Electric motors give some cyclists a needed boost, especially on steep terrain. But the newer technology is banned on Durango trails.
Motorized vehicles have been banned on trails for years, and recently, Durango City Council added electric bikes to the list of prohibited vehicles for safety reasons.
Some e-bikes have a set top speed around 20 mph and require the rider to pedal to engage the motor, while others have a throttle and go much faster.
“I think it’s better to err on the side of public safety,” said Councilor Sweetie Marbury, before the council voted on the issue.
The council is interested in revisiting the topic in the coming years when the SMART 160 Trail connecting Three Springs to the Animas River Trail is complete, said Mayor Christina Rinderle.
“I look forward to further discussion as this technology advances and our multimodal opportunities expand,” Rinderle said.
Some argue there are bikes that can be ridden responsibly, allow older people to continue riding and let cyclists of different levels ride together.
“I think that’s taking a sledgehammer to a problem that could be solved with a little bit better rules and regulations,” Bill “Beatle” Abshagen said of the ban.
After several surgeries, Abshagen uses his pedal-assist bike to ride challenging trails and run errands. His bike requires him to pedal to engage the quiet motor to climb the hills into the Rockridge subdivision. He generally turns it off on the Animas River Trail.
The city has banned the bikes whether or not the motor is engaged, said Cathy Metz, Parks and Recreation director.
The City Council took up the issue after Metz and other parks department staff noticed people using electric bikes on the trails. They wanted to make it clear they are considered motorized vehicles and are banned.
“Certainly, it could be a safety issue,” she said.
The Parks and Recreation and Natural Lands advisory boards backed the staff and recommended adding electric bikes to the city’s ban. These regulations align with rules on federal lands, Metz said.
The city staff and boards did not think introducing speeds on the river trail was an enforceable alternative, she said.
“We felt that implementation of that would be difficult,” she said.
The city makes an exception for people with disabilities who are allowed to use motorized vehicles on the trail. If someone is using a vehicle where his disability may not be obvious, he can display a handicap placard issued by the Colorado Division of Motor Vehicles to avoid being questioned by police or park rangers, Metz said.
Other communities, including Boulder and in California, have adopted rules to allow electric bikes, in part because they are an environmentally friendly alternative to commuting in a car.
“An estimated 40 percent of all car trips are less than two miles away. Reducing the number of trips made by cars reduces congestion and frees up road space for essential motor vehicle trips,” Boulder city staff said in a recommendation to Boulder’s Board of Trustees.
Boulder allows the vehicles on its hard-surface trails, which have a 15 mph speed limit.
Abshagen and others would like to see Durango revisit its regulations and perhaps use other cities as a model.
“I think there’s some unjustified paranoia that kind of comes along anytime there is change ... When mountain bikes first came out, there were people who said you shouldn’t be able to take bikes off roads,” said Ed Zink, owner of Mountain Bike Specialists.
Pedal-assist bikes are not widespread in the U.S., and neither Mountain Bike Specialists nor Second Avenue Sports have seen a high demand for them. Price is likely the biggest barrier, the retailers said.
For example, the cheapest model that Trek Bikes builds is between $1,800 to $2,000, said Asa Robbins, general manager for Second Avenue Sports.
Abshagen, who has ridden in the Iron Horse Bicycle Classic 21 times, believes it is only a matter of time before the bikes gain in popularity as the technology gets lighter and more widespread. In the meantime, he is not going to stop riding his bike on the Animas River Trail.
“I’ll just do it anyway and they can take me to jail and there will be a lawsuit and we will win,” he said.
While Abshagen would likely not face jail time, he could be fined for using his pedal-assist bike.