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Debate intensifies on how much trail access to give e-bikes

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FILE - River Trails bicycle shop in Onalaska.

DENVER (AP) — The sun was almost setting when 14-year-old Daniel Giffin crossed the finish line on his electric mountain bike last August, nearly the last in the pack of thousands of cyclists riding across the state of Iowa in the stifling late-summer heat.

Beneath his teal helmet, patches of Daniel’s shaggy brown hair were loose from his 48th radiation treatment. His left foot and lower leg were weak from a cancerous tumor — once half the size of a human fist — lodged on the right side of his brain.

But with a slight assist from his bike’s motor, the Colorado Springs boy pedaled alongside his mom for 12 hours, stopping for ice cream and dancing on their bikes along the way. He was ready to quit, but pushed through the last 10 miles of Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Race Across Iowa, known to cyclists as RAGBRAI.

“I was like crazy wiped and I didn’t think I was gonna do it. But I put myself in a mindset and we just started listening to music, dancing. And so when I actually finished I was so happy,” Daniel told The Colorado Sun earlier this month, recounting his feat.

Then an older cyclist rode past him, turned and sneered: “Cheater!”

The young cyclist had just clocked 87 miles.

But the man’s comment didn’t get him down. For Daniel, already a veteran cyclist by the time he was diagnosed with cancer at age 11, an e-bike is just another tool allowing him to keep doing what he has always loved to do.

“I’m on an e-bike for specific reasons — it’s not just because I want a free ride. I push myself,” said Daniel, now 15 and undergoing chemotherapy treatments. “I’m here to try and do something that I wouldn’t normally do and just get out of my comfort zone.”

But what Daniel sees as a tool to stay active while battling brain cancer, others see as a vehicle that could sow chaos on trails. While e-bikes are largely permitted on streets and paved urban paths throughout Colorado, the question of whether to allow them on natural surface trails — like those found on mountains and in parks and open spaces —has erupted into near-fist fights on some trails as communities grapple with clashing opinions over their off-road use.

E-bike advocates have long touted them as a safe, environmentally friendly way to extend the promise of the outdoors to those unable to navigate trails on traditional bikes, including older riders and people with disabilities. But critics compare e-bikes to motorcycles and fear they could pit other trail users against cyclists in general, jeopardizing hard-fought trail access for mountain bikes.

In Boulder, where e-bikes are permitted on paved trails but prohibited on the city’s Open Space and Mountain Parks trails, land managers are looking to amend the status quo on e-bike trail access.

The city drafted three options for modifying the city’s e-bike rules, ranking each against several criteria, including community support, equitable access, safety, the ability to regulate, and how well it aligns with Boulder’s climate initiatives. Staff has recommended an alternative that allows e-bikes on all 34 miles of city open space trails — 22% of the 154-mile network.

The city recently used a 19-question survey to solicit community opinion and will use the information to develop permanent e-bike regulations for Boulder trails and open space. Key findings from the survey will be used to present a proposed ordinance to city council later this year or early 2023.

“I think everybody values our open space lands, which is why we have a spectrum of people providing input,” said Marni Ratzel, a principal planner for Boulder’s Open Space and Mountain Parks Department. “Do I think we’re gonna please everybody? I think if we had the silver bullet solution, we might not need this public engagement.”

While pleasing everyone may not be possible, soaring e-bike sales are forcing Colorado cities to regulate who is allowed on trails and who isn’t. Experts predict 1 million e-bikes will be sold in the U.S. this year. In 2021, e-bike sales outpaced sales of electric vehicles.

Electric bikes hold enormous potential to limit driving and reduce vehicle emissions, climate and transit advocates say. But there’s also a subset who are also concerned about welcoming e-bikes to pristine backcountry trails where motorized vehicles were once banned.

Others say e-bikes, propelled by both pedal and throttle, make cycling more equitable and public lands more accessible.

The mountain bike world also has a complicated relationship with e-bikes. More urban cycling groups are wholeheartedly welcoming e-bikes as a way to grow the sport. But many mountain bikers fear that allowing them on singletrack trails built for human-powered bikes could lead to reclassifying nonmotorized trails as motorized trails.

