Pinkbike announced this week that they will be ramping up their coverage of “eMTBS,” and this (rather predictably) resulted in much internet handwringing. I’m here to jump on the handwringing bandwagon, because this means that the largest mountain bike website is now fully complicit in the industry’s push to co-opt the sport of mountain biking for their e-gains.
But just to be clear, I think eBikes are great.
They allow access to some cool places, they allow people to do bigger, longer rides, they allow people who don’t have the physical ability to ride a bike to get out on trails, and at the end of the day, they’re pretty fun.
But eBikes are not mountain bikes.
eBikes are — unquestionably — motorized vehicles.
Sure, the throttle isn’t located in the grip, and most of them at least require a nominal level of effort at the pedals to actuate the motor. But regardless of throttle location and the extent or manner of inputs that are required from the rider, it is nevertheless a motorized vehicle. It doesn’t matter that the motor is small, or that it doesn’t put out as much power as a dirt bike. A motor is a motor.
Fortunately, there are lots of great trails that allowed motorized vehicles, and those are great places to take eBikes.
So the issue isn’t the existence of eBikes (they exist, and they’re not going away). Nor is it the use of eBikes (they should be limited to moto-legal trails, but that’s mostly an education and enforcement issue).
Instead, the issue is the industry’s attempt to brand eBikes as bicycles, and this is where Pinkbike’s failure comes into play.
Advocates of human-powered bikes are quick to point out (as I just did) that bikes don’t have motors. Advocates of eBikes are quick to point out that there are significant and noteworthy differences between an eBike and a motocross bike. And they’re both right — eBikes aren’t the same as traditional, pedal-driven bikes, but they’re certainly not dirt bikes, either.
Quite simply, they are a new and unique class of vehicle.
But the industry isn’t interested in creating and marketing a new class of vehicle, nor do they appear to be interested in pursuing traditional motorized users. eBikes are being marketed to “pedal” cyclists, and eBikes are being presented as bicycles that just happen to have a motor in them.
To a large extent, fault lies with the industry. By closely associating eBikes with regular pedal bikes, companies effectively skirt the edge of any number of regulatory issues that come with motorized vehicles. And by skirting those issues and marketing eBikes as just an “easier” pedal bike, the audience for the product is significantly increased. There is a large and established market for bicycles, and eBike manufacturers want to glom onto that market.
But while we can fault the manufacturers for that tactic, we can’t be surprised by it. At the end of the day, they’re selling a product, and they’re looking for the most effective way to sell as many of those products as possible. So the way eBike manufacturers are marketing their bikes is to be expected.
But the real problem arises when bike media buys into the marketers’ bullshit.
Pinkbike is a business, too, and they’re more than welcome to expand their horizons and cover things that aren’t bikes. But doing so in a way that co-mingles traditional bikes and eBikes does a disservice to everyone — except the eBike manufacturers.
Plenty of people (including some people here at Blister) see Pinkbike’s stance primarily as a money grab. And I have no doubt that eBike manufacturers are eager to throw money at Pinkbike to advertise their latest e-creation. But I’m not entirely sure that greed is the predominant motivator for Pinkbike. My gut tells me that it’s more the product of a gradual slide down a path of acceptance. eBike manufacturers have been pumping the idea that eBikes are essentially just mountain bikes for years now, and when a place like Pinkbike hears that story over and over again, I think it has to eventually wear them down.
And in case I haven’t already made it clear, that’s a bad thing.
When the sport’s largest media outlet starts mixing and mingling coverage with eBikes, mountain biking takes a hit.
So why does it really matter? For at least these four reasons:
(1) eBikes will result in less access for everyone. The issue of access for mountain bikes is a hot topic of discussion. Bikes are getting shut out of trails, more areas are being designated Wilderness, and there’s significant pressure from various outside groups to limit pedal bike access. The issue is heated enough that it’s brought about a significant and ongoing change at IMBA, and the birth of a new organization — the Sustainable Trails Coalition. While these issues are thorny enough as it is, introducing eBikes into the discussion and equating them with mountain bikes just hands an easily winnable argument to the groups opposing bike access.
(2) Mountain biking is not a rich sport. People lament the fact that the US racing scene has deteriorated, that there’s rarely any North American world cup races, and that the competitive side of mountain biking has declined since the early 2000’s. And while plenty of people will point fingers at USA Cycling (which certainly bears some blame), the fact of the matter is that there just isn’t much money coming from outside of the industry for sponsoring races. Bringing eBikes into the mix — and equating them with mountain bikes — just dilutes that pot of money even more.
(3) Mountain biking needs to retain its identity. Mountain bikes are unique in that they’re the fastest, most efficient way to travel off road. That is, until you introduce a motor into the equation; then there are all sorts of vehicles that are quite a bit faster. Introducing motors onto mountain bikes means the sport loses its identity. If someone says that they’re a skier, I know what that means. If someone says that they’re a basketball player, I know what that means. But if eBikes become synonymous with mountain biking, then I don’t know what it means to be a mountain biker anymore.
(4) It’s a slippery slope. At one end of the spectrum are mountain bikes; no motor, 100% human-powered. At the other end of the spectrum are electric dirt bikes. Husqvarna makes some that actually look pretty fun, and are as capable (if not moreso) than their internal combustion counterparts. Somewhere in between those ends sit a wide variety of eBikes. Some have small motors, some have big motors, some you have to pedal to make them go, some have an actual throttle. Many people argue that it’s complicated to determine what constitutes an eBike vs. a dirt bike. But it’s not complicated to distinguish what constitutes a mountain bike vs. an eBike — a mountain bike doesn’t have a motor. Any conclusion otherwise just muddies the waters unnecessarily.
As I said at the outset, I don’t begrudge anyone who wants to ride an eBike, just as I don’t have anything against people who ride dirt bikes, go 4-wheeling, go skiing, or play basketball. They’re just different sports, and if that’s what floats your boat, who am I to stop you? So if you want to go ride an eBike, I sincerely wish you the best, and I hope you have a great time.
Just don’t call it mountain biking.
And that goes for Pinkbike, too — you are a mountain bike website. Put the eBikes on ePinkbike.