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E-bike is to Bike what Trolling Motor is to Rowboat

by Ted Johnson

Last week the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) released a position paper (PDF) on how electric bikes should be regulated when off-road.

And predictably, the pedal-power purists flipped out without absorbing the nuances of IMBA’s position — even though the second paragraph is all reasonable and stuff.

IMBA believes all recreational uses of public lands should be managed on an individual use and trail-­by-­trail basis through the diligent application of benefits based management, preferred use and environmental impact assessment. These land management principles work together to give people the outdoor experiences they seek in a way that mitigates the effects associated with their use so that future generations can enjoy similar experiences.

Here on Commute by Bike, we’ve encountered people before who think they’re clever by making a false equivalency between e-bikes and scooters, e-bikes and mopeds, or even e-bikes and dirt bikes.

E-bike Does Not Equal Dirt Bike

E-bikes are not any of those things.

These people think that anything but pure pedal power puts cycling on a slippery slope towards something. Towards what?

For some pedal-power purists the “outdoor experience” they want to defend is one where they’re never reminded that motorized power exists.

I can understand and respect that.

But if these anti-e-bike people really understood what quiet weaklings e-bikes are, they’d understand that opposing e-bikes on trails makes about as much sense as me not wanting to be reminded that hydration packs exist.

You nipple-biting cheaters sucking water out of a plastic bladder! Tin canteens are the only pure way of carrying water on a hike.

So as I skimmed the comments on the IMBA page, I realized that this a teachable moment.

Prohibiting e-bikes off road because they’re heavy is like opposing fat people from riding regular bikes off road. E-bikes just aren’t that much heavier than a regular bike.

Prohibiting e-bikes off road because their little motors give a rider more torque is like opposing strong riders off road. The motors just aren’t that powerful. E-bikes are regulated in such a manner that by law they have to be weak and slow.

I’ve been testing e-bikes for a few months, and I’ve even written about them using the words “powerful motor.” But that’s relative to other e-bikes — not relative to the 1000cc Honda Gold Wing motorcycle I used to own.

I propose to all the bike reviewers in the world, that the word powerful, when referring to a legal e-bike, should always be accompanied by a snickering emoticon, like this:

…the ElectroGlide models have the components of the ideal E-Bike. With a powerful planetary gear motor,snicker long lasting lithium ion battery, Shimano Nexus 7 rear hub, and Tektro front disk brakes, this bike created the buzz…”

(Quote taken from ElectricBikeWorks)

When I commute home with an e-bike, I have a decent hill the last quarter mile before I reach my house. Without an e-bike, I probably average seven miles per hour up that hill. With an e-bike, I might average 13 miles per hour up that same hill — and with me huffing and puffing the whole time.

I imagine that rowboat fishermen were concerned when electric trolling motors first came out. They probably imagined their quiet fishing holes being invaded by electrified speedboats. Eventually this reality sunk in:

Rowboat with Trolling Motor Does Not Equal Speedboat

But trolling motors are popular among fishermen for the same reason e-bikes ought to be popular among bike commuters: You do a little less of the work which allows you to enjoy your commute in a different way. You get where you’re going a little faster, and arrive without a bunch of sweat.

Sure, trolling motors allow out-of-shape, beer-guzzling trout warriors to go toe-to-toe with oar-power purists. But it didn’t mean the end of trout fishing. It meant a new opportunity for people who might not get out on the water at all. It meant dedicated fishermen could overcome the motivational obstacles to get out and enjoy themselves even more.

An e-bike is to a bike what a trolling motor is to rowboat.

Here it is in a visual aid:

Ebike Is To Bike What Trolling Motor Is To Rowboat

We bike commuters are not all urban cyclists with tattoos and ironic t-shirts. For many of us, our route involves single-track dirt paths on public land. For the pedal-power purists to crow about e-bikes really bespeaks a misunderstanding of what e-bikes are.

Or maybe they’re just elitist jerks.

Was that helpful?

Class dismissed.


Photo Credits for this post:

 
Burley nomad 229

28 Responses to “E-bike is to Bike what Trolling Motor is to Rowboat”

  1. Molly says:

    Now that comparison makes more sense than the ones they gave you on the SAT’s!