E-bikes vary in power and speed, complicating the effort to regulate them.

On a class 1 e-bike, a motor kicks in when a rider starts pedaling and stops when they reach 20 mph. A class 2 e-bike has a pedal-assist motor but also has a throttle that can boost a rider up to 20 mph without pedaling. A class 3 e-bike only has a pedal-assist motor, which is capped at 28 mph.

“This type of conversation around e-bikes is definitely something that trail and cycling advocacy organizations around the state of Colorado have pretty much agreed is a complicating factor for a lot of our outreach and advocacy campaigns,” said Laraine Martin, executive director of Routt County Riders. “There’s almost no two organizations that have the same statement on this. We’re all kind of walking a really deliberately careful line.”

Routt County Riders, a mountain biking advocacy group, promotes trail diversity throughout the Yampa Valley and beyond. But when it comes to e-bikes, the Steamboat Springs-based organization has yet to take a stance.

“I think there is a sense of trepidation among our board members that if we were to come out in full support of granting e-bikes full access across trail networks, we would be jeopardizing a lot of the progress we’ve already made over the past 30 years or so when it comes to just traditional bikes,” Martin said.

The mountain biking community has a prominent voice in Steamboat Springs, but it wasn’t always that way, she said. Many hikers and trail runners — groups with broad access to trails — showed resentment when cyclists started “imposing their will” on trail systems in the county by requesting access to trails.

“People get nervous when they get passed at high speeds by a mountain bike coming downhill,” Martin said. “There’s already tension around cyclists on trails.”

E-bikes could further complicate that.

“It opens up options for folks and so we’re certainly interested in that conversation. We just haven’t been specific about where and when,” she said. “We’re just walking on eggshells.”

— ‘The aging athlete’

On most mornings, Kent Drummond, 80, and his wife, Taydie, 74, are navigating the dirt trails through Mueller State Park, west of Colorado Springs. On their e-bikes, they record about 14 miles every day, reaching places a traditional bike could never take them — at least not now.

“I classify myself in the category of the aging athlete — I’m still very active, climbing mountains and doing all of that stuff. But I have just found that riding the e-bike is a whole lot more fun than going out working hard on a conventional bike,” Drummond said.

The Divide cyclist, who rode a traditional mountain bike for more than 40 years, pushes up hills as hard as he can, using the pedal assist as a last resort. Earlier this month, he raced up Pikes Peak alongside 26 other e-bike riders for the Broadmoor Cycle to the Summit race. (That’s up from 15 e-bikers registered for the race last year.)

This year, his third time racing up the 14,115-foot mountain on an e-bike, he finished 17th.

For Taydie, riding her class 2 e-bike is good physical therapy, getting her muscles back in shape and regaining flexibility after having a total hip replacement in January.

“It has restored the enjoyment of riding a bike, especially up here in the mountains,” Kent Drummond said. “There’s a lot of uphill and downhill and the uphill can be fairly strenuous.”

Drummond was hooked when his son gifted him a class 1 fat tire e-bike for Christmas about three years ago. E-bikes allow the couple to keep up with their son, a competitive mountain biker and coach, and their granddaughters, who are also competitive cyclists.

Last month, Drummond surpassed 6,000 total miles on his e-bike.

He rides on the several urban trails in Colorado Springs, where e-bikes are permitted.

But last May, the city hit the brakes on a yearlong pilot program that would have allowed e-bikes on all of the city’s trails.

The pause, the city says on its website, will allow the Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services department more time “to continue its due diligence in seeking further clarification” on the definition of e-bikes on how it aligns with the city code.

There isn’t a whole lot of controversy surrounding e-bikes on paved paths. They are a common sight along Colorado Springs’ Pikes Peak Greenway, which runs north to south across the whole city.

There’s more concern when it comes to rugged singletrack trails studded with roots and rocks and some trails extending deep into the backcountry and farther from help if one may need it.

That concern exists for underprepared or uneducated people traveling on traditional bikes or by foot, too, Martin with Routt County Riders said, but because there are so few trails in Steamboat Springs that allow e-bikes, people must travel farther from the center of town to use motorized trails on the BLM or forest service network.

