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Tension On The Trails: E-Bikes Stir Up Controversy

Oct 8, 2019

A sign at the Lowline trailhead in Snowmass village advises that e-bikes are prohibited.
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

A new mode of transportation is joining the ranks of popular outdoor activities in the valley, but not without a touch of controversy.

Electric mountain bikes, often referred to as e-bikes, have accrued legions of fans who extoll their ability to get more people on more trails.

The bikes are divided into three classifications. The variety most often seen in the hills around Aspen is Class 1, which offers pedal assistance up to 20 miles per hour. While they generally look like traditional mountain bikes, a fatter portion of the frame houses an electric motor.

Proponents of e-bikes say that motor is helpful in helping them bike terrain they might otherwise consider unreachable. 

“This has taken me hopefully up some places I couldn't even imagine on my other bike,” Ron Welser said.

On a recent weekday morning, Welser, visiting Aspen from his home in Iowa, rode an e-bike to the platform on Smuggler Mountain Trail. After “three or four decades” of riding regular mountain bikes, this trip to Aspen included his first time on an e-bike, which he rented after his own bike was stolen.

"I feel like I'm younger. You can't beat it."

Standing atop the trail, among the golden Aspen leaves on Smuggler Mountain, Welser delivered a rave review of his rented ride.

“I'm 60,” Welser said with a chuckle. “It feels great because I feel like I'm younger. You can't beat it.”

Welser is not alone in his praise. Aspen resident Vince Lahey is an avid biker who first put his feet to the pedals of an e-bike two years ago.

“It is the perfect blend of man and machine,” Lahey said. “It is the ability to go just a little bit faster and be just a little bit less anxious about the uphills to be a little bit less anxious about, ‘Am I going to get home?’”

Lahey is one of the area’s most vocal advocates for e-biking. Fans of the bikes have needed an advocate, because rules about where you can take them have borne controversy.

The U.S. Forest Service prohibits the use of e-bikes on its trails, as they fall under the agency’s definition of motorized vehicles.

Some local jurisdictions have followed the Forest Service’s lead. While e-bikes are allowed on paved and crushed gravel trails in Pitkin County, they are prohibited on all of the county’s singletrack trails. 

Opponents of  e-bikes say that they should be kept off those protected trails. Environmental groups and some mountain bikers have taken a stand against growing calls to expand the areas where they are allowed.

This July, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior issued an order that re-categorized e-bikes and could open up massive swaths of public land for their use. In response, dozens of outdoor groups co-signed a letter that said the move could “forever change the backcountry experience” and reduce the availability of “recreational trail opportunities free from the ever-growing motorization and mechanization.”

"Opening non-motorized trails to motors would forever change the backcountry experience."

The order has not yet gone into effect. It is in a period of public comment and may be countered by lawsuits.

Lahey insists that there is no tangible difference between an e-bike and a traditional mountain bike, and claims that they increase trail erosion or lead to more collisions are just keeping people from accessing nature.

“To exclude them because of these silly arguments,” Lahey said. “They're all disprovable. It doesn't make any sense.”

A 2015 study by the International Mountain Bicycling Association found that the impacts on trails by traditional mountain bikes and Class 1 e-bikes were “not significantly different.”

Mountain bikers themselves are not entirely unified on the issue. One of the area’s most prominent mountain bike groups has chosen to take a middle ground. 

“We see the complexity of the values that people are placing,” said Mike Pritchard, executive director of the Roaring Fork Mountain Bike Association. “And we're also trying to be realistic about the situation. Simply put, there are a lot of positive stories and there are also very strong feelings about the threat or the impact that the technology might hold. So we've realized that we can't be the ones to decide.”

"There are a lot of positive stories and there are also very strong feelings about the threat or the impact that the technology might hold."

E-Bike advocates hold that there is little practical difference between the two varieties, but to one canine trail user, e-bikes are unmistakable.

Bo, a dog who is part retriever and part boxer, chased an e-bike for a few dozen feet up Smuggler Mountain Trail on that recent weekday morning.

His owner, Hilary McKie, says he does not tug on the leash when traditional mountain bikes pass by.

“I walked the dog every day, practically. A lot of the times on smuggler and in places where there are e-bikes, he only reacts to e-bikes.”