Sea Otter adds e-bike race for 2016. Do motors belong?

Sea Otter Classic, the California event that “kicks off” the road and mountain bike race seasons each April, has announced it will host an e-mountain bike race at next year’s event. While plenty of battery-powered technology has seeped into mountain biking via electronic shifting and suspension adjustment, this move strikes me as ominous.

The manufacturers pushing e-bikes on natural-surface trails need to get their stories straight. I sat in on a well-attended e-mountain bike panel presentation at Interbike this year. Bosch, maker of e-bike motors, kicked off the festivities with a video depicting highly talented mountain bikers ripping e-bikes on European singletrack in a backcountry alpine setting.

The panel then followed up the shred-fest video with an explanation that the U.S. audience, which they claimed is 4-5 years behind Europe, is primarily people who can’t keep up on a regular mountain bike either due to age or lack of fitness, or those who aren’t serious riders and still want to get out into the backcountry. That, and a handful of hunters and nature photographers, according to Felt Bicycles founder Jim Felt, who sat on the panel.

Bosch MTB-1

The argument currently being made is that e-bikes should be allowed on natural-surface trails because they won’t be ridden by rippers and Strava hounds. They’re too expensive to be an N+1 bike and they’re too heavy for all but the strongest riders to enjoy maneuvering. They’ll be Sunday drivers out for a cruise, so we need not fret about our precious trail access or the inevitable tinkering by home mechanics hacking factory motor settings to make them exceed power limits set by federal laws.

But the Sea Otter race betrays what is coming. E-mountain bike racing is already popular in Europe and the manufacturers are hankering to get into the U.S. market at a level much greater than “your mom on a mountain bike.”

Meanwhile, the question continually flowing through the industry is, “Who is buying the things? Where is the consumer clamoring for this expensive, niche product?” Other than a handful of individuals here and there, we don’t seem to know.

Felt did say that e-bikes (in general) are the fastest growing segment of the industry, but I would like to see that data as I can imagine quite a few caveats. “Fastest growing” is easy to claim if a company sold five e-bikes last year and 20 this year.

Vibram Five Finger shoes were a fast-growing segment of the shoe market when they were introduced, but it didn’t mean they were a good idea, and they have all but disappeared. (In fact, they might have been a bad idea, and Vibram has had to pay out millions of dollars to settle a lawsuit over false health claims. The marketers won the battle, then reality won the war.)

I’m looking at this almost entirely through an advocate’s lens and I fear that the manufacturers aren’t understanding that America is not Europe. You know when a band says they’re “big in Europe” that you can’t trust them? It’s the same thing. In the U.S. of A, all trails are local; almost all trails are volunteer-driven; almost all trail battles are unique in some way.

Remember that the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) was birthed in America by pot-smoking, cruiser-klunking, long-haired Californians who got themselves banned from all trails in the 1980s and realized things were only going to improve if they organized. They didn’t ask any existing trail user group to take on their cause; they took in on themselves because they had a passion for something.

European mountain biking doesn’t have that level of grassroots, gritty history. IMBA Europe is a thing, but you wouldn’t recognize its formal structure. The bicycle industry can more easily drop technology on the landscape across the pond and not have to worry so much about causing problems for the volunteer advocates and trail builders doing much of the heavy lifting.

I worked at IMBA for five years—up until this past August—and never once did I hear from an IMBA chapter leader (there are almost 200 of those groups) that they wanted to take on supporting e-bikes. The pressure on IMBA to re-think its hardline stance against any bike with a motor—which dates to 2010—is coming from the top down.

The sour taste in my mouth is that I’m convinced the bicycle industry is forcing this one on us on its own timeline because new wheel sizes and fat bikes and five or six or whatever number of confusing and made-up mountain bike categories aren’t giving them the sales numbers they want.

Yes, you can say the same thing about suspension and carbon frames and the now-dizzying array of wheel sizes—that they were forced on us—but those things mostly just annoyed the purists; they didn’t threaten trail access which, depending on where you live, might still be tenuous or downright terrible. Those technological developments didn’t threaten to frighten land managers who function under a motorized vs. non-motorized mindset, or burden already over-stretched volunteer mountain bike advocates who work tirelessly under the banner of human-powered recreation.

As it stands, there is still not nearly enough money or muscle (either political or physical) to do all that is needed to have great trails and great access for human-powered (only) mountain biking. Layering e-bikes onto the current advocacy landscape—without a groundswell of real people seeking e-bike access and stepping up to help—would further stretch thin resources and complicate already complex efforts.

We’ll see who turns up to race in April.