“Those trails tend to be further flung from town,” she said. “So it just complicates where people are even able to kind of take these out to recreate right now. It’s not necessarily within, you know, what we would consider a ‘safer distance’ from Steamboat.”

— A lot of angst

One of the most frustrating things for e-bike riders is the lack of consistent guidelines for where and when they can be used. It’s causing uncertainty — and frustration — for some e-bike users who want to do the right thing, Cory Sutela, executive director of nonprofit Medicine Wheel Trail Advocates said.

And that frustration carries over to people who frequent trails on foot and are bothered by “an increasing proliferation of uncontrolled electric devices” on the trails, Sutela said.

“There’s a lot of angst amongst existing trail users because it feels like we’ve got a new form of transportation or recreation that’s happening and it’s not being managed in any kind of thoughtful way,” he said.

His advocacy group is pushing a collaborative process “bringing the whole community to develop a thoughtful pilot” to decide which e-bikes are allowed and who yields to whom and to measure impact on the trails.

“In some sense, we don’t need to take a position on e-bikes, if we can help create the conditions where all users can have their input and it can be a transparent discussion.”

— Divided opinions

Two game-changing orders — one on a state level, another on a federal level — fueled the debate over where e-bikes fit into the thousands of miles of natural trails and paved pathways stretching across the state.

The first was in 2017 when Colorado state lawmakers defined classes of e-bikes, adopting a nationally recognized model. By doing so, class 1 and class 2 e-bikes became legal on all trails and paths where bikes were permitted, but allowed local jurisdictions to set restrictions, prompting a patchwork of regulations.

Then in 2019, an order by the Department of Interior secretary flipped the way federal land managers regulated e-bikes and stopped classifying them as “off-road vehicles.” The order was made with a desire to reduce management burdens and clarify “regulatory uncertainty” around e-bikes rules on land, as well as increase recreational opportunities, then-Interior Secretary David Bernhardt wrote.

Along the Western Slope, the order allowed e-bike access to trails in Fruita’s North Desert and Kokopelli networks, Grand Junction’s Lunch Loops, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area, the Palisade Rim and hundreds of miles of other Western Slope trails in Glenwood Springs, Delta, Eagle and Montrose.

A year later, BLM issued its final rule on e-bikes, giving local managers in each field office the final say on where e-bikes can go after conducting an environmental review of impacts on certain trails.

It pitted accessibility advocates and traditional mountain bikers against each other. And in some cases, it even divided members within the same organization.

“This is not a noncontroversial subject. You’ve got really divided opinions,” John Howe, president of the five-chapter Colorado Plateau Mountain Bike Trail Association said. During the first COPMOBA board meeting where e-bike trail access was discussed, a board member resigned and several others threatened to for “even considering e-bikes,” he said.

Tensions between cycling groups are still simmering as cities adopt policies outlining where to allow e-bikes and where to pump the brakes on access, especially on trails on federal land.

On some trails, fistfights have nearly broken out between hikers and e-bikers, Howe said. The lack of trail etiquette is an issue, too, as some e-bike users nearly overrun traditional mountain bike riders as they zip past them on a steady climb with the help of their inconspicuous motor.

More frustrating, though, is when e-bike users ignore regulations.

“I think that it’s disconcerting that these are trails that are not open to e-bikes and the e-bike users, most of them I think, are certainly aware that it’s not permitted and they don’t care,” Howe said.

Signs at trailheads are either ignored, he said, or “disappear” if somebody doesn’t agree with the message.

“But my impression is that a significant number of e-bike users on unauthorized trails know that e-bikes aren’t authorized and they’re doing it anyway,” Howe said. “They know what they’re doing.”

In April, the BLM approved a master plan for a popular trail network north of Fruita, off 18 Road, which attracts riders from across the country. It allowed class 1 e-bikes on new and existing trails.

The move has been welcomed by e-bike users, Howe said, and he hasn’t heard of any conflicts sparking from the new order.

