The Fight to Ride Electric Mountain Bikes on the Trail
Older Adventurers Tangle With Preservationists Over Battery-Aided Bicycles
Michael Kelley has jumped on a mountain bike almost every weekend since off-road bicycles were invented in the late 1970s. This year Mr. Kelley, 71, purchased a new one powered by an electric motor, which pushes him uphill when he gets tired.
"It takes me so long to ride to the tops of the hills now that it wasn't that fun anymore," says Mr. Kelley, who lives in Berkeley, Calif. "I've been riding for decades and I hope to be riding for decades more."
Electric mountain bikes—commonly called e-mountain bikes in the cycling industry—are relatively new to the U.S. market. Manufacturers say the bikes will attract new participants and help older riders like Mr. Kelley stay in the sport.
A look at the handlebar controls for the electric motor on Mr. Kelley's Haibike. ENLARGE
A look at the handlebar controls for the electric motor on Mr. Kelley's Haibike. MICHAL CZERWONKA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The bikes, however, have ignited a dispute between manufacturers, mountain bike advocacy groups and riders. The argument hinges on whether the bikes should be allowed on the same trails as traditional mountain bikes.
The debate hasn't slowed early adopters from purchasing the bikes. According to Larry Pizzi, chairman of an industry group called the Electric Bicycle Committee, at least nine companies plan to sell e-mountain bikes in the U.S. in 2015 to meet demand, up from five in 2014.
"They make mountain biking accessible to people who don't want to work hard or can't work hard," says Mr. Pizzi, who also sells e-bikes through his company, Currie Technologies. "It's a huge opportunity to get more people on mountain bikes."
E-mountain bikes carry a hefty sticker price. Felt Bicycles' Lebowske model retails for around $5,800, while Haibike's Xduro line ranges from $4,000 to $9,500.
Whether the bikes crack into cycling's mainstream depends on trail access. In many states, the bikes aren't permitted on many trails because they are considered motorized vehicles, similar to motorcycles.
Mr. Kelley's e-mountain bike uses a lightweight lithium-ion battery. ENLARGE
Mr. Kelley's e-mountain bike uses a lightweight lithium-ion battery. MICHAL CZERWONKA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The bikes have yet to win the support of the International Mountain Bicycling Association, mountain biking's lobbying group, which has persuaded land managers such as the National Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management to allow traditional mountain bikes on trails.
Steve Hall, a BLM spokesman, says the agency views e-bikes as motorized vehicles, so they are prohibited from trails designated for foot traffic, horses or mountain bikes.
"If there is significant public interest, the BLM could consider changing the designation," he says. "It's safe to say the consensus in the recreational community right now is that what we regard as mountain bikes don't have motors."
The mountain biking association also has regularly battled with the Sierra Club and other hiking advocacy groups that want to keep mountain bikes off trails. Many land managers now use the distinction "motorized" and "nonmotorized" to regulate trails.
Mr. Kelley's e-mountain bike looks like a traditional mountain bike but uses a pedal-assist motor. ENLARGE
Mr. Kelley's e-mountain bike looks like a traditional mountain bike but uses a pedal-assist motor. MICHAL CZERWONKA FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
Association representatives recently said the group wouldn't lobby land managers on behalf of e-mountain bike manufacturers or riders. "We remain true to the position that mountain biking is a human-powered and nonmotorized sport," says Mike Van Abel, president of the association.
Electric bicycles have been popular in Asia and Europe for decades. U.S. distributors have advertised e-bikes as environmentally conscious commuter vehicles since in the mid-1990s. Fueled by heavy lead-acid batteries, earlier e-bikes often weighed more than 50 pounds and suffered from a lack of power.
Recent advancements in lithium-ion batteries have trimmed weight and new pedal-assisted motors have added oomph to the bikes. European manufacturers began producing e-bikes four years ago that used strong motors, fat tires and shock-absorbing suspension. Unlike their utilitarian predecessors, these e-mountain bikes were designed specifically for recreation, not commuting.
The Haibike, from Germany's Winora Group, was one of the first e-mountain bikes to hit the market, in 2010. They reached the U.S. in 2014.
Susanne Puello, the company's chief executive, says some manufacturers laughed at the concept. Elderly riders were first to buy e-mountain bikes, she says, but they quickly attracted younger buyers.
Lapierre Bicycles will debut its Overvolt line of e-mountain bikes in the U.S. in 2015. At least nine companies plan to sell them in the U.S. in 2015, up from five in 2014. ENLARGE
Lapierre Bicycles will debut its Overvolt line of e-mountain bikes in the U.S. in 2015. At least nine companies plan to sell them in the U.S. in 2015, up from five in 2014. LAPIERRE BICYCLES
"We saw right away there was a huge interest from cyclists, so you really can't make fun of it," Ms. Puello says. Sales of e-mountain bikes generate 40% of the Winora Group's total annual revenues of $256 million.
It's no surprise that U.S. distributors see an opportunity to jump-start flat bicycle sales, which have vacillated between $5.8 billion and $6.1 billion a year since 2005, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association.
Lifelong motorcycle rider Don Kelley, a general contractor in Winnetka, Calif., who isn't related to Michael Kelley, says the e-mountain bikes hooked him on mountain biking. He disputes the argument that e-mountain bikes are similar to motorcycles. "People think you hit the gas and the bike just takes off and that's not even close," he says. "It assists you when you pedal. It slowly picks up speed."
Still, opponents remain concerned about everything from trail damage to safety. "There are trails for ATVs and motorcycles that would be very appropriate for e-bikes," says Emil Walcek, a 65-year-old advertising executive who mountain bikes near Atlanta. "I suspect with the additional power, e-bikes will have a greater impact on the trails."
The trail-use debate has kept some manufacturers from jumping on the e-mountain bike bandwagon. Giant Bicycles, one of the world's largest bike manufacturers, sells an e-mountain bike in Europe but hasn't brought the product to the U.S. Andrew Juskaitis, senior product marketing manager for Giant, says he will do whatever he can to keep the bike away from U.S. riders.
"All you need is one rider to get busted riding an e-bike on a restricted trail and it will set off a maelstrom of anti-mountain biking sentiment," Mr. Juskaitis says. "It's going to create access issues that are already tenuous."
Mr. Pizzi of the Electric Bicycle Committee has proposed a compromise. At a recent IMBA meeting in Colorado, Mr. Pizzi presented a plan for discussing e-mountain bikes with land managers. Under the plan, bikes powered by pedal-assist motors that travel no faster than 20 miles an hour would have the same trail access as traditional mountain bikes.
Michael Kelley also attended the IMBA meeting to promote the bicycles. Mr. Kelley helped found the group, served as an original board member in 1988 and still works as a local policy advocate in Northern California. He admits he is in the minority on e-mountain bikes, but believes age could persuade others to change their views.
"I'm not in favor of restricting mountain biking to a small demographic of limited age range," Mr. Kelley says. "If explored prudently, I think these bikes could expand our population."
Corrections & Amplifications
An earlier version misstated the higher end of the range of annual U.S. bicycle sales since 2005, according to the National Bicycle Dealers Association. It is $6.1 billion, not $6.1 million. (Sept. 25, 2014)