to hikers and equestrians.”
      It seems more difficult for the FS to manage these kinds of “front country-esque” restrictions, perhaps due to less funding in general for management and for enforcement or ??,

  3. A friend who lives in Colorado Springs says the city has imposed a 15 mph speed limit on all bikes, human or electric. He says that takes a lot of the fun out of riding trails in the city.

    • Steve, That is indeed curious.. I saw the 15 mph marked as “for all trails” on the site about the pilot, but still 20 mph on the Ute Valley Park site. It does make sense if you ratchet it down on CS trails folks will tend to go to county or National Forest trails.

  4. I must say, that confusion reigns. Most commenters have conflated ebikes with bicycles and one conflated them with electric motorcycles. Is it even possible to talk about class 1, 2, and 3 ebikes without getting off topic? I feel, until that is possible, we can’t have a functional dialog.

  5. Experience tells me that enforcement doesn’t work. Whatever you are trying to do.
    Also, a good bike rider can go downhill much faster than a motorcycle (with a few exceptions).
    Maybe e bikes because of weight, may be a little slower downhill generally.
    From what I am hearing e bikes are appealing to older riders that have experience riding, but aren’t capable of “killing” it like they used to, but still want to participate.

    • Patrick, I think the e-bike controversy is interesting because it causes everyone to think about what they really don’t like about other recreationists. Say OHV’s… the stereotype is that they are lazy, use fossil fuels, are noisy and so on … but what about old people on e-bikes- they’re not noisy, are still lazy (or just unable), and are most likely to use fossil fuels to charge their bikes. Should we only allow ebikes for people who pass a disability test and have installed a speed control?

      Do we want to get more people out in the woods? AKA the recreation economy? Or are there too many already and an easy way to keep them out is to kick out different user groups?


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