Electric bikes are fun, but illegal behind most gates

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Ron Brunk of Glacier Cyclery with a Kona electric bike.

You know what it’s like, the feeling in your legs as you grind up a hill on a bicycle. The burn that never ends.

But with an electric bike, that hill is 10 times easier. Sure, there’s some work involved, but it’s nothing like the old 10-speed. Electric bikes have been around in Europe for several years — most famously, an investigation by 60 Minutes found that several competitors in the Tour de France were found using bikes with electric motors.

But bike shops in the valley started selling them this year and they’ve been pretty popular, said Ron Brunk of Glacier Cyclery.

The electric bikes Glacier Cyclery sells offer pedal assist. They have a small computer module and a variety of assist rates, which provide a variety of pedaling help depending on the setting. There are other models that simply have a throttle — a rider doesn’t have to pedal at all if one doesn’t want to, but Glacier Cyclery doesn’t sell those.

The bikes aren’t cheap — ranging from $2,500 to $3,500. But since they have a motor, they also come with a caveat — they’re illegal on trails and roads that restrict motorized travel.

The Forest Service, back in 2015, ruled that electric bikes were considered motorized, and thus, illegal on non-motorized trails, Flathead National Forest spokeswoman Janette Turk said in an email to the Hungry Horse News.

Forest Service regulations allow for exceptions to the motorized rule for vehicles that operate on a rail and for motorized wheelchairs or other devices that allow locomotion for a “mobility impaired” person.

However, “E-bikes have a motor, thereby are self-propelled and are not covered by the exceptions in the definition. Therefore, e-bikes are motor vehicles and are subject to regulation under the Travel Management Plan.”

Glacier National Park has similar regulations.

“Electric assist bikes, because of their motorized capability, currently fall within the definition of a motor vehicle under regulations which govern all federal public lands. Thus, e-bikes are permitted where motor vehicle travel is permitted, and are prohibited on non-motorized trails and where motor vehicle travel is not allowed,” Park spokeswoman Lauren Alley said in an email to the Hungry Horse News.

The Going-to-the-Sun Road behind the gate, is considered a non-motorized route and thus, e-bikes are not allowed, she noted. The Sun Road is usually open to bikes and hikers in early spring before it opens fully to vehicle traffic.

“Visitors have been warned (and asked to remove their bikes) along the Going-to-the-Sun Road by rangers,” Alley confirmed.

Having said that, the Park is still examining the issue, Alley noted.

“This is new and emerging technology, and certainly numerous public lands are grappling with this expanding use,” Alley said.

She noted that the park had received several inquiries about e-bikes this spring, and is considering more extensive information about e-bikes in advance of next year’s hiker-biker season.

Brunk said the shop has two views on e-bikes. For one, they get people out that normally wouldn’t even try biking a road like the Sun Road, with its steep grade at the higher elevations.

They also make commutes easier. Brunk noted one customer uses an e-bike to ride from Columbia Heights to work in Kalispell. The rider can make the commute in about 35 minutes, without being drenched in sweat when he gets to work.

But there’s also issues with them, Brunk noted. Mountain biking models are quiet and fast uphill. While an e-bike might get a rider up a hill, it takes a certain skill set to get the bike back down the hill, Brunk noted.

He also has concerns about collisions with pedestrians on trails. Pedestrians are looking for bikes coming down a hill, but he relayed a story about a woman on the Whitefish Trail who was hiking and two e-bikes blasted by her coming up the hill.

E-bikes, depending on the model, reach speeds of 20 to 28 mph, even uphill.

The bikes do have some other downsides as well. For one, if the battery dies, a person is pedaling a bike that weighs 55 to 60 pounds. They also have a limited range of 45 to 70 miles, depending on the assist setting.

The pedaling doesn’t recharge the battery — the bike has to be plugged in to recharge.

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