Human Power or GTFO

A few years back on the regular Stony Creek Wednesday Night Group Ride someone with a rather curious bike joined us. It very customized hard tail fitted with an electric hub motor and battery pack and the owner was proudly showing it off, explaining how he built it and uses it because he doesn’t like riding up hills. Many of the group gave him a hard time about it being motorized, but he headed out with us anyway. During the ride I was behind him a few times and saw him spinning his rear wheel up climbs while he wasn’t pedaling and mentioned to him how that’s not cool.

Mountain bike trails are built for human power, and ever since that day I’d hoped to run into him again and advise him to stay off of the trails on his motorbike. Since that group ride I’d see him a couple time per year, sometimes on trails† and others when returning to the parking lot, but was never able to successfully engage him in a conversation… until yesterday.

When getting ready to ride Stony Creek on Friday evening I noticed the vehicle above pull into the parking lot, holding what looked to be an updated version of the electric motorbike that I remembered being shown a few years back. It was the same guy‡. When he headed into the bathroom I took a moment to get clear pictures of his bike and license plate and then waited for him to come out.

At first he seemed a little proud that someone had noticed his bike, but the conversation quickly took an different tone when I asked “that’s an electric motorbike, isn’t it?” and then stated that they aren’t permitted on the mountain bike trails, which are designed for human power use only. The bike owner protested, claiming that he’s “done it for years” and “no one has complained”. He tried to claim that it’s just “electric assist”, but backed off on the last claim when I pointed there is no torque sensor and has a throttle on the handlebar. Other protestations he tried to use were that it’s “quiet”, that he “still gets passed”, he uses it as a “carrot”, and that he pedals “most of the time”.

He kept getting ready for his ride while myself and another guy kept him engaged with questions about his motorbike, and he seemed to be hurrying to get out on the trails, almost braggingly claiming that he hasn’t been caught yet. Phone in hand, park office number in the dialer (which he noticed me dialing), I eventually pointedly told him that if he set out on the trails I’d be calling the park police and waiting for him. It was only after this that he began angrily packing up, calling me a “fucker” for “ruining his ride”. Then I watched him leave, waiting to be sure he didn’t head to one of the other mountain bike trail parking lots.

I hope that this encounter and others reminding him of the same makes him rethink riding his electric motorbike on trails. It was clear that he knew it wasn’t permitted, but he was ready to head out anyway. Only the threat of being caught by an authority figure with the capability to penalize him seemed to be an effective deterrent.

Bicycle companies are starting to sell electric motorbikes, frequently branding them as simple assisted bicycles, diminishing the fact they are still motor vehicles. While they are currently costly items, as prices come down it’s inevitable that we’ll see more and more of these on our trails. I sincerely hope that everyone who cares about human-power-only designated trails — cyclists, hikers, runners, and walkers alike — will do what’s needed to keep these motorbikes away. In this post I present reasons why their presence is a problem and offer suggestions for what to do when you encounter someone with an electric motorbike at mountain bike trails.

† Encounters include: Him almost hitting me and forcing me off the trail on some of the humps at Clinton River Park Trails, just seconds before I met Phil (for the first time) to whom he’d done the same. Seeing him riding out onto The Overlook at Pontiac Lake on a hot summer day — the top of a climb and just after one of the hardest climbs in the park — without pedaling and looking fresh and unsweaty. In the parking lot at Pontiac Lake where he rolled up to his car without pedaling and seemed to get in his car and drive away quickly when he saw me eyeing him from across the lot. I’ve heard numerous stories of him from others who have also seen him rolling around, not pedaling, under motor power only.

‡ Dark grey Jeep Laredo 4×4, Michigan license plate DCU 3622 (photo), with a black 1UP USA bicycle rack. Owner is a trim / thin Asian guy, medium complexion and short dark hair, about 5’6″, with prescription regular and riding glasses.

His electric motorbike is a heavily modified black Motobecane Fantom Elite DS with white Fox fork and black rear Fox shock. Custom carbon fiber battery holder inside the front triangle, power regulator (the block on the underside of the downtube), and hub motor are the most notable features. Throttle can be seen near the right grip. (High res photo.)

This is legally defined as either a moped or motorcycle as per the Michigan Vehicle Code Act 300 of 1949, section 257.3b. (I feel the differentiation would be whether or not it can exceed 30 MPH on a level surface. The motor is roughly 350W [owner said “something like that” when I asked if it was 350W], which on a flat/level surface in an aero position may be able to reach 30 MPH. Having a hub motor the operator does not need to shift gears to make it work.)

2 Comments

  1. Stereo:

    Out of curiosity, and not trying to sound flippant, why does it matter and why do you care?

  2. Steve Vigneau:

    Stereo: It matters because motorbikes are incompatible with our trails. They are designed for human powered use and ability, and motorized bikes give riders ability they otherwise wouldn’t possess. I have personally had this guy almost hit me as he came flying around a corner on the edge of control at one park, and I’ve watched him spin his rear wheel up an entire climb, throwing dirt around during the aforementioned group ride event.

    We have much of the mountain bike trail access that we currently enjoy specifically because we are a human power user group. This was a huge battle in the 80s, 90s, and early 00s but in Michigan we have mostly won and are seen as a fair, equal user group because riders are still acting under their own power. Bringing electric motorbikes onto the trails, under the guise of “electric mountain bikes”, puts that at risk. The worst case is a blanket ban because park staff doesn’t have the ability to differentiate between different types of wheeled vehicles entering the trails so it becomes foot traffic only. That’d be awful. (Hell, most non-cyclists would look at the bike above and not realize it’s motorized… That’s why we, the mountain biking community, need to police this kind of behavior.)

    Myself and many others have put money, sweat, sometimes blood, and most importantly time into building and maintaining mountain bike trails and we want to keep them open and accessible. People like the guy mentioned above put that at risk.

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