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Industry unprepared for e-MTBs, former Trek executive says

Published February 7, 2020
Joe V. says a fourth e-bike class is needed for trail use.

Editor's note: A version of this article ran in the February issue of BRAIN.

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CARLSBAD, Calif. (BRAIN) — It's like a magician's sleight of hand: While suppliers and advocacy groups were laying groundwork for e-bike use on paved roads and trails, electric mountain bikes began rolling onto trails (or not) with little industry preparation.

At least that's how Joe Vadeboncoeur sees it.

Joe V., as his many industry friends call him, is retired from a long career at Trek, where among other things he helped develop and market e-bikes. Now, he finds himself board president of a Wisconsin mountain bike group, faced with developing policy positions on e-bikes.

Vadeboncoeur said he's learned the industry has little idea how land managers and user groups get work done. He's also realized the industry is not prepared for the challenges posed by e-MTBs.

"The industry has a history of what I call 'ready, fire, aim,'" Vadeboncoeur said. "The industry didn't do all the things it should have done (before launching e-MTBs), but there is still time."

Vadeboncoeur wants the industry to confront several challenges that he presented in a letter to the industry on his webpage, goodheartsolutions.com, and at December's PeopleForBikes e-bike summit. The summit was held at Canyon Bicycles' headquarters in Carlsbad, California.

(video below is from the Carlsbad presentation. Article continues below the video) 

Confusion is a barrier to sales

It's widely acknowledged that confusion over off-road access — perhaps even more than access itself — is the largest challenge facing e-MTB sales in the U.S. Optimists point to the miles of dirt roads and trails that are open to the bikes in many regions. But even they concede the patchwork of land manager policies puts off potential buyers and retailers.

Vadeboncoeur said the industry isn't prepared to lessen that confusion with an access database and communication. Nor has the industry helped develop trail etiquette for e-MTB riders.

"You know the trail etiquette sign with the triangle (showing that hikers should yield to horses and bike riders should yield to everyone)? Where does an electric mountain bike fit into that? It should go back to the purchasing experience. There should be a hang tag about how you should ride and where you can ride. Instead, people ask the bike shop salespeople, and they don't have a clue, so they do what they always do, which is make it up on the spot. So you have 83 different versions of bad information out there."

Access still a sticking point

User groups and land managers are struggling to come up with policies for off-road e-bike use, and Vadeboncoeur said the industry isn't doing itself any favors.

Nearly half the states have passed the industry's preferred legislation, designating three classes of e-bikes. The three classes give transportation officials the ability to regulate e-bikes on roads and paths. But Vadeboncoeur said the legislation doesn't take mountain bike trails into account; he favors the creation of a fourth class for trail use.

"Personally, as president of a user group, there's no way I'd advocate for use of Class 2 or Class 3 bikes on trails, and even Class 1 scares me," he said.

Class 1 e-bikes in the U.S. have power assist up to 20 mph and a maximum motor size of 750 watts. Vadeboncoeur believes the speed and power are too much for trails, at least the narrow, limited sight distance, two-way trails in his neck of the woods.

He supports something similar to Europe's Class 1, which limits power assist to 15 mph and motor size to 250 watts. And he said bikes meeting those limits should be allowed anywhere standard bikes are allowed, on or off road.

Most European Class 1 bikes were designed for casual pavement use, however.

Lack of data

With his industry experience Vadeboncoeur is as familiar with e-bikes as most anyone, but he concedes his worries about their impact on trails is more theoretical than based on experience or data. That's because there's very little data, another area where he said the industry is ill prepared.

IMBA did a study in 2015, looking at how Class 1 bikes affect trail surfaces; it concluded e-bikes cause more soil displacement than standard bikes, but less than motorcycles. Jefferson County, Colorado, conducted a one-year pilot program allowing Class 1 and 2 e-bikes on singletrack; it found few issues and in early 2019 opened all its trails to Class 1 bikes.

Vadeboncoeur said land managers and others groups can easily pick holes in the limited studies.

"The IMBA study was done with skilled riders ... Jefferson County trails are dry and rocky, very different from what we have here ... the industry should have had more data before they started to sell these bikes."

Another barrier to access? Marketing of e-MTBs as dirt-throwing adrenaline machines. "The majority of riders will never get their wheels off the ground or hit a huge drop or bash through a berm," Vadeboncoeur wrote in his letter to the industry. "But of course the industry never tires of showing that, as industry-endorsed use of the bikes sold. Let's be a little more responsible in our advertising and promotion and represent how the majority of use actually occurs."

Looking forward

The industry hopes e-bikes will increase bike use, on and off-road. But Vadeboncoeur said the industry is not prepared to fund increased trail construction and maintenance if e-MTB riders start flocking to the trails.

"I don't know if electric mountain bikes will open cycling up to more people, people who couldn't pedal a mountain bike up a hill otherwise. I hope it does. But if it does, how will we fund the work? Users don't pay. I look at my group here: We are a town of 2,500 people and we have 7,000 followers on Facebook, 5,000 subscribers to our newsletter, and 250 paying members. It's a huge step going to pay-to-play on public lands, but maybe we can make half steps. Some companies are making trail grants, which is great, but not enough."

Industry response

PeopleForBikes' Morgan Lommele invited Vadeboncoeur to the Carlsbad summit to give the industry some "food for thought," she said.

"He worked really hard to sell bikes for years, and now he's in a different role," she said. "I think a lot of suppliers have a lack of understanding around the challenges for land managers and user group managers. When he was transitioning to his new role, all that smacked him in the face and he saw a lot of real problems with the way manufacturers are marketing and manufacturing their products."

PeopleForBikes has been heavily involved in pushing the three-class model legislation in state houses around the country. Lommele said Vadeboncoeur's call for a fourth class won't stop that.

"I don't think a fourth class is in the cards," she said. "It might be just confusing."

Larry Pizzi, who leads PeopleForBikes' e-bike committee and is chief commercial officer of Alta Cycling Group, said Vadeboncoeur offered a fresh perspective.

"He has a valuable perspective. ... I don't agree with everything he said. I think he has sort of a lens on what he is dealing with in the upper tier of Wisconsin. That's not the situation everywhere," he said.

Pizzi said he's not sure a fourth e-bike class is needed.

"I can't say I wouldn't support it, I get what he's saying. But where I disagree is that the major drive system suppliers are currently doing the right thing when it comes to torque, which is what he's balled up about. I think he's talking about these beyond-class bikes, which are just high-powered motorcycles with cranks and pedals. I think the major manufacturers are for the most part doing the right thing when it comes to torque."

 A former Trek executive said a fourth e-bike class is needed for trail use.
Topics associated with this article: Electric bike, From the Magazine

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