Saturday, November 5, 2016

Forgive me Father, for I have sinned

Change is in the air. Electric vehicle technology is blooming. There are more models of full electric cars available now. The quickest production car in the world is electric. Recent advancements in battery energy density are behind this. Electric drive technology is also trickling over into the bicycle world and could change everything.

I've not been bashful in voicing my concern with E-bikes on non-motorized trails. I've followed the debate both locally and on the national level. It is a contentious subject for sure.

A couple months ago, one of the mountain bike magazines I subscribe to, Bike Magazine, ran a two-page ad for a new Specialized bike. It depicted a rider on singletrack in a remote area. The caption read something like "530W of trail shredding power." I had to do a double-take. Was a motorcycle being advertised in my mountain biking magazine? Sure enough. This irritated me to no end. I fired off an email letter to Bike, letting them know I did not subscribe to Dirt Bike Mag, and shame on Specialized and Bike for recklessly promoting this activity that could get all of us banned from trails that we worked so hard to gain. Two issues later, they published my letter! The Specialized ad did not run in that issue either. Coincidence?

One of the complaints proponents of E-bikes levy against opponents is this: opponents haven't actually ridden an E-bike, so they can't know what they are talking about. Opponents claim E-bikes will damage trails and relations with other trail users. A week ago, out of the blue I got an invite to demo an E-bike, a Specialized Levo, the very bike I rallied against in Bike Mag. Oh boy, was I conflicted. An honest assessment could only be gained by riding an E-bike on trails used by the mountain biking community. I rationalized the decision to give one a try for journalistic purposes, so I could speak with greater authority in my opposition of E-bikes on non-motorized trails.

Specialized brought a fleet of 12 Levo's over to Cycle Loft. The Levo is a Class-1 E-bike. It requires pedal input to produce assisted power. There is no throttle. Three basic modes can be set, turbo, trail or eco. The power assist can be further customized with a bluetooth app, which we did not set up. I left my bike in "turbo" mode for the whole demo. Trail mode is less punchy, saves battery, and economy mode basically provides just enough assist to make up for excess weight and drag of the E-bike. Class-1 also means the assist cuts off above 20mph on the road or going down hills.

After a brief tutorial on the basic modes, we were off. I nearly crashed into a rack of bikes inside the store! The turbo boost is very punchy, designed to get you over short, steep rises quickly. Maximum assist is 530W, which drops to 250W average when on a longer climb.

Casual observers would never know there is a big battery and motor in there.
No name on demo bikes. To avoid association with controversy?

There was a whole lot of giggling among the group of "old guys" heading across the parking lot. I could immediately tell this E-bike Kool-Aid was going to be intoxicating.

One thing I immediately noticed while on the road is how hard of a wall that assist cut-off is.  I weighed my bike with pedals on it. 51.4 pounds. Add 3" wide knobbies, it was a tank on pavement.  Trying to ride faster than 20mph was met with a highly progressive tax on effort. It just made you capitulate and not bother trying to go faster than 20mph. You could feel some engine braking too, when coasting, not unlike taking your foot off the gas in a manual car without pushing the clutch in.

Rock play

This sandy chute was too great a challenge for all that attempted

I have been fond of Specialized's FSR suspension design for as long as I can remember. I was curious to see how the Levo FSR performed off-road. Quite well, in fact. While that heavy battery in the down-tube precluded nimble handling like my carbon Tallboy, the suspension kept the bike stuck to the ground quite well over rough or rooty terrain. There was a powerline climb that alternated between steep ledge, slick dirt and chunder. I doubt I would have been able to clean that on my Tallboy. I was able to scoot right up that with some pretty serious human contribution to the total Watts needed. The smooth continuous torque delivered by the electric motor no doubt played a part.

Top of powerline climb

As an avid hiker, I adhere to the Leave No Trace dogma that most hikers rigidly adhere to.  I try to do the same with my off-road riding.  I was super careful to notice if I was leaving any trace due to boosted Watts. A few times, I felt the rear wheel slip on waxy oak leaves on a steep grade. But when doesn't this happen? More importantly in places with loose dirt, I'm pretty sure the E-bike, even in it's "turbo" mode, had less impact than my human powered Tallboy would. This is due to the smooth assist power delivered by the motor. On my Tallboy, I'd be in a low gear, trying to spin smoothly, but invariably the jerky pedal torque would produce some slippage.

