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Depending on who you ask, e mountain bikes are either the fastest growing segment in mountain biking, or the sport's most controversial topic. What's undeniable, however, is that e-bikes are here to stay, and frankly, that's something that we at Competitive Cyclist are excited about.

We’re in support of e-bikes because they make trails accessible to more riders and they're unbelievably fun to ride. But that doesn't blind us to the concerns that many riders have about the proliferation of these bikes on trails. Responsible trail use is an essential part of the e-bike equation, and that means understanding what an e-bike is and where you can ride it legally.

What Exactly is an E Mountain Bike?

Of the three categories of e-bikes, e mountain bikes are classified as Category 1. A Category 1 e-bike has an electric motor that is activated by pedaling, rather than a throttle, and stops pulling when the rider reaches 20 mph. Category 2 e-bikes include a throttle and are limited to 20 mph, while Category 3 e-bikes are restricted to 28mph. Although an e-bike has a motor, it isn't legally defined as a motorcycle. It's just a bicycle that's capable of adding watts to your pedal stroke.

Why Consider an E Mountain Bike?

For many riders, the draw is that e-bikes allow anyone to cover more ground in less time, which can make the difference between squeezing a ride in after work, or sitting on the couch. Since the handling of the best e-bikes is nearly identical to a traditional mountain bike, time spent on an e-bike will also make you better on any bike in your quiver. And if you're worried that you'll be robbed of your workout, perish the thought. You can reduce your power delivery, or simply pedal harder. You'll cover more ground, but the workout can be equally intense if you wish.

We reached out to a few of our friends in the community, including Western Spirit Touring CEO Ashley Korenblat, to get a more complete picture of the myriad reasons that so many mountain bikers are taking up e-bikes. Her role puts her in direct contact with hundreds of everyday cyclists annually, and based on what she’s seeing, she estimates that use of e-bikes on trails is “easily” growing at a rate of 25% annually. “We are definitely seeing older mountain bikers pivot to e-bikes, but we are also seeing people who weren’t riders buying e-bikes,” Korenblat explains.

E-bikes also appeal to riders with mobility limitations or to those overcoming injuries. We know plenty of parents who ride e-bikes to keep up with their kids, and even more riders who have rekindled a love of riding that was threatened by health issues or by age.

For these reasons, independent consultant and former Mountain Bikers of Santa Cruz Marketing Director Amanda Schaper calls e mountain bikes “a great tool.” While she’s never ridden an e mountain bike before herself, she’s hit the trails with e-bikers before. “In many cases, people are riding eMTB because it allows them to ride in a way that otherwise just might not be possible for them,” Schaper explains.

But this doesn’t mean that e-bikes are off-limits for the young and the fit. It's been claimed that "pros don't really ride their sponsor supplied e-bikes," but that couldn't be further from the truth. Professional athletes from a range of sports have taken to training on e-bikes because they enable low intensity recovery rides and mitigate heart rate spikes during short duration peak efforts. This makes effective heart rate zone training possible on the trails, rather than being limited to roads and stationary trainers. In truth, you'd be surprised to know how much time certain professional racers spend on their e-bikes for precisely that reason.

How Do You Ride an E Mountain Bike Responsibly?

E-bikes are spreading fast, which has caused concern for plenty of riders. As Korenblat puts it, “It has brought controversy for sure, as many places have worked incredibly hard and with great success to build non-motorized purpose built singletrack trail systems. And now the idea of opening these trail systems up to bikes with motors creates a conundrum, no matter how many times you use the words ‘pedal assist’ and regardless of the actual lack of impact on the trails.”

Unfortunately, Korenblat believes that e mountain bike use threatens to turn other trail users against all mountain bikers, even if, as she puts it, “any increased impact from e-bikers is nearly undetectable.“ The take home point? It’s critical that our community does everything in its power to encourage responsible use of e mountain bikes.

Although a rapidly growing list of trail networks allow e-bikes, they are not allowed everywhere, and it's crucial that riders respect trail usage guidelines. Our right to ride on trails—hard-won over decades of tireless advocacy—can be taken away in an instant, so we're calling on all riders to educate themselves regarding responsible use.

Schaper points out, “with people riding at dramatically different speeds and increased passing, I could see the potential for more user conflict. In that case, I think it's the responsibility of eMTB riders to clearly communicate and make smart decisions when overtaking another rider. That's true of anybody passing a rider though, no matter what bike you're riding.”

If you have questions about where you can ride e-bikes, People for Bikes is one of the best resources available. In addition to advocating for cyclists of every stripe, the organization maintains a list of legal areas to ride e-bikes, which is regularly updated to reflect the rapid changes in both state and federal land use regulations.

E-bikes will only be more popular in the coming years, and we're excited to see what that means for the future of our sport. We have no intentions of trading in our traditional mountain bikes, but don't be surprised to see more e-bikes and content on Competitive Cyclist. In the meantime, if you have questions or comments, feel free to reach out to us at feedback@competitivecyclist.com.