Last updated 4/5/2022 at Noon
I called Ian Reid, Sisters District Ranger for the Deschutes National Forest, to turn myself in. By Uncle Sam’s rules I am a scofflaw. Apparently I am in large company as more and more of us old e-bikers are cruising the Deschutes NF trails blissfully ignoring the 2015 rules that establish that bikes with a battery (hence a motor) are only allowed on Forest Service roads designated for motorized vehicles, and not the more scenic and quieter single-track trails used by hikers and non-battery bikes.
In fairness, the Forest Service has 60,000 miles of motorized trails, 38 percent of all the trails they manage. That includes hundreds of miles in the Deschutes. As long as you are willing to share them with high-powered, noisy ATVs, RVs, camper trailers, motor bikes, mud-boggers, and an array of service vehicles. What could go wrong?
I didn’t know I was a scofflaw until the Sisters Trails Alliance (STA) added a marker to the trailheads on the hugely popular Peterson Ridge System. The emblems are clear and are meant to be a deterrence to me and hundreds of others who have a battery assisted bike — even as in my case. I rarely ever use the battery, only needing it to get up, say, Barclay Drive to Wild Horse Ridge, or those last few miles of Highway 242 to Dee Wright.
A quick lesson on e-bikes: The vast majority (like mine) are pedal-assisted, meaning if you aren’t pedaling, the battery will do nothing. They are popular among older riders like yours truly, or riders with disabilities to let them enjoy the great outdoors in pursuit of a healthy activity. That was once considered admirable.
Now it’s like the Hatfields and McCoys out there. Avid hiker Wendy Vermillion of Sisters typifies one side of the argument, saying publicly: “Finally, because we are 77 and 80 (her husband), have worked with the Sisters Trail Alliance to build and maintain trails for many years, we do not buy the ‘poor me I’m old’ rationale. There are hundreds of trails to fit all ilks in our Central Oregon, paved, dirt, gravel, level, or hilly, some of which already specify or limit horses, bikes, or hikers for safety factors.”
Mike Zapp of Bend, another septuagenarian, from Bend, has a different public stance than Wendy, saying: “What part of ‘public lands’ do these elitists not get? Just like gears make pedaling easier, e-bikes do the same for riders. E-bikes make it possible and give a person the same pleasures as anyone wanting to get out and enjoy nature. To deprive a person of this pursuit defines discrimination! E-bikes are considered the same as bikes under Oregon state law 814.405 and 801.258. E-bikes are OK in our state park trails.”
Mike Armstrong of Sisters has put in — and still does — hundreds of volunteer hours for STA. He too is north of 70 but doesn’t see the problem, imagining that in the future he will own an e-bike. For Armstrong and me, it’s a matter of speed and courtesy, not the type of bike.
According to Mountain Bike Report, a leading blogger for such enthusiasts, a pedal-only mountain bike can hit 38.5 mph on flat roads. However in a test of 13 riders on a single-track, rolling hills ride, average speed was only 9.71 mph; eight riders hit an average of 44.8 mph downhill, one hitting 55!
Bike to Work Today just last week said this: “An average electric bike can be as fast as 20 mph. However, electric bikes can only go as fast as 28 mph and do not go more than this figure. Even the most powerful electric bikes will only limit the motor to 28 mph.”
Space does not permit a tutorial on Class 1, Class 2, and Class 3 electric bikes. What many, including Armstrong and me, think is reasonable is for the Forest Service to allow Class 1, pedal-assist bikes, to go where others go and keep throttle-assist or fully e-powered bikes limited to sharing on roads classed for motorized vehicles.
Rick Retzman is board chair of STA and a tireless advocate and workhorse for the Alliance. He wants it made clear that “STA is all about education, and is not the trail police.” The practical matter is, nobody has been cited (ticketed) for e-bikes on Sisters trails and isn’t likely to be anytime soon. He is starting to hear more complaints, however, like Vermillion’s, and thus the additional signage.
The impetus, Retzman says, is the growing hostility between the riding factions in Bend, where e-bike prohibition signs have been commonplace and loudly ignored especially on the wildly popular Phil’s Trail.
“We’re getting a lot of Bend riders coming to Sisters thinking e-bikes are okay here, not knowing it’s the same forest, same rules.” Retzman said. “The signs were needed so we don’t give conflicting signals.”