E-bikes help cyclists explore steep trails throughout Sonoma County

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Eric McHenry has ridden mountain bikes since he moved to Santa Rosa in 1991, and bought a house three minutes from the entrance to Trione-Annadel State Park. Two or three times a week, he gets on the saddle to face the challenge of riding one of the most beloved, and most punishing, mountain-biking destinations in Northern California.

Last September, McHenry celebrated his 60th birthday, and as he completes his fourth decade as a trail rider he will do so with a little help. To celebrate the birthday milestone, he bought himself a Trek Powerfly FS1, which comes with full suspension, a drop seat, disc brakes — and an electric motor that provides power-assist to his pedals when he needs or wants it.

“It sort of changes one’s whole perspective of riding,” he says of his new bike. “It becomes all fun.”

The e-bike also seems to be good for his health. McHenry says he’s put more than a thousand trail miles on it. “I would never have ridden my old bike that much,” he says, “and so I’m exercising more than I ever would have.”

McHenry hasn’t abandoned his non-electric gravel bike, and, according to the heart-rate monitor on his watch, he gets just as good a workout on the Powerfly. “I just end up going further and faster and climbing steeper hills on my e-bike,” he says.

McHenry’s definitely heard some of his fellow mountain bikers voice concerns about power-assist bikes in parks — in Trione-Annadel they are still classified as motorized vehicles and are only allowed on the paved entrance road known as Channel Drive.

Other biker’s concerns include that they damage trails and that those who ride them are cheating. He gently bats both arguments down.

Pointing out that he has seen studies, such as one performed by the respected International Mountain Bicycling Association, which show that electric-assist mountain bikes do no more damage than their non-motorized counterparts, he says he nevertheless sticks to fire roads. “So that’s a non-issue for me.”

As for the idea that e-bike riders are cheaters, McHenry quotes a friend of his: “When someone says, ‘Hey man, you’re cheating,’ he replies: ‘This is not a race!”

Accelerating acceptance

Kyle Bundesen of Trek Bicycle Santa Rosa says he understands why some riders came out of the gate hating e-MTBs — but he believes whatever controversy they inspired initially is calming down.

“These folks have worked really hard, physically, to get to the point where they’re able to make it to the top of these hills,” he says of his fellow mountain bikers. “And sometimes they get frustrated when someone using [electric] assistance comes flying up. But the only complaints I hear about are guys who are quite aggressive.”

“There’s always going to be that one guy who goes out and ruins it for everybody — the guy who disrespects the trail,” he says. “The number-one thing is being respectful wherever you ride. Just don’t be that guy.”

Bundesen says he is seeing the market for e-bikes expand. While they initially were popular with older riders, the customer base is growing as the product improves.

“I’ve seen customers in their seventies, who’ve had issues that limited them to not being able to ride and now they’re back on their bike,” he says. “I’ve seen a father buying one for his 13-year-old daughter who couldn’t make it to the top of the hill, and now she can do it.

Hunters like them because they can carry a deer — and they’re silent. People are using them to go camping, or packing them on top of their RVs instead of towing cars.

And competitive riders, including Matt Sevenau, 49, are using power-assist MTBs to re-hab following crashes.

“I actually was biased against the whole concept,” Sevenau reports. In fact, he adds, when a friend of his borrowed a couple of e-bikes from the Trail House, he wasn’t even interested. At first.

“But I went ahead and hopped on it, and it was just so much fun I actually started laughing,” he says, adding that he decided to buy one after just a short time on the trail. A few weeks later, he was glad he did.

A rule of thumb among mountain bikers is: It’s not a question of if you’re going to crash, the question is when. For Sevenau it was riding a regular mountain bike down Annadel’s South Burma Trail a year ago.

“I was going pretty fast and kind of floating over rocks,” he says. “I took a hard left, and I just went down really fast.” His leg got pinned between the frame and one of South Burma’s ten million rocks, shredding his MCL. He could not straighten the leg for a week, but in 10 days he was back on the trail on his new Specialized Levo.

“The beauty of it for me was just being able to control the power and how much output I wanted,” he says. “So if I wasn’t feeling good, I would rely on the assist to get me up the hill and over the rocks.”

Within weeks he was back on group rides — his preferred way to enjoy the sport. “The goal was for me to work as hard as I could and keep up with them.”

The rehab plan worked so well that Sevenau sold his Levo and is back on his no-assist bike. “Training on an e bike doesn’t exactly get you into racing shape,” he points out.

Super power

Electric pedal assist does not make single-track mountain biking easy. But for some riders, it makes riding single track possible.

On a recent outing, the Levo, which is Latin for “lift,” provided exactly that to a once-competent rider who now needs it. When pedaling uphill over rocks, the most difficult challenge is keeping the wheels rolling. Battling gravity on a steep trail, that can be a fight — imagine pedaling up and over a curb from a dead stop. In Turbo mode, the Levo made the feat achievable.

Thanks to this technology, and adrenaline, what was intended to be a 30-45 minute ride stretched into three epic hours. As a bonus, not one of the dozen or so unassisted riders who were questioned about the e-MTB controversy had a problem with a gray-haired reporter on an e-bike.

Sam Benedict, GM and marketing manager at Specialized, which is headquartered down in Morgan Hill, says the majority of electric-assist riders are still from “the more life-experienced crowd, if you will — folks looking to extend their ride, or get back to the place where they used to be.”

But the situation is changing fast, he says. Once a skeptic himself, he predicts that a tipping point is approaching.

“When we started to get wind of these electric mountain bikes coming out of Europe, we looked into it a little bit and were like, ‘yeah, that is super stupid,’” he says.

For many years, every electric mountain bike was really an electric road bike that companies slapped MTB components on. Specialized, whose 1991 Stumpjumper was the first production mountain bike, decided to design a mountain bike that could handle a motor and then figure out how to electrify it.

Trek and other MTB manufacturers are also now deep in the game, and the technology is improving rapidly, not to mention that the bikes look less and less like an electric bike and more like a regular bike. Benedict predicts that riders who tried an e-bike a few years ago and decided to take a pass will like the new models.

Benedict also reports that the electric mountain bike is inviting people that are not mountain bikers to try the sport — “you know, quote-unquote, normal people.” He says some retailers are reporting that folks who are afraid of getting lost or stuck somewhere feel safer with the power assist, and once they get in shape they decide they prefer a purer mountain bike.

Eric McHenry says he’s sticking with his Powerfly.

“I go places now I never would have gone,” he says. This includes the steep fire road up Sugarloaf Ridge to Bald Mountain.

“It’s a 1500-foot climb in three miles,” he says. “On an unassisted bike it is no fun at all. I go there all the time now, and wow. Up at the top there’s this beautiful vista. It’s ‘mountain biking,’ sort of, but it’s really about getting to the top of the world whenever you want.”

Electric-assist mountain bikes are not permitted on trails or fire roads in Trione-Annadel State Park. However, Class 1 pedal-assist bikes, with speeds limited to 15 mph, are permitted at Jack London State Historic Park. Neill Fogarty, supervising Ranger for Trione-Annadel, says the California State Parks department is currently reviewing the issue. Sonoma County Regional Parks allows Class 1 pedal-assist bikes on all paved trails, and currently not elsewhere in the parks; the district is working with stakeholders to come up with a new policy by 2020, according to Communications Manager Meda Freeman.

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