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.


Mom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Scott Powell said...

Well balanced article. Just one more conundrum to figure out as technology continues to change society

Lee Hollenbeck said...

Seemed kind of biased on your reporting. NS Nemba member here. First off, bikes don't have motors. Most of MA prohibits motor vehicles on trails, there are a few( like 6) places to ride ORV's in MA, e motorcycles are welcome to ride there. No middle ground needs to happen. Not allowed by law. How does the Nemba wilderness stance have to do with allowing motors on non motorized trails? The wilderness act was misinterpreted to not allow bikes on them, look it up. And did they take off the Specialized logos off the e bikes? Interesting? How would one regulate them? 750, 1,000, 3,000 watts? How to tell be looking at them? You can't, mod kits, fake labels and override controllers already exist.

Hill Junkie said...

Lee, I agree with most of what you said. I am well informed on the bikes in wilderness push. I have financially supported the STC since it's inception. Here's the deal. You've probably heard the expression "in politics, perception is reality." I'm an avid hiker too and have hiked many wilderness areas around the country. Perceptions of the Wilderness Society and the Sierra Club are that allowing bicycles into wilderness will destroy the integrity of the wilderness act, allow an entirely new kind of activity into wilderness, and be a slippery slope to motor vehicles and resource extraction. Sound familiar? My "inside view" from both the hiker and biker camps is the hiking community is more worried and perceives it has more to lose if bikes creep into wilderness areas. Of course, I totally disagree with this. I am not a proponent of E-bikes on non-motorized trails. I don't want to see them on my local trails any more than you do. I view MTB E-bikes as further softening of America. But I see a lot of misinformation being spread about them, and I just wanted to point out that E-bikes on our existing MTB trails is a very similar conflict with MTBs on wilderness trails. The fact one has a motor, which definitively important, is moot in the realm of perceptions. E-bikes are not going away. Better to get in front of this change, manage it, before it blows up into an even bigger problem. There may be better ways to managing it than just saying no. Wilderness folks have been saying no to us for 30+ years. All we are asking is that no be changed to a selective yes. If SB3205 passes, you can bet there will be a couple trial trails before it expands. Maybe same can be done for E-bikes. A land manager can revoke that right anytime. Don't see a huge risk here, in either of these conflicts.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoy your blog, and I'm sorry that you've moved off this platform for many of your posts. I'm also a fellow NE rider and hiker.

I believe that the onslaught of off-road e-bikes is not inevitable. Sure, a few riders will try one. But how large a market is there? Maybe a small fraction of the riders already on mountain bikes will add (yet another) expensive toy. I doubt someone will get this as a first mountain bike. They are much more likely for on-road use.

We still have enough issues with actual dirt bikes on many of the MA trails, and they don't really see much enforcement. I don't think inviting another powered bike type should be encouraged. Those who ride them illegally will continue anyway.

Hopefully, the small market for off road e-bikes will kill this before it gets very far.

Thanks, and keep up the good work.

PyZahl said...

Great report and test. Never though about the trail issues/conflicts this is imposing nor had an idea those are been made beyond the use full and great "city type bike" (or cheater... bikes) -- good point! Totally agree those "E-assist" machines do not belong on a MTB trail -- what is the point here? Want to go faster and stir up dirt, get a real dirt bike -- E or gas... I don't care and please go to the local dirt track or such!
And I think it's clear and no debate -- as I be leave most trails are designated for non motorized vehicles/bikes only -- motor is motor.

Wonder if in some future they would last long enough on a charge to mix up D2R2... hope not any time soon -- hehe.

NaRong said...

I really enjoy your blog, and I'm sorry that you've moved off this platform for many of your posts. I'm also a fellow NE rider and hiker
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