A proposal to allow certain electronic bikes access to nearly 150 miles of trails in the Tahoe-area basin is a step in the right direction but still has a long way to go, according to area riders.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit allows certain classes of e-bikes on 25 of its 385 miles of trails. Under the management unit’s proposed plan, an additional 120 miles of new and existing trails would open to e-bikes, bringing the total number of e-bike accessible miles to 145, not counting dirt roads.
“This project is our effort at being proactive and managing e-bikes,” according to Jacob Quinn, engineering technician for the LTMBU. “We’re not trying to only open difficult and longer trails, but a variety.”
But “the general sentiment with e-bikes is pretty polarized,” according to Amanda Wentz, a board member with the Biggest Little Trail Stewardship, a nonprofit group that builds and maintains trails throughout the Reno area. “From a management perspective, it makes sense why they are so tricky – it’s a grey area.”
The Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit spans Alpine, El Dorado and Placer counties in California, plus Douglas and Washoe counties and Carson City in Nevada.
Nevada has not adopted a tiered e-bike classification system, but California has, depending on the speed the bike can travel and how much assistance riders must provide the vehicle.
- A class 1 e-bike is equipped with a motor that assists the rider when he/she is pedaling and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour. This is the only class of e-bike the LTBMU is considering allowing on trails.
- A class 2 e-bike is equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle and stops assisting when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
- A class 3 e-bike is equipped with a speedometer and a motor that assists only when the rider is pedaling and ceases to assist when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour.
For comparison, Google Maps uses an average speed of 10 mph for bicycle directions and the average person typically cycles at about 13 mph, according to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, a nonprofit group that converts old railroad grades to multi-user trails. The average speed of a Tour de France bicycle racer is 25 mph.
Wentz, who has only ridden an e-bike for a few weeks, said she hears many misconceptions about them, such as the bikes chewing up trails.
“There’s just not enough power with an e-bike to actually do that,” she said. “I think there’s misconceptions about the amount of damage they can do.”
According to the Rails to Trails Conservancy, “User conflicts caused by speed are more about behavior than technology. Both traditional cyclists – especially fit cyclists or racers – and e-bike users have the potential to cause speed-related user conflicts.”
“From a trail-builder standpoint, between a regular and class one e-bike, there’s really no difference in wear on the trail. It’s just a philosophical problem that needs to be resolved,” said Randy Collins, owner of College Cyclery in Reno.
Wentz has also observed traditional riders exhibit jealousy toward e-bike riders who are ascending hills faster without working as hard and possessiveness over area trails.
“I think of it differently,” she said. “Great. Let’s get people on more trails, and then let’s get more trails.”
Under the proposed plan, new and enhanced trailheads including Elks Point and Pine Drop Trailhead in the Kings Beach area will be open to e-bikes, as would the Incline Flume, the Angora Ridge trail system and a new trail to be built in the Emerald Bay area.
No trails that access the Desolation Wilderness will be open to e-bikes, nor will the Tahoe Rim Trail.
South Lake Tahoe’s Pope Baldwin Bike Path, the highest-use trail in the Tahoe Basin, will also remain closed to e-bikes.
“On a summer weekend, there will be thousands of users on it every day. You’ll see hikers, runners, road bikers, people riding beach cruisers, people pushing strollers, everybody uses that trail in the summer. Our intent was to not introduce another use to a trail that is already at capacity,” Quinn said.
Behind the ball, but still a ‘great move forward’
When Collins started selling e-bikes seven years ago, he didn’t know what to expect.
The first year, e-bikes accounted for 1 percent of dollar sales at the shop. But by the third year, they accounted for 5 percent of dollar sales; by the fifth year, they accounted for 35 percent; and last year, they accounted for 75 percent of total dollar sales at College Cyclery.
An entry-level mountain e-bike is about $5,500, about the equivalent price of a good mountain bike without a motor, Collins said.
Collins switched to riding an e-bike several years ago. It’s now his only bike.
“That’s what people generally find when they get an e-bike,” he said. “The old bike becomes an obsolete item.”
Collins said more than half of his sales are to regular customers.
“Demand is so high with e-bikes,” he said. “When you ride them, your enjoyment factor doubles. It’s intangible. Once you do it, you’ll never go back.”
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Quinn said many comments the forest service received on the proposed plan are from users who are older or with various levels of mobility who say e-bikes have allowed them to continue recreating as their mobility has changed.
Truckee-based High Fives Foundation CEO Roy Tuscany relies on e-bikes to access mountain terrain.
Tuscany, who broke his T-12 vertebrae while skiing more than a decade ago, doesn’t have any power in his legs. Before his accident, Tuscany spent as much time as possible in the mountains. He kept biking after his accident, but friends would have to pull him up hills “and I would try to go down the best I could,” he said.
About a year ago, he saved up the $10,000 he needed to purchase an e-bike. The bike has given him freedom, independence and a sense of inclusion, he said.
“I’m able to ride my bike anywhere I want and not have to worry about the terrain,” Tuscany said. “The technology of the bike ensures that no matter how weak my legs are, I can get up the hill. I get to go places that have been withheld from me for the last 15 years.”
He said he often deals with other riders who have misconceptions about why he is riding an e-bike.
“I would give anything to pedal a bike with my own power, but I can’t do it,” he said. “There’s probably a reason someone is on that bike … Don’t assume.”
A decision on the proposed Tahoe-area e-bike plan should be made by the end of the year, Quinn said.
But Collins said the forest service is a little behind the ball and keeping e-bikes off non-designated trails will be a challenge.
“The train left the station a couple years ago. You have to get ahead of this,” he said. “They are making moves to accommodate e-bikes, but they are on trails everywhere right now. They don’t have a way to enforce it.
“I don’t think it will make much difference because people are using them now. But from a legal standpoint, it’s a great move forward.”
Wentz said she supports the Forest Service’s efforts to catch up to e-bike usage on trails.
“I think that e-bikes are only going to increase in popularity, and just mountain biking in general. And if we can all figure out how to play along and play together, that’s pretty good.”
Amy Alonzo covers the outdoors, recreation and environment for Nevada and Lake Tahoe. Reach her at email@example.com or (775) 741-8588. Here’s how you can support ongoing coverage and local journalism.