As a co-founder of IMBA and as Vice President of that organization until 1999, Michael played the strong diplomat in establishing use rights for mountain bikes first in California, then abroad. He helped to establish the argument for bicycles by working hand-in-hand with hiking and equestrian groups as well as state and federal spaces that strongly felt that mechanical advantage had no place on trails. Simultaneously, he helped to develop educational programs for trail users, personally posting “Rules of the Trail” at trailheads, so this new mountain biker trail user would have a code of conduct. He has spent countless hours since the early 80’s personally building and maintaining trails across the west. His life’s work advocating for mountain bikes won him induction into the Mountain Bike Hall of Fame in 2002.
Now 72, Michael has taken on a new role in advocating for bicycles – electric bicycles, which he views as the newest technology that can bring new people to the trail to enjoy the outdoors and to enjoy the ride as he has. And, as someone who initially argued for mechanical advantage use on trails for mountain bikes, he believes there is a case to be made for these motor assisted vehicles…
BIKERUMOR: You’re someone who was very involved early on in establishing mountain bike advocacy, period. People forget that there was a time when mountain bikes were the enemy on the trails completely. And they don’t understand that one of the first things you did, from what I understand, is to establish trail rules for mountain bikers and to post those at trailheads.
MICHAEL: Rules of the Trail- we established them at IMBA way back in the day. We founded IMBA in 1988. I founded the Bicycles Trail Council of East Bay in 1987.
BIKERUMOR: Only a few months before IMBA, right? That’s the second oldest mountain bike advocacy group in the nation.
MICHAEL: I think it’s important to note that I’ve been in IMBA since the beginning. I’m not representing IMBA in this at all. I presume you have read IMBA’s white paper on the topic- the thing it says very strongly is that IMBA is all about entirely muscle powered bikes and they aren’t going to change their mission. And I fought hard for that mission by the way, over many years. I wouldn’t even change – I’m still an IMBA member and IMBA player.
BIKERUMOR: Why did you fight for that to be the case initially?
MICHAEL: Initially we were being asked all the time to get in bed with the motorcycles. As we faced certain issues such as wilderness, for example, closures were everywhere and we were having a lot of elements stacked against us, the motorcycle community and various entities, various movements within were like “come on IMBA, come with us. We’re your friend.” We essentially, rather adamantly, said no. We’re actually more aligned as mountain bicyclists with hikers and equestrians. In many respects that’s true- there were impact studies way back in the day that lumped all three of these user groups together and motors were way off in the clouds somewhere else as far as environmental impact. So we chose IMBA to be involved with the muscle powered community.
BIKERUMOR: Were there people within the IMBA community that were trying to work with motorcycles?
MICHAEL: Yeah. Oh, we had people who, particularly people who were really angry with wilderness issues, because we’re banned from all wilderness, who said to hell with that. Let’s join forces with motorcycles. IMBA did not do that.
BIKERUMOR: You were making disclaimers earlier, I interrupted you.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I’m not representing IMBA. I want to make that very clear. The reason why it is important in my view, anyway, that I have that background for so many decades now of doing this is that I have been brought up so to speak in an environmental – I’ve always been an environmental person and as a strong participant in the mountain bike advocacy movement for all of these years. I am totally committed to appropriate advocacy, to easing trail conflicts and solving problems with that. With having good relationships with land managers and agencies and other users, to addressing all concerns and adapting to them and having them adapt to our concerns, to making things work on trails. So if I’m thinking that there is a place for e-bikes on trails, it’s with that background.
They aren’t motorcycles. It has nothing to do with motorcycles. As far as I’m concerned, they are very very close to, in most instances the ones that I’m most aware of, they are very close to mountain bikes in terms of impact. In terms of the style of riding, in terms of the feel of riding. I’ve seen numerous cases where people have gotten on an e-bike ready to hate it, including some big players in the advocacy movement I might say, get on these things and say “wait a minute, these things ride like mountain bikes. They don’t go fast like everybody says. They are not so different. They do not have more impact.” And I’ve seen jaws drop in astonishing cases where people have been totally surprised.
BIKERUMOR: Why do you think there is so much of a negative backlash to them from your experience?
MICHAEL: The backlash that we get is astonishingly like the backlash we got when we were first introducing mountain bikes on the trails.
BIKERUMOR: Wait… mountain bikes?
MICHAEL: Back in the ‘80s when mountain bikes were coming out. “Oh, you’ll put these bikes out there. People will be able to ride farther in and they’ll go in over their heads and there will be a lot more people on trails and it’s a mechanical advantage, not just like doing it with your feet.” And so forth. People being resistant to change. One factor also at that point, at first, people didn’t want people to follow them that weren’t like them. I think that’s one thing that is happening today in many cases. “I’m a mountain biker. I’m here. I can ride. I don’t want change.”
