A week ago I wrote and article waxing philosophic on whether or not pedal powered bicyclists and ebikers could ever live together in harmony. I decided that the perfect followup to that article is one that clearly outlines the rules that I chose to live by when electric biking in the woods. IMBA released this short 2-page pdf which shows their ideas about eMTB etiquette, but it’s sorely lacking in a lot of areas that I think I need to outline in this article. Long story short, the most important rule of riding your electric mountain bike on single track trails is this :
Don’t be a jerkwad and screw it up for the rest of us.
YOU are an ambassador to your sport
For most trail users you will probably be the first electric bike they ever see on the trails. There is never a second chance to make a bad first impression, so be incredibly courteous and polite to other trail users. I always act like I am a guest in another man’s home when riding on trails, yield to everyone, smile and make eye contact with people who make eye contact with you and say hello.
Avoid other trail users when possible
When I am riding in the woods I go out first thing in the morning, usually right after I wake up but before I do anything else. This is often the best time to hit the trails because other trail users are at a minimum at that time. I also never park in the main lot and always park about 1/4 to 1/2 mile away and ride in. There is no reason to talk to other trail users if you don’t have to. Often when riding in the woods I’ll scan ahead and if I see a trail user in the distance, I’ll often just turn my ebike around and ride back in the opposite direction. It might sound crazy but each fewer encounter is one less chance for conflict and I can ride pretty fast and with less effort, so I don’t care where I go as long as I’m riding.
Don’t overtake other riders on non-electric bikes (it’s rude)
Nothing is going to piss off Mtbers more than you flying by them at 20mph up a 20% grade while they are huffing and puffing their brains out. If you come up behind a biker who is slow then you can turn around and go the other way or just take a break. Whenever I see or pass any trail users on the trail I always shut my motor off and use nothing but pedal power. If you want to be super stealth then that is the best way to do it. If they see you working hard they probably won’t even look over your bike for a motor. In general, it’s also a good idea to just slow the hell down. If you’re screaming up hills then there might be a non-electric biker screaming down the hill at the same time not expecting people to be coming up the hill at a speed slower than a slow walk. I always assume that there is someone around every corner and I never wear my death metal blasting headphones when I’m ebiking. It helps to have something that makes a noise, like a tiny bell or in my case, a very squeaky Thudbuster, to alert other trail users to your approach.
Ride something that looks like a bicycle and not a motorcycle
When I am riding eMTB I almost always ride ‘My Little Bronie’ with a stealthy 3 lb mini cube stuck in a saddle bag. 95% of the people I pass don’t even realize it’s an ebike. If you’re riding tires over 3″ ride then your bike is going to draw a LOT of attention to it, so you can swap out your fat tires with a 29+ wheelset in the summer for added stealth. There are lots of ways to make your ebike more stealthy, and mud is one of the best ways to do it, so never clean your bike off. It’s also stupid to wear full-face helmets and motocross gear because then you look like a motocross guy. Just wear a normal bike helmet and leave the bike armor at home.
Just don’t ride on the dedicated horseback trails
In my opinion horses and ebikes just don’t mix. If you see a horse you should get off your ebike and move off the trail and wait for the horse to pass. There is no safe way to pass a horse without risking spooking the horse and possibly injuring the rider.
Don’t do the crime if you don’t want to do the time
Know what the local laws are and print out a copy of HR 727 and bring it with you everywhere you go riding. If other riders tell me ‘no ebikes here’ I just say ‘Oh really, thanks for that information’ and politely pedal away. I never try to educate other trail users, it’s not my job and it would probably end badly. If a ranger ever gives you a hard time you can show them your copy of HR 727 and try to talk them out of a ticket, but be aware that any cop can write anyone a ticket at any time for whatever they want. The courts are where it all gets sorted out. Arguing with a police officer is not good form, just be gracious and accept the ticket. I never take my ID with me when I ride and if a cop asks for my information for a ticket I’ll often just make it up, but I’m not advocating that, and it’s really illegal to lie to the police like that. I don’t mind going to prison so I can get away with stuff like that, but you probably have better things to do than rot in jail for trying to weasel your way out of a small fine.