  2. Gene @ BU says:

    There appears to be confusion as to the power classification for eBikes. Some countries classify the max power output at 200 watts. I understand in the U.S. different states classify an ebike between 250w to 5000w in Flordia.

    I believe in New York ebikes are banned and are not permitted for on-road use except no one seems to pay attention and you see ebikes sold in bike shops and ebikes buzzing up and down the streets.

    I too have a concern about ebikes until there is some uniformity in the definition. On the other hand I see eBikes as the wave of the future for bike commuting and the weekend type recreational riders, road and mountain.

    As boomers get older, they just may discover eBikings.

  3. GDorn says:

    @Gene: Ebikes are regulated at the federal level in the U.S. They are defined as less than 750watts and less than 20mph in full-assist mode (on flat terrain).

    http://www.electric-bikes.com/bikes/legal.html

    The exception is for federally-funded pedestrian walkways and trails, unless exempted by state or local laws. For on-road use, ebikes are legally permitted anywhere that bicycles are.

  4. salty says:

    I don’t know if e-bikes should be allowed on trails or not, but I guess I need to look elsewhere for an informed discussion on the topic. But, I’ll be sure to come here if I need to see some immature name-calling and unfunny pictures.

  5. Chrehn says:

    Hey Salty! You old dog, you! Come on back. You sure sound cranky today…

  6. Anthony says:

    Awesome article! This reflects exactly my opinion on part of this issue…

    I might add, however, that:

    …does not equal…

    Also, there are situations where this:

    …does not equal this:

    And I don’t mean to imply that this:

    …equals this:

    Anthony

  7. Anthony says:

    All graphic cleverness aside, the pragmatic discussion here should be about speed and sound. An electric assist bike, or low power electric powered bike, has environmental and user impacts indistinguishable from a human-powered bike and should be subject to the same regulations and rules as a human powered bike. (The specifics on power output and speed will need to be defined to clarify this.)

    It is also fair to say that electric motorcycles have lesser user and environmental impacts than gas powered bikes, and these more limited impacts should be taken into consideration when developing recreational trails.

    IMBA’s wholesale grouping of all electric vehicles as “motorized” is short sighted and narrow minded. Motorized vehicles are subject to stringent and specific regulation separate from other trail users. (http://www.fs.fed.us/recreation/programs/ohv)

    This approach sells short the potential environmental benefits of both electric bicycles and electric motorcycles.

  8. GDorn says:

    Also, from an environmental standpoint, the only mode of transport more energy efficient than a Li-Ion ebike is a normal bicycle powered by a vegan.

  9. Paul S. says:

    Let’s say e-bikes are all the positive things y’all say about them and none of the negative things other people say. I’ll even give you props for doing lots of peddling so you still get a workout.

    But what about everyone else? Dig deep into your collective knowledge of human nature. How many people are going to be pressing a button instead of peddling? It makes me sad to think of all of the people who will stay out of shape on an e-bike who otherwise might have a good chance at being fit. That doesn’t mean they should be outlawed, but the situation is still kinda sad.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      @Paul: If you were to take a legal electric mountain bike out on your favorite mountain bike trail, you’d realize that just pushing the button will be extremely unsatisfying — going uphill and over obstacles won’t happen at all. You’ll end up listening to the low hum of your motor straining while your battery drains. It’s like thinking you can pull a water skier with a trolling motor.

      Now, on relatively flat ground, it is possible to go 20 mph on some e-bikes. And I agree that some people would prefer to push the button rather than push pedals. And I agree that it’s kinda sad. But these people aren’t going to be buzzing you on your favorite trails. The e-bikers who you will encounter on your favorite trails are going to be working pretty hard at it, just maybe not as hard as you. Or they’ll be working as hard as you, but going a little bit faster.

      This post is intended for Mountain bikers who fear that e-bikes are the bikeopalypse. Don’t worry, they’re not. And us bike commuters who choose e-bikes shouldn’t be prohibited from trails where any other bicycle is permitted.

  10. Anthony says:

    Oh wait Ted…that was supposed to be a “HA!” in response to your “troll” pun…which was hilarious!

  11. Anthony says:

    Your preference for the physical condition of others is not, nor should it be, a criteria for the management of public lands.

