Specialized & the E-Bike Dilemma (unabridged)

Date Dec 21, 2016

The darkness that dwells within many mountain bikers, exposed by the e-bike question, has parallels to the recent U.S. Presidential race. While I agree that there are some legitimate concerns about these bikes and that we should proceed with caution to avoid undoing all the hard work that has allowed mountain bikers to legally ride trails all over the world, there are those whose opposition to e-bikes exists independent of rationale.

Forgive me, but I’m using Donald Trump* as an example. When The Donald revealed that he is a philandering opportunist who forces himself on women, grabbing their genitals without consent, this information failed to dissuade even evangelicals from supporting him. In a similar way, if you talk to some of those who are vehemently opposed to e-bikes, there is nothing you can say to talk them down. So I am aware that the information about what Specialized is doing to clarify access for e-bikes will be meaningless to many.

Some of us who have been involved in mountain biking for a long time have heard echoes of this opposition before. Suspension was going to ruin trails and threaten access, as were disc brakes. And then DH bikes and shuttling. E-bikes, with their motors, are absolutely different beasts and there is more reason to tread carefully, but I continue to view much of the hysteria as overblown.

Clearly Specialized has a profit motive for establishing access for these bikes, but they have an even larger profit preservation motive for ensuring mountain bikers continue to have access to trails in North America, where the biggest concerns exist. To imperil this would be a business disaster.

In my commentary about this issue, I suggested that if Specialized was putting marketing ahead of access clarity it could spell serious trouble for local riding advocates and land managers who will be forced to make decisions on e-bikes after they have already arrived in numbers. So the company is in a bit of a pickle. They have product and have started a savvy marketing effort, but without clear lines drawn they are pushing something that may have nowhere to go. In response to this, I had a phone conversation with Sam Benedict, the Mountain Brand Manager for Specialized, to hear what efforts the company is putting toward capping this well before it explodes.

Cam McRae – In our comments it was suggested that Specialized has tried to offload advocacy responsibilities onto local dealers. How have you been working with dealers to help them negotiate this terrain?

Sam Benedict – My view is, it’s a great question, it really is a global unique effort. Depending on where you are in the world this has varying degrees of complexity to it. The western hemisphere, actually mostly in the United States, is where we face the most rules and push back. We take that really seriously. I would say above all else before you get into the details, is we’ve been very very clear with our retailers and our riders and really anybody that’s kind of looking into this is …

they have a name for guys like this…………. sellout whores -stacykohut on pinkbike.com

This is new for North America. People don’t understand this entirely and that’s okay. This is going to surprise people and that’s okay. But above all else, the same as with your normal mountain bike, if it’s not legal to ride this bike, this bike being your mountain bike or your pedal assist, your electric mountain bike, then don’t go there. Ride somewhere else. We’ve actually … we’ve said that in our presentations. We’ve written that in our letters. They’re on our education videos. The responsibility falls to us, the retailers and the riders. All of us. That’s probably the biggest message.

People are like, the rules aren’t in place. People can still break these laws. Yes, you’re right. At the same time, you should be very used to this in your normal day to day life. You probably have a car that can go 100 miles an hour. That’s probably not legal, yet you follow those rules. You have a knife to butter your toast. You could stab somebody, but you follow that rule as well.

I think it’s kind of a slightly newer development that we just ask people to go above and beyond and really understand the rules and regulations to make sure that they follow laws. Then, following that, the rules and regulations are a little murky. We ask that before you go ride somewhere either you can call, you can check, you can look online, talk to a ranger or something like that and look for those rules. Then we’re working with the advocacy groups to help establish those rules.

It comes down to identification and classification. If you don’t know what you’re on I think it’s harder to know where you can go. Getting the word out on those, which takes time and patience. Like I said, this is a new thing.

Cam McRae – So to be clear, when you set up a dealer who is going to sell Levo you communicate them specifically about how you would like them to address this issue with consumers who purchase the bikes?

Sam Benedict – Yes. We encourage them, ask them, you can’t really force them, to have those conversations. We ask them to highlight areas in the riding areas, within their normal distance that people ride. The bikes, with future laws, will have to be stickered as Type 1 e-bikes. That should help having those conversations. But, yes we ask that they make sure that those rules are known.

CM –  Type 1 e-bike is a pedelec that’s speed restricted and power restricted?

Sam Benedict – Correct, yes. For North America, specifically in California and a few other states that have passed this law, that’s twenty miles an hour under a certain wattage. I always get confused between U.S. and C.E. One’s 250 watts, one’s 350 watts, either way we’re good. Then it has to have a speed sensor built in as well.

