After spending roughly 30 years as a mountain biker, White Salmon resident Bella Berlly wasn’t ready to give the sport up when she was diagnosed with a muscle degenerative disease.
Unable to entirely power a bicycle on her own, she found the solution in an electric pedal-assist bike. But the U.S. Forest Service sees her bike as a motor vehicle and thus not allowed on mountain bike trails. Instead, her bike is restricted to off-highway vehicle routes used by Jeeps, all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.
Now Berlly is accusing the U.S. Forest Service of discriminating against her as a disabled person by not allowing use of her preferred assisted mobility device on the trails she enjoys. But the U.S. Forest Service and mountain bike advocacy groups say that although technology is blurring the lines between man and machine, a motor is a motor and electric bikes should stay off trails designated for hikers, horses and cyclists.
In a letter to the U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell, U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas, is championing Berlly’s cause, writing: “Our National Forests are community assets, and it is troubling that individuals employed to act as stewards of those assets are limiting access by the physical disabilities community through discriminatory actions.”
Electric bikes, or e-bikes, come in four different classifications, identified by the speed they can travel, how the motor is activated and other factors.
Berlly rides a Class-1 e-bike designed for mountain biking. She bought it thinking the U.S. Forest Service would see it as a regular bike. It has almost all the same parts a tradition mountain bike would, save for an enlarged crank where the motor sits and an 8-pound battery attached to the frame. The motor only activates when a rider pedals, and it shuts off if the bike travels faster than 20 mph.
Berlly said she had a traumatic experience when she was confronted by an angry cyclist for riding her e-bike on Forest Service trails near Sedona, Ariz., earlier this year. When she sought clarification from the Forest Service, she was dismayed to learn that the agency considers it motorized.
Berlly wants the U.S. Forest Service to allow disabled people to use e-bikes on non-motorized trails in the same way they’re allowed to use motorized wheelchairs.
“I’m asking the Forest Service to adhere to the Americans with Disabilities Act, and if they’re not then I don’t think they should be allowing mountain bikes at all, frankly, because mine is no different,” she said.
A Forest Service briefing paper on e-bikes from May 13, 2015 recognizes that people with disabilities have requested the use of e-bikes as assistive devices. But because the bikes weren’t designed solely for the disabled, and wouldn’t typically be used indoors, the agency says they don’t qualify as exceptions to its rules.
“An e-bike remains a motor vehicle regardless of who is using it. It is essential that exceptions not be made to the (Travel Management Rule) designations,” the document said. “Restrictions on motor vehicle use that are applied consistently to everyone have been repeatedly found not to be discriminatory.”
In an e-mail, Byron James, a spokesman for the Forest Service, said the agency realizes technology is changing how people move.
“Monitoring of e-bike use for visitor safety, social issues, along with performance metrics and natural resource impacts will continue to develop and advance,” he wrote. “As such, the Forest Service remains open to potentially re-visiting and adjusting associated agency guidance if and as needed in the future.”
Although e-bikes are creating a gray area between what was once a black-and-white issue of motorized and non-motorized trail users, mountain bike advocacy groups such as the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance and the International Mountain Bike Alliance say they’ll continue to draw a hard-line between the motorized and non-motorized.
“Yes this a new technology. Yes this is a new user group. Let’s figure out where we can accommodate those e-bikes without putting too much pressure on those user groups who don’t want to be around motorized use,” said Yvonne Kraus, executive director of the Evergreen Mountain Bike Alliance, a nonprofit organization and Washington state’s largest mountain bike association.
For the mountain bike community, earning trust and building coalitions with wheel-wary outdoors groups and then working with landowner agencies to create bike access has taken years of work. E-bike technology is reshaping the bicycle industry and entering the consumer market at a fast pace. Encouraging their use on non-motorized trails could be detrimental to those hard-fought relationships, Kraus said.
“The technology is coming fast and changing fast and those bikes are becoming more affordable, more accessible,” Kraus said. “There is a strong case for ADA access and getting more people out on their bikes in the outdoors — not to mention they’re fun to ride.”
But she worries that allowing low power e-bikes on non-motorized trails could increase the risk of injury by bringing riders to terrain they’re not skilled enough to ride, or that riders with mobility issues could lose power far away from their vehicles. Furthermore, she has concerns about how well a rule differentiating between different classes of e-bikes could be enforced.
Kraus said she thinks a path forward might be to create trails specifically designed to accommodate riders with mobility issues that ride e-bikes, or even three-wheeled hand pedaled bikes. Until those are created, she suggests e-bike and hand-crank bike riders use motorized trails and roads, which outnumber non-motorized trails.
Even within the mountain biking community, electric bikes are divisive, as evidenced by Berlly’s interaction with another cyclist in Arizona.
The International Mountain Bike Alliance claims more than 40,000 individuals and 400 clubs among its membership. Aaron Clark, who handles government relations for the group, estimated that less than half of its members support e-bikes on trails.
“The rest either don’t care or are adamantly opposed,” he said.