  12. Ben says:

    I understand the usefulness of an ebike for commuting or even a weekend recreational ride around the park. However, when I hear talk about allowing a motorized vehicle on a trail my skin crawls. I agree that very specific definitions must be established if this idea is to work. It just seems that once we relax the rules someone will take advantage, then we look around and it’s the norm. Even now I run into the occasional “rider” on a gas assist bike. I guess I see that old “give and inch take a mile” situation. The other problem I see, in the interest of coming off totally elitist and judgmental, is that the ebike and other types of assisted drive bikes generally appeal to a crowd that doesn’t usually share in the same ideals in regard to wilderness and being out doors ie “leave no trace” type ethics. That said, the “rider” who isn’t fit enough to pedal to a place of great outdoor beauty cannot leave empty soda cans and candy bar wrappers. Are there exceptions to this idea? Sure, But go to any trail and notice that the area which is most often accessed by the most people is always, always trashed. Does my opinion matter here? Who knows. Will I be criticized for my comment? Probably. I think that trying to classify some motorized vehicles as OK and some that are very similar as NOT OK will be too much for our park officials to enforce and will lead to an eventual free for all. Any way you slice it I’ll be the one on my SS PEDAL POWERED mtn bike that passes you full tilt on the trail and all you’ll get to see is ass and dust.

    Cheers.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Ben: I completely appreciate your points. There’s an old saying — at least I think it’s an old saying — that, if you want to ruin a place, build a road to it. The more people who use a trail the more exposure that trail has to people who are inconsiderate.

      I really don’t care much about electric mountain bikes. But I’m writing about the intersection of bike commuting and mountain biking.

      I encourage you to try out an e-bike, and take it up a steep hill. I’m not saying you’ll love the experience. I’m guessing that you’ll see that e-bikes are so weak and slow; you’ll worry less about the type of person who litters is going to suddenly take up mountain biking. Are people who use trolling motors on their boats more likely to throw beer cans into the water than people who go on oar power only? I don’t know, but I doubt it.

      When I’m riding my (non-motorized) mountain bike on trails, what pushes my elitist buttons is the plague of quads. “Texas Wheelchairs” is what a friend of mine calls them. I’ve met some very nice people on quads, but I’ve also seen beer coolers strapped to the back of quads. I’ve seen the evidence of their wasteful picnics out in the woods. They are the houseboats of the forest — even more so than dirt bikers. A legal e-bike is a long way from enabling this kind of trashy inconsiderate behavior.

  13. Paul S. says:

    @Ted: You’ve mentioned several times that e-bikes are weak and slow, but ultimately helpful, on hills. I doubt very many people would even bother to care about a bike designed to go slowly up a hill, but downhills, small grades and flats all come with the package. They exist on every mountain trail.

    I’m going to reiterate that I don’t think banning e-bikes is the answer, but if your main argument is that they’re weak and slow, well, that’s only correct a portion of the time at best. You many only be using the electric assist to go up hills, but others will have their hand on that button basically all the time.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      Maybe so. Those are the same people who don’t have the sense or skill to use brakes when going downhill. So what? The woods are always visited by reckless people on bikes — motorized or not. My point is that a legal e-bike doesn’t add enough power to make a weak rider stronger than a strong rider; it doesn’t make a rider as heavy as a motorcycle; it doesn’t make any more noise than a regular mountain bike; it doesn’t make an idiot smart; or a skilled rider foolish. It’s just a little more weight and a little more power. It’s a trolling motor. Someone who runs the trolling motor all the time doesn’t become as dangerous as they would be in a speedboat.

      Why is nobody who opposes e-bikes addressing the analogy on which I’ve hung this article? Because I totally nailed it! That’s right! Oh yeah!

      Ahem…

      I have ridden e-bikes on some trails. In the case of the Ohm XS-750, what I liked about it was its ability to let the regenerative mode work like an engine brake to slow me down. I felt more in control being able to use the e-bike that way. I felt like I was a safer rider. (That’s a sneak preview of my review of the Ohm bike that I’ve yet to write.) I wrote about this technique previously in the context of winter commuting.

      Before I’d ridden a few e-bikes, I probably would have resisted the idea as much as the folks are who have left comments here, and on IMBA’s blog and Facebook page. I have to recall my thinking and preconceptions prior to my experience with e-bikes, and it helps me understand what the fuss is about.

  14. Anthony says:

    Some may want to consider that the argument that electric bicycles should not be allowed on non-motorized trails is entirely an aesthetic one.

