September 30, 2018 Features & Images » Feature Story

The Contentious E-Bike Debate: Fact vs. Opinion 

How should Whistler manage the next evolution in biking?

click to flip through (6) ILLUSTRATION BY CLAIRE RYAN - e-bikes How should Whistler manage the next evolution in biking?
  • Illustration by claire ryan
  • e-bikes How should Whistler manage the next evolution in biking?

For some people, electronic bikes, or e-bikes, represent a natural evolution of the sport, and for others, they may signify its end. There are comparisons to the skier and snowboarder rivalry of the '80's, and things have the potential to get as ugly on the trails as they have in online discussions. While some people seem to stoke this divide, others are attempting to navigate the changing landscape with open minds. With e-bikes selling hand over fist, the stats clearly show they're coming—so what are we, as a community that holds biking close to its heart, going to do about it?

The e-bike conundrum is not specific to Whistler; countries all over the world are working out best practices to deal with the new technology. Europe has largely embraced it, but North America isn't so sure. Could this mean a possible advantage for resorts willing to open the floodgates to e-bikes? It's a decision that resorts will have to make soon.

According to a 2017 Bicycle Product Suppliers Association report, the e-bike category has nearly doubled its growth in value from US$16.7 million in the first half of 2016 to US$31.8 million through the first six months of 2017. In Europe, 30 to 40 per cent of bikes sold over $4,000 are e-bikes. This quick rise has taken North America by surprise and policymakers are trying to catch up with a technology with little to no hard scientific data to go on—but no lack of passionate debate. As officials start to make some initial decisions on who's allowed where, Pique takes a look at some of the arguments for and against allowing e-bikes onto Whistler's mountain bike trails.

'This is pioneering policy territory'

First, it's important to understand the different categories of e-bikes, as their capabilities differ greatly, and these nuances need to be taken into consideration. For our purposes, the focus is on the pedal-assist e-bike (classed as category 1), known in Europe as a pedelec, with riders having to pedal to engage the motor. These are currently the most commonly used e-bikes on mountain trails, and are the models people typically refer to in this context. Under the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act, e-bikes powered by electricity cannot have a max speed greater than 32 kilometres per hour, and a max power of 500 watts, and are categorized as "motor-assisted cycles" not motor vehicles, and therefore do not require a license. However, the B.C. Motor Vehicle Act doesn't govern what happens on off-road trails, and as Whistler's recreational trails weave in and out of a variety of lands (provincial, municipal, private, etc.) the jurisdiction also fluctuates, as do the rules of use. Another point to take into consideration is that Whistler contains a number of illegal trails that have been erected over the years by "rogue builders."

The Resort Municipality of Whistler (RMOW) regulates off-road trail use as the land manager for trails located within municipal boundaries. The Ministry of Forests, Lands, Natural Resource Operations and Rural Development manages off-road trail use on Crown Land. Under the Forest and Range Practices Act (FRPA), the ministry has the ability to legally establish sites and trails, authorize maintenance, and restrict activity to protect recreational resources on Crown Land. Trail specialist Daniel Scott is the lead author on a new policy coming out this fall and he's taken into consideration regulations in the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, and Australia, as well as suggestions from organizations such as the International Mountain Biking Association (IMBA), Parks Canada and BC Parks, along with local community groups, such as the Whistler and Squamish Off Road Cycling associations (WORCA and SORCA, respectively).

"This is pioneering policy territory. We have to consider what makes sense from a backcountry recreation perspective, including public safety, environmental protection, and user experience," explains Scott. "E-bikes are a separate user group and have their own separate attributes. They have the capacity to go faster and further, and at the moment it's a grey area as to where they can and can't go. They're the new kid at the playground and we need to figure out how they're going to play nice with everyone else." At press time, the Ministry of Forests states that e-bikes are allowed on any trail "except where specific restrictions might apply." These restrictions can be implemented by the ministry, BC Parks, or, locally, by municipalities.

