By Craig C. Rowe | Special to Moonshine Ink
Now as common on forested single-track as they are outside health-food stores and local greenways, battery-powered bicycles remain controversial to some, but they’re a savior to others.
Regardless of your stance, e-bikes have arrived in Tahoe like tourists on The Fourth, and it’s time we make room for them in the roundabout.
National nonprofit People for Bikes advocates for cycling of all kinds. From promoting kids biking to school to awarding trail-building grants, the organization is wholly dedicated to making America a hub of two-wheeled freedom. And e-bikes are now one of its strongest spokes.
California has adopted the group’s model for categorizing and supporting use of electric bicycles, classified in three ways according to speed and power source:
Bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 20 mph.
Bicycle equipped with a throttle-actuated motor, that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 20 mph.
Bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 28 mph.
While all three are found in and around Tahoe/Truckee, it’s their ability to get people deeper into wilderness that’s causing some to fret about their emerging ubiquity.
Battery-equipped bikes are much heavier than their traditional counterparts, often by 20 or more pounds. Theoretically, they make falls riskier and dead batteries a legitimate cause for getting stuck miles deep in the woods. Because there’s more horsepower to boost riders over logs and bounce through rock gardens, when an e-bike bucks, it’s more Clydesdale than Tennessee Walker.
Studies have been done on the issue of e-bikes and injuries. Given the bikes’ relatively short tenure in the marketplace, most reports come with asterisks indicating that for a true comparison to traditional bikes, more time is needed. For now, any wide-scale argument about rising injury rates among e-mountain bike riders to date is largely anecdotal.
Electric bikes were ultimately developed off-trail, evolving as smart alternatives to automotive commuters and flatland recreational cruisers. They’re widely appreciated for their efficiency, practicality, and for opening up a new world of exercise to those who couldn’t otherwise pedal long miles.
Tahoe Food Hub board member and Tahoe Donner resident Sarah Hoyle often leaves the car keys on the counter for trips into Truckee on her Class 1 Specialized e-bike.
“My intent was to reduce vehicle miles traveled and get in and out of town quickly and not have to worry about parking,” Hoyle said. She’s had her bike for two years and finds it especially useful during the busier traffic and construction seasons. Depending on her destination, Hoyle will take the paved Trout Creek Trail at the plateau on Northwoods Boulevard or head down the locally notorious hill. She can pack groceries in a pannier for the ride home.
“It takes 10 minutes in a car, and maybe 15, 20 on my bike. I also see it as a climate change choice,” she said. “They’re great for people who live a few miles out of town, and especially for the hills we have around here.”
The New York Times reported in August that sales of e-bikes have increased by at least 70% or more per month since the pandemic started.
At Start Haus in Truckee, sales reflect that fact.
Jared Licht helps manage the ski and bike store on Deerfield Drive, and said that e-bikes are the fastest growing segment of cycling, helping to elevate the entire industry.
“E-bikes as a whole are growing, but here in Truckee, we see mainly (electric) full suspension mountain bikes,” he said. “And look at the Legacy Trail, people are commuting from Glenshire into town.” Like Licht, Start Haus’ Valerie Gall owns an electric mountain bike.
“My husband grew up on bikes, I grew up on horses,” she said. “It’s a nice equalizer, I can actually keep up with him on the trails now, he’s a (hill) climber, and I’ll never be, and now he doesn’t have to slow way down for me.”
The couple’s situation isn’t uncommon. Licht said that e-bikes allow people new to mountain biking to keep up with faster, more experienced partners or riding buddies.
Gall and Licht admit purists remain, and they aren’t always psyched to see battery-aided riders overtake them on a trail. However, it’s an easy stigma to overcome.
“Simply exercise good trail etiquette, just like anything else,” Licht said.
When will the dust settle?
Clarity on where e-mountain bikes can be ridden might help ease a bit of the lingering animosity. Given their rapid rise, advocates and land managers remain at odds on the topic.
Things are more opaque on multi-use national forest lands around the Tahoe Basin — especially when it comes to class 2 and 3 bikes. Federal and state land departments have a hard-enough time enforcing rules against organized but nonpermitted group rides in restricted areas, such as along local stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail, where all bikes are illegal.
People for Bikes, International Mountain Bike Association, and similar entities work tirelessly to address the confusion, and encourage people to research permitted places before buying an e-bike.
In April, the Bureau of Land Management opened a 60-day public comment period about expanding the definition of e-bikes and their access to public land. Rule changes are currently under consideration.
Minor controversies aside, the growth of e-bikes is largely a good thing. For many, a great thing.
Local rental businesses are flourishing amid their popularity, more cars are being left in driveways, and more people are finding a new way to recreate outside in a time when the importance of good health is at an all-time high.
If you’re looking for a new bike to help you unplug, maybe it’s time consider plugging one in.