Opinion: Insult and Battery – The Times Has A Pop At E-Bikes

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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.

e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine
And here’s Wayne, rampaging through the flooded trails of Wales on an e-bike

Can’t see the video? Click here.

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).

e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine
You can almost see the erosion here as this trail hooligan smoothly climbs this bedrock…

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.

e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine
No, it’s actually usually like this… Photos from this issue’s e-bike adventure in mid-Wales

“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.

E-what? E-bikes!

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.

e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine
Here’s Phill, busy urbanising a gravel track in front of approximately zero walkers
e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine

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.

e-bikes e-mtb sunday times guilty as charged singletrack magazine
‘…coming here, splashing through our puddles with yer e-bikes!’

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.

Antony was a latecomer to the joys of riding off-road, and he’s continued to be a late adopter of many of his favourite things, including full suspension, dropper posts, 29ers, and adult responsibility. At some point he decided to compensate for his lack of natural riding talent by organising maintenance days on his local trails. This led, inadvertently, to writing for Singletrack, after one of his online rants about lazy, spoilt mountain bikers who never fix trails was spotted and reprinted on this website during a particularly slow news week. Now based just up the road from the magazine in West Yorkshire, he’s expanded his remit to include reviews and features as well as rants. He’s also moved on from filling holes in the woods to campaigning for changes to the UK’s antiquated land access laws, and probing the relationship between mountain biking and the places we ride. He’s a firm believer in bringing mountain biking to the people, whether that’s through affordable bikes, accessible trails, enabling technology, or supportive networks. He’s also studied sustainable transport, and will happily explain to anyone who’ll listen why the UK is a terrible place for everyday utility cycling, even though it shouldn’t be. If that all sounds a bit worthy, he’s also happy to share tales of rides gone awry, or delicate bike parts burst asunder by ham-fisted maintenance. Because ultimately, there are enough talented professionals in mountain bike journalism, and it needs more rank amateurs.

More posts from Antony

Comments (27)

    “I saw two last week with radios blaring on the handlebars as they rode along a trail”

    anyone who does that deserves all the pillorying they can get

    ” “I saw two last week with radios blaring on the handlebars as they rode along a trail”

    anyone who does that deserves all the pillorying they can get ”

    Oh sure – it’s only e-bikers who would do this, after all…

    “Just as accusations of trail erosion by mountain bikes don’t seem to be borne out by the studies ”

    Damn’ right. THIS is what buggers up trails – no e-bikes needed:





    Oh – and councils (like mine in the north east of England) doing precisely sweet FA about chavs on illegal off-roaders.

    Thanks for covering this and yes a truly awful piece of journalism. Not ridden a e-bike myself but it shouls have been an opportunity to celebrate e-bikes and the access it now gives those less able.

    What really irked me was the old trail damage fallacy from ramblers representing walkers and horseriders. Ever seen the damage horses do to bridleways in the winter?

    Invite him to Singletrack Towers, there you can tar and feather the ignoramus, or, educate the cretin into the merits of our wonderful pursuit.

    The Times piece didn’t put a name to the quote from the Ramblers. Apparently they are pretty progressive these days, so I suspect the Times chap just spoke to one or two members and then quoted them as if they represented the whole organisation.

    “…. they’re also complaints that people have been levelling at regular mountain bikes for years….”

    I seem to remember a similar article in the Times when I was about 15. I wrote to them and complained about the in-accuracies pointing out where I disagreed. It didnt get published. (That was the beginning and end of my journalistic career).

    But yes they have been churning out the same argument for decades now…E-bikes are just a novel new twist on it.

    I don’t particularly want to be dragged out of retirement as far as this conversation goes, but when you say “it’s astonishing that the environment editor of a respected national newspaper can publish an evidence-free hatchet piece”… No. No, it really isn’t. Surely you don’t think that newspapers exist to present unbiased and thoroughly researched summaries of information so that readers can form rational and independent opinions?

    Fair point. I remember the Times doing some good stuff a few years back under the Cities Fit for Cycling tag line. I’m guessing they’ve reverted to default now.

