Bay Area Outdoors: Riding the electric mountain bike revolution
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Bay Area Outdoors: Riding the electric mountain bike revolution

Nov 21, 2023

A correction to an earlier version of this article has been appended to the end of the article.

At the height of the pandemic, I yearned, like most folks, to get outdoors for some much needed fresh air. I’ve always loved to mountain bike, and I’ve ridden my knobby-tired steed for decades on the dirt trails of Marin County, considered by many the birthplace of mountain biking. But as lockdown claustrophobia set in, I realized that my bike was well-used and in need of an upgrade — a really good upgrade — and my knees were feeling a bit tired and knobby themselves. So I took the plunge and went electric. Then I hit the trails once more — and how.

There are many places to ride in Marin, but I tend to gravitate to two spots: scenic, bayside China Camp State Park and the wide-open terrain of the Marin Headlands in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Why here? Besides the obvious — natural beauty, heart-stopping vistas and tempting trails — these local parks allow my new type of ride: an electric, pedal-assist mountain bike or e-MTB, which I think is the best bike ever invented.

The best thing about mine — a svelte, clay-gray Specialized Turbo Levo — is how it can whisk me almost effortlessly uphill over rugged, rocky terrain. The boost is made possible by a small electric motor, deftly hidden in the bike's bottom bracket, which activates only when pedaling. It quietly generates an invisible force, a sort of phantom tailwind powered by a small, 700-watt battery, also hidden in the frame.

The effect of pedal assist is magical — like a Disney ride with a bit of cardio thrown in. Better yet, the bike's ability to amplify my pedaling power up to four times allows me to immerse myself in the scenery and in nature without straining my lungs and legs — much appreciated for an older rider like me. The downhill ride is familiar fun: full suspension hits, twists and turns powered almost entirely by gravity, just like my old "analog" mountain bike, which is now gathering dust in the garage.

There's no better place than San Rafael's China Camp to experience the astonishing abilities of these bikes, which, as you may have gathered by now, are not necessarily welcome everywhere. (More on that in a bit.) The park offers 15 miles of sweet single and double track trails, perfect for beginner and intermediate riders. The main biking route starts with the wide-open double track dirt trails of the Shoreline trail, which traverses the park's lowest elevation along the bird-rich estuaries of San Pablo Bay. The Bay View trail provides a gradual climb through lush, grassy meadows filled with spring wildflowers to the Oak Ridge Trail and into the shady forests of coast oak, madrone and aromatic California bay laurel of Point San Pedro. It's a loop ride that never gets old.

The Marin Headlands is the stunningly beautiful expanse that gives West Marin those Pacific views, from Fort Baker and the Point Bonita Lighthouse to Fort Cronkhite and the clifftop batteries, or what the National Park Service calls "Homeland Security of the 1930s." Those bristling coastal artillery bunkers are empty now, of course, but you can climb inside the ghostly structures and imagine what it must have been like to be stationed there during World War II.

The Marin Headlands allows e-MTBs on all roads, dirt and paved, where bikes are currently allowed. My favorite loop route, perfect for intermediate level riders, starts in Rodeo Valley near Rodeo Lagoon and follows the Miwok fire road to the Old Springs single track rail (check out the spring gushing out of a pipe early in the ride), then descends to Tennessee Valley (walk your bikes past the horse stables), then ascends the Marincello fire road back to Rodeo Valley via the Bobcat fire road. Want something more intrepid? The Coyote Ridge and Dias Ridge trails offer even more challenges.

Something else you’ll likely find along these trails: More cyclists astride electric rides. These bikes have gone mainstream, and the market for e-MTBs is booming. Joe Buckley, a lead e-bike developer at Morgan Hill-based Specialized Bicycles, calls them "a natural evolution of the current mountain bike." The ride, he says, "delivers an experience that mimics the handling and feeling of a traditional bike — except now you have superhero legs."

Superhero legs? Sure, why not? My dual suspension (front and rear wheels), aluminum frame e-MTB rides like a mountain goat, thanks to geometry based on the highly successful Stumpjumper mountain bike. E-mountain bikes have been a godsend for older riders whose legs suddenly feel like they are 20 years stronger, providing a new lease on their biking lives. And young, sporty cyclists are riding e-mountain bikes to tackle long, challenging rides more frequently and further into the outdoors.

One major issue that swirls around this relatively new sport is access to dirt roads and trails. Regulations vary widely and change constantly, as more and more riders appear on the scene. In a nutshell, access depends on the type of bike you have, the type of trail you’re contemplating and the entity that oversees it.

My bike is considered a Class 1 e-bike: The motor only assists when the rider is pedaling and stops with the superhero augmentation when the bicycle reaches a speed of 20 miles per hour. This is the type of e-bike most commonly approved for use on dirt as well as paved public trails and roads.

Class 2 e-bikes have throttle-assisted motors that can propel the bicycle without pedaling and that cease to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches 20 mph. And Class 3 e-bike motors provide assistance only when the rider is pedaling but stop when the bicycle reaches 28 mph.

At present, Class 1 e-mountain bikes are allowed in most national parks on dirt and paved roads where bikes are allowed. The Forest Service is still working on its policies but leaning toward wider access for e-mountain bikes. Meanwhile, public lands in the hands of the Bureau of Land Management offer a number of opportunities, including off-highway vehicle areas and motorized trails. E-bikes are allowed on trails limited to bicycles and non-motorized travel only if a BLM manager has issued a written decision authorizing e-bike use. Check the websites of individual state, regional and local parks and other public lands for their specific rules. As with traditional bicycles, e-bikes are not allowed in wilderness areas.

In Sonoma County, Trione-Annadel State Park allows e-MTBs on its paved roads only.

On the Santa Cruz coast, Wilder Ranch State Park has become a magnet for e-mountain biking, with trails and dirt roads along the coast and into the redwood forests. Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park and the Forest of Nisene Marks State Park in the Santa Cruz mountains and the more urban DeLaveaga Park are top choices for e-MTB enthusiasts, too.

In the South Bay, Almaden Quicksilver, Joseph D. Grant Ranch and other Santa Clara county parks have numerous trails open to Class 1 e-bikes. Henry Coe State Park is also popular for e-mountain biking.

Once you’ve been bit by the e-MTB bug, you’ll want to hit the dirt every day, guaranteed.

The International Mountain Bicycling Association offers current information on e-mountain bike access. Find a map of great e-bike routes at People for Bikes or try, which has filters for finding e-mountain bike-legal trails. And California State Parks maintains a web page dedicated to parks that welcome e-bikes

Correction: March 13, 2023. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Sonoma County's Trione-Annadel State Park allows e-MTBs on its trails. This park allows electric mountain bikes only on paved roads.

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