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I’m in decent mountain biking shape, but it’s not unheard of (OK, fine, it’s actually pretty common) for someone to pedal past me on an uphill stretch. Lately, though, it feels like even more people are leaving me behind thanks to two-wheelers with an electric assist.
My anecdotal evidence about regularly eating e-biker dust is backed up by data. Boulder-based NPD Group, which analyzes outdoor industry consumer trends, found that e-mountain bike (eMTB) sales jumped 181 percent from 2020 to 2021. “E-bikes are allowing people an opportunity to get back out on the land. These are people who might have been aging out of the sport or had some physical limitations that prevented them from biking,” says Chad Schneckenburger, regional trails and dispersed recreation program manager at the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Regional Office. “What e-bikes are doing is reopening that door to people.”
Now, the question is how to manage all those electric two-wheelers on trails. In late March, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) issued updated directives that will allow for expanded e-bike usage on land it manages. Previously, e-bikes could only be ridden on roads and trails where motorized vehicles are permitted. Under the updated rules, local ranger districts can choose to allow e-bikes on specific trails that had been closed to the electric cycles—that is, “if we first conduct the appropriate environmental analysis and there’s public support,” Schneckenburger says, explaining that any assessment would include a 30-day period when people can provide input about the change in status.
So, while there are currently 5,118 miles of trails on Colorado land managed by the USFS open to e-bikes, that number is likely to grow in the coming years. Not that trails on Forest Service–regulated terrain are the only places to ride them. Certain classes of e-bikes are also permitted in some parts of wilderness areas and state parks supervised by Colorado Parks & Wildlife (CPW) (check here for more detailed info), as well as parts of open space overseen by specific counties.
If you’re among those hopping in the power-assisted saddle (or hoping to soon), here are five expert tips to keep in mind before you head out on the trail, along with four places in Colorado to get in on the fun.
Understand the E-Bike Basics
Each e-bike fits into one of three categories, which are determined by the top speed the bike can reach and its ability to move without pedaling.
- Class I e-bikes top out at 20 miles per hour, and their electric motors only engage with pedaling.
- Class II e-bikes also tend to peak at 20 miles per hour, but they include a throttle that can be used to keep riders moving even when they aren’t pedaling.
- Class III bikes can hit speeds around 30 miles per hour and may or may not have a throttle.
When riding on dirt trails, you’ll want an eMTB instead of a commuter-style e-bike, according to Trevyn Newpher, former pro mountain biker and founder of Evolution Sports Colorado. These two-wheeled workhorses have tires made with grip-enhancing rubber that’s also thicker and more durable than around-town e-bikes, making them more resistant to flat tires. They also typically have better suspension to provide a more comfortable ride. “You’re going to see a more robust design to withstand the rigors and demands of off-road riding,” Newpher adds.
Know How to Handle the E-Bike
Before hitting the dirt, get your e-bike bearings with a few rides on an accessible paved path, such as the Yampa River Core Trail in Steamboat Springs or the Recreational Pathway System, commonly known as the Recpath, in Summit County. Make sure you feel confident with the bike’s weight, as well as the electric assist, gearing, and throttle (if your two-wheeler has one). “Just because it has a pedal-assist motor does not mean—especially when you’re out in the backcountry—that you’re going to have an easier experience,” says Laraine Martin, executive director of cycling nonprofit Routt County Riders. “It’s still a lot to get used to.”
Review the Trail Map
Be sure to check the trail map for the area you intend to ride to see if e-bikes are allowed. It is also important to make sure the specific class of e-bike you’re using is permitted. Class I and II eMTBs, for example, are allowed on roadways, bike lanes, multi-use trails at state parks supervised by CPW, while class III e-bikes are not. “It’s the rider’s responsibility,” Newpher says, “to know what class their bike is and what restrictions might be in place for a given trail system.”
If you plan to ride on Forest Service land, consult that forest’s Motor Vehicle Use Map to find trails that allow motorized vehicles. The same goes for paths managed by CPW as well as those on county and city land. (Summit County, for example, prohibits e-bike usage on natural surface trails.) Finally, thoroughly investigate your route to ensure it doesn’t take you from an e-bike-friendly trail to singletrack where electric two-wheelers aren’t allowed. If you do find yourself in that situation, it’s best to dismount, turn off the motor, and hike with your bike to avoid a ticket.
Check Your Power Gauge
“E-bikes allow you to go farther,” Schneckenburger says. “If you’re going to go farther into the backcountry, make sure you have the ability to get out.” That means you need to confirm that the battery is fully charged and that it will last for the duration of your ride, keeping in mind that going uphill and the frequency with which you use an electric boost will affect your range.
Carry the Right Gear
“Mechanicals” (slang for problems with your bike) are just part of cycling—and it’s no different with an e-bike. “Make sure you have all the proper gear to make any repairs to the bike, wheelset, and crank, if you need to,” Martin says. “You’ve got to be capable of all that.” She recommends having a standard bike repair kit, including tire levers, a spare tube or patch, a pump or air cartridge, and a multitool, along with extra layers (in case the weather changes), a map, a first-aid kit, and plenty of water. Also, be sure to have a way to summon help, like a phone (reminder: cell service can be spotty) or a GPS device.
Don’t Be a Jerk
“Ride respectfully out on the trails like you would on a regular mountain bike,” Schneckenburger says, noting the importance of yielding to pedestrians, horses, and, if you’re going downhill, people hiking uphill. “Riding an e-bike, in terms of etiquette, is really no different from riding a regular bike,” he adds. And, of course, be sure not to veer off trail, which can damage the surrounding ecosystem.
Colorado Trails to Try Out Your E-Bike
Hartman Rocks Recreation Area
Just a few minutes from Gunnison, Hartman Rocks offers nearly 50 miles of bike trails, all of them open to e-bikes. Beginners will enjoy Evan’s Loop, a flowy 2.8-mile stretch through sagebrush.
If you start from the Bear Creek trailhead east of Salida off of County Road 101, it’s possible to ride 100 miles one way on this route. The trek features views of the southern end of the Sawatch Range, the Sangre de Cristos, and the San Luis Valley that Schneckenburger deems “spectacular.”
Green Mountain Loop
If you’re planning to ride your eMTB on the Front Range, check out this 6.9-mile, intermediate trail in Morrison. It doesn’t have many blind corners (long-distance visibility is helpful when riding at faster speeds), making it easy for beginners to use.
White Ranch Park
This Golden-based park features an expansive e-bike-friendly trail system. Those looking for a challenge should try the rapid-fire drops on the Mustang Trail or the gnarly descent down Longhorn.