On May 4, Alex Close was commuting home from work at Truckee High School like he does most days, riding his bike along the Truckee River on the Legacy Trail. It was a smooth ride until he reached the footbridge at the Glenshire end, just below the series of switchbacks leading up to the trailhead, when he was struck by a kid riding fast on a Super73 e-bike.
“He rounded the corner onto the bridge,” Close recalled in an email to Moonshine Ink. “Due to his speed he swung his turn really wide. I skidded and swerved to the right, but it didn’t matter. Our front tires collided head on, and he was launched into me. Our heads collided.”
The next thing Close remembers is that he was rolling on the ground, groaning with a bloody nose. He heard screaming and worried because the teen sounded badly injured. Despite being dazed, Close realized that he hadn’t broken anything and slowly got to his feet just as some Good Samaritans arrived, one of whom identified himself as an EMT. The young cyclist was also conscious and was holding his injured arm. Close noticed the kid had not been wearing a helmet. Close’s own helmet was dented and cracked in the front.
The tubes of his steel-frame gravel bike, a Surly Cross Check, were both bent and cracked beyond repair. Close ended up in the ER, getting seven stitches in his forehead.
“After a day or so, both my eyes blacked up and I became aware that I had been concussed,” he said. “In a few days, after I recovered a bit, the thing that bothered me the most about this incident was thinking about my kids. My youngest is 4 years old. If she had been on her scooter where I had been when this happened, she might be dead … I also kept thinking about the kid. If he had hit the steel railing instead of me, without a helmet, he might have suffered permanent head injuries.”
With battery packs and motors on-board, e-bikes weigh more than traditional bicycles, typically coming in at 40 to 80 pounds, and by their weight alone increasing the likelihood of injuries. Mountain bikes, on the other hand, are usually in the 28- to 32-pound range, while road bikes run from about 17 pounds into the 20s.
Close said his biggest hope is that, as a community we will find a way to better regulate public spaces “before something truly tragic happens.” He is not alone in this sentiment; week after week there are posts on local social media pages like Facebook and Nextdoor as folks share accounts of near-misses involving e-bikes and express fear that there will be a calamity.
Glenn Polochko shared with Moonshine multiple instances he’s witnessed around Truckee in which both kids and adults were riding irresponsibly.
“It’s just a matter of time before a child gets killed [or] really badly hurt,” he said. “I drive around Truckee a lot. I have had three near misses and [have] seen numerous dangerous situations.”
State law requires anyone under 18 to wear a helmet, regardless of whether riding a pedal-powered bicycle or e-bike. Yet, kids who are clearly under the age of 18 are regularly spotted around town and in school parking lots sans helmets, which are often seen dangling from their handlebars.
“I think we need helmet laws enforced for all e-bikes,” said Delana Hubscher Ryan, whose own son rides an e-bike. “I see tons of adults without them as well. It would be great to start offering a road safety class through the rec center maybe, where kids get a certificate of completion. Clearly e-bikes are here at least until the snow comes. Education is needed for the kids and adults alike as riders and drivers.”
Ryan says that having her son ride an e-bike has been a “great bonus for us in terms of the ability to get around town.” And she’s not the only one. Kids and parents alike are basking in the freedom that these machines have afforded them, a freedom that gives kids a sense of independence as they are able to go places without having to rely on Mom and Dad to drive, and giving chauffeuring parents a break from endless driving to and from school and extra-curricular activities.
“Typically, my kids e-bike for social reasons more than practical,” said Glenshire mom Janet Mourning. “Having access to e-bikes brought back that bounce from house to house, hang with your friends, take a swim in the lake, and stay out ‘til dusk types of days like I remember having as a kid. These kids had to be so resilient through the pandemic, and this summer I got to see them make up for lost time in a way that wouldn’t have been possible without them.”
Mourning said she’s spent considerable time teaching her kids the rules of the road, how to be responsible bikers, and to look out for oblivious drivers.
