As I stood in the shade of a California live oak tree, breathing dust and trying to avoid the poison oak, I watched dozens of electric mountain bikes roll, clatter and even soar past me.
Seventy-three electric mountain bike (called e-mountain bikes or eMTBs) racers were navigating a jumble of rocks on a steep descent Friday at the 28th annual Sea Otter Classic in the hills near Monterey, California. Around me was a modest crowd cheering the racers along an 11.6-mile course.
This mountain bike race and festival is within spitting distance of the San Francisco Bay Area, a region where people first developed the technology to ride fat-tired two-wheelers through the wilderness. And now the industry is busy reinventing mountain bikes all over again, this time with batteries and electric motors.
Mountain bike innovation has been ceaseless over the decades: lightweight aluminum or carbon-fiber frames, super-low gears to crawl up steep hills, cushy suspension to float over bumps, disk brakes that stop you in a moment and super-fat tires that offer a better grip. But electric bikes don't just make riding easier, they actually do some of the work for you. That raises the question of whether it's even biking anymore.
"I don't think it's cheating," said Monterey cyclist Chris Toplarski. "It opens up an avenue for people who wouldn't ordinarily ride a bike. They can go places they normally wouldn't go."
Toplarski spoke in the evening sunlight after finishing second among men aged 50 to 59, leaning against a borrowed e-mountain bike by the finish line as race organizers blared Blue Öyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper." He said he'd expected a lark -- but within 50 feet of the start, the eMTB race turned serious, and years of competitive cycling instincts kicked in.
So he set the motor assist to maximum and finished four 2.9-mile laps up and down the hills at the Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in 44 minutes and 10 seconds. That's not far behind the fastest racer, a Tahitian named Xavier Marovelli, who cleared the course's steep hills, rock-studded descent and wheel-sucking sand bog with a time of 41:14 in the men's 19-29 age group.
E-mountain bikes are rarities in the US today, but they're spreading just as they did in Europe, said Claudia Wasko, who leads the North American e-bike systems group for Bosch, the dominant maker of e-bike batteries and motors. "The market in the US is five to 10 years behind," she said.
Plenty of consumers are already convinced. E-bike sales should grow to $24.4 billion by 2025, up from $15.7 billion in 2016, analyst firm Navigant predicts.
One of those consumers is Alan Harris of Hayward, California. He suffers from myeloma, a form of cancer that weakens his bones, but retrofitting a Kranked e-bike motor to a Santa Cruz bike means he's riding again. "I go slow, but I can get out," he said.
But is it biking?
There are three types of e-bikes. Class 1 -- the only type allowed in the Sea Otter Classic's eMTB race -- have a top boosted speed of 20 miles per hour. The motor kicks in when you pedal, amplifying your own strength. Class 2 bikes have a throttle, like a motorcycle, and the same 20mph limit. Class 3 bikes boost up to 28mph -- though one rider I spoke to boasted of his computer-savvy friend's success jailbreaking a Specialized bike to lift its limit to 48mph.
From my testing, the class 1 bikes feel more like conventional mountain bikes than some other breed of two-wheeled transport. The motor helps you up hills, but it's not powerful enough to push you uphill at a full 20mph. E-mountain bike racers win because they're fit, not because they have a battery.
Right now, though, even these relatively sedate models are in a gray area. The US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management consider all e-bikes motorized vehicles, a categorization that bars them from many public trails where conventional mountain bikes are allowed. The Sierra Club, an influential environmental advocate, considers e-bikes a motor vehicle, too.
Resistance comes from within the mountain biking community, too.
"If I have an accident and lose a leg, I don't suddenly expect Yosemite to create ski lifts up Half Dome so I can summit," one mountain biker commented on an online forum. "If you want to experience the wild there is a price that you must pay in terms of effort and ability and lack of comfort. Otherwise sit at home and watch the Nature Channel."
Bosch's Wasko has encountered resistance in the US that's unknown in Europe, she said: "On trails people would scream at me, 'You're cheating!'"
Some fear e-mountain bikes could reverse gains off-road cyclists have made in securing access to trails. "The fight over trail access for mountain bikes has always been based on the fact that they are non-motorized," another rider commented. "Opponents will not take the presence of e-bikes on the trails easily."
One possible solution: permit only relatively sedate class 1 e-mountain bikes on conventional mountain bike trails. The International Mountain Biking Association, which has fought for decades to grant mountain bike access to trails, sponsored a study comparing trail damage of conventional and electric mountain bikes. The result: no significant difference with class 1 MTBs.
Big brands aboard
Most mountain bikes at the Sea Otter Classic were powered by lungs and leg muscles, and indeed e-bikes aren't allowed in the usual race categories like cross country, dual slalom and downhill.
But a surprising number of bikes sported the e-mountain bike's telltale bulky batteries and the bulging frame, including models from big-name brands like Specialized, Trek, Giant and Cannondale. Shimano, a Japanese cycling giant that supplies bike gears, brakes and other components, is serious about going electric now, too.
A steady stream of visitors borrowed e-mountain bikes from Bosch, the dominant supplier of eMTB motor-battery packages, for a trip around a test track with steep hills, a jump, a mud bog and chunky rocks.
The e-mountain bike's motor "takes away the hard part -- the part where you're going 5 kilometers an hour, you're in a world of hurt going up a super-steep hill, you're barely making it," said Mountain bike pioneer Gary Fisher in a video promoting the technology.
Pro bike racer Ben Goyette, who traveled from Los Angeles to race conventional mountain bikes at the Sea Otter Classic, agrees from his experience testing an e-mountain bike. "It felt like I was stronger that day," he said. "It's going to get more people into the sport."
There's still work to be done. Typical e-mountain bikes are heavy enough -- about 50 pounds compared to 30 pounds for a conventional full-suspension mountain bike -- that you'll struggle to get one onto a roof rack.
And they're expensive. Focus Bicycles' gleaming new Jam2 (that's pronounced "Jam squared") costs between $5,000 to $7,000 depending on what components you want to bolt onto the frame.
E-mountain bike racing isn't yet a standard type of racing. It's only in its second year at the Sea Otter Classic. Bosch and clothing maker Troy Lee Designs hope to draw more attention from racers and fans by sponsoring the Boogaloo eMTB race series this summer at two California ski and bike resorts, Big Bear Snow Summit and Mammoth Mountain.
But just like e-bikes are spreading to commuters, helped by stores like e-bike specialist New Wheel in San Francisco, e-mountain bikes will spread as people try them out and prices fall.
Ken Miyako, a 67-year-old from Torrance, California, is one example of why. He's an experienced mountain biker fit enough to race in his age bracket at the Sea Otter Classic. But his Trek electric mountain bike triples his speed and triples his range so he can ride with his 30-year-old son and his pack of racing buddies -- at least until the younger generation gets e-mountain bikes, too.
"Where I used to go on a 5-mile mountain bike ride, I now go 13," Miyako said. "It gives me the opportunity to do even more."
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