CM –  I thought the max wattage output of the Levo was 530?

SB – That’s correct. The maximum output of the motor, but, it’s kind of funny that they use the same terminology. A 250 watt motor that can put out 530 watts is kind of funny. There’s a nominal size of the motor that has to be restricted. It’s like saying that your car has to be five liters or less. You can’t have a seven liter V8 or something like that. It does not have to do with how much power.

CM – Okay, so it’s equivalent to displacement for an internal combustion engine?

SB – Precisely.

CM –  There’s a motivation for every company who’s producing e-mountain bikes to have more access and more clarity about access. With that in mind, do you have an internal goal for the kind of access you would like to see, and the places where you would like to have these bikes given access?

SB – That’s an interesting one. I wouldn’t say there’s a number or a set square mileage. What we have been working with is with IMBA and People for Bikes, BPSA, is really on that point I was talking about before, identification and classification. As well as understanding. My personal opinion doesn’t really matter. What we want trails to do is to… trail builders and governments, is to take these bikes and really understand them a little bit more. We’re trying to help in that process. Then for them to make a decision. That’s really step one.

I spoke to this lovely woman from a trail crew up in Washington and she was upset about, “I think the bikes should be like this. Or e-bikes should only be allowed on motorized use or for trails that have been designed for e-bikes.” I’m like, that’s fine. At least a decision is being made. What we don’t want, what is not the goal, is for people just to go, “I don’t know.” and to put up No Motorized Vehicles signs. That is way too vague and most people they buy these bikes, for whatever their motivation is, is they don’t consider these a motorized bike. I know that that’s controversial to some people, but it is wildly different from a motorcycle.

Our biggest goal is just for people to understand a little bit more and then to make decisions on that and then the trail building will follow in the future as more of these bikes naturally just come into the world the trails will just follow along. I think we’ll come to a happy place in the future. No set goal in terms of we’ve got to have 300 kilometers of trails in the next four months. It’s mostly just understanding and get people to see the other side.

They are Specialized shills. Specialized is pushing all there dealers/riders/employees to sell these lame ass things. It’s all about $$$.- user OnTheRivet on pinkbike.com

CM – All right. It’s sounds like then there are some differences between the position Specialized is taking and the position IMBA has taken**. How does that fit in with your membership of IMBA and your support of IMBA when you are at odds about this issue?

SB – It’s spirited conversations but It’s not like we go, “We’re only going to pay you our dues if you’re okay, if you green light this.” No, we don’t work that way. We’re still a big supporter of IMBA and what they do.

I personally, have sat on their e-bike panel for the last two world summits. Having conversations with Aaron their new president or CEO or whatever his title is. In working with them to show that this is our belief and position and we want to have this back and forth with you guys. It’s good that they didn’t agree and have a difference of option at first because it makes us realize what we may or may not have thought about. Just really helps strengthen the whole thing.

I think the biggest part of it, there’s no hidden agenda, there’s no evil plan behind all this stuff. We believe that these are mountain bikes to get more people out there on the mountain bike trails. It’s as simple as that. We’re not trying to destroy trails. That would be freaking stupid. If we kill those trails that kills a much much bigger part of the business. That makes absolutely zero sense. We know people are upset but we aren’t doing this because … trust me we can do that on our own. We don’t need to make these bikes to do that.

CM – Another question that came from one of our commentors, was relating to the fact that theses bikes, while they are governed when they come from you, that it’s not generally a difficult thing to override those components. And that it’s essentially a plug and play kind of situation. What do you have to say about that?

SB – Well one, you need the diagnostic tool as well as the software in order to change the settings on the bike, so it’s really not that easy. We pretty much hold the key on that one. The bikes are built for Europe or they’re built for a U.S. market, so it’s not that easy to change.

Secondarily, even if you do unlock the bike, it’s not like holy shit you hit the goldmine of untapped power and resource. The bikes aren’t that much faster. Even if you do get in there, most people wouldn’t even notice the difference. It’s not like, “Whoa, what’s going on here?” It’s just not so unfortunately. Most people want to think that.

CM – I guess the main thing you’d notice is the lack of the speed limit.

SB – Yeah, the only thing. You’re not going to notice any difference on any kind of legit climb because you’re not going to be going that fast anyways. You’re not going to notice any difference on a downhill because, above twenty miles an hour you’re probably not pedaling anyways. It’s just on your traverses you kind of add a small, let’s call it one percent, slightly downhill and you were pedaling into the trail or on a fire road or something like that. The motor is going to cut out on you at twenty miles an hour and you would still have assistance at like twenty-two or twenty-three. It’s not that big of a difference.

