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Opinion: Why the E-Bike Couldn’t Be Arriving at a Worse Time

A measured response to the Wilderness debacle

It is not possible to unhook all my emotional responses, all the reflexive alarm bells that start clamoring in my head, whenever the words 'electric assist' and 'Wilderness Act' are spoken. I have too many feelings invested in these separate, but inevitably conjoined, operas. I suspect that most of us are in this same boat. We are attached to the outcome. Not a very Zen way to go through life, but here we all are.

In one corner, there's the current push by the Sustainable Trails Coalition (STC) to engage with congress and the public and re-examine the ban on mountain bikes in Wilderness. The ban itself was something that was not specified in the original wording of the act back in 1964, but was amended following a series of memos between United States Forest Service personnel in 1984.

Ever since, bikes have been banned from all 108 million acres of Wilderness in the U.S. and trail maintenance, such as it is, must be done without mechanical aids like chainsaws or wheelbarrows. The STC is seeking to allow for bikes to be considered in Wilderness on a case-by-case basis, and is asking that the trail maintenance strictures be revisited with an eye to creating more accessible, more sustainable trails in Wilderness areas. Seems fair enough, right?

In the other corner, whirring quietly and just a little smugly past as you sweat your brains out up some brutal pitch of trail, we have the electric-assist mountain bike. Proponents argue that it's "not a motorized bicycle" because it doesn't have a throttle and because power output is capped by law. Plus it's not as much fun to ride as a really good mountain bike because these batteries are real heavy and you wouldn't like them much anyway but they are going to be a godsend for getting old and out-of-shape people into the backcountry, where they can realize what an amazing thing the backcountry is and therefore be more likely to give a hoot and don't pollute, so they oughtta be allowed on any mountain bike trail. Right? Right, something like that. Land managers everywhere, rejoice!

Neither of these scenarios–the idea of opening Wilderness to bikes and limited mechanized maintenance on a case-by-case basis, and the idea of allowing e-bikes to be treated just like mountain bikes and have access to regular ol' mountain bike trails–are anywhere near cut and dried. In the Wilderness case, the factors impacting the situation in any pro- or con-fashion are many faceted. With the e-bike, not so much, but the ability of this to impact the Wilderness discourse is monumental.

Wilderness, for example, is thought of in this case as a recreational asset that we all have a right to access. And, if we all access Wilderness in our teeming millions, we should expect trails that are somewhat maintained and navigable. In spite of the argument that the wording of the Wilderness Act has a sort of hippie manifest-destiny sensibility about recreational enjoyment of the great outdoors, the notion that we should have easy access to curated wilderness sticks in my throat. In the Sparta of my mind, wilderness should be difficult to access, unmaintained by human hand, and totally unforgiving to the weak or the unfortunate. In my wilderness, there would be no trail maintenance at all. But the reality is that much of the designated Wilderness in the lower 48 has been well picked over by humans already. And the recent Wilderness land grabs in Montana and Idaho have been more about political legacy building and rich people wanting to showcase backyards than actual preservation of a raw and untrammeled backcountry. And, in light of that kind of democracy, my inner Hayduke beats up my inner Leonidas, and says "Dude, we should poach the shit out of that Wilderness over there."


Check out our in-depth series on access issues across the US: Lines in the Dirt


But still, I am torn on this. On the one hand, more trail access is a good way to disperse the impact of all trail users, and it makes sense that we should be able to access our public lands by low-impact means however we, as taxpayers, see fit. On the other hand, we have so much public land at our disposal, and we are doing pretty damn well in terms of maintaining and even gaining access these days, and part of me is almost getting tired of riding all these well-built, sustainable-grade, flow-to-berm-to-jump-to-roll trails.

Hayduke, Leonidas; shake hands. Now wrestle!

And into this–like some bumbling, battery-powered Trojan Horse humming up to the gates of this Greco-Redneck smackdown (yeah, I know it's not cool to mix up Leonidas with the whole Trojan War deal)–rolls our friend the electric-assist mountain bike. I can think of no more effective way of cock-blocking any attempt at a civil down-the-line dialogue about trail access (and I suspect it will be quite a ways down the line before the discourse on Wilderness becomes civil, but I live in eternal hope that it will do so, and will actually become a legitimate dialogue), than to introduce the specter of a rapidly evolving motor-assist technology to an already acrimonious and vitriolic conversation that until this point was basically splitting hairs about how the human power was applied.

If this was some post-apocalyptic wasteland, and I was a nomad with a solar panel and all my worldly possessions on a detachable cargo-rack-equipped fatbike, I would be so beyond stoked to have an electric-assist to help my starvation-addled legs turn the cranks as I rolled through burned-out cities looking for leftover canned goods. I wouldn't worry about Wilderness access, since there wouldn't be any difference between wilderness and where the cities used to be (except for way fewer canned goods in the former Wilderness areas). But we aren't there, not yet anyway. And in the here and now of mountain bikes and land access, the electric assist bike could not be arriving at a worse time.

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