I was hoping one would short out and cause a grass fire. I’d capture it on my GoPro and the resulting Youtube video would go viral. The whole conflagration would set the Electric Mountain Bike Movement back a decade. A small, but shameful part of me even had the notion that a person–okay, an arsonist–might light a fire somewhere on the Sea Otter E-bike race course during the event. It wouldn’t even have to be traced back to an Ebike. The fact that it “might have been caused by an ebike” in the closely watched crucible of the First Ebike Race in America might have been enough. It would have been risky. Some people might have been hurt. But would it have been for the greater good?
Such was my disdain for eMTBs.
Loathing. Irrational and deep.
And, like many of my “Serious Mountain Biker” friends who feel similarly, I couldn’t really tell you why.
At the Sea Otter Classic this year, I stiffened like a Mennonite in a Best Buy when I was walking through the expo area. It was there that I saw a guy in an Ebike booth handing a 6′ check for $5000 over to a trail advocacy group. A sizable crowd was applauding. My Spidey Sense tingled. I walked away wide-eyed. What the hell is wrong with them? What the hell is wrong with me?
I love bicycles. I love motorcycles. If this is the silent, smokeless love-child of these two wondrous instruments of fun and adventure, why do they roust the curmudgeon in me? If an Ebike looks like a bike, goes the same speed as a bike, has the same trail impact as a bike, and is as free of smoke and noise as a bike, then maybe I need to just accept them as a part of my bicycle riding experience. Like Strava, headphones, Selfie-Sticks, mid-ride cellphone calls, and other benignly irksome technological advancements that have become de rigueur on the trails. Have these trifles made riding bikes in the woods any less alluring? Not really. And nor will sharing the experience with the occasional E-biker.
Here’s an analogy that I think might explain some of the MTB Establishment’s distaste for eMTBs.
Imagine that you’re 12 miles into a kick-ass 30 mile MTB loop in the mountains and then you come across hikers. You slow to a crawl and exchange pleasantries and continue on, but can’t help but notice the disappointed looks on their faces. They’ll take 2 days and 2 nights to do the same loop that you’ll squeeze in between lunch and dinner. The sound of your freewheel as you coast away is the sound of the wind being softly taken from their sails. I’ve seen it. And when I’ve been hiking, I’ve even felt a tiny bit of what they do: the feeling that somebody had stolen the gem from my donut. That my grand and noble experience was somehow cheapened by somebody using a more efficient machine to do it faster and easier. To ride a mountain bike isn’t doing wrong, but there’s a reason that some hikers are so brusque–in a way that they aren’t with other trail users.
If eMTBs proliferate on the trails, we Mountain Bikers will be those down at the mouth hikers. Special places that were only the domain of the strong and the skilled will see new visitors. Interlopers with what, at first blush, seem bo be bicycles. But their seated, over-geared cadence and their gravity-bending climbing speeds will give them away as impostors to our clique of hard-core cyclists. For some, the sensations of enjoying a hard earned vista will be corrupted the moment a couple of “more average” folks roll up to the overlook on Ebikes. Pleasantries might go unspoken, and eye contact withheld. Are we all just being petty, exclusive assholes?
There are legitimate reasons for concern. A strong argument can be made that eMTBs could complicate the fight for MTB trail access. If eMTBs and regular MTBs are easily confused on the trail, then managers of non-motorized lands might save themselves a lot of trouble by just eliminating both. It’s also likely that some of the most contentious multi-use areas will see more conflicts between users if two-wheeled traffic going uphill is traveling at the speed that these electric assisted bikes are capable of. Indeed, it’s this easy and deceptive speed that I personally find most troubling with eBikes in general.. In my (albeit brief) experiences riding Ebikes, I found myself casually going nearly race-pace and occasionally surprising myself with sudden proximity to people who were also not expecting me to be so close, so fast. And in the sprawling masses of cyclist and foot traffic at Sea Otter this year, I witnessed more close calls than in the last several years combined–all due to eBikes.
Bike companies small and large are jumping on the Ebike Bandwagon en masse. Their forecasts indicate an untapped market. One of hordes of cash flush people who’d be wooed by an easier cycling experience. Their claim is that many will find their way to traditional cycling through first riding eBikes. And it’s reasonable to believe that if the bike companies don’t run with the ball, the auto makers, or motorcycle companies, or Google/Apple/Tesla will. Personally, I think the cycling industry has the strongest claim to steward this product and it’s purchasers. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Mostly because I’m biased and I like bike people. But are we collectively striking a Faustian bargain that will eventually lead us to ruin? In plainer terms: Will we all go to Hell if we promote the Electricly Assisted Bicycle?
