Europe Just Added a New Racing Circuit for Electric Bicycles. Where Does the USA Stand?

21 Feb, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
There's Growth in the E-Bike Sector and Event Owners Should be Ready to Respond

While the public eye was trained on the ice and snow in PyeongChang, something happened in cycling circles that resulted in a blizzard of buzz. The European Cycling Union (UEC) announced it would be adding a new racing circuit for electric bikes in 2019.

According to Adventure Sports Network, the UEC intorduced the plan at its recent annual meeting. The new program will be called the “UEC Formula E-Bike.” UEC Formula E-Bike will include both e-road and e-mountain bikes.

Coverage has noted the UEC “still needs to work out the regulatory details, such as maximum speeds and what kinds of electrical assistance (pedal vs. throttle) will even be allowed.”

While it might be easy to shrug off the new circuit as not being relevant to the USA, there are already competitive events for e-bikes here – and planners need to know there may be more. In 2016, the California-based Sea Otter Classic made news (and generated much debate) by announcing it would host an e-mountain bike race, making it the first in North America to do so. That race has been successful (there were over 120 e-mountain bike participants in the first year alone), with e-bike company Haibike entering into a multi-year agreement to become the electric bike sponsor of the event now known as the Haibike eMTB Race Powered by Bosch.

According to Frank Yohannan, President & CEO of the Sea Otter Classic, Inc., the move was in response to “what we saw as the e-bike community growing and betting better. We were approached by two of our top sponsors, Bosch and Haibike, and the race really became a collaboration with those two sponsors.”

Prior to 2016, Yohannan told Sports Destination Management, organizers had not seen e-bikes being used in the race; however, they had noticed the growing numbers of e-bikes in the bike expo that is a part of the Sea Otter Classic.

“People were really curious about it the first year and of course, there was some resistance: ‘What is the Sea Otter Classic trying to do?’ But by the second year, 2017, there was a lot of excitement and acceptance. People were looking at it as a legitimate way to compete."

”Other events have been held since that time; last fall, Electric Bike Action Magazine carried the news that the second race of the Electric Boogaloo Series had been scheduled for Vail Lake near Temecula, California. The series had kicked off in conjunction with the Kamikaze Games in September at Mammoth Mountain.

Bicycling Magazine noted that electric bikes have been a point of interest — and contention — in competitive cycling for the last few years. Some view it as a means of cheating on a sport that should be completely human-powered while others argue it’s a way of getting more people, including those less than fit, outdoors. Others simply see e-bikes as a separate discipline that has the potential to generate interest and economic impact. Either way you look at it, it's a market that is projected to grow exponentially.

USA Cycling, which hosts various disciplines of cycling, including BMX, cyclocross, mountain bike, road and track, does not cover electric bikes. The UCI, the international governing body, recently issued a test report on the efficacy of detecting the presence of hidden electric equipment in or on competitors’ bicycles. (Juicing, apparently, has two meanings in cycling – and both are illegal.) In 2016, pro cycling experienced its first mechanical doping scandal in the Cyclocross World Championships when rider Femke Van den Driessche abandoned the U23 Women's race after officials found a motor in one of her pit bikes. And there remains considerable debate as to whether or not e-bikes are 'true' bicycles. An interesting analysis appears here.

So, of course, this begs the question: why add a controversial discipline to the sport on the European tour level? Bicycling Magazine noted the move is likely in response to the need to bring in (and retain) more viewers, who have been declining in number in recent years. 

UEC president Rocco Cattaneo said in a press release, “We are aware that cycling is undergoing a period of radical change and our main objective must be to reach as many fans, athletes and others that we can.”

In late 2017, the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) updated its position on e-mountain bikes, indicating that the sport's largest advocacy group will now support e-bike access to certain trails. This came on the heels of several impact studies showing e-mountain bikes had no significant negative result on trails.

However, it’s not likely to have any immediate effect in this country. Both the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management presently consider e-bikes to be motorized vehicles and prohibit them on those trails. Any change to that classification will likely take years of study and public comment.

Yohannan advises event owners who are thinking of adding e-bike to their events to check the local regulations regarding the use of what could be classified as motorized vehicles in various venues. There are different classifications of e-bikes as well, and event owners should be aware of them. An explanation of the classification system can be found here. He encourages event owners to move forward with the addition of e-bikes whenever and wherever possible.

"I would recommend bringing in e-bikes. If you are hosting a bicycle event, particularly one with a festival component, I highly recommend you welcome and solicit e-bike companies and e-bike brands. The public is very interested."


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