The Truth About E-bike Trail Access

When I met Motoman 25 years ago, I quickly learned that he was an adventurer. Our weekends consisted of rock climbing, mountain biking, and jet skiing, among other activities. At one point I joked that I needed to return to work on Mondays so that my body could sit at a desk and recover from the adventures of the weekend. Fast forward to today, and he still loves a good adventure, but the activities involved in the adventures look a little different. Over that span of 25 years, there have been injuries, crashes, not to mention the under appreciated impacts of aging in general – all of which have impacted mobility.

During the pandemic, Motoman purchased a class 1 e-bike as a way to spend a little more time with me, a little more time outdoors, and for a different form of exercise. I’m not writing this post to educate the world on the classes of e-bikes, but I will say that the class 1 is the only e-bike that REQUIRES pedaling to move forward. What we weren’t aware of when he purchased the bike, was the magnitude of controversy surrounding the different classes of e-bikes and where they are allowed and not allowed. This is an entirely different conversation from the riders who are simply anti-e-bike. But speaking of anti-e-bikers, we’ve certainly encountered plenty of those people on the trails. Imagine taking your new e-bike out for its maiden voyage and having a complete stranger call you names like “cheater”, or worse.

Nowadays on our mountain biking adventures, he follows me. I set the pace for our little peloton of two on my old Juliana – the kind without a battery operated motor. We do this because one of the objectives of purchasing the e-bike was to spend more time together. My pace is the limiting factor between the two bikes, so I lead the way. Occasionally, he’ll pass on a particularly steep or technical section of trail, but then he waits for me to retake the lead. I share this because I think it’s important to know that not all e-bikers are out on the trail to go faster than everyone else.

We learned very quickly that it’s difficult to know where e-bikes are allowed and not allowed to be ridden. Websites* that we have used for trail discovery and research are not always up to date with the latest information. Case in point: the 18 Road Trail System in Fruita, Colorado. As of the time of writing this article, those websites* indicate that e-bikes are not allowed. The BLM website for this trail system does not mention e-bikes. Yet, I took this image onsite at 18 Road during my trip in June of 2022. Clearly, Class 1 e-bikes are allowed as of April 8, 2022.

In other instances, our ride research has led us to a trail head, only to find that the signage at the trail head prohibits e-bikes. This is particularly frustrating when you’ve driven miles to the trail head. I have wondered at times if the trail head signage hasn’t been manipulated by trail users who are anti e-bike. I have encountered signage manipulation against motorcycles in the past, so it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise to see such behavior directed at e-bikes.

As a result of this mixed information, some folks are opting to ride their class 1 e-bikes on trails where they are prohibited, stating that they’ll take their chances on getting caught. We tend to ride in places that we know without a doubt allow e-bikes. We also make a conscious decision against spending our dollars in municipalities and counties that ban class 1 e-bikes on their local trails. Does this little boycott have any impact on anything? Absolutely not. But it does make us feel slightly better about being banned.

The categorization of Class 1 e-bikes as a “motorized vehicle” seems to be the root of the problem. Some places prohibit all motorized vehicles, and I understand what they were getting at when the rule was made. Bike manufactures, or whoever the gods were that decided to call e-bikes “motorized vehicles”, really did a dis-service to users of class 1 e-bikes. These are truly pedal assist bikes that open up cycling opportunity to people with mobility limitations. I’m no lawyer nor do I play one on TV, but I suspect at some point there will be a legal challenge that the “no motorized vehicles” rule discriminates against people who use class 1 e-bikes as a means of adaptation to a disability.

Vehicles have evolved since those rules were created. I know our government can be slow to adapt, but maybe it’s time now for their rules to evolve so they can be appropriately applied to newer technologies that didn’t exist when the rules were written. Let’s be realistic, e-bikes aren’t going anywhere… except maybe faster than you!

* Websites that serve as a database of biking trails with reviews, ratings, commentary, and downloadable gpx files shall not be named in this article.