According to president Craig Mackenzie, WORCA won't be advocating for e-bikes during its discussions with the province. "We're a club that promotes human-powered mountain biking," he says. "Just like we don't advocate for trials bike riders because that's not our mandate—they have their own group." Despite WORCA's mandate at a club level, Mackenzie has his own personal opinion on e-bikes. "Speaking as an individual, I think Whistler should embrace e-bikes," he adds. "It's an opportunity for us as they're banned in a lot of other places—we could be the leaders of e-bike tourism in North America."

Muddying the issue somewhat is the fact that many e-bikers double as mountain bikers, and don't necessarily identify as one or the other. Professional adventure athlete Dave Norona believes this kind of division is causing a rift where there needn't be one, and that WORCA should be stepping up to help the community through this evolution. "Sports are about getting people out and about," he notes. "People say e-bikes are (for) lazy (people), that they're going to wreck the trails, get people to where they shouldn't be, and the people riding them aren't good biking advocates. These comments are untrue, and for the most part, are coming from people who haven't even ridden an e-bike. WORCA is in a position of power, and they have to come to the table and tell the truth. They should be neutral. They seem to have an 'I-don't-like-them, I-don't-want-them' attitude, and the community is going to suffer from that opinion. E-bikes could get more people biking, and that's awesome."

Whistler Councillor Cathy Jewett has been a vocal advocate for e-bikes, and after a recent visit to French ski resort Les Deux Alpes, where she had the opportunity to see how e-bikes have been integrated into the resort community, she believes it's too early to draw a hard line. "We need to find a compromise and make it work for everybody. Respect is the No. 1 thing—courtesy to everybody regardless of what they're riding. What we have to do is put our heads together and be progressive. We shouldn't be looking to divide people; we won't move ahead that way. The irony is that a lot of these trails were built by trials riders; they lost their terrain over the years as the mountain bikers took over and became a larger and more vocal group. We have to be careful that we consider the whole community when making these decisions."

Within this grey area, there is some confusion around exactly what the prevailing policy on e-bikes is.

"The issue we're having is that the Ministry of FLNRO hasn't finalized the policy for e-bikes yet defining whether they are considered motorized or non-motorized," explains Alistair McCrone, provincial recreation officer for the Sea to Sky. "Once this policy is released, e-bikes will fit into the current restrictions on legally established trails. Until then, the recreation officer has the authority to implement reasonable rules limiting the types of use on a legally established trail. A decision to use this authority to limit a type of use would be made after consultation with stakeholders." McCrone has been in recent discussions with WORCA and the RMOW  about the use of e-bikes on the Lord of the Squirrels trail, and although e-bikes would currently be allowed, he knows there is strong support for it being designated as a non-e-bike trail. He did admit to being aware that the province may need to broaden the people involved in the discussion, as currently there is no group advocating for e-bikes at the table. "Whenever there's a new user group that could significantly increase the amount of recreation in a certain area, we consider that increase a potential management risk," notes McCrone. "We err on the side of caution and take our time considering the possible outcomes and the wants and needs of the community."

The RMOW has also confirmed that Whistler does not currently have any policies specific to e-bike use on the mountain-bike trails it manages. "E-bikes are a hot topic and a growing reality we have to be prepared to deal with," comments Mayor Nancy Wilhelm-Morden. "The B.C. Motor Vehicle Act allows pedal-assisted e-bikes on valley and off-road trails and, although the Motor Vehicle Act does not govern off-road trails, we're currently following that policy until we come up with our own." The municipal policy on e-bikes is expected to come forward in 2019.

