Byway and Bridleway has been involved with mountain bikes, their use, and regulation, from the very early days in the UK (see B&B 1985/2/7, 1991/6/23, and 2006/3/33, among others). Looking back now it seems remarkable how public bodies ‑ and particularly the national parks ‑ regarded the MTB as yet another ‘skateboard passing fad’, and then looked to prohibit them because they were just leg-powered ‘scramblers’ mainly used by undesirables. Yet once the level of use had boomed beyond anything foreseen (by the mid-1990s) there was a quick volte face to ‘we must provide for these worthy citizens.’
Patterns of cycling activity have not remained constant. Mountain biking on rights of way was ousted to a considerable degree by ‘forest parks’ providing graded trails, cafes and loos; the provision of off-motor-road cycle routes increased; and the traditional road bicycle had a resurgence to the point where, from observation, ‘serious’ road cyclists now far outnumber ‘serious’ cross-country mountain bikers.
Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles are not new. Anyone 14 or over can drive one on the highway without the need for a licence, insurance, tax, helmet. To be a qualifying EAPC the machine must not be capable of being driven faster than 15.5mph by the electric power, must be capable of being propelled by the pedals, and have a motor that does not exceeds 250 watts. In the UK (if we understand this correctly) there is no longer a requirement that the pedals must be turned to engage the motor drive.
Electrically assisted mountain bikes (eMTB) have been coming on to the market in recent years, and the big manufacturers like Trek and Specialized are plainly taking this market sector seriously. At the moment the weight of the drive and battery (particularly) make eMTBs not as nimble as ‘proper’ MTBs, but that will change. Even now, colleagues tell us that legal eMTBs are remarkably capable off-tarmac, and greatly extend the ability and range of the machine and rider on most terrain. eMTBs can lawfully be driven where pedal bicycles can be driven: roads, BOATs, restricted byways, bridleways, cycle tracks.
But as regards ‘powerful’ eMTBs, the genie is well and truly out of the bottle. You can go online and find to buy (or make) eMTBs that have much more powerful motors than the legal 250 watt. And these things can go fast.
And a bigger but. That photograph above is of a pair of Bultaco Brinco e-bikes. They have a rolling chassis that is more motorcycle than bicycle, and a 2000 watt motor. The owner of the red one was out in a country park (on a bridleway) with his eight-year old son on the other. He plainly did not really appreciate the legalities of use, but was happy to demonstrate the bikes’ controller system which could regulate it to EAPC speed (but not make it a legal EAPC), or yield the whole 2000 watts and 44 lb-ft of torque (which is a twist not to be sneered at). He said that he had seen 55mph on the speedometer.
These bikes are electrically powered motorcycles. To be used lawfully on the highway they must be registered, taxed, insured, and the rest. With the upcoming changes to ‘single vehicle approvals’, registering one is likely to become difficult if not impossible. And anyway ‑ do you really think that the users of these things will want to bother being tied down by ‘rules’? No, and nor do we.
This is the future. Few people thought that the MTB was more than a short-term craze 30 years ago (we thought it was here to stay). The eMTB is already here and we say that it will become a ‘user sector’ in itself, and not a poor relation to pedal-only MTBs. And then we have these wholly unlawful (on the highway) e-motorcycles which are fast, silent, and extremely capable on rough surfaces. What we don’t have are many, if any, traffic cops to catch the perps.
So while the likes of GLEAM and Peak Horse Power fulminate and agitate about a relatively few petrol powered motorbikes (and 4x4s) on a relatively few BOATs and unsealed roads, legal eMTBs and these illegal e-motorcycles are coming to your bridleways and footpaths soon. And in considerable numbers. This is an issue that we will follow as it evolves.