I was lucky enough to get several BBSHD’s from the first factory run that has 750W stamped on the bottom, so technically the motor is still legal (arguably) even though I’m running 2500 watts through them with a 50 Amp Ludicrous controller.
Proper yielding technique
I’ve learned there is a right way and a wrong way to yield with an ebike. The right way is to get off the trail, then smile and look up and make eye contact with a friendly hello as the other rider passes. If you look like you’re doing something bad then the other rider is going to try to figure out why you’re looking so shifty. When I stop my ebike, I always pull off to the right then squarely plant my left calf right in front of the BBSxx motor. This makes it harder to see the motor even if the other rider stops and talks to me. Usually if the other rider stops I will say something like ‘I’m running late’ in a polite way and take off again using nothing but pedal power so that I’m not sitting there talking to them. If you sit there and talk to them eventually they will probably figure out you’re on an ebike and it will be a long conversation you might not want to have.
Riding in the winter
The XC skiers hate it when the fat bikes tear up their ski trails. In the winter I try as hard as I can to ride outside of their tracks and only cut back and forth across the trail when I need to. This minimizes XC trail damage and allows for everyone to have a good time. If the trail is for hikers and XC skiers only and you are riding an ebike on it then you can expect a lot of blowback from it. I minimize the number of trails I ride in the winter and always ride the same trails so that the XC skiers know that if they want fresh tracks they will have to hit some of the other trails that I’m not going to hit. Where I live there are enough trails for everyone to have a good time without stepping on each other’s toes.
Get to know the alpha mountain bikers and get on their good sides
At any spot, there are a group of core riders that ride several times a week and do most of the trail building and maintenance. Get to know them, show up at the trail building weekends with a shovel and bust your ass. Bring a non-motorized bike when you show up. If people get to know you and know that you’re alright then when it is discovered that you are an ebike cheater, cheater, pumpkin eater, they will go a lot easier on you. It’s easy to hate someone you don’t know, it’s much harder to hate on someone that you already have respect for.
When it’s wet ride an efatbike or better yet, wait till it’s dry again
Fat tires seem to really minimize trail damage when it is wet. If you don’t have a fat tire ebike then you should probably just not go out and ride after it rains. Although IMBA has done studies that show that street legal eMTB do not do more trail damage than normal trail bikes, it’s best not to push the issue. Trail erosion is a real thing and where I live it’s a constant problem we have to deal with. Nothing bums me out more than seeing the giant ruts caused by motocross guys that ride our trails when it’s wet.
It’s better to ask forgiveness than permission
If you call up the rangers and ask if it’s legal for you to ride your ebike somewhere they are probably going to say no. When someone gets paid for telling people what they can’t do, that’s exactly what they tend to do. My attitude has always been to be attentive and aware of my surroundings and do whatever I feel like I can get away with. Federal parks tend to be the hardest to get away with anything on, but BLM and Forest Service lands tend to be under-policed and generally underutilized by the public. Some local and state parks have very attentive rangers, but the state forests tend to be under-policed as well. As a rule of thumb when a place ends with the word ‘park’ you’re risking tickets, when it ends with the word ‘forest’ or ‘lands’ you’re probably OK. If you’re not willing to risk a ticket or some harassment then you should just stay at home.
If you get a lot of hate from the locals, just let them try your ebike
It can be an exercise in non-attachment to put your precious several thousand dollar ebike into the hands of someone who you don’t know, but everyone I’ve ever let try my ebike has always shifted their energy from hate to tolerance (or at least indifference). It’s easy to hate on ebikes when you’ve never tried one. Turn the PAS on a lower level and let someone who is giving you flak go for a ride and watch that grimace turn into a smile. It really works.
Riding singletrack with and an electric bike is really a fun experience, as long as you can do it without getting your ass kicked or shot. Hopefully, if you follow my simple guidelines here you can not only have fun, but also stay out of jail at the same time. If you remember that while on the trails you’re a guest in my house and act accordingly, then the odds of having problems are totally minimized.