The RMOW-led Trails Planning Working Group (TPWG), convened in 2012 as a forum to coordinate the planning of non-motorized hiking and mountain biking trails, will be key in helping draft the policy,  with representation from the Alpine Club of Canada's Whistler chapter, the Association of Whistler Area Residents for the Environment (AWARE), WORCA, the motorcyle-advocacy 99 Trials Association, Recreation Sites and Trails BC, the Squamish-Lillooet Regional District, the Cheakamus Community Forest, Whistler Blackcomb, and RMOW staff. Council will also be taking direction from Whistler's Recreation and Leisure Master Plan, which was developed with extensive community consultation and provides guidance for recreation and leisure in Whistler for the next 10 years. There will also be community input sessions with the dates for those being released on

the Debate

The main arguments against e-biking involve its perceived environmental impact, concerns around safety, and its potential impact on trail systems. "We know there's a lot to consider, from speed to trail maintenance, although some of the concerns aren't confirmed at this point by proven research," says Wilhelm-Modern. "We're looking to other places in the States and Europe to see what they're doing and what we can learn. We also want to make sure we're not elitist in our decision making—it wouldn't be right if only the ultra-fit had access to the trails."

Here are some of the most common arguments for and against e-bikes on trails.

E-bikes can go further for longer and can cause more damage to the environment

"The number of trails and the subsequent number of users on those trails has an impact that can reduce the connectivity of habitats, and disturb and alienate species that are dependant on them," explains Claire Ruddy, executive director of AWARE. "With e-bikes, the potential for more people, travelling further distances is heightened and that's what we need to plan for. There will be a demand for longer trails, and also into higher, alpine areas. The issue is that these areas aren't as resilient as the ones closer to the valley floor, the exposure has a longer effect as they don't repair as quickly. We need to decide where we're going to protect and where we're going to make available, with the knowledge that the capacity of the landscape and the species that rely on it are finite."

However, Ruddy goes on to say that the solution is in the planning. "E-bikes can help people connect to nature, and then they speak up for it—the opportunity is for how we plan to get people out into nature," she says. "As of yet, in the meetings we've attended there hasn't been a clear consensus on a plan forward, and we can't do this in silos." A broader planning process is needed with experts on ecology, bear management, and community forest representatives all brought into the mix, Ruddy believes. "We understand that technology evolves, and we're not against that. We just have to think about access management planning so we can avoid unintended consequences that lead to problems down the line," she says.

E-bikes are heavier and therefore cause more damage

"The concern is that the e-bikes can go twice the distance and place more wear and tear on trails," says Mackenzie, WORCA's president. "People can cover more ground in the same length of time and that creates maintenance issues. The bikes are heavier so the trails have to be built to a higher standard to absorb the momentum, especially the down trails. This means increased costs."

The International Mountain Bike Association (IMBA) did an environmental impact study in 2015, which found that, in the conditions tested, Class 1 e-bikes "were not significantly different" than conventional mountain bikes when it came to soil displacement and tread disturbance. It's worth noting, however, that his study was small in scope and size.

"It depends on the overall weight of the bike and rider so this differs from person to person and can't really be used as a standard, as you'd have to put weight restrictions on trails," says Norona. "E-bikes weigh about 15 pounds (seven kilograms) more than your average bike, but if it's me versus a 180-pound (82-kg) guy, then I'm still lighter. Momentum, when you go up something, can be a huge factor on erosion. If you're slipping your way up or hiking your bike, then it causes damage. E-bikes can reduce or eliminate this, so they'd be better than a normal bike in some cases. We have to go on facts and not opinion, but it's hard when WORCA, our leading community group, muddies these waters."

E-bikes travel faster, which could lead to accidents and altercations on the trails with other users

E-bikes only travel as fast as the person riding can pedal. The motor shuts off whenever the bike tops its max speed of 32 km/hr. There's a common misconception that it would be this max speed plus the rider's speed, making a downhill ascent even faster. However, you have to pedal to engage the motor, and, typically, people don't pedal downhill.

To put this in perspective, a pro downhill mountain biker can hit speeds of 80 km/hr, and most top speeds vary between 55 and 65 km/hr. with the average sitting around 30.

