Could e-MTBs damage trail access for all mountain bikers? Suppliers need to take care.

Electric mountain bikes have the power to harm

It’s been apparent for some time that Eurobike could knock out the “uro” in its name and rebrand as Ebike. The number of electric bikes in Friedrichshafen would certainly allow the Messe to organise a standalone “pedelec” show. Eurobike started as a mountain bike expo, and adding motors to MTBs has created a product category that’s highly lucrative – some parts of the European bicycle business are making an awful lot of money out of e-MTBs. It’s not a category that’s impacted in the UK yet. Sales of any electric bikes remain small beer compared to sales of non-electric bikes but here’s a prediction: e-MTBs have the potential to do a great deal of damage to mountain biking as a whole.

Let me get something straight – in this column I’m talking about electric mountain bikes not electric bikes used for transportation. Many e-bikes are perfect for some consumers, and the biggest thing holding them back in the UK (apart from the price) is not demand per se but infrastructure. Countries with lots of separated cycling infrastructure – such as the Netherlands and Germany – have very strong markets for e-bikes. Power-assisted bicycles can bring many new people into cycling or, just as likely, attract back those who felt cycling was no longer for them. The worries I’ll expound on here do not concern cycle-to-work e-bikes or those used on asphalt recreational trails. 

Electric mountain bikes are a whole different kettle of coconuts. They currently have access to off-road trails that are meant to be used by non-motorised users. Many of the e-MTBs on display at Eurobike were powerful beasties, motorbikes in all but name. (Fat bikes were everywhere at Eurobike, too, and, of course, there were electric fat bikes as well. Next year at the show we’ll probably see a folding electric fat bike.)

Years of diligent land management diplomacy, by organisations such as IMBA, could be wiped out by overnight by a few twats on e-MTBs. In Germany, epicentre of e-mountain biking, hikers complain of being spooked by mountain bikers riding uphill, fast, on heavy DH machines. They also complain about mountain bikers on XC machines but at least XC MTBs are human powered. 

Perhaps Germany has enough mountain trails to please everybody, but in countries where trail access for cyclists is more fragile, the appearance of motor-powered mountain bikes could lead to blanket bans for all bicycles, electrified or not.

Mountain bike magazines will come under increasing pressure, from publishers and consumers, to increase coverage of the e-MTB sector and it’s likely we’ll see editorial rifts appearing as “traditionalist” human-powered stalwarts kick back against commercial pressures to give more editorial space to batteries and the like. Such rifts are already appearing. In America, veteran editor Jimmy “Mac” McIlvain resigned his long-time editor’s post at Mountain Bike Action due to his publisher’s insistence that more space had to be allocated to e-MTBs. (On his Facebook age Jimmy Mac wrote “The publisher is expanding the magazine’s coverage to motorized mountain bikes and I just can’t go along with his logic. Mountain biking is a human-powered activity.”) 

My beef with e-MTBs isn’t just their speed – if it was I’d also fret about bans for whippet mountain bikers, and on descents, let’s face it, e-MTBs won’t go quicker than DH machines – it’s the possibility they will sow land-management confusion. E-MTBs will be conflated with MTBs. Down the (off) road this could lead to access restrictions for all MTBs. Suppliers with shed-loads of e-MTBs to sell will no doubt dismiss my concerns but, at the very least, I hope they will be careful how they market these machines.

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