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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.”

An epidemic’

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.”

“The department’s trying to protect that, with meager resources.

“It’s really complex.”

Regional parks to welcome e-bikes

Since 2017, Sonoma County Regional Parks has, like Annadel, forbidden e-bikes on unpaved trails. That “temporary policy,” as Deputy Director Melanie Parker describes it, could soon change.

In a meeting with the Sonoma County Bicycle & Pedestrian Advisory Committee on August 18, Parker signaled her openness to a less restrictive approach. Having spoken with numerous e-bike and trail advocates, she outlined a new policy that she hopes to propose next month to the county’s Parks and Recreation Advisory Committee.

The new policy, if accepted, will allow e-bikes on regional park trails “wherever bikes are allowed, unless otherwise posted,” said Parker.

“Generally, we’re treating e-bikes like regular bikes,” she said.

Such a policy would reduce barriers for people to use the parks, while not damaging the trails. “Most studies show that e-bikes have roughly the same impact on trails as traditional bikes,” said Parker.

“Whether we want to acknowledge it or not,” she added, “e-bikes are on the trails now.”

Epidemic of bruised egos

“That horse has left the barn,” agreed, Ken Wells, trails director of the Redwood Trails Alliance, formed in November when the Sonoma County Trails Council merged with the Redwood Empire Mountain Bike Alliance.

While the new alliance hasn’t yet formed a policy on e-bikes, Wells described Parker’s proposal as “a reasonable approach,” and “pretty much what I was thinking.”

“As far as I’ve been able to see, and the science I’ve seen so far,” said Wells, who has spent decades designing, digging and maintaining trails in the county’s parks, “e-bikes going downhill are no different from a regular bicycle in terms of their trail impact.”

Going uphill, e-bikes don’t have an environmental impact, he said, so much as they have “a people interaction impact.” There are old school riders out there, in other words, who find it galling to be passed by e-bikes. But is this possible epidemic of bruised egos any reason to keep e-bikers off the trails?

Cheater!’

Before Steve Chase passes another rider while climbing a hill on his e-bike, “I slow down on purpose,” said Chase, who’d stepped off his bike in Annadel at the intersection of the Canyon and Marsh trails on a recent weekend. “I don’t want to go by ‘em too fast.”

The first time he ventured into the bike on his e-bike, another rider, a stranger he was passing, called out, “Cheater!”

You don’t know my circumstance, Chase remembers thinking.

He is 54, with a bad knee and a cracked vertebrae in his lower back. “When I’m climbing on a regular bike, the knee hurts, and my back kills me,” he said. His e-bike allows him to ride without pain, to stay out longer and get more exercise.

Chase was riding with Andy Phillips, whose Iymphoma has been in remission for two years. Before his cancer was diagnosed, and before he bought his e-bike, Phillips would often stop on the climbs, during his rides with Chase, in order to throw up.

“On the e-bike,” he noted, cheerfully, “that never happens anymore.”

Despite the old fashioned, unelectrified bike that he rode Annadel on a recent afternoon, David Carbonell staunchly defended ebikes. He is a leukemia survivor and emergency medicine physician who works with the Send It Foundation, which provides outdoor adventures for young adults battling cancer.

Those adventures sometimes include e-bikes, he said. “These are people who struggle to climb a mild hill, just walking.” They’re often anemic, on chemotherapy. “But when I put them on an e-bike, they can ride again. They gain a sense of agency. They love it.”

You’re being selfish’

Shane Bresnyan, co-founder of Trailhouse, the bike shop and brewpub a mile from Annadel, is a beast on the bike. He didn’t need electrical assistance — until he fractured his pelvis in five places in a skiing accident, and couldn’t walk for three months. When he wanted to venture back out on a bicycle, an e-bike allowed him to come back sooner, and faster, than he otherwise would have.

Trailhouse rents and demos e-bikes. Many of those riders end up in Annadel. Many have medical conditions that would prevent them from riding, were it not for e-bikes.

“It brings them health, and joy,” said Bresnyan. To those opposed to ebikes, he said, “You’re not seeing the whole picture. You’re being selfish.”

Back up on the Canyon Trail, Mike Bartlett wasn’t being selfish. He was being realistic. He’s 58, and still riding an old school mountain bike.

“I’m afraid to get an e-bike, because when I do, this thing,” he said, motioning to the trusty steed under him, “will end up sitting in the garage forever.”

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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