Electric Motor Assist Mountain Bikes: Part 1 - e-Mountain Bike Primer

Electric Motor Assist Mountain Bikes: Part 1 - e-Mountain Bike Primer

Electric motor pedal assist bicycles are changing the face of the bicycle industry. Use of these motorized vehicles on sensitive public lands has serious implications.

True confession: I am a bicyclist. Many of you know me as a wilderness activist, but when I’m not traipsing around in Wilderness and proposed-Wilderness, I like to ride my bicycle. In this article I would like to share with you the state of the bicycle industry as it relates to one segment: electric-pedal assist mountain bikes. These machines present serious wildlands management challenges that we need to be aware of.


A brief history of mountain biking

My life on a bicycle started when I was 10 years old in the 1960s, when I discovered 10-speed bicycles and the freedom they afforded me. In college I had the good fortune to manage the campus bicycle shop at UCSD. I have toured extensively on a bicycle. I like bikes.


Something happened on a road bicycle club ride in San Diego in the mid-1970s. A young man, we’ll call him Ralph (his real name was in fact Ralph), started showing up on club rides with a cruiser fat-tire bike that he had outfitted with hand brakes and derailleur gears. We thought he was nuts. We were wrong.


Up in Marin County a group of visionary bicyclists came together to perfect fat-tire bikes. In 1978 a fellow named Joe Breeze came up with the first ‘purpose-built’ mountain bike. In 1981 his buddy, Mike Sinyard, who had a company called ‘Specialized’, introduced what is considered to be the first mass-produced mountain bike, called the ‘Stumpjumper’.


The rest, my friends, is history.



Introducing Electric Assist

As we look at mountain bicycling in 2019, two things are readily apparent. First, they have evolved into incredibly advanced, high performance machines that are capable of rapid travel over the most challenging terrain. And, mountain bikes are showing up with incorporated electric motors in ever-increasing numbers.


“The first thing you should know about e-bikes is that they’re here to stay. Electric bike sales jumped by an incredible 95 percent between July 2016 and July 2017 alone, according to the market research firm NPD Group. It’s a nearly $65 million industry, and there’s no sign of a slowdown.” (Bicycling Magazine, retrieved from https://www.bicycling.com/skills-tips/a20044021/13-things-about-e-bikes/)



e-Bike Classes

There are three classes of electric assist bikes:


Class 1: Pedal-assist motor that boosts your pedal speed, but caps at 20 mph. (No throttle)
Class 2: Throttle-assist that can accelerate the bike up to 20 mph without pedaling.
Class 3: Pedal-assist bike that caps your throttle speed at 28 mph. (No throttle). In many areas this class of e-bike is considered a motor vehicle and requires its riders to be licensed.


Think about this for a minute. Imagine sharing a hiking trail with a bicycle doing 20 - 28mph. Imagine being a deer, coyote, bobcat, whathaveyou, and have one of this come at you with no warning. Scary.



Looking forward

My purpose in writing this short article has been to introduce WOW readers to electric assist bicycle technology, and point out some of the challenges these machines bring to bear on public lands management. In Part 2, I will look more deeply into current management challenges, and pending regulatory and statutory response to this growing management issue. While bicycles will never be permitted in federally designated wilderness (never say ‘never’), they often do have access to potential wilderness areas. It is important to know the industry, and be prepared to defend our public lands resources.


Geoffrey Smith lives in Santa Rosa, CA where, after a 40-year career in both software engineering and environmental nonprofit management, he has settled into owning and operating a bicycle shop specializing in folding bikes… including non-motorized mountain bikes.



Mountain Biking Founders
Photo: Early pioneers of the mountain bike in the 1970s.
(Marin Museum of Bicycling, retrieved from https://mmbhof.org/mtn-bike-hall-of-fame/history/)

Cover Photo: Men's S-Works Turbo Levo. 2019. Retail price: $12,500 (Specialized, retrieved from https://www.specialized.com/us/en/mens-s-works-turbo-levo/p/154393?color=239489-154393)

(Reproduced from 'Words of the Wild', March 2019. Sierra Club California)


  1. Bradley Smith Bradley Smith

    Don't know where you get these speed figures from but my 2021 focus jam2 (Bosch gen4 motor) with me pedaling flat out up hill in emtb mode I average maybe 12kph comfortably. Downhill is the same as any sane person on a non pedal elec MTB. I come from an off-road motorcycle background and it's nothing like a motorcycle.
    The throttle operated bikes really need to be licensed and registered I believe.

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