If you're not a regular on the mountain biking scene these days, you probably don't know the increasingly strained coexistence between traditional mountain bikers and those riding electric-assist bikes, also known as e-bikes.
If e-bikes present a new concept to you, think of a traditional mountain bike boosted with an electric motor. There are three basic classes of e-bikes: one assists a rider's pedaling up to a cap of 20 mph; the second is also capped at 20 mph, but does not require the rider to pedal; the third requires the rider's pedal effort, but can hit 28 mph.
Mountain biking traditionalists live by the mantra: "if you don't earn it, you don't deserve it." That is, if you aren't willing to grunt your way up the ascents, you don't deserve the euphoria of the descents. The sweat and effort are not just part of the challenge of mountain biking, they are the point of the endeavor.
E-bike supporters ask why live in an "either/or" world? On an e-bike, the ascents can be just as grin-inducing as the descents. Moreover, they get: (1) more people outside on the trails, (2) more often and (3) for longer. These bikes offer the democratization of a sport that is simply too hard for many would-be riders.
The simmering debate moved to the front burner when the U.S. Department of Interior last week unexpectedly reclassified e-bikes as non-motorized bicycles.
That means all of the e-bikes described above will be given the same treatment as non-motorized ("mechanized") bikes on land under DOI management, which encompasses almost all of the mountain biking trails in the Grand Valley.
Not only was the order unexpected, Interior fast-tracked its implementation. The order gives agencies two weeks to make the necessary rule changes to implement the order and a month to submit a report on the changes made. There will then be an opportunity for public comment on the changes.
We think Interior put the cart before the horse. There should have been public comment, discussion and listening before issuance of such a sweeping order change. The philosophy that no regulation is always preferable to regulation, though often true, can't be applied universally, particularly when there are consequences.
Consider the varied mountain biking terrain throughout the valley. There are very technical trails that only expert mountain bikers can competently access and ride.
There are also trails almost anyone could ride.
Some trails are appropriate for the addition of e-bikes and some, by their nature or design, simply aren't. Imagine grinding up the technical section of Pet-e-Kes in your lowest gear when a novice e-biker passes you at 28 mph.
That's unsafe for the e-biker and for the experienced rider. But the sweeping nature of the new order opens all trails to all e-bikes, without consideration to user safety, user experience or trail health.
In the end, rules applicable to what occurs on federal lands are determined by the feds – in this case, Interior. But that doesn't mean the local mountain biking community can't make recommendations or establish guidelines about what trails are appropriate for what kinds of bikers. They may not be able to enforce the guidelines, but there are plenty of other unwritten codes riders break at their peril in the mountain biking world.
We see this well-intended but misguided order as revealing another benefit of moving the BLM headquarters to Grand Junction. If the folks making major land management decisions are able to access those lands regularly, they will have a keener appreciation for appropriate – and inappropriate – uses of public lands.