But there’s also a value to preserving certain trails for traditional mountain bike use, where riders don’t have to worry about getting off a bike to let an electric one pass and without hearing the electric whir of an e-bike as it races up a steep incline, Howe said.

An option would be to create trails exclusively for e-bikes and others for transitional mountain biking. But enforcing the rules is another challenge and one that Howe doesn’t feel the BLM has the capacity to tackle when it comes to e-bikes.

There also are concerns that e-bikes could make some trails ineligible for state grants set aside for trail development on nonmotorized trails, he said.

“It’s been pretty divisive,” Howe said. “I think we’re going to see how it’s going to continue to evolve.”

Changes made in March allowed local Forest Service rangers and supervisors more freedom to manage e-bikes, which were already allowed on Forest Service roads where motorized vehicles could travel. (That’s about 60,000 miles of trails, or 38% of all Forest Service trails).

The new directive gives rangers a roadmap for deciding access based on community input.

It comes after the Forest Service’s proposed plan released in September 2020. The final plan requires local public meetings and input when land managers weigh e-bike off-road access and includes ways for forest supervisors to create trails for e-bikes only.

— A hodgepodge of regulations

At the local level, e-bike regulation has been varied.

In Durango, class 1 and class 2 e-bikes are OK on the city’s paved recreation paths and class 1 e-bikes are allowed on natural surface trails at Twin Buttes, but electric mountain bikes are prohibited on any other natural surface trail in the city. Snowmass Village has banned them on dirt trails. Summit County allows e-bikes on paved rec paths, but not natural surface trails.

Aspen city council members approved a mandate in May requiring e-bike rental companies to show a safety video to customers before they head out to the trails, according to the Aspen Times.

After a one-year pilot program in 2018, Jefferson County adopted a permanent policy in 2019 that allows class 1 e-bikes on all natural surface trails in county parks and class 1 and class 2 e-bikes are allowed on paved paths. Class 3 e-bikes are prohibited.

The county, which boasts more than 7 million visitors a year to its roughly 250 miles of trails, has received few, if any, complaints about e-bikes, said Matt Robbins, a spokesman for Jefferson County’s Parks and Conservation Department.

“I cannot think of an example of where we received a notable conflict because a cyclist was on an e-bike that wouldn’t have been on a regular bike,” he said. “Have we had hiker-biker conflicts? 100%. But it’s not because of the type of bike they’re riding.”

He credited the county’s success with e-bikes to its pilot program, which included eight events in five parks and stretched across the county’s urban trails and foothills.

The county offered free demos of e-bikes for those interested in trying them.

“Overwhelmingly, when they got done, whether they rode for 2 minutes or 20 minutes, they came back saying, ‘hey, these aren’t so bad,’” Robbins said. “The approval rating really shifted in someone who could try it.”

The county also deployed “ghost riders” on e-bikes along trails and then surveyed people asking if they’ve seen or heard e-bikes before.

“We have footage of us riding bikes by people and they’re telling us that e-bikes are loud and that they’re everywhere,” Robbins said. “We asked if you’ve seen one or heard one and they said ‘no’ and there’s an e-bike right behind them.”

About 65% of people surveyed by the county were unable to detect an e-bike, county data shows.

During the pilot program, Robbins recalled pushback from the traditional mountain bike community. Some were concerned with the degradation of trails with an influx of heavy e-bikes and with people getting stranded miles and miles from the trailhead.

Others saw faster times recorded in Strava, a social fitness network site popular among mountain bikers to record trails and document times.

“There’s a lot of value to (Strava), but not in the ego department,” Robbins said. “We didn’t spend much time worrying about that.”

JeffCo’s pilot program was “network wide” as compared to some that are “too finite” or “too fragile,” limiting experiences to a subset of trails or a fragment of cyclists, Robbins said.

“As the technology emerges and more and more people want to get out, as a land manager, we want to encourage people to get outside,” Robbins said. “And if this particular device helps them and gives them the confidence to go out and do that, then we’re happy that they found us.”

Host of WIZM's La Crosse Talk PM | University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point graduate | Hometown: Greenville, Wis | Avid noonball basketball player and sand volleyballer in La Crosse

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