Spoke Talk: To “E” or not to “E,” is that your question? | SteamboatToday.com

Spoke Talk: To “E” or not to “E,” is that your question?

Holly Weik
For Steamboat Pilot & Today

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Bike season is here. And since many of us had a lot of unexpected free time over the past two months, there are more people riding right now who usually don’t. And that’s a great thing.

This new enthusiasm may come with some uncertainty about what you can ride and where you can ride. If you’re maybe a bit out of shape, or a lot older than the last time you rode, you might be considering or already using an electric-assist bicycle, known as an e-bike. 

An e-bike can be a great tool to help you ride trails or climb hills that maybe you would otherwise not be able to. But e-bikes are not approved for use on all trails, especially singletrack. If you plan to use an e-bike, it helps to know the rules. Here’s a quick summary of the current status to help you figure it out.

First, let’s define the types of e-bikes:

  • Class 1: Bicycle equipped with a electric motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bikes reaches 20 mph.
  • Class 2: Bicycle equipped with a throttle-actuated electric motor that does not require the user to pedal and ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 20 mph.
  • Class 3: Bicycle equipped with an electric motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling and that ceases to provide assistance when the e-bike reaches 28mph. Note: Class 3 e-bikes are not allowed on nonmotorized trails according to state law and are only allowed on roads or motorized trails.

Class 1 e-bikes are only permitted on the Yampa River Core Trail and Walton Creek Trail, which are both paved. No e-bikes are allowed on Emerald Mountain trails at this time, although the Parks and Recreation Commission is continuing to assess possible changes. No e-bikes are allowed on Spring Creek Trail above Amethyst, any U.S. Forest Service trail or any Bureau of Land Management trails. This means anything accessed from Buffalo Pass Road, the Mad Creek/Red Dirt area and the back of Emerald are all off-limits for e-bikes at this time. 

Class 2 e-bikes, which do not require the user to actively pedal, are not permitted on any city trails, even the Core Trail. While some surveys have shown that it’s difficult for other trail users to see whether a bike is unpowered or an e-bike, that’s not true with a Class 2 bike. This is especially obvious if the rider is, for example, riding with his or her feet on the handlebars and throttling uphill on the Core Trail. I’ve watched this exact stunt, and I can assure you that it was quite clear that the rider was using a Class 2 e-bike. 

When might any of this change?

It depends on who manages the land. The Parks and Recreation Commission recommended to Steamboat Springs City Council that Class 1 e-bikes also be allowed on the gravel paths in town for a trial period. Those trails are Butcherknife and Sailors Way (behind Steamboat Springs high school, formerly lower Spring Creek), Blue Sage, Tamarack Sneak, Bear Creek, Sanctuary and Fox Creek (up to the overpass).

The commission also recommended placing a speed limit on the paved trails of 15 miles per hour and allowing Class 2 e-bikes on those trails subject to that speed limit. None of these recommendations have been approved by council at this time. Public meetings will take place at a future date on these changes. Please do not assume that the commission’s recommendations imply council will approve these, and in fact, if riders choose to act as if they were already in place, it might jeopardize that approval.

Many of you are probably asking, what about the announced changes for BLM and the Forest Service? We heard several years ago that e-bikes were approved for federal lands? Um, not so fast. That policy change gave the BLM permission to consider approving e-bikes, but it did not require them to actually authorize e-bike use on any trail. 

The Forest Service and BLM still classify e-bikes as motorized vehicles. They are only allowed on roads and trails open to motor vehicles and/or motorcycles, with possible local exceptions if they are based on existing rules and go through the appropriate public and environmental processes for altering access to trails.

Changes to BLM and Forest Service trail policies will still require approval on a case-by-case basis and will be considered an exception to the nonmotorized policy. These federal agencies consider e-bikes to be motorized and allowing e-bikes on a given trail is a specific exception for that trail only.  If approved, e-bikes must be operated in pedal-assist mode. Riding e-bikes on trails that have not been specifically approved, again, could jeopardize approval later, especially if additional trail damage occurs in the meantime.

The BLM policy is currently under review.   You can provide comments until June 9 at federalregister.gov/documents/2020/04/10/2020-07099/increasing-recreational-opportunities-through-the-use-of-electric-bikes.

Routt County Riders agrees with the International Mountain Biking Association position on this policy change. IMBA is headquartered here in Colorado and has a great page on e-bike policy and their position. You can read more at  imba.com/education/emtb and its analysis of the BLM policy proposal at imba.com/sites/default/files/IMBA-analysis_BLM-proposedrule-ebike.pdf.

Holly Weik is a Routt County Riders board member.

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