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Recently had an opportunity to try riding a Class I e-mountain bike. Class I means it is pedal assist (no throttle) and the assist cuts out at 20mph. Historically I have not had much interest in e-bikes, except maybe for commuting – one of the main points of riding for me is fitness. However, my curiosity got the best of me. Here are some observations.

  1. Access and Etiquette: These may be the largest and most controversial aspects of e-biking, and I think they are related. What trails are legal to ride an e-bike on varies by jurisdiction, and even within some jurisdictions. This gets especially confusing in areas where more or less continuous open space transitions from city, to county, to national forest, to state park control. It also can depend on the class of e-bike in question. My personal opinion is that access for Class I bikes should be uniform and always allowed anywhere other mountain bikes are. Class II and III that can move with only a throttle are essentially lightweight motorcycles and should only be allowed on trails that allow motorized vehicles. To achieve uniform access for Class I bikes, I think some education is needed for both riders and other trail users. The largest difference between riding an e-bike and a regular bike is the speeds you can achieve going uphill (and to a lesser extent, on flat ground). Other trail users (including other cyclists) simply are not expecting a bike to come at them UPHILL at 15mph (I believe most frequent trail users are used to bikes coming downhill at those speeds). So, if e-cyclists want to retain or expand access to trails, they have to take that into consideration – ride with a shaker bell (even uphill if traveling fast), exercise sight-line/braking distance caution appropriate to conditions (including uphill), and extend courtesy/yield to other users in line with trail rules and common sense. Also, be friendly.
  2. Riding Style: Riding an e-bike is definitely a different experience and takes some adjustments to do well. With extra torque on tap, I found I had a tendency to shift less, and get out of the saddle more to get through punchy steep sections of climbs. This works fine on smooth climbs but fails once things get technical… a too-tall gear plus extra torque in a technical section most likely will launch you at an obstacle (or even off the trail) too quickly for you to react. So, I learned to still shift down into a similar gear I would ride on my analog bike when the going got tricky – you can still leverage the extra torque, but with more finesse. The one thing I didn’t master was getting up onto ledges… e-bikes are as a rule quite a bit heavier than analog bikes so about the only option seemed like carrying more speed up to the ledge, but I found it difficult to feel confident I could get the bike up it so frequently stopped short. On the up side, having a battery and motor on the bike lowers your overall center of gravity, improving cornering on descents.
  3. Range Anxiety: Having some idea how much battery is left is important, as well as getting a feel for how much a given trail (and riding mode – most e-bikes support some kind of power adjustment) might tax it. Unlike electric cars, running out won’t leave you stranded, but if you run out with a long climb left on a heavier than usual bike you might be in for an unpleasant finish to your ride. It definitely adds another dimension to ride planning.
  4. Is It Fun? Yes, riding an e-bike on trails is fun. It can turn long boring climbs into entertaining sections of trail.
  5. Is It Exercise? Yes. You can still ride plenty hard. I got sweaty and tired on every ride I did, but an analog bike is still overall a better workout.
  6. Will I Buy One? Not yet. I think at some point in my life adding an e-bike to my “quiver” permanently will make sense, so long as access issues are resolved in a way that doesn’t limit the utility. That might not be for another decade or three, we’ll see. But, I was grateful for the opportunity to try one out.