CM – Do you have a model that you have seen where e-bikes and human-powered mountain bikes are being used on the same trails without any conflict?

SB – A lot of the European markets this is normal. We didn’t make these because we just were bored and had nothing to do. A lot of it came from demand, screaming demand, from the retailers and consumers in Europe. These are just bikes for them over there and the fact that we didn’t have them was detrimental to the business. And then the riders that expected Specialized to have what they would consider we could do. A really fun mountain bike-like e-bike the way that we had done it before.

As we’re seeing more and more in the states as people are coming around to this and okay with it is … There’s a group of guys and they’re riding and one of the guys that was in the group and he got injured or he had kids or whatever, whatever the reason was he doesn’t have the fitness or the ability or time to ride as much, and he can’t keep up with the group. All of the sudden his buddies are gone and he’s bummed. He doesn’t have fun riding because, we kind of think of mountain biking as an individual sport, but it’s pretty rare to go riding by yourself. So that group mentality was huge. For people to be able to stay with the group is, I think, really where you’re seeing some of those walls break down.

On a personal note, my father is sixty-nine years old, grew up riding Enduro motor-cross and really enjoys mountain biking. But, he’s not so fit, he’s had a couple of real bad accidents and we couldn’t really ride bikes together anymore. But now we go on what we call a steamboat ride. I ride my Stumpjumper he rides a Levo and you know I’ve got to work a little bit harder to keep up on the uphills, but it’s time with me dad I didn’t get to share with him before. Those small times together are I think where you’re starting to see people just go like, you know, it’s just a bike. We’re just out here having fun and there’s no evil here.

CM – How about in terms of advocacy on this side of the Atlantic? Is there a North American model where there has been clear lines drawn about where these bikes can go and a differentiation between these and mountain bikes and motorcycles? Is there somewhere that’s figured that out yet?

SB – You know I haven’t, I don’t have a great example of that. Really what I want to see, I want to ride into Demo Forest over here in Santa Cruz but it has been pretty firm like, no motorized vehicles. I’ve spoken with them about it. I’m like, that is not a sufficient sign. I’m not arguing with you. I’m just letting you know that people that buy these sort of bikes don’t think they’re on a motorized vehicle. But what I want them to see and what we’ve offered to help people with, as the new laws go into effect in just a couple weeks time, is I want to see signs that say, mountain bikers green light, type 1 e-bikes green light, type 2 e-bikes red X, motorcycles red X or red X over the type 1 e-bikes. We want to see more of those things.

Actually, where we did one of our events in Moab, I think they’ve kind of embraced this a little bit. They said no e-bikes on mountain bike trails, but you can ride them on the motorized vehicle trails, and there are tons of them. They’ve kind of been okay with that too. I think we’re kind of coming to a crest of that signage and that’s helping with identifying and classifying these bikes. That’s where we’ll see some wins. Beyond that you’re starting to see… there’s the e-bike race at Sea Otter. They did it at the Kamikaze games. That was Troy Lee. We sent him a Levo. He was over the moon. He was like, yeah you gotta have one of these e-bike races, they’re so much fun. Those small wins I think will kind of add up. Once we get to that identifying I think we’ll come a long ways.

CM – We kind of touched on this earlier, but what would you say that the long term goals are for Specialized and e-bikes?

SB – Our goals are pretty simple. We want to give people rad bikes to ride on and enjoy the outdoors. Whether that’s on a pedal assist, an electric mountain bike or a regular mountain bike, I don’t think that we really have an opinion on which one we prefer you to ride. We just want people to ride together safely and enjoy the trails and the outdoors. That’s just a real simple goal.

What we’re trying to figure out is what is the best tool. We’ve always developed … We’ve tried to make mountain bikes that are more fun to ride, that are better handling and safer, because that just puts a bigger smile on your face. E-bikes are no different. We’re just trying to figure out how to make them handle better. How to make them more fun to ride. At the end of the day, if you’re having a good time riding a mountain bike then that’s what we’re looking for. We’re not really sure what the split in traditional mountain bikes and e-bikes will be, but we’re happy to be in the game with both of them and trying to figure it out.

CM – I’m curious about the sort of information you’ve compiled about the people who are buying these bikes. Where do you think most of the purchasers sit on the spectrum?

