Electric Mountain Bikes: The Winds of Change Arrive in North America

Haibike FS RX trail 6By Paul Willerton

Just one quarter in, 2016 has turned into a year of dramatic change in the cycling industry.

North American bicycle imports dropped 7% in 2015 and are down 17% year-to-date compared to 2015. Manufacturers seem to be making changes to their sales models at a quickening pace.

Big name brands like Trek and Giant have announced direct-to-consumer sales. Canyon, the top European direct-to-consumer brand, is set to arrive on American shores this year and promises to really shake things up.

More brands, such as Raleigh, have moved forward with direct sales models where the customer orders online and picks the bike up at a brick & mortar dealer.

The aptly named “click & mortar” or “click to brick” models have officially come to cycling.

Even Shimano, the venerable Japanese component maker, has slashed prices and altered distribution to cope with the contracting and shifting retail sales environment.

At the big box level, the Sports Authority bankruptcy sent some shockwaves to the bike industry manufacturers who sold to them.

So, what is happening out there? Will such pressure on independent bicycle dealers cause their numbers to dwindle? One bright spot for new bike sales globally has been eBike.

The North American market only accounts for a small number of world eBike sales, but that number is  growing. Smaller sales numbers in a market could indicate a lack of dealer interest more than a lack of consumer interest. Could this be the case in North America?

Shops specializing in eBikes in the United States tend to far outpace dealers that only dabble in the machines. Most American consumers remain unaware of eBikes, let alone have had the chance to test ride one. It has become apparent in other markets, Europe especially, that  e-mountain bikes (eMTBs) have begun to drive sales numbers for dealers.

Many prominent players in the European market under estimated the rise of the eMTB. The brands that had the vision for what the eMTB could become are now reaping the rewards. eMTBs are in the early stages of what could become a renaissance of sorts for the mountain bike.

Personally, becoming more intimate with eMTB development and riding has opened my mind to what mountain bike riding, for many, will become in the years ahead.  Looking at the numbers, though, is the North American market simply standing in it’s own way?

The USA is showing shrinking sales of traditional bicycles and an aging population of recreationalists. Many of our vast off-road trail networks were actually illegal for mountain bikes to be on back in the 80’s when I started riding them.

Today, some mountain bike riders who didn’t have access themselves before rule changes are against eMTBs having access. IMBA (International Mountain Bike Association) is the steward for the sport and has one of the loudest voices among policy makers.

IMBA’s own in-depth studies on trail erosion differences between MTB’s and eMTBs showed little to no discernable difference between the bikes on trails. IMBA has stated they are neutral with regard to the eMTB, but will not yet support a position that gives eMTBs equal access to all trails now open to MTB’s.

Obviously, regulatory positions such as the ones outlined here could give pause to any prospective eMTB customer. It may also cause shop owners to shy away from allocating funds and floor space toward eMTBs.

In spite of the sales evidence coming from Europe, many in the US remain skeptical with regard to acceptance of the bikes. Don DiCostanzo, founder of Pedego eBikes, wrote on a message board “Slow acceptance for eMTBs in the US so far and little to suggest it’s going to change in the near future.”

DiCostanzo may be right. Trail regulations will be an ongoing challenge. Still, there are a lot of trail systems available that eMTBs can be ridden on. The bikes are versatile enough to make great hybrid-style rides for consumers.

haibike all mtn electric bike

If shops payed heed to the sales numbers in Europe and brought them in, consumers in the US could be swayed. I happen to be in the camp that believes eMTBs have a bright future in the United States. What leads me there is not blind optimism. It’s a combination of experience and what I’d like to call something of an “understanding”.

In the mid 80’s, MTB’s were illegal on basically every hiking trail (which was inevitably the sweetest single track) and hikers outnumbered riders at least 100 to 1.  I knew it couldn’t last. Riding a MTB was just too much fun. The sport couldn’t be stopped.

Back then, slowing down for hikers well in advance, riding as wide around them as possible on single track and saying “Hello – thank you” could still draw curt words and threats of a punch from some hikers.

Today, I sometimes ride legal trails where I’m told hikers will risk felony charges to plant boobie traps with sharpened sticks pointed uphill toward unsuspecting riders. On these trails the MTB will now outnumber hikers at least 30 to 1.

There was never a feeling of superiority over the hikers. There was a sort of guilt, actually. I had used this man-made machine with stamped out gears and high-tec assemblies to cover 20x more ground in a day then they could.

They would sleep out there that night after a meal of freeze dried beans. I would sleep in my own bed after railing, sliding and grinning my way off that trail system. Does the eMTB cross a larger chasm than the one from boot & pack to wheels, suspension and 21 speeds? Not in my mind and body, it doesn’t. Not even close.

Riding an eMTB on the legal routes I can find, I get a similar feeling to what I had in the earlier days of the MTB. I’m no faster than at my peak, even uphill, but I don’t have to train at least 20 hrs a week like a jobless sociopath hell bent on being a World Class athlete.

felt-duale-51

I get incredible exercise. I enjoy my surroundings and the people I’m riding with even more. The group is more diverse. My company is no longer just the kids from the bike shop on their day off and the retired lawyer masters racer with 5% body fat.

It’s amazing to share an incredible off-road ride with someone who would never in their lives be able to spend the years of training it would take – or attain the purity of health – to allow them to enjoy the sport in that way. We are all aging.

Sometimes the fittest among us don’t realize how quickly a fraction of that health and strength can go away. Just a fraction, and suddenly a MTB ride is not what it used to be.

Former world class riders can easily fade into “normalcy” while 50+ year old beginners on eMTBs can rise up. They may gain the strength and desire over time to do the rides without electric assist.

I believe the eMTB will become one with the MTB in the United States. It will reach parity, equality, like it has in Europe. One is not better than the other. They are the same. They don’t serve different purposes. They serve us all at different times.

Thanks to Paul Willerton for this report!

P.S. Don’t forget to join the Electric Bike Report community for updates from the electric bike world, plus ebike riding and maintenance tips!

Comments

  1. says

    I have never ridden an Ebike however I will as soon as I can get one…….I rode my MTB where ever I chose,I live in the U.S.of A. and I do NOT need your permission to ride my bike wherever,whenever,I choose and if you don’t like it ,all I can say is GFY,,,,,,Oh Well,It is not my job to live by your rules,If you try to cause me too much hassle over my mechanical Human powered machine…..I can always go and get my Kawasaki 35O
    Big Horn Off road motorcycle and really tear up the woods,or get my horses and line the trail with a bunch of Horse Shit,If you would like since most of those Hiking trails are in open grazing lands I could bring a herd of cattle down the trail, and be legal in doing so!! so do you want to put up with my eMTB or a few hundred head of Cows & horses?? Hell, Let us get real stupid and I’ll have a cattle drive in yer pristine little forest, I can even persuade my Goat Roper friends into bringing 10-20,000 head of sheep down your precious trails and be TOTALLY LEGAL!!!!! OR Do you want my little eMTB and nothing more,I am disabled and cannot “Hike-or Walk” more than a few feet w/o being in lots of pain but I can ride a peddle assist bike for miles!! The e Bikes will just mean I won’t be totally wiped out after riding 100 miles per day!!

    • Michael K. says

      Sounds like you live in my part of Northern California. I am in the same situation where I can only walk a short distance. My ebike lets me enjoy the great out doors again. We have Mountain bike endurance races here every year and I think the eMTB would really open up the races to more people and open up the trails to more people visiting our Mountains.
      Everyone here hates the over powering forest service here.

    • Nader Sherif says

      I love your comment! I suffer from heath issues that prevent me from riding a regular MTB for more then a few miles so I bought a Haibike and it allows me to simply keep up with my friends when they ride. It does not give me super powers nor does it damage the trails as some idiots would like to clam and even with my Haibike I still suffer for days after a ride. People need to get their heads out the their asses and remember that just a few years ago the horse people were using these same lame excuses to try and keep mtbs off the trails.

  2. Lee Hollenbeck says

    Good thing here in MA, no motor vehicles allowed on public trails. That is state forest and parks, You are welcome to ride your electric motorcycles where the ORV are allowed, Maybe 6 or so places in the state. Fat and lazy is not an excuse for breaking the law. E bikes seem a great tool for commuters and those carrying heavy loads, say a cargo bike. Good luck with your agenda. And good luck lofting those front wheels of a 45-55 lb bike.

  3. Derek Kerton says

    Agree. Love my Haibike FS. Top dollar, but a heck of a bike.

    My concern is that, for now, I slip by largely unnoticed, so the rules don’t really get applied where motors are forbidden. All it will take is a handful more e-riders (some of which will certainly be jerks) to whiz by hikers or other bikers, and then we’ll get noticed, and enforcement will step up.

    I’m going to enjoy it while it lasts. I see a “honeymoon” period right now, which will be followed by a backlash, and then, years later, after effort and activism, acceptance.

    I’m an early adopter of lots of tech: quad copters, balance boards, ebikes. I’ve seen this dance before.

    • Nader Sherif says

      I agree I have not seen another Haibike where I ride so most don’t notice me but if more start popping up I fear it may ruin it for us. The good news is Haibike and some other manufacturers have joined together and are trying to get re classification of the bikes so they can be ridden on all trails.

  4. Tom says

    Ebikes are still banned on most mountain, open space trails here near Boulder, though were recently legalized for bikeways (speed limited to 15MPH which means folks on regular bikes passing you all the time. Yes, silly. A Trek store in Longmont refuses to stock Trek’s new ebikes and shows total disdain for ebikes. Now, I have to say I have no interest in riding any bike, e or regular, on mountain trails. The idea of speeding through beautiful country isn’t my idea of a day in the mountains and trails with heavy bike use are ones that I routinely avoid since serenity and one with nature is my goal, not thrill seeking. But I do ride my ebike 3-5 thousand miles a year.

  5. Phillip Lawson says

    I don’t have a filter bike and I find it to be extremely pleasurable and still healthy to ride this caused my interest to be a little and I recently purchased a retrofit the Bafang 8fun. I purchased a momentum Fat Tire Bike and installed living thing on that bike and started having a new experience I have practically given up writing my other bikes because of the fun experiences of an electric Fat Tire Bike.

    I think some of the assumption that the writer made Arc in correct and as I don’t think many people even know of the imdt whoever the heck they are and especially the bike shops around here don’t know of that organization at all.
    We in Minnesota don’t seem to be influenced by archaic thinking the only Improvement that I can see would be for the bike shops to make a box more prominent and to create a stronger sales pitch

    I think they need to hang up some bike banners or other displays that would draw attention to the fact that there are embts.

    • Phillip Lawson says

      I’m sorry for all the misprint. Yes I am using a voice to text tool I try to monitor what it is printing but it seems to me that it continues to edit when you hit the send button because many of the things that I see that are incorrect we’re not that way when I push the transmit button

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