Pedal-assist, e-mountain bikes offer just the right amount of extra boost for tackling hilly and challenging terrain.
By Ben Davidson
I was riding my new high-tech, pedal-assist mountain bike (also known as an e-mountain bike or eMTB) up a steep dirt “fire” road in Marin County, California. It seemed apropos that my bike’s maiden run was here in what’s known as the birthplace of mountain biking — where sturdy, knobby-tired bikes, hand-built by a few local cycling enthusiasts, first hit the trails in the late 1970s.
To my amazement, I ascended almost effortlessly uphill, over rugged, rocky terrain and past a few traditional mountain bikers grinding up the steeps. As I pedaled steadily, I felt propelled by an invisible force, a phantom tailwind generated by the small (one horse-power) battery and quiet electric motor deftly hidden in the bike’s frame. It felt almost magical, like a Disney ride with a bit of cardio thrown in for good measure. Instead of straining my lungs and legs, I was honestly having the most fun I’ve had on a bike in a lifetime of bike riding. It was still a workout, but relaxing and scenic as well.
What are e-mountain bikes?
My e-mountain bike, a svelte, clay gray Specialized Turbo Levo, is a “Class 1” e-bike. The motor only assists when the rider is pedaling and ceases to assist when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph. This is the type of e-bike most commonly approved for use on paved and dirt public trails and roads. Class 2 e-bikes are equipped with a motor and throttle used exclusively to propel the bicycle and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 mph. Class 3 e-bikes are equipped with a motor that only assists when the rider is pedaling and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 mph.
“We believe the electric mountain bike is a natural evolution of the current mountain bike, as it provides riders the power to ride more trails,” explains Joe Buckley, Turbo Electric Mountain Bike Product Development Lead at California-based Specialized Bicycles. “What may have seemed niche a few years ago has quickly become mainstream and is now widely accepted.”
He continues: “The ride delivers an experience that mimics the handling and feeling of a traditional bike, except now you have superhero legs.”
Superhero legs? That works for me! My dual suspension (front and rear wheels), aluminum frame Specialized Turbo Levo rides like a mountain goat, thanks to geometry based on their highly successful Stumpjumper mountain bike. Designed in the Swiss Alps, my bike is relatively heavy at 48 pounds. However, you don’t notice the weight when riding, unless you run out of battery power and the bike becomes a sluggish beast of almost 48 pounds. There are three levels of power assist you can adjust on the fly and typically the battery lasts several hours on one charge.
E-mountain bikes have been a godsend for older riders whose legs suddenly feel like they are twenty years stronger. However, there are increasing numbers of younger, more sporty mountain bikers who ride a sub-class of less-powerful but lightweight Class 1 e-mountain bikes to tackle longer, more challenging rides more frequently and further into nature.
So how do traditional mountain bikers view e-mountain bikes? Specialized Bicycle’s Buckley says: “In our eyes, if you ride your bike on the dirt or on the mountain, you are a mountain biker. The tool you wish to use is simply an extension of your style and riding choice. In the past, electric assist was associated with ‘cheating,’ which we know is an ego fed argument and unless you’re racing. This attitude has no place in the mountain bike community. What really matters is how you ride and if you are respectful on and off the trail. We encourage community building and inclusivity, motor or not.”
Buckley adds: “We believe to our core that bicycles have the power to change lives. Electric bikes of all varieties are opening doors for both new and existing riders alike. We believe this is a good thing.”
As a newly minted devotee of e-mountain biking, I couldn’t agree more. Every time I ride I thank my lucky stars that these amazing bikes evolved on the ever-changing bicycle tree of life.
Where to Ride eMTBs, legally
One major issue that swirls around the relatively new sport of e-mountain biking is access to dirt roads and trails. Regulations vary widely and are in constant flux as more and more riders appear on the scene and demand access.
At present, class one e-mountain bikes (limited to top assist speeds of 20 miles per hour) are allowed in most national parks on dirt and paved roads where bikes are allowed. The Forest Service is making policies but is leaning toward wider access for e-mountain bikes.
BLM-managed public lands offer many opportunities for riding e-bikes, including any Open OHV area or motorized trail. For use on non-motorized trails, contact your local BLM office for more information.
E-bikes are allowed on trails limited to bicycles and non-motorized travel only if a BLM Manager has issued a written decision authorizing e-bike use in accordance with applicable laws and regulations. Many state and regional parks have established regulations for e-mountain bikes; check the websites of individual parks and other public lands for specific rules and regulations. As with traditional bicycles, e-bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas.
The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) website provides current information about e-mountain bike access. An advocacy group, People for Bikes, publishes an online e-bike map and web-based trail map sites like TrailForks.com have filters for e-mountain bike-legal trails in your area.
One final bit of advice: Be sure to recharge your bike after each ride — once you’ve been bit by the eMTB bug, you’ll want to hit the trails every day!
Ready to Explore?
Consider a bike tour with AAA preferred travel partner VBT! Choose from guided biking, a guided bike and boat combination or a self-guided bike tour. You can explore a bevy of US and Canadian destinations or choose a bike vacation in Africa, Europe, South America and other far-flung locales.