SB – We know that in Europe the initial purchasers were more of the tourist. They wanted to get out over the mountains and they couldn’t really get their bikes there. But we’ve seen a really dramatic shift just in the last couple of years of normal, what you and I would consider a normal mountain biker. Someone who appreciates geometry and suspension and handling. We’ve seen a big increase in this younger crowd, this more traditional mountain bike crowd. Not as their only bike but as an additional bike to the quiver, because, whether you’re kind of tired and you’re blown off from another big ride that you did or you only have certain number of time but you want to get an extra drop in, cause you can get up to the top of the hill a little bit quicker. We’re starting to see that group of riders increase, especially on Europe.

It’s kind of funny, on this hemisphere I think that that rider has been introduced to the pedal assist bike much earlier, whereas in Europe it kind of took some time. Now it’s like, all those riders, whether you’re injured, you’re older or you’re just looking for another type of bike to ride, those guys are all being introduced to this bike at the same time. It’s hard to say what the percentages are, but definitely in Europe you’d see the type of people that needed the bike first and the people that wanted them later. Here you’re kind of seeing them all coalesce at the same time.

CM – The level of mistrust and vitriol about these bikes on the web is really intense.

SB – That’s crazy right?

CM – And there’s certain to be some backlash. How does Specialized, as a company, continue to create an image that reflects the company’s heritage as a core brand and reflects the soul of mountain biking, while at the same time producing a bike that many users say is simply a motorbike in mountain bike clothing?

SB – I think the biggest thing is we’ve always been at the heart of mountain biking. It’s always been part of our history and start. But we’ve also been a brand that’s pushed the limits across what people thought was possible and what they thought was appropriate.

Cam you’ve been doing this a long time. Remember when forks and rear suspension were the devil that was going to ruin racing and was going to ruin trails? People were going to be going too fast. Remember when disc brakes were the devil?

These were going to ruin mountain biking and the trails were going to get torn up because people could stop too fast. Remember when the twenty-niner and the 650B came out and these were evil things. “Oh my God, I can’t believe these guys are making this thing?”

Like I said, there’s no hidden agenda. There’s not evil here. If we thought these things were going to wreck mountain biking and they were going to wreck trails then we wouldn’t have made them. I think that people are upset and I appreciate that. I know why they’re upset. We’ve talked to so many of them, but we just ask that, we’ve been here for a long time. We’ve made a lot of great bikes, whether you like them or not, you’ve got to admit that we’ve been in this for the long haul. We’ve supported trail builders. We’ve supported the advocacy side. We put a lot of dollars into that along with the retail network. We just ask for a little bit of time and understanding around these bikes. And just to trust.

We’re not trying to make KTMs or Hondas or motorcycles and things like that. We’re just trying to get people out there to enjoy mountain biking. We think that this is a pretty cool way to do it. If you think it’s a motorcycle you haven’t ridden one and you don’t understand it. That’s just the short truth of it. If you do get a chance to ride one I’d really challenge you to not think, “Well that was pretty fun. I think I’m okay with it now.”

Love all the sheep on here that have changed their tune on eBikes now that a bunch of their freeride heroes have been paid to ride one. When it was a fat rich guy with a “disability” riding one it wasn’t so cool. You people are the lowest of the low. – user wibblywobbly on pinkbike.com

CM -I don’t think it answers the advocacy questions, because there are unknowns there, but I agree with you that once you spend some time on one, calling it a motorcycle is really kind of silly.

SB – We helped fund the research that IMBA did on trail impact***. We paid for that study. It was a third party study and we wanted to know too. Do these things hurt the trail more than regular bikes versus a motorcycle? When you read that, you’re kind of like, it’s kind of your arguments kind of fall apart on motorcycle verses bicycle.

CM – The two videos I’ve seen that have been put up with athletes have been the Matt Hunter one and the Coastal Crew one. Have you done videos with other athletes?

SB – We just sent the bikes to pretty much all of our guys. Curtis, Dylan, Loic, Troy, all the guys. And we said, “You don’t have to make a video. You don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is try it and just let us know what you think.” There’s no contract saying, must ride these things. And so they’ve all been, not all of them, some of them have done like short Instagram clips and just some bit with them riding. Loic and Loris did one doing some jumps.

CM – It almost seems from my side that it’s targeted riders who are very well respected and considered core and sort of the pure mountain bikers.

SB – Yeah, absolutely.

CM – So that is a deliberate strategy?

SB – Oh yeah, absolutely. As we’ve said a lot of the early versions of e-mountain bikes to us were kind of paving the way of getting new things out there. But, nobody had really made a mountain bike with pedal assist built into it. It’s a funny kind of twist on it. We made a mountain bike that can give you a little more juice. Nobody else had really done that. That means that our bike is fun to ride and feels like a mountain bike. When you’re down-hilling it, other than it being kind of heavy, it just feels like a mountain bike. When you’re riding it it should just feel like a more powerful version of you. We wanted that to be very clear.

