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Ray Keener: What's a trail?

Published October 22, 2014

Editor's note: Ray Keener is a longtime friend of Bicycle Retailer. Ray's background includes stints as a bike retailer, executive director of the Bicycle Industry Organization, editor of a trade magazine, founder of Growth Cycle and now executive director of the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association. Keener created the Selling Cycling staff training program from 1997-2012, used by more than 2,000 bike shops worldwide.

The views expressed here are Keener's own and do not reflect those of the BPSA or Bicycle Retailer.

OK, at the risk of getting my head chopped off... I'm going to wade into the "e-bikes on trails" debate.

What's got me typing is an Adventure Journal poll that just showed up on Facebook. "Should electric mountain bikes be allowed on bike trails?"

Six options are given. Basically, YES and NO, with varying modifiers (Hell YES, Hell NO, THEY'RE MOTORCYCLES, etc.). Really? No shades of opinion to consider? 

I first got motivated to address this topic when BRAIN ran their August 15 CHARGED ISSUE cover story, complete with a photo of a gloved and gauged and shin-guarded electrified mountain biker. Scary.

I chickened out addressing the issue at the time, and still ... the whole "e-bikes on trails" debate seems to me to be missing a key point. What's a trail?

The "NOs" are saying, as Hill Abell did in his letter to BRAIN (and I have the utmost respect for Hill), "Motorized bikes are fine on trails authorized for motorized use but not OK where motos are prohibited."

It seems crystal clear to me that many, maybe the majority, of U.S. "trails" that now prohibit motorized use will eventually be opened up to e-bikes.

You know, what regular people consider "trails." Not the "sweet singletrack" that pops into YOUR mind, Ms. And Mr. Industry Citizen.

I did a Taco Ride last month in Bloomington-Normal, Illinois. Most of the route was on the Constitution Trail, which features the same asphalt paving you see on the street in front of your house, only narrower.

We did many family rides when the kids were younger on the Mikkelson Trail and the Katy Trail. Gravel-surfaced rail-trails. If we had been passed by an e-bike, I doubt we would have noticed the motor.

Even urban bike paths are opening up. Boulder is now allowing e-bikes on the Boulder Creek Path and other off-street paths on a trial basis where they were previously prohibited.

So taking the NO-sayer's words literally, they don't ever want to see an electric bike, whether it's sold as a "mountain" model or not, on any trails?

The arguments for keeping e-bikes off rail-trails and other similar off-street "trail" facilities aren't very convincing. The stories of aging cyclists staying on two wheels are. I think that if the e-category continues to grow, allowing more e-bike access is inevitable.

The hard-core "no e-bikes on trails" stance is not going to hold. It reminds me of the mid-'80s mountain biker attempts to get "all trails" open to mountain bikes. That didn't work, because there are a lot of different kinds of "trails" and some are suitable for sharing, some aren't.

By taking a hard-line stance on "trails" in general, NO voters are taking their energy away from where it belongs, working locally on limiting access to what IMBA astutely calls "natural-surface trails."

Please, advocates, protect your (and my) sweet singletrack. At the same time, accept that the lines will move, the laws will change. Let's not be using the same arguments we fought when the hikers and the horse people wanted to keep us off ALL of "their trails."

There's a place on trails for e-bikes. Let's be involved in drawing good lines rather than resisting inevitable progress. And whether you see e-bikes as progress is the crux of the biscuit. I didn't vote in the Adventure Journal poll. It's not a YES or NO question.

And I bet if the industry voted, it would be 90 percent NO. It's the usual case of we inside the industry limiting our view of how bikes get used to the way we ourselves use them.

Maybe the terminology and the conversation change to protecting "natural-surface" trails? The current flat NO stance isn't going to hold. Better to stake out a more tenable position now than to be seen as absolutist, methinks.

So work hard to safeguard the trails you love, just be ready to flex about e-bikes on what most Americans call a "trail."

Editor's note, part 2: With help from Ray and Larry Pizzi at Currie, we've put together a new BRAIN poll on this subject

Topics associated with this article: Electric bike

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