E-bikes will bring more people deeper into the backcountry who are unprepared, recovering from an injury, or differently-abled

"Whistler's trail system is currently built around the premise that if you have the skills to make it up to some of the higher runs, then you have the skills to make it down the double black downhill runs that come off those steeper trails. The concern is that we'll have people coming down trails way beyond their ability because they can get to them," explains Mackenzie.

WORCA planning director Todd Hellinga adds: "I don't believe you're entitled to access places simply because you have the technology to get there, and I question the thinking behind people accessing backcountry trails who are impaired in some way. Doing that would put themselves and our search and rescue teams at risk."

Whistler Search and Rescue manager Brad Sills says his team of volunteers has been called out to one e-bike-related incident to date. "It's not our position to form judgment on how people recreate, or what form it takes; we're simply there to assist when they can't assist themselves. Every recreationalist should not exceed their skill or preparedness level, that's right across the board," he explains. "I wouldn't single out e-bikers. A lot of people are under the impression you can just sit on these bikes and they take you places; this is not the case. You still need a considerable amount of expertise to ride one. We have two that we use and they're indispensable. They allow our team to show up relatively fresh and ready to assist."

People don't understand the work, cost, and time that goes into trail building

Mackenzie explains the limitations groups such as WORCA face with trail maintenance, which may only be compounded with more e-bikes on the trails.

"Whistler Blackcomb has it easy. You have to buy a ticket and this is where their maintenance money comes from. We don't have any way to enforce payment on the cross-country mountain bike trails around Whistler. We get $50,000 from the RMOW, and we stretch it as far as we possibly can," he says.

Norona thinks the matter has more to do with managing biking's overall growth than anything specifically driven by e-bikes.

"Trail building and help from the community of riders comes from a very small percentage of riders," he says. "Some of them are e-bike riders because they're not new riders, they're the same riders they've always been. If the worry is more riders and wear and tear on the trails, then this is a byproduct of the sport's growth in general. We need to work together to find solutions to make sure trail maintenance can keep up with demand, and that we're still protecting the same things we've always done when considering new trails like the environment."

E-bikes make recreation more accessible

One of the major arguments for e-bikes is that they open biking up to more people, fostering a more accessible and inclusive environment. "More than a half a dozen people that I know who are seniors all have e-bikes and we are riding them on the Valley Trail and on the mountain bike trails. We are being respectful of the other people on the trail, as everybody should be," explains Stacey Murl, chair of the Whistler Mature Action Community. "These bikes require us to peddle—they're not motorbikes. They are definitely making it easier for those of us of a certain age to keep riding our bikes. Yes, there is some assistance going up the hills, but it still requires biking skills."

Tara Llanes, a professional mountain biker who became paraplegic in a biking accident and now runs a company specializing in adaptive sports equipment, spoke about e-bikes and the differently-abled at the most recent Mountain Bike Tourism Symposium in Revelstoke. "My feelings toward e-assist and mountain bikes are that as long as the bike is a proper bike and it has pedals and doesn't exceed a ridiculous amount of wattage, it's a necessity," she says. "I've had mountain bikes with and without e-assist and the experience is like night and day. I consider myself to be pretty physically fit, but even the smallest rise on a trail can be a deterrent. It's also a struggle mentally when I'm riding with my partner or able-bodied friends and they have to wait forever for me to make it up the rise. I want to be able to ride with everyone, so I need it on climbs to help assist me and help me make the distances on longer rides."

Norona also points out that e-bikes are an incredible way to keep fit, and that they're aimed at "the lazy" is a complete misconception. "I'm a fit guy—I've competed in over 400 of the toughest races on the planet. I enjoy uphill riding, but on an e-bike, I enjoy it even more. I can keep a better uphill body position, work on a solid sustained heart rate, and enjoy the terrain. My wife is a great biker, but after she had our daughter, she couldn't keep up with her riding group and got left behind. The fear for me is that these people drop off. But we can keep them in the sport," he says. "Why does anyone care if you're getting help from the bike? If we were talking about yoga and (someone) wasn't doing downward dog as hard as possible, (they were) just taking it easy, no one would care. How does that affect the other yoga students in the room? It doesn't. Riding is a personal journey. It's about getting out and doing what you want. I'm doing the work I want to do and you're doing the work you want to do. Where does the purist start and where does it end? Are people cheating because they have bigger tires, a drop post, disc brakes, a carbon frame? The ministry needs to speak up to quell the opinions versus the truth and the law."