We did not want people to believe that this is only for the old and injured. This is for mountain bikers. Whether or not you want to ride it is up to you. We didn’t want to shy away from the fact that you could have a freaking good time, whatever that means to you, jumps, gnarly corners and steeps and things like that. We wanted to build a mountain bike. The guys that we asked to ride these, if they would be okay with this, we wanted them to reflect that. This is for the hardest core guys out there. The bikes can handle it. That hasn’t been done before.

CM – Definitely not. The rumour mill suggests that Matt Hunter was a little reluctant to do the video.

SB Oh yeah, he was totally reluctant, yeah. So were Curtis and Dylan. What that could kind of do to them in the public spotlight. You saw the Pinkbike comments. You saw people just like, you know, vehemently opposed and really upset at their idols. I think I’ll just restate, there’s no hidden agenda, there’s no evil. We sent Matt a bike. I called Matt myself and I said, “Matt I’m sending you a bike. You don’t have to like it. You don’t have to do anything with it. I’m not asking you to make a video. I’m just asking you to try it, just open your mind up a little bit, and just let me know what you think.” After he did that he was happy to make the video. We did not force that.

The same with the Coastal Boys. It was, “What do you guys think?” We didn’t force them to do any of this. They could have just gone on their merry way being awesome with their normal stuff. I think the people; Matt, Dylan, Curtis, are realizing that there’s people who just don’t really fully understand this and they might have to take a few shots, but they believe as we do that this could be good for people.

CM – When and where do you ride a Levo?

SB – Me? I don’t. I currently don’t ride any mountain bike because of my injury. Before, to be honest, I would really only ride them when we would go somewhere. We would go to Moab, I rode it. When we went to Italy, I rode it. When I’ve gone to a couple other countries in Europe, Switzerland, it’s there. Around here in my home where I normally ride there’s not a lot of legal places. I usually ride a Stumpjumper around here.

We’ll see as the rules are changing around here and the rangers are coming around to them. We’ve worked with one of our local parks here where it’s technically illegal, but the rangers are like, we’ve shown them the bikes, we’ve explained it to them, and they’re like, okay, no problem. I look forward to riding there when I can get back on a mountain bike. It’s changed that much in just four months time.

CM – I have a sense that the kind of backlash there is from mountain bikers is not going to exist in the same way with the general public or with land managers.

SB – The land managers’ biggest concern is making sure that it is extremely clear that motorcycles are excluded, in the way that we use the term motorcycle, like a KTM 250. They do not want that line to be blurred because it’s slippery slope for them. We can appreciate that. That’s why it’s a pretty firm line. So that’s where we’re at with land managers. I think that fundamentally they’re okay with the bike itself, but they just need to be extremely careful because there are very very strict rules about gasoline powered bikes. They don’t want to lose whatever ground they’ve made.

CM – Thanks for your time Sam.

There was a point made in the study, commissioned by IMBA and paid for by Specialized, that should ring true for many mountain bikers; “Mountain bicyclists know acutely the experience of arbitrary decision-making based upon anecdotal observations of user behaviors and environmental impacts.”  It may be that in the end we decide that, for the preservation of hard-won access, these bikes need to stay off mountain bike trails, but it seems to me that those who have already made that decision are guilty of the same sort of knee-jerk reaction mountain bikers are subjected to from some environmentalists and hikers who wish to restrict our access.

From my perspective it would be great if we knew that there would be no e-bikes in our future, but that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. Hopefully, to ease the divisions in our ranks, the conversations we have about these contraptions from the future can be pulled back from their current level of hostility so we can approach this with from a more unifiied and logical perspective.

*For me Donald Trump provides a more crisp comparison, but I’m sure a Hillary supporter could make this point from some moment in her campaign.

**IMBA objects to land management practices and principles that address  mountain biking and motorized uses as a single class. Mountain biking  involves a spectrum of riding styles with a narrow band of environmental  impacts that are similar to hiking and equestrian uses. When classification is necessary, mountain biking should be part of the nonHmotorized class.

*** “This study found that the impacts from Class 1 eMTBs and traditional mountain bicycles were not significantly different, while motorcycles led to much greater soil displacement and erosion. Observations suggest that Class 1 eMTBs may lead to more displacement under certain trail conditions. More research is needed before conclusions can be drawn regarding the environmental impacts of Class 1 eMTBs as compared with traditional mountain bicycles.” –   Click here to see the full study.

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