    Batteries, eh? You people disgust me…

    To be fair, e-bike specific saddles may be up to something…I have a favourite saddle that I have on four of my six bikes, put the same saddle on my new Turbo Levo, and a few days later I realize my ass hurts. Due to sitting down spinning much much more on the e-bike than on any of my normal bikes. Put the original, softer seat back on and no problems since then. So maybe not an e-bike specific saddle, but possibly a saddle better for remaining seated more of the time.

    Another thing, I think we have reached the tipping point regarding assisted bikes. Here in Finland, last year we still sold more regular full suspension bikes in the shop I work at – this year e-bikes outsold regular suspended bikes for the first time. We did not even believe this to be possible just a couple years ago…And all kinds of people buy them. I, for one, did not think much of them until I had to test ride the shop bikes. Ended up buying one since I had so much fun on it, and use it for both commuting to work (a few trail opportunities on the way) and for proper woods adventures.

    Really, who reads newspapers these days?

    Antony, I take it you’ve written to Jonathon Leake as well as this article? Let us know if he deigns to reply!

    Radios on bikes. Grrrr!

    Roger Mellie, I understand there’s a joint response in the works from a couple of big outdoor user groups, which should carry a bit more weight than an abusive missive from a random freelance writer. At least, I hope so.

    That’s an appalling article – belongs in The Mail!

    “I remember the Times doing some good stuff a few years back under the Cities Fit for Cycling tag line. I’m guessing they’ve reverted to default now.”

    It looks like the stuff you’re referring to here is from the Sunday Times. It’s quite separate, and has a long history of bashing cycling in similarly gratuitous style.

    The Times is a more nuanced affair when it comes to cycling, but I’ll leave that to whoever’s still on Twitter 🙂

    I have never ridden an E-bike, and have no intention of buying one (too bloody expensive), but that is one truly awful piece of “journalism”!! Absolutely no factual basis whatsoever.

    Almost every time you read a newspaper article that references a subject you’re knowledgeable about, most of it will be utter tripe. It’s not a great leap to surmise that the rest of the articles contain the same half truths, political point scoring and general lazy space filling.

    A load of bollards about bikes that barely anyone will read pales when you consider the real harm they’re causing.

    Its sad but also a fact of life that where ever you get a drastically different pace in the way people move about you get conflict. Cyclists and Cars – Cyclists and Walkers – Horses and Walkers etc. and its usually from the side that thinks it has more right to be there such as cars who for years had the roads fairly cycle free now complain because of the increased number of cyclists on the road, same with walkers and mountain bikers. Overall everyone gets on and things work themselves out, but every so often a person comes along from one side or the other and has a right hissy fit……

    I am an old and overweight / unfit mountain biker. I found that the hills were becoming too daunting and bought a full sus eMTB – fantastic. Has got me out on the bike again and not only that, as my fitness has increased because I am riding again, I have been able to turn down the level of assistance and am now finding that I am doing quite a lot of riding with no boost. But I always have the reassurance that it is there to help get me back to base if I need it. I read the ST article and it is dreadful and factually incorrect in so many places. Compare that with this one from the sister publication The Times from earlier this year https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/the-south-downs-way-by-e-bike-3ssqdq9mz which was promoting ebike use and from what I can see, was using some of the same stock photos.

    Regarding horses and MTBs. Please remember that horses are stupid animals. They also get scared when things (such as MTB riders) suddenly appear from behind them. If you are approaching horses from behind, make sure that you make your presence known sometime in advance and in particular, for the avoidance of doubt call politely to the rider(s) something like ‘coming through on your right’ and keep talking. (I do not recommend radios blaring on the handlebars though!) This will keep both horse and rider informed about your intentions and minimise the chances of spooking a horse which could then be dangerous and lead to bad feeling. I regularly ride my bike in the company of horses and the interaction with the horse riders is always friendly.

    Surely if MTBs erode a trail more than footpaths a lot of MTB trails would be down to bedrock. I’d love that in the winter rather than the mud I have to endure.

    Was raging after reading the article in the ST a week ago but today they’ve published a joint letter from individuals representing British Horse Society and CyclingUK specifically regarding the claim of conflict between horse riders and cyclists. It’s just a minority was their joint reply, obviously making the ‘journalist’ look a bit stupid. Curious to know whether any others complained about the original article as there’s only one in print.

    The middle-aged love nothing more than raging about things other people do, they don’t like, that should be banned next.

    What a life!

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