Cycling

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What Event Owners Need to Know About E-Bikes’ Push into National Parks and Competitive Events

18 Sep, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

On the heels of USA Cycling’s note that electrically-powered or -assisted bicycles (e-bikes for short) are finding their way into sanctioned competition, a new law will allow the vehicles to be used on trails in national parks.

And as you might anticipate, it’s a move that has been hotly debated on both sides, with enthusiasts claiming it’s a way of increasing access to parks to those with disabilities and limitations, and conservationists saying it will substantially alter the landscape.

According to the Los Angeles Times, e-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the bicycle industry, with U.S. sales jumping 72% to $144 million last year, according to the NPD Group, which tracks bike sales. The motorized bikes are popular with commuters and baby boomers who might not otherwise be able to get out on a bicycle.

They’re also able to increase the appeal (and revenue) of competitive events, Guillermo Rojas, USA Cycling’s communications officer, told SDM in an article in the September/October 2019 issue.

“When you add e-bikes into your events, you create a way to welcome people who perhaps don’t have the mobility they once did – or who need the assistance an e-bike can provide,” Rojas noted. “If it keeps them cycling (maybe they’re not not even competing, but just going on recreational group rides or touring with their friends), it’s still a win for the sport as a whole (and for us as well).”

USA Cycling doesn’t require races to have special divisions for e-bikes, however.

“At this point, it’s up to individual race directors and event companies whether they want to add in e-bike divisions. We can supply information to race directors who want to learn more, and we encourage them to look into it. We expect this growth to continue as more athletes become aware of e-bikes as a viable option. Particularly now, as cities are adding walking, running and cycling trails to parks, there’s more of an opportunity than ever to remain active in a safe setting.”

But when that safe setting includes a national park, it often results in some friction.

The L.A. Times article noted, “More than 50 hiking, horseback riding and other outdoor and conservation associations, including the Appalachian Trail Conservancy and Pacific Crest Trail Association, objected [to the new rule] in a July letter to the Interior Department. They say the administration acted to fundamentally change the nature of national parks with little or no public notice or study.”

“If you’re hiking on a trail in Utah and you’re rounding a bend and something’s coming at you at 20 mph, that really changes the experience,” said Kristen Brengel, a vice president of the National Parks Conservation Assn., a nonprofit that advocates for the national park system.

“It’s pretty jarring” to those who take to public lands to escape city noise and stress for nature, Brengel said. “You’re adding significant speed and a throttle to those trails.”

At the sport’s highest level, e-bikes are already accepted. The UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, the international governing body of the sport) has already added e-bike divisions to major events; in fact, the recent world championships in mountain biking had one.

Expect there to be at least a push from enthusiasts toward having e-bikes in the Olympics in future years. Could it actually happen? There’s certainly precedent for trying. After all, RideApart noted, the Fédération Internationale de Motocyclisme (FIM, or International Motorcycling Federation) , lobbied to have Trial-E (that is, trials riding on electric bikes) added as a sport to the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.

Enthusiasts said it had a good chance; after all, it had all the right ingredients, according to IOC criteria: it was youth-focused, equally accessible for men and women, sustainable, spectacular, practiced on all continents and required no new infrastructure.

At the end of the day, though, Trial-E was discarded in favor of four other showcase sports: competitive climbing, breakdancing, surfing and skateboarding. It will get its chance again when Los Angeles is able to suggest four showcase sports; however, baseball, softball, skateboarding and surfing are all expected to have strong lobbies as well as ties to the U.S. as a whole, and California in particular.

But Trial-E, should it ever be accepted as a showcase sport, could at least provide the proverbial foot in the door that e-bikes are looking for. One thing’s for sure: with a growing user population, it’s unlikely we’ve seen the last of them. And as cycling continues to evolve – in 2020, we’ll see BMX Freestyle contested in the Olympics for the first time – the sport will continue to find ways to incorporate new user groups and widen its appeal.

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