From The Editor’s Chair: The Dirtiest Word In Ebiking

Just who is being “cheated” by ebike riding anyway?

Aaron Chase on Shuttle
Would you call freeride and MTB freestyle legend Aaron Chase a “cheater”? We wouldn’t either.Pivot Cycles

I woke up one Saturday absolutely pumped to get out to my local earn-your-turns bike park on a new electric mountain bike Cycle Volta had in for review. Knowing the manufacturer’s long history as a core mountain bike brand on the cutting edge of bike geometry, and looking at the bike’s spec sheet absolutely loaded with choice components, my hopes were high for a fantastic new ride experience. The bike did not disappoint in the initial outing.

What did disappoint were the comments directed at me from some of my fellow mountain bikers that fine autumn day. Seems that the addition of an electric motor (Class 1 ebikes are not only allowed, but rented in this non-lift-served bike park) made me unfit for their tribe, despite my history of more than a quarter-century riding mountain bikes. “Cheater coming through!” one yelled as I passed at a moderate and respectful speed uphill, per the bike park’s rules. “Whoa, cheater!” another young rider later remarked. “Whoa, hater!” I replied.

Still, it was a great day at the bike park. The weather was mild and beautiful high up in the San Bernardino Mountains after several weeks of stultifying heat where I live at low elevation in Southern California. The riding crowd buzzed with excitement about the enduro race set for that afternoon. I had a long, thoughtful conversation about local trail access issues with a fellow old-dude mountain biker who brought his teenage sons and their buddies up to the mountains for a day of riding expertly manicured flow and jump trails. (Coincidentally, the dad said he is a fan of electric mountain bikes. He’s not ready for one himself, but he believes in them as a great way for more people to access the backcountry.) And a major bike company sent out demo rigs all day, including high-end electric mountain bikes. “Wow, I had no idea!!” one demo rider excitedly told me as he experienced eMTB torque for the first time pedaling uphill. Always love witnessing that “Aha!” moment.

Then I was brought back down to earth that evening when a friend and colleague sent me a link to a recent opinion piece on a popular mountain bike website. The post was nominally about treating eMTBing as an entirely different sport from traditional mountain biking, but that was only a gauze-thin cover for the writer to air his dislike of electric mountain bikes and those he sees as their typical users—attempting to prop up his position with little more than misleading stereotypes and no small amount of smug derision for this still-emerging aspect of the mountain bike ride experience.

I’m not going to link to that Dumpster fire of an op-ed piece because it doesn’t deserve to be fed any more oxygen. Pretty much the only thing nice I can say about it is that the writer didn’t employ the dreaded and now hacky C-word: cheater. But the spirit was definitely there: “Brands have admitted they don’t know who the US ebike consumer is. They want it to be the gnar-shred-bros-and-betties, but in truth it is more likely to be the StormTrooper in Park City, battling the back hatch of his Porsche to extricate his girth of rubber and battery.” Wow, let’s heap on some cheap class-warfare rhetoric while we’re at it!

The C-word came up recently when I interviewed Electra Bicycle Co. co-founder Benno Baenziger about his current venture, Benno Bikes, which makes electric-assist midtail cargo bikes and non-electric cargo and lifestyle bikes. Baenziger pointed to what he sees as dangerous misconceptions inside the bicycle business that ebikes are indeed cheating, and are inherently bad for the industry because they steal sales away from traditional bicycles.

“I say well-designed ebikes are not there to replace bikes; they’re there to replace cars. And I’m not trying to take your bike brand away. Go ride your road bike. Go ride your mountain bike. Do what you want. But when you go grocery shopping in your car, think about how you could be doing that on a bike. See if that’s feasible for you and would bring more joy to your life,” he told me.

I’m riding farther than I normally would, and in areas I typically wouldn’t gravitate to, because the electric assist extends my enjoyment on the road or trail. After the ride, I don’t feel like I’ve been “lazy” at all. “Pedal assist” and “vigorous ride” are not mutually exclusive terms.

I agree wholeheartedly with Benno. I’m not getting rid of my traditional mountain, road, and gravel bikes just because I have access to their electric-assist counterparts through my job. I am riding my regular bikes less often, to be sure, but that’s only because ebike reviews need to be written here, and we have a pretty lean staff at _Cycle Volta_. But I’m also riding farther than I normally would, and in areas I typically wouldn’t gravitate to, because the electric assist extends my enjoyment on the road or trail. After the ride, I don’t feel like I’ve been “lazy” at all. “Pedal assist” and “vigorous ride” are not mutually exclusive terms. I’ve simply covered more ground in less time—and experienced the rush-inducing torque that comes with electric assist.

So just who the heck is being “cheated” by someone riding an ebike? Let’s look at my personal experience on the receiving end of eMTB cheater-shaming at the bike park and raise a few possible objections:

  1. “You’ll pass me at an unsafe speed uphill.” A: No, I won’t. I obey the park rules about passing at a safe speed, just like I don’t ride ebikes where they’re not allowed. If I do pass you, it’s likely because you’re climbing slower than I would on my regular mountain bike. (A low threshold, admittedly.)
  2. “You’re cheating your way up the Strava leaderboards.” A: Nope. I do use Strava, but I select “E-Bike Ride” as my activity, not just “Ride.” Different segments tracked, different leaderboards. Also, I don’t care about leaderboards or “segment hunting” beyond trying to improve on my own previous performance.
  3. “You’ll tear up the trails on that damn thing!” A: More research needs to be conducted in this area, but a 2015 field study by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) concluded that trail impacts, measured as soil displacement, “were not significantly different” between Class 1 eMTBs and traditional mountain bikes.
  4. “I don’t want to hear the sound of a motor while I’m enjoying the outdoors.” A: Have you heard what some rear mountain bike hubs sound like these days? I dare you to detect the low thrum of a mid-drive motor over the buzzsaw racket of many high-end rear mountain hubs coasting downhill. (For the record, I dig the sound of noisy high-engagement hubs.) Now, if Industry Nine or Chris King start making mid-drives, maybe you’ll have a point.
  5. “Ebikers are lazy.” A: In September, Cycle Volta reported on a European study concluding that ebikers tend to ride longer distances than regular cyclists, and a recent column by Outside’s Joe Lindsey enumerated a number of similar research findings related to ride duration and the health benefits of ebiking.
  6. “Ebikes: I just don’t like ’em.” A: Then don’t ride one. I might not personally care for the brand or style of mountain bike you’re riding, but I have no business saying you shouldn’t enjoy your hard-earned purchase. That would make me, frankly, an insufferable arse. It’s no different from all the 29er hate spewed by old-line riders in the early days of the then-maligned “clown” wheel size, which now dominates the high-end mountain bike market.

So where does this leave all of us as fellow bicycle riders? I guess some haters are still gonna hate, holding on to their prejudices until otherwise convinced. But before reflexively calling someone out as a cheater, why not hold your tongue for just a moment and consider why you’re bothered by the presence of an ebike. How is it having any effect at all on your ride experience? Is the rider following proper trail etiquette? Maybe consider the possibility that the rider has a health issue, and that an ebike allows them to stay active on two wheels or keep up with their friends. Or just don’t be a jerk and crap all over someone else’s good time just to make yourself feel superior, or like a more “legit” rider than someone enjoying an ebike.

In the meantime, the “cheaters” are just going to keep having fun—responsibly, I hope. We already have a lot of negative bias to overcome out there.