E-bikes abound where they’re illegal, including Santa Rosa’s Trione-Annadel State Park
The athletic young couple sat at a picnic table on a ridge in Trione-Annadel State Park. Despite having just ridden up an especially steep and rock-strewn section of the Marsh Trail, 26-year-old Brad Cole, formerly an elite competitive mountain bike racer, did not seem to have broken a sweat.
The climb took more of a toll on his riding partner, who was much newer to the sport. “That wasn’t exactly fun,” she said. “I wish I had an e-bike sometimes.”
Thus did she join a debate taking place in parks throughout Sonoma County, especially in Trione-Annadel, with a network of fire roads and challenging, technical trails — Cole used the word “gnarly” — that draws mountain bikers from all over the North Bay.
Those velo-pilgrims have included, in recent years, increasing numbers of e-bikers — riders on bikes equipped with discrete electric motors providing assistance when it is necessary. And sometimes, Cole noted, when it is not.
If a cyclist is older, or dealing with an injury, then by all means they should hop on an e-bike, he believes. But the purist in him can’t help chafing just a bit at the sight of “people on a $12,000 e-bike — 35-year-old dentists and lawyers, that don’t necessarily need them.”
E-bikes are here to stay. After 3.7 million of them were sold worldwide in 2019, industry experts predict sales of 10 million per year, as early as 2024.
That trend has long since found its way to Sonoma County, where riders of eMTBS —electric mountain bikes — have been flocking to Annadel in ever larger numbers, upsetting a vocal segment of park users who resent their presence, and point out that it is illegal in state parks.
“E-bikes have become an epidemic” in local parks, charged a local man, who provided only his initials, J.C. He recounted seeing eight such “scofflaws” while out for a run earlier this summer.
Jared Hoffman recalls riding in Annadel on a recent weekend when he encountered “maybe 20 riders or so” — at least 15 of them on e-bikes.
Hoffman, 43, has been riding mountain bikes for more than half his life. E-bikers, in his view, tend to be newer riders with a looser grasp of trail etiquette — powering up trails long used by Annadel riders mainly for descending, for instance — and can be a danger to themselves and others. He also believes that e-bikes, whose motors can make them 20 to 25 pounds heavier than un-electrified rigs, are tougher on trails, widening and “degrading” them, a claim unsupported by most studies and disputed by e-bike advocates.
The strongest argument against e-bikers in Annadel is that it’s illegal for them to be there.
Lack of enforcement
In California state parks, such as Annadel, Class 1 e-bikes — which provide assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and stop helping when the bike reaches 20 mph — are allowed wherever regular bikes are permitted, unless otherwise posted. Those last three words are key: while e-bikes are allowed on Channel Drive, they are not permitted in Annadel’s dirt trails and fire roads, confirms Alexis Jones, the park’s supervising ranger.
While that rule exists, there is virtually no enforcement of it. Trione-Annadel has just a handful of rangers to patrol 5,500 acres. The few rangers who are in the park seem less concerned with e-bikes in particular than they are with mountain bikers, motorized or not, carving out illegal new trails. When rangers put up signs, marking those trails closed, said one of them working on a recent afternoon, those signs are often promptly removed.
“People would call me and say, ‘Hey, I’m earning it, using muscles, and these guys on e-bikes are jamming past me going uphill, and it’s not fair,” recalls Neill Fogarty, who preceded Jones as Annadel’s supervising ranger before his recent retirement.
“Then I’d have someone call saying, ‘I’m in my 60s now, and my e-bike gets me to parts of the park my muscles can’t anymore.’
“I can see both sides.”
The decision to exclude e-bikers from Annadel’s trails was made above Jones and Fogarty’s heads. “It really is about resource protection,” said Maria Mowrey, superintendent of the California State Parks Bay Area District. “We have to balance natural and cultural resources with recreation. And sometimes we have to make tough decisions about that.”
However toothless it is, the decision to ban e-bikes from Annadel isn’t likely to be reversed anytime soon, she added. “We’re just rolling this policy out now.”
A lot of people love Trione-Annadel, said Fogarty, mentioning hikers and equestrians, “and they love it in different ways. It isn’t just a mountain biking park. It’s also a wildlife habitat and home to plant communities.”