“We talk about it being a privilege that is going to go away if they collectively can’t change the narrative to a positive, or at least neutral, stance,” she said. “And I often tell them, ‘If you’re on a bike and get into an accident with a car it doesn’t matter whose fault it is. You lose.’ I absolutely worry about my children buzzing around. I also worry about them skiing and skateboarding and mountain biking.”
While e-bikes have opened social doors for kids, they’ve also freed time for parents whose kids are now able to transport themselves to things like sports practice, with the Legacy Trail being a popular route between Glenshire and Truckee’s Riverview Sports and Regional parks. Yet — as with Close’s collision — there is always the possibility of that not going as smoothly as planned.
Brandon Brooks used to commute downtown from Glenshire on a regular bike and would see many kids riding to or from school or practice. Often, he’d spot a number of kids riding to practice with their lacrosse sticks on their backs.
“One time, a young man was riding full speed downhill at the narrowest part of the trail (near the treatment plant) with his goalie lacrosse stick across his handlebars,” Brooks said, noting that goalie sticks typically measure 5 feet long. “He was holding it over the handlebar grip so that he was barely touching the grip of the e-bike, [and] he couldn’t easily move the stick without taking his hands off of the handlebars … I yelled and he could barely slow down, so I had to slam on my brakes within inches of the edge of the trail, risking myself and my bike to ensure that his lacrosse stick didn’t hit me or the guardrail on the opposite side.”
Unlike Close, Brooks emerged unscathed.
General sentiment surrounding e-bike use calls for increased enforcement and education. Concerned pedestrians, cyclists, and motorists alike fear the possibility of a tragic accident taking place, especially when so many riders — both kids and adults — are spotted not wearing a helmet on a machine that can travel up to 28 mph. Some models go well over that limit, and although these are not permitted to legally be ridden on the streets, a number of residents reported to Moonshine that they’ve seen kids riding them around town.
“Certainly, as a community we could do a better job enforcing existing regulations on roadways, and especially helmet laws,” Close said. “I think we have a serious problem with helmet culture in this town. And not just with kids. I see so many parents, mostly dads, not wearing helmets while riding with their kids. How can we expect our kids to wear helmets when no one is looking if we don’t model that?”
While some degree of community education around this might help, he believes it’s more about grown-ups deciding to “make helmets cool and to model safe choices.”
“People here are great about wearing helmets when they are ripping up the singletrack, but then don’t find them necessary while riding Legacy or with vehicular traffic, even at 30 mph on a Super73. It’s just an unnecessary risk that we are indirectly approving for our kids.”
Close stresses that the issue goes beyond enforcement and regulation, and believes rules must also be set for multi-use trails. He said he’s also had many other near-accidents on the Legacy Trail, including three close calls with kids on e-bikes who were on their phones while riding. Following his accident, Close spoke with the Truckee Town Council about this safety issue and also filed a police report.
“I made a police report, but no laws were broken because there are no laws on trails,” he said. “Unless we pass some ordinances regarding our community trails, enforcement doesn’t really matter.”
Peter Underwood, owner of Tahoe City’s Olympic Bike Shop, likened the emergence of e-bikes to the “chaos” that ensued when the internal combustion engine was created and automobiles were suddenly on the streets along with horse-drawn carriages and people on bicycles.
“These [e-bikes] existed in the European cycling community for about 20 years,” Underwood told Moonshine. “The reason that took so long to come into the U.S. is that we didn’t have rules yet. So, in the federal administrations, the state administrations, the local administrations, all the way down to public utility districts, there weren’t rules yet. And we knew that if we brought these things in without rules, it was going to be absolute chaos. So, we have rules, but now there’s no enforcement.”
Underwood says he’s a “big fan of electrifying transit on this planet” and himself rides an e-bike to and from his shop each day. The 11-mile trip (each way) takes all of 35 minutes.
“There’s all sorts of great reasons to applaud this evolution of transportation, but again, just like so many things in a modern society, we have these tools, but we don’t have the information of how to use these tools within the terms of advancing civilization or the respect of the society in the culture,” he said. “I really do believe that it’s education, and right now, that’s not happening. Most of these bikes are coming direct from manufacturer, so there’s no real interface between somebody that’s helping you select the bike, helping you understand the bike and its use.”
