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What's the deal with E-Mountain Bikes?

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Added by Darren in MOUNTAIN ELECTRIC


Ebikes have been around for a while, but they haven’t always looked this dope. Companies like Specialized have done the same thing for Ebikes as Tesla has for Electric cars. Now that E mountain bikes don’t look so nerdy, they appeal to a wider audience. Still, there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the whole—you know, battery and motor aspect, which is why Bike Tech of Miami brought a few down to Virginia Key Park for us to test out.

VK’s stance on Ebikes and pedal assist bikes is that they’re not allowed, period. They made an exception today for this trial, only allowing very experienced riders and trail builders to test them. We’ll get back to the controversy in a minute, but first let’s take a look at what this bike actually does.

First of all, it was super cool of Bike Tech to let us ride their $7500 Specialized ebikes. Their rep, James, saw me doing 360s on my hardtail in the parking lot, so he knew very well what they were signing up for.

At about 44 pounds, the ebike made my 6 inch full suspension feel like a carbon hardtail. That is, only when I was handling it and throwing it around. When pedaling, it felt light as a feather thanks to the motor in the bottom bracket. The software in this bike automatically manages the power output so that it’s still you pedaling, but with a little extra help. There are no throttle controls or switches. It feels in every way like a mountain bike, and it gives you the experience of mountain biking. For me, there was no learning curve.

As strange as it sounds, the bike didn’t even make me any faster—at least not on technical sections. After getting accustomed to the bike for about an hour, I took it on Highway to Hell, which is a very short section I’ve done in 1:17 on my hardtail. I rode as hard as I could on the Ebike, and still came up a full 6 seconds short of my record. The difference though was that I ended my run with lots of energy to spare.

When Juan and I tried to open up to full throttle on this straightaway, James kept right up with us on an analog full suspension bike. The harder you crank on the pedal assist bike, the more it’s limited by your own power. I think this was a very responsible design decision on the part of Specialized, and it makes this bike much safer for beginners, or for people who need the extra help. Overall, I had a very positive experience on this bike, and I didn’t think it was dangerous at all. So, where’s the controversy? Why are these currently banned from most mountain bike trails, including, to my knowledge, every bike park in South Florida?

Well, firstly, this bike is kind of like a friendly pitbull that wants you to rub its belly. It has the ability to tear you to shreds. Change a few lines of code, and this thing could pose a serious hazard to analog mountain bikers. All it takes is one rich douchebag with a jailbroken ebike to cause injuries and liabilities to the park and its riders, but personally I think this scenario is pretty unlikely—at least at the moment. Specialized, and shops like Bike Tech are very interested in preserving the mountain biking scene they helped create. But what happens when these are sold at big box stores, with software that makes them nothing more than glorified electric dirt bikes? 5 years down the road, these will cost a fraction of the money, and they will most certainly be more powerful. So, opening the floodgates now for what appears to be harmless could end up becoming a trojan horse.

With the limited resources that bike parks have, it’s just not possible to govern what kinds of ebikes are or aren’t allowed on the trails. For now, the safest route is to ban them all.

So, am I taking the very myopic stance that we should just ban everything that can be abused? After all, there’s nothing stopping you from driving drunk, or using your kitchen knives to stab people. Maybe I’m scared, or maybe I’m an analog bike elitist. Call me what you will, but until the laws have caught up with the technology it would be pretty irresponsible to allow motors the trails, regardless of the software controlling them. After all, once we allow motors in bike parks, we're kind of sort of eliminating the one motorless place we have left to ride. Most of us are in no rush to do this.

Granted, another part of me sees the amazing benefits of pedal assist. Used responsibly, there are a lot of people who could experience mountain biking for the first time, without dying of exhaustion and getting discouraged. Like everything, there are positives and negatives to ebikes. For now, I’m firmly against allowing motors on the trails. So until there’s a clear roadmap for the future of ebikes, we should keep an open mind and proceed with caution.

The Bike:
Virginia Key MTB Park:
Bike Tech:

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