Scott, the trail specialist, comments that no one is arguing for how much fun e-bikes actually are. "There are two ends to the spectrum: there are the pro-riders who are using e-bikes to really push the boundaries of what's possible and then there are those who are perhaps using them after an injury. We want to provide people with opportunities in a way to experience the trails that still protects the recreational resources we all want to enjoy."

Possible Solutions and Opportunities

Hellinga says WORCA is working with the municipality and Trails Planning Group to devise solutions and "find a place" for e-bikes.

"We fought for the right to build non-motorized trails in certain areas and believe these should remain this way, like the interpretive trails around Cheakamus Forest and Sproatt Mountain. However, there are areas that are rockier and harder packed around Rainbow, Emerald, and West Side Road that would suit an e-bike better. If an individual or group wanted to come to us with ideas and a willingness to contribute to the trail maintenance, then we're open to that kind of collaboration," he adds.

On a recent trip to Europe, Mackenzie visited a general sports store in Geneva and estimated that e-bikes made up more than 70 per cent of the bikes on sale. "We have lots of old logging roads that have substantial road beds that could be used. Rental companies are seeing people take e-bikes out and instead of going for the usual one-hour loop, they're exploring for longer. This means we need to develop multi-hour loops, and leverage where they can get to. Encourage them to explore the longer routes of the valley around Cheakamus, Callaghan, and Soo Valley," he says.

Canadian Wilderness Adventures saw the e-bike trend coming and has already started offering mountain e-bike tours on its tenure in the Callaghan. "Everyone who rides these bikes wants one," says GM Craig Beattie. "They are a great way to get around in the backcountry, whether you're looking for a long ride or to just explore. The pedal-assisted power gets you there easier and faster but you will still get a great work out because if you're not pedaling, you're not getting the power. We are working with the RMOW for trails on top of Sproatt around our alpine cabin, and at easy rides up to Callaghan Lake. It's amazing how quickly we can access scenery that blows our clients' minds. If you look at Europe, they have a huge e-mountain biking community and when prices come down, so will we."

Rob McSkimming, Whistler Blackcomb's outgoing vice president of development, has also looked into how to accommodate e-bikers, who are currently allowed in the bike park under the same rules as downhill mountain bikers. He comments that the trails in the bike park were built at a time when downhill bikes were heavier, so frequency isn't a concerning factor, nor is speed, given the park's gravity-fed nature. "We're discussing the options for the development of specific experiences for e-bikes," he adds. "We've been considering routes for new high-alpine experiences so that people could enjoy the incredible scenery, however, we have not found an economical solution as yet. Another thought is to have a guided, early-access pedal up before the mountain opens."

Scott believes bikers of all stripes need to come together on the e-bike issue if there is going to be any progress moving forward.

"Necessity is the mother of invention and we need to move away from conflict to breed solutions," he says. "E-bikes are not going away, and the technology will only advance, so we need to adopt the best approach that's flexible as things evolve. Although a policy will come out in the fall, it will not be set in stone. It will be fluid as we learn more about e-bikes and see how they interact with other users on the trails. Our role is to find balance between social, environmental, and economic pressures. Banning e-bikes isn't the solution. Our provincial trails strategy says: 'World-class recreation opportunities for all users,' and that's the goal."

One thing is for certain, e-bikes are coming and they're coming fast. The need for a defined policy and plan is growing more urgent as we aim to both embrace new technology, and protect the environment we all love to play in, while keeping things fair and amicable between trail users. If the future of biking is e-bikes, then these policies might fast become obsolete, but they create clarity now, which in turn helps quel conflict and misunderstanding.

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