Erie lighting of the Boston Skyline

We toured a variety of terrain for two hours, a thorough evaluation, for journalist purposes, of course (wink). We did have one bike stop producing assist power even though the battery was not dead. A couple batteries petered out right near the end, not that surprising for how long we were out riding and BSing. Fun was had by all, and I think we were in unanimous agreement that the Levo, in its factory Class-1 condition, does not damage trails any more than a non-assist MTB would. We were always courteous to the many other trail users we encountered too, no differently than when we ride our own bikes. I doubt any of the walkers even noticed we were on E-bikes.  So how can any of this possibly be bad?

Here are my concerns. There are four classes of E-bikes. They are all super quiet. While the Levo Class-1 pedal assist max's out at 530W, there are E-bikes that produce 33,000W of power on the market. Of course, they look more like a trail bike, do not have pedals, and are throttle controlled. This would be a Class-4 E-bike. So when people talk about allowing E-bikes on non-motorized trails, what, exactly, are they talking about?

The conservative stance would be to ban E-bikes everywhere motorized vehicles are not permitted. These are motorized vehicles. There can be no denying this. But this may be overly restrictive. Say land managers warm up to allowing E-bike use on trails, Class 1-3 only. Could there be any issue with this?

Electric bicycles are not going away. E-bikes make huge sense for commuters and others that don't want to work too hard when being outside. An "upgrades" market will no doubt materialize. Tesla car company recently announced a new battery that doubles capacity. A huge amount of money is going into battery research right now. Higher density batteries mean more available power for the same size and weight. Folks will tinker with their bikes. The batteries. The motors. The software. What leaves the factory at 530W max could easily be upgraded to 2500W down the road without a speed governor. A 2500W E-bike could cause significant trail damage, go 40mph, and stir up considerable user conflict. How does a land manager police this? The bike would still have identical factory appearance. Again, the easy thing to do is just not let E-bikes on the trails at all.

I am a long-time NEMBA supporter. I contribute financially and sweatequity. I help build and maintain non-motorized multi-user trails. I'd hate to see this work put in jeopardy with the introduction of E-bikes, muddying the waters, so to speak. Here's the conundrum I'm faced with. Many within NEMBA have taken a taken a hardline stance against E-bikes on non-motorized trails, yet at the same time NEMBA is lobbying for MTB access in wilderness areas. I support NEMBA on both of these fronts, yet this seems a bit disingenuous. I am deeply conflicted by this.

Hikers are certain human powered mountain bikers will destroy both their trails and their wilderness experience. Human powered mountain bikers are certain E-bikers will destroy their trails and ruin their relationship with the user community.  I find it fascinating how conflicts like these can just pop up and blindside you, pitting friends against friends.

I have been supporting the Sustainable Trails Coalition in their endeavor to end the illegal blanket ban of bicycling in wilderness areas. The goal is not carte blanche access to all trails, but rather to give local land managers discretion if they want to allow MTBs on select trails. All the MTB community really wants is to get back some of the thousands of miles of MTB trails we lost in the last 20 years to wilderness designation, trails we helped build and maintained. It is a reasonable meeting in the middle.

I think NEMBA and the E-bike industry should take a more proactive role in meeting in the middle on this issue. Engage local and state land managers for limited, quantitative access to trails. Take Bear Brook State Park in New Hampshire for example, a very popular MTB destination where I have put in trail work hours. Perhaps a compromise can be reached that states "only Class-1 bikes will be permitted on designated E-bike trails." You would need to bring the equestrian delegation to this discussion table too, and educate them on what a Class-1 E-bike is. It would require a lot of work and good faith discussion from all parties. If E-bikers abuse access with souped up bikes, the land manager can pull their access plug (he-he).  But for now, no motor vehicles means no E-bikes.

I am grateful to Cycle Loft and Specialized for this opportunity to experience this new technology first hand. So will an E-bike be added to the Hill Junkie quiver anytime soon? No. I remain a human powered purist. When I get too old to ride my favorite Bear Brook 50 mile loop, I just won't ride 50 miles anymore. I find it satisfying to earn my turns and miles. While I have, on a few rare occasions, shuttled rides where I finished at a lower elevation than I started, I have never visited a lift served terrain park. I would just feel guilty doing that. So what punishment did I receive for my transgressions this morning? I came home to a leaking boiler. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned.