I’ve written before about the fractious relationship that cyclists have with newspapers, and it seems like it’s not getting any better. This week it’s the turn of the Times, who have discovered, by dint of five minutes of desk-based research, that not only do people ride bicycles off-road, they’re also doing it on new-fangled electric battery velocipedes: Yep, e-bikes.
In an article titled “Guilty As Charged” (back of the net there, sub-editor!), the Times’s Environment Editor Jonathon Leake explores the e-MTB phenomenon in the sort of tones one might reserve for a particularly virulent new strain of hospital bacteria, or a plague of winged monkeys. Google it if you feel inclined, but you might as well save yourself the bother, as I’m going to quote the most entertaining bits here, starting with this gem: “Powered mountain bikes are blamed for chewing up footpaths, disrupting wildlife and encouraging the construction of illicit ‘singletrack’ routes, the narrow twisting trails favoured by off-road cyclist” (I’ve left the inverted commas and the shoddy proofreading unchanged).
To support these assertions, Mr Leake has assembled a cast of random opinion-havers from various countryside groups. “E-bikes are quieter than motorbikes but they do the same damage.” says someone called Charles de Winton, from the Country Land and Business Association. “They have big knobbly tyres, so they can rip up the ground more, just like a motorbike.” Case closed! If a chap who’s a specialist in farm tenancies reckons they’re bad, that’s good enough for me.
“I saw two last week with radios blaring on the handlebars as they rode along a trail” says Gale Gould, vice-chair of Friends of the New Forest, channeling the spirit of Keith Pratt from Nuts in May. “We don’t want the New Forest urbanised by powered vehicles” she continues, apparently oblivious to the irony that dozens of the New Forest’s ponies are killed each year by another type of powered vehicle.
A recurring theme of the piece is that it seems to have been written by someone who’s never ridden an e-MTB, and indeed may only have glanced at one briefly from behind the window of a black cab. It’s full of statements like “In reality the weight of the motor and power of the battery mean that riders do little pedalling” – except of course, if it’s a UK-legal e-bike, you literally have to pedal, if you want to go anywhere.
We’re told that e-MTBs are aimed at “overweight people who struggle to pedal far”, which to be fair is the sort of thing commenters on Facebook have been saying for years, even as it becomes increasingly inaccurate. Searching Google for an example of one of these fiendish new machines, the author mentions Riese and Muller’s Supercharger, which isn’t an e-MTB at all, it’s a hybrid bike aimed at long-distance tourers and commuters.
When it comes to access law, the piece is just as hopeless. It states that “E-bikes should be restricted to byways and bridleways”, which of course is already the case in England and Wales (although not for much longer in Wales). It makes out that e-bikes are the preserve of fat old people, but have somehow also triggered a spree of illegal trail construction. The good work of organisations like Cycling UK to promote responsible riding through national campaigns like Be Nice, Say Hi doesn’t get a mention.
It’s astonishing that the environment editor of a respected national newspaper can publish an evidence-free hatchet piece about a genuinely game-changing low-carbon technology, at a point in time when our planet’s delicately balanced systems are wobbling around like a drunk on a tightrope.
E-bikes aren’t just about folk with dodgy knees being able to enjoy the Surrey Hills. They have the potential to revolutionise the way we get around, bringing many more everyday journeys within cycling range. If you read the last issue of the magazine, you’ll know that one member of staff has been able to give up his car thanks to an e-bike. And if you’re only transporting yourself, a vehicle that weighs 50lbs, as opposed to one that weighs 3,500lbs, is clearly a more energy-efficient choice, as well as being much less potentially lethal to anyone who you have to interact with.
Peer and self-loathing
But what’s also depressing is that much of the opposition to e-bikes seems to come from people who already ride. I’ve heard many claims that e-bikes are going to get us all banned from trails, ignoring the fact that mountain bikers have been getting themselves banned from trails for years, with zero motorised assistance. If you care that much about access, it might be a good idea to form a trail association, engage with the people who manage the land, and do something to help them out.
There are also well-meaning objections from people who worry that e-bikes are going to put inexperienced riders in tricky situations where they might need rescuing. But normal mountain bikes are also excellent at this. Hands up if you’ve ever gone down a massive descent, only to realise that you’d taken a wrong turn. Or not taken enough food and water on a ride, and had to struggle home on fumes. On an e-bike you could just turn around and ride back up the hill, and you also get a battery indicator that isn’t affected by the rider’s ego.
I dare say there will be situations where mountain rescue teams will have to be called out to assist stranded e-bikers. And there will also be some rescue teams that use this new technology to reach casualties faster.
All the objections to e-bikes seem to have one thing in common: they’re also complaints that people have been levelling at regular mountain bikes for years.
Just as accusations of trail erosion by mountain bikes don’t seem to be borne out by the studies that are out there, concerns over the additional impacts of e-bikes seem to be misplaced (see this PDF for one example). They don’t belong in the countryside, they’re ridden by people who have no idea of how to behave in a natural setting – we’ve heard all this before, 30 years ago, when bikes started venturing off road in numbers.
I’ll leave the final thought to my mate Andy, who points out that when suspension and disc brakes were introduced, they were supposed to allow inexperienced riders to get themselves into difficulties, accelerate trail erosion to the point where it was unsustainable, and generally bring about the end of days. Of course it didn’t happen.
E-bikes have undoubtedly triggered a whirlwind of marketing flatulence (e-bike specific saddles, anyone?). They haven’t done anything to reduce the financial barriers to the sport. They’ve upset a lot of people who take Strava too seriously. But in a few years, we’ll be wondering what all the fuss was about.