As soon as I read that there was to be an Ebike race at Sea Otter this year, I knew that I wanted to race it, and race it Unplugged–Acoustic, if you will–on a normal Giant Anthem XC bike. Not having ridden Ebikes, but for a couple miles around town, I was excited to see what the dynamic would be. Where would they be faster? Where would I find an advantage,? Could I possibly be competitive? Any time that I ride a bike that doesn’t fit in amongst the other racers (road bike in a short track xc, singlespeed in a pro MTB race, etc) the racing gets more interesting. Instead of riding around in your rightful place most of the day, you’re constantly passing and being passed because of the costs/benefits of your setup relative to the status quo. I figured the eMTB race would make for a hilarious give-and take. I also secretly feared it would be a rout. The race was to be an hour and most of the eMTBs make 300-500 watt/hours–in addition to what the rider adds. So, barring an electromagnetic pulse or an additional 2 hours of racing, I’d have my work cut out for me, but I tend to like this kind of work.
The race was divided into age groups and an “Industry Challenge” catchall group that started first among the many heats. Despite being registered in the Industry race, at the starting line I hid among the age groupers so that the race organizers wouldn’t see that I didn’t have a motor on my bike. Yes. The irony was rich. But they did not see the Salad Shooter plug that was hanging out of my RS1 and when the second wave of racers was released, I was amongst it.
I rode as hard as I could–as hard as I have all year–and certainly harder than in any of the other Professional races I did this year at Sea Otter. For once, I wasn’t racing to show what I was capable of. I was racing to show what Mountain Bikes are capable of. For an afternoon, I fancied myself a modern John Henry. So I went out proud and fast. And I eventually blew up a little, trying to keep up with the masses of slow-looking and fast-riding Ebikers. But then I settled in and began RACING people. Making passes on the flat and downhill sections where my competitors’ bikes were powerless and leaden because of the industry standard 20mph shutoff for electric assist. And attacking into the bottoms of hills where I could maintain momentum, only to be left for dead at the crests of the climbs–the other riders breezing away with indifference at my gasping and wheezing.
By the finish line, I had no idea where I’d placed. I’d diced pretty good with some random people I’d never met and will likely never race again. And I was spent. Christophe Sauser, the former World XC Champ had lapped me on the 7 minute course, but he’d gotten a small head start. And at his best, he could have lapped me WITHOUT a motor in his bike on this track.
It turns out, I beat a fair few people to come in 17th of 30 riders in the Industry Challenge. Granted, most of these people were not great bike racers. But a few of them were. And all of them were on the juice. So I was pretty satisfied with that result.
And I was pretty satisfied with the whole experience in general. By dint of this being the first race of it’s kind in North America, people didn’t have much in the way of expectations. They didn’t have goals or pressures to perform. They just rode hard and had a good time, much like the racers in some of the MTB races I did in the early 1980′s. I doubt that Ebike racing will really gain traction anywhere, at least not here in the USA any time soon. But maybe Ebikes themselves will gain momentum. Maybe the bike companies are right and there are legions of people who feel electric motors add more to the cycling experience than they take away.
I, for one, hope to never be counted in that number. For me, the suffering is nearly as important as the fun I have on a bicycle. I want to fuel my rides solely with food I shouldn’t have eaten. So that I can get old, but not fat–without ever paying for the privilege of using a treadmill. For some of us, there really is no such thing as a free lunch–but a big lunch can fuel a ride to freedom. If you only get out of something what you put into it, then it stands to reason that eMTBs are a waste of time. Like riding a chairlift or sitting in a pickup truck to shuttle a trail, the work is eliminated but much of the spirit of “going for a bike ride” is too. At the extreme, those who ride bikes purely for the physical benefits will see the electric bicycle is an oxymoron. As nonsensical as using an escalator to access the local Gold’s Gym.
Maybe you’re not so sure though. Maybe you wouldn’t mind a little help getting lost in the woods. A little assistance grinding up the hills so that you can enjoy coasting back down with the rest of us.
I’m beginning to think that might be okay. I’ll try to be nice when I see you arrive at the top of the big climb on your eMTB. I’ll swallow my pride and have a bottle of purple Gatorade Frost that you generously offer me from your backpack–still cold from the fridge. I will try to be gracious. To show kindness and patience to you and your eBike brothers from the future. But if you produce a Selfie-Stick from that same backpack, we’re gonna have a problem.
Thanks for reading.