So, if education is the other factor for a safe e-biking community, with whom does that begin? Auto motorists are required to complete a written and on-the-road test, as are motorcycle operators, but there are no such requirements for e-bikes, which essentially are motorized vehicles.
The California Department of Motor Vehicles defines an e-bike as “a bicycle equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts, and breaks the various types into three categories:
Class 1: A low-speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and ceases to provide assistance when a speed of 20 mph is reached.
Class 2: A low speed throttle-assisted electric bicycle equipped with a motor used exclusively to propel the bicycle and NOT capable of providing assistance when a speed of 20 mph is reached.
Class 3: A low-speed pedal-assisted electric bicycle equipped with a speedometer, and a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and ceases to provide assistance when a speed of 28 mph is reached.
However, there are some on the road with aftermarket kits that boost both power and speed, elevating e-bikes beyond the legal limits and increasing safety risks.
Officer Carlos Perez of the California Highway Patrol said that CHP Truckee has had numerous residents express concern about e-bike safety, but without ordinances in place on the local and county levels, there is not much that law enforcement can do. Technically, no laws are being broken because there aren’t any in place.
“There’s so many different variables when you’re presenting something new like this,” Perez said. “Obviously it’s a big issue up here … We’ve got to start taking the right steps and presenting this to our local counties and then just go through the whole process. Because it’s so new, it’s one of those things that’s kind of all over the place.”
He says that education indeed is a huge part of the equation. Officers must be trained in recognizing the different classifications of e-bikes, while parents need to brush up on the rules of the road.
“We have to educate the parents again and tell them, hey, we’ve got to go back to the basic rules of the road, the basics of bicycling. And that’s essentially what it comes down to,” Perez said. “Sometimes parents are like, ‘okay, they’re just kids. Let them be kids.’ No, no, that’s not it … it’s all about their safety and everybody else’s safety out there.”
One Glenshire resident, who requested that her identity be withheld due to the nature of her incident, says that not only has she witnessed too many kids riding without helmets, but also she’s encountered young riders who are not yet educated in the rules of the road.
The woman was stopped at the intersection of Dorchester and Manchester drives heading toward the General Store when she saw a group of three e-bikes coming from the other direction.
“While I was driving, one of the kids suddenly swerved in my lane and started playing ‘chicken’ with me. I slammed on my brakes, and he swerved back into his lane,” she recalled. “I turned around to talk to him, but he sped off.”
She questioned the other two kids, who said the boy that took off was 14 years old. She reported the incident to Truckee police, but it didn’t end there. She said the teen ended up repeatedly driving by her house, riding wheelies up and down the street, flipping her off in front of her young children, and leaving her feeling threatened. When she confronted him about the incident, he said he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“I once again called the Truckee police and reported him. This boy rides an electric motocross bike that goes 30-plus [mph],” the woman said. “Yesterday he spotted me on the driveway and passed my house at high speeds doing wheelies, I did not look at him or engage. I have lived in and worked in Glenshire for years and have never felt threatened until this encounter with this teenager. Someone in our community is going to get hurt or killed by this 14-year-old boy.”
And that is exactly what Perez is hoping to avoid.
“When it comes down to that question of educating all riders, it’s going to go back to the basic rules of bicycle riding, basic rules of the road,” he said. “This thing is evolving. It’s so new and, unfortunately, until something bad happens, then [the issue will be brought] to the local county, local board — but that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”
I have been riding a mountain bike on trails in North Lake Tahoe for more than 20 years. I have never had an accident with another bike or person. Only once did I have a near miss with another bike and this was when I rode onto a bike race trail that had not been properly posted.
The issue of e-bikes and excessive speed seems to be a problem on bike trails where e-bikes (and, indeed, non-powered bikes) can easily reach dangerous speeds. I rarely ride on bike trails.
I think this can be addressed by posting and enforcing speed limits on bike trails as well as education about proper biking etiquette.
There will always be people who bike recklessly… e-bikes may make this easier but they are not the only problem.