    With that in mind, those who espouse this position should necessarily agree that bicycles should not be allowed in Federally Designated Wilderness area…right?

  15. Ben says:

    I mentioned that there were exceptions as far as the culprit when it comes to trash and I understand that the “legal” ebike is very limited in its capability. I guess the point I wish to make is when one type of motor is allowed on trails where is the line drawn? So what I’m saying is if you allow that motor, why not that one. Can officials in charge of policing these trails enforce sed rules? Also what is to keep an individual from enhancing the performance of a vehicle like an ebike?

  16. salty says:

    I’ll stand by my comments that the original article is patently ridiculous and if anyone is “trolling” it certainly wasn’t me. The following discussion has been somewhat better.

    I honestly don’t know how I feel about e-bikes. I’m intrigued by them – I’m not getting any younger and there are plenty of hills where I live, and I’ll admit I don’t always feel like pedaling up them. I’ve ridden on a couple – one that was pedal-assist and one that was self-propelled. I think they should absolutely be legal for riding on the road, and possibly allowed on separated bike paths, although then having some sort of speed limit is an issue.

    My mind is open, but at the moment I am not in favor of allowing them on trails. You make the argument that these are “weak” motors – not only is that ill-defined and basically unenforceable, but something that nearly doubles your speed going uphill doesn’t sound terribly “weak” to me. Sure, a strong cyclist might double my speed up a hill, but it’s not the normal case and letting the occasional bike pass is not a problem. The higher the speed differential and the more frequent the conflicts, the bigger the problem it becomes.

    And, I do think there is a place for human-powered-bicycle-only recreation, just as there is a place for human-powered-walking-only recreation.

  17. Doug D says:

    I haven’t made my mind up yet, but I see an awful lot of folks riding e-bikes way too fast on multi use trails and using them to go faster than is safe on singletrack.

  18. peteathome says:

    I don’t think most legal ebikes would offer much on trails due to their weight. I have a Bionx setup on my bike – it is one of the lightest but still adds 16-17 lbs to the bike. And the bike I put it on is my transport bike and is no light weight, especially with racks, panniers, etc. It probably weighs 40+ lbs.

    Now I’ve ridden it on 14 degree slope paved roads and found the assist on my 350 watt ( 500 watt peak) motor very helpful – instead of crawling up the hill in my lowest gear and standing on the pedals even then, I was able to ascend up at a slightly higher speed with only moderate-to-strong effort without standing. But the sort of trails I’m use to are another matter.

    I was recently riding the ebike on the tow path along the Delaware River in PA the week after the hurricaine passed through – quite a number of trees down over the path. Just picking the bike up and getting it over the downed trees was quite an effort. Lifting and carrying your bike is a common activity in mountain biking on trails ansd and I would have prefered riding a non-assist 25 lb mountain bike that day.

    But Ted’s analogy is absolutely on the nose. An assist ebike is definitely in the bicycle domain and not the scooter domain. And these ebikes are strictly defined by the US government so there won’t be any power creep.

  19. I am not a regular mountain biker, but if I were I think I would be somewhat offended if I was overtaken on a mountain trail by an able-bodied e-biker. I think I would think – you don’t deserve to be here because you haven’t earned it. I would feel the same way if I were in a pace line of road bikers pushing aerobic capacity and got passed by a dude on an e-bike. Or if I were hiking on the Appalachian trial and I was overtaken by a Segway. On the other hand, I feel completely differently about e-bike commuters. Whereas, mountain biking and road biking are specific recreational activities, commuting is just about transportation, getting from point A to B- so I say, power on e-biker.

  20. Josh Lipton says:

    I’m beginning to conclude that much of the inherent resentment against e-bicyclists by traditional bicyclists is based on the sentiment that cycling experiences must be earned.

    What’s wrong with encouraging people to enjoy cycling experiences with the approach that they prefer be it ebike, unicycle or 12″ suspension mountain bike? If you are a traditional cyclist who enjoys the experience more when you earn it without motor assist, more power to you. But why should everyone be held to this same moral standard to be welcomed into the club?

    If you really savor the experience where everyone is held to the same standard in cycling equipment and judged against one another, enter a race.

  21. hc says:

    trolling motor could be modded for more power…

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