E-Bikes – The Trailbuilders Tool

It’s the making of a hot summer day with the sun just beginning to rise above the mountain tops. The forest is peaceful and calm with morning dew still settled on the ground moss. You’ve prepared your gear the night before; knowing you have a relatively small window of time to work with and a project site that is not easily accessible. With the contents of your hefty backpack, including a chainsaw, gas, oil, mini-sledge, a quarter box of nails, your trusty Pulaski and mattock, a first aid kit, and carefully planned portions of food and water you are well prepared for the full day of manual labour hidden away on the mountain. The final tool you grab from the garage?… well, it seems that it may just be an e-bike.

Since their advent, mountain bike riders are aware of the debates and discussions surrounding whether e-bikes are okay for trail riding and the potential damage they cause to the trails. Worry not, this read is absolutely not a continuance of these matters. Instead, we explore a different angle, and search for insight from around the world, to see if indeed the e-bike is the new ‘must-have’ tool of the trailbuilders kit.

We start right out of the back of our shop here in Whistler, where it seems that big elevation, steep climbs, and an insatiable demand for riding have clearly led to the adoption of e-bikes by local builders.

“Every core trail builder in the Sea to Sky has and uses an e-bike”

– Seb Kemp, trails director for WORCA

Long time Whistler trail builder and current trails director for WORCA (Whistler Off Road Cycling Association), Seb Kemp argues that the e-bike allows builders to work longer hours on the trail itself and with more energy. With 10 hour days for 4 days a week of digging, one of the benefits Seb has realized is that trail crews might actually have the energy to ride their bikes on their days off.

This spring in support of the WORCA trail crew, Santa Cruz Bicycles donated two Heckler e-bikes. Aligning with Seb’s statements, the goal is to maximize the crews day-to-day efforts.

At RideWrap we, of course, pitched in to protect the new WORCA bikes with our Tailored ProtectionTM. Building trails is tough on equipment; tools, gear, clothes and bikes are all inadvertently in the impact zone of grit and grime and are, in general, used in high frequency and the bike protection will aid in preserving the assets for future use and crew members.

We also decided to consider how these beauties might improve visibility for both the crew and the association, doubling down on their benefits beyond fitness relief. We created a custom ‘trail-crew’ wrap featuring unique builder graphics including a “trail under construction” notice. The one-of-a-kind graphics catch passerby’s eye, garnering visibility to the work that the association is doing, potentially increasing memberships, while the notice warns users to not enter the area unless they are there to help.

Santa Cruz Heckler with a fresh protection kit.

While a debate rages on deep within the internet depths, it does seem that the community accepts e-bikes, even in areas where general use is not permitted, for building. Scott Veach, one half of the duo who built the famed Dark Crystal, shared a comical anecdote about his experiences. “I remember using a Kranked e-bike to deliver some nails to the top of Dark Crystal. My pack probably looked fairly empty, but it was an illusion with over 30lbs of nails in there. When I passed a group of people pedaling up, they were booing and telling me to F- off. Funny thing is, when I went up later that day with a chainsaw sticking out of my pack, I got a bunch of cheers while passing people who probably realized I was heading up for trail work”.

Interestingly in these ‘new’ times of COVID-19 Tom ‘Pro’, famed Whistler builder of Gravity Logic, has even taken to riding his e-bike within the confines of the Whistler Mountain Bike Park where access has typically been via trucks and side-by-sides.

I use it to inspect trails and to do work. We stash tools on the trail and access by bike to do the work, I access it with an ebike. Currently, we are limited on how many people we can have in a truck due to COVID19, so the bikes, ebike in my case, make a perfect access vehicle.

– Tom Pro (Gravity Logic)

Whistler is a hub in the mountain bike community; Trails like A-line, Lord of The Squirrels, and Dark Crystal have all helped to set the global standard for modern day trails and trail building. Perhaps the local adoption of this tool will signal a shift in building kit globally.

Not so far down the road in Squamish, we connected on the local message board to gather some extend- ed information. We were reaffirmed with the trail builder “double-standard” where the community is wholly accepting of e-bikes in any restricted area as a tool for SORCA builders.

Ya man, an ebike makes it what, 20% easier?
Just get a trials moto, makes it 100% easier and it’s a real access tool – and if it matters that much to ya, they make electric ones.

– Andrew Norton

Andrew Norton provides an interesting point in regard to selecting an appropriate tool for the job. An e-bike is not a moto, it does not have a throttle, and you still have to input work to use it. In the case of maximizing efforts to the trail itself, it is a logical route. A quick inspection will tell you that a trials bike MSRP is ~$10,000 CAD, right in the sweet spot of ever-increasing e-bike pricing and electrified versions are available, alleviating noise and legality issues in certain areas. Let’s be honest though, once you build the trail, you definitely want to shred it, and the advantage goes to the e-bike on that one.

In Australia, Mark Turner does not use an e-bike for trail work. Currently he is using his feet, which most of us have forgotten how to use, and 4WD Kubota vehicles to access the building areas. He admits to being a critic of the category until he rode one. He sees a clear advantage as a tool and will look at one in the future to add to his kit; For now though, its diesel and the old acoustic steed.

Meanwhile in California, the younger generations of trail builders along with pro riders like R-Dog (Ryan Howard) have adopted the e-bike into their arsenal of tools. The dirt there is amazing for digging and the mountains provide plenty of vert, but with most of the trails in California being illegal builders are constantly venturing further into the bush to make their trails a bit more discrete. The e-bike provides them with real time gains when building.

Saving up to 2 hours per day over the span of a week, month or year really starts to add up and benefit the trails and the builders. About half of the time spent on my TREK Rail has been hauling tools in and out of trails. Time saved getting to the spot adds more time digging, and if you do the math over the course of a project, that’s a lot of dig time and that’s a lot of trail!

– Ryan Howard (R-Dog)

What may have once been considered a controversial research topic is clearly a different story in 2020. With such adoption we ponder the future of e-bikes for trailbuilding; will there be ‘builder spec’ e-bikes featuring chainsaw racks; what wild ‘out-there’ trail is going to get built; whether they are a ‘solution’ or merely a bandaid to the growing need for trails and the labor to build them.

While questions survive, Will Cadham of The Free Radicals, a mountain bike duo part of the Specialized Soil Searching global trail advocacy program, uses his e-bike to support trail networks worldwide and provides our favorite conclusion to the question
“I just can’t leave it behind”.