If it wasn’t already, the e-bike debate is officially on in Colorado Springs.
That’s after the parks department this month announced a year-long pilot program expanding e-bike access to trails. Beginning May 31, the department will begin observing and deciding the long-term future of charged-up rides in cherished parks and open spaces.
Here’s an e-bike 101, filling you in on the technology, the trends and some finer points of debate:
Where did e-bikes come from?
A United States patent filed in 1895 illustrated a “hub motor” in the rear wheel and a battery attached to the triangle frame — looking very much like today’s e-bikes. Concepts came earlier in France. While the automobile went on to captivate Americans, those European e-bike ideas went from paper to street.
Modern power controls entered the scene in the 1990s. In 1997, The New York Times profiled an American effort to popularize e-bikes, with car icon Lee Iacocca partnering with Unique Mobility, a Denver area company specializing in electric motors.
But it was Japanese companies like Yamaha that became early leaders in worldwide e-bike production, which ramped up in the early 2000s.
How popular are they?
Read a Forbes headline in 2020: “E-Bikes Are The Hottest Thing On 2 Wheels.”
In recent years, e-bikes have been identified as the fastest-growing segment of the cycling industry.
“And I don’t think Colorado is any exception,” said Jack Todd, director of communications and policy for advocacy nonprofit Bicycle Colorado.
Electrek, the site tracking eco-friendly travel, reported the 500,000-plus e-bikes due to be imported to the U.S. in 2020 were double the orders from a year ago — and that wasn’t enough to meet demand, with Chinese factories backlogged.
A congressional act aims to grow the ranks. An environmentally focused bill introduced last month would offer a 30% tax rebate on e-bike purchases ($900 back for a $3,000 set of wheels, for example).
In Colorado Springs, some onlookers say the city’s PikeRide e-bike share program that launched in 2018 helped take the technology to the local mainstream.
“It brought a lot of people into the fold,” said John Crandall, longtime owner of Old Town Bike Shop.
What’s up with the three classes?
Colorado legislators in 2017 adopted a nationally recognized model for classifying e-bikes:
Class 1: Pedaling required to activate motor, which stops providing power at 20 mph.
Class 2: No pedaling required to activate motor up to 20 mph.
Class 3: Pedaling required to activate motor up to 28 mph.
In the Springs, Class 1 e-bikes have been allowed on wide, commuter paths such as the Pikes Peak Greenway. Starting May 31, they’ll be allowed on all city-managed trails where other bikes are allowed. Class 2 e-bikes will be allowed on commuter paths.
How do they work?
Pedal-activated systems are equipped with handlebar-mounted controllers that let the rider adjust power assist, from nothing to maximum turbo (sensors cap the motor at 20 mph or 28 mph). Displays show speed and available battery charge. Other e-cyclists simply twist grips or thumb-press for throttle.
Pedal assist or no pedal assist, throttling up the battery-powered motor means draining the battery faster. More usage, less range.
Batteries are fitted onto the frame, while motors are commonly integrated as “rear hubs,” propelling the wheel when activated.
Where are they allowed in Colorado?
While state law allows e-bikes on any path where other bikes are allowed, local regulations form a hodgepodge across Colorado.
“Community responses run the gamut from opening their trails to Class 1 e-(mountain bikes), to sitting on their hands and doing nothing — leaving a huge gray area of uncertainty for everyone involved — to outright banning them,” said David Wiens, the Gunnison-based executive director of the International Mountain Bicycling Association.
On the Front Range, Jefferson County is the broadest example of access Wiens is aware of. Following a 2018 pilot program, managers of the county’s parks and open spaces granted e-bikes the same privileges of other mountain bikes. In Boulder County, e-bikes are limited to “plains” parks and open spaces, not those within mountains and foothills.
In state parks, e-bikes are allowed where other bikes are allowed. Rules vary at national parks, with Rocky Mountain National Park limiting e-bikes to a certain stretch of road, for example, and Dinosaur National Monument permitting them on all roads.
Like those at national parks, Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service bosses have steadily revised policies since a 2019 secretarial order called for cutting red tape. E-bikes are entering the multi-use category as new recreation plans develop — such as those for the anticipated Grand Hogback singletrack network on BLM land in western Colorado.
In the Pike and San Isabel national forests, e-bikes are allowed on roads and trails that are open to motors.
Why do people love them?
“Life-changing” is a common descriptor.
Colorado Springs parks officials gleaned several “supporting themes” from some 1,662 responses to an e-bike survey.
E-bikes helping riders overcome age, injuries and physical challenges was a popular theme. Many said e-bikes helped them exercise and enjoy the outdoors in ways they wouldn’t be able to otherwise — the extra boost allowing them to overcome hills and extend time on the saddle. Others said e-bikes ignited a newfound passion and served as a bridge to ride with younger or fitter relatives and friends.
And others praised e-bikes for replacing car trips and reducing their carbon footprint. That’s a sticking point for Bicycle Colorado, which cites a federal report on 60% of vehicle trips being 6 miles or fewer.
“If everybody switched their shorter trips to e-bikes, then we’d have a lot cleaner air, a lot less traffic and happier people,” Todd said.
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.