BIKERUMOR: Have you seen that with other technologies? I mean, as Vice President of IMBA through the 90’s there was the full first burst of mountain bike technology. Arguably, suspension and improvements in tires and shifting make it easier for people to ride mountain bikes that wouldn’t have before.
MICHAEL: Without a doubt. I’m glad you mentioned those things. First front suspension. Dual suspension. The tires. The light weight. The much more advanced gearing that developed. All those technological advances lead to resistance in many places. I knew mountain bikers: “I will not ride a full suspension bike!” That kind of resistance. I think the resistance in those days as I think about it at this moment was from other users. All these things are happening to bikes… but I also saw it in mountain bicyclists and indeed, you ride a full suspension bike and it led to characteristics on trails. Some say it led to “washboarding” of trails, of fire roads as people braked on descents and so-forth. So we saw that, the same kind of thing. It’s going to get more people in, it’s going to be a lot easier to get in, and everything will go to hell because of it – which, I think society advances and technology advances.
BIKERUMOR: And people forget.
MICHAEL: People forget that they were in the same boat before. In many cases. If I may, I would like to make a comment on the idea that this will get too many people on trails. In many respects, you can look at trails as the exclusive domain of a small group of people in our country. Oh, by the way, there are issues that are involved here, cultural diversity is important. There are a small group of white people that are – I know that’s not part of what we’re talking about except that it’s related- it’s a small group of people.
BIKERUMOR: Arguably a small group of white men.
MICHAEL: I’ll agree with you. Getting more people on trails increases our constituency for trails and open spaces. We can’t expect to get funding particularly in these insane times, for our trails and parks and open spaces and everything if it’s restricted to a small group of enthusiasts. We need a much broader group of people out there enjoying it, saying, “Hey, this is nice. This is something I want to support. This is something I want our government to support. This is more important perhaps than A or B expenditure.” I don’t want to offend anybody, I think for myself that all the money we put into the war could be much better placed in other places, particularly our parks and open spaces.
I detest pay to play. Charges to use trails and parks. It’s a super bad development that’s happened and is happening in our country. And that’s related to getting more people on trails to say “wait a minute.” We need a constituency to fight pay to play.
BIKERUMOR: Why do you think pay to play is popping up?
MICHAEL: All of the big agencies and small agencies are being cut down in terms of available funds. So they say “okay, we have to start charging.” I have some very good progressive friends who come out of agencies who say “we have no choice. We have to start charging to use parking lots and bathrooms at first. Then people start talking about charging to get on trails. Which has insane enforcement problems. It’s just horrible. What that does, by the way is when you charge and start saying “this little park can charge five, ten, fifteen bucks, then an active trail user can have to spend 100’s of dollars a year as each one picks up and starts doing this kind of thing. I once checked to see what I would have to spend a year in terms of minimal charges of the different agencies and entities that I visit over the course of a year. It came, back in the day, it came to six or seven or eight hundred bucks. It was appalling. It’s lack of funds that the government has to expend. And bureaucracy and a lot of things that lead them to say that they have to charge our users. And foolish ideas by the way. “Our users can afford it.” Well, that’s true in a certain sense. Middle class white men can likely afford to pay a fee to go use a park. Or at least a lot more likely than a lot of people I’ve ridden with over the course of the years. I’ve seen people who just could not possibly afford a $5 permit.
BIKERUMOR: It can be hard to justify. There are equipment costs. Transportation costs. At the end of that, there is another charge on top of that. There are so many barriers to the sport already, if you take away the social barriers. If you just have the things you physically need to do it.
MICHAEL: I’ve paid taxes and I’m in the west. These are my public lands that I’ve enjoyed all my life. The West may be different from the East in ways that I’m not aware of. This is my legacy, my heritage, my history is public lands. Anyway, we’ve perhaps diverted from the topic. But it does have to do with the fear of people increasing the number of people who go out on our public lands.
If you love something, why not share it? This is just me, I’m a gushy old guy, but when I see people out on trails, one person will say “this trail is crowded.” Me, I’ll say “wow, look at all these people enjoying this absolutely spectacular view that I enjoy. I’m so happy they are here with me sharing it.” You don’t want to see trails absolutely overrun.
BIKERUMOR: That’s why you build more trails.
MICHAEL: That’s why you build more trails. I don’t think, by the way, that with respect to the argument that we’ll get overrun, if you add these pedal- I’m speaking very mainly about pedal assist, low wattage, low speed bikes into the mix, you’re just not going to get the hoards that some people seem to fear.
BIKERUMOR: There is concern about the impact on the trails and concern that the trails will be overrun by people on e-bikes who, as you spoke about earlier, will have capabilities that will bring them further into the wild.
MICHAEL: I don’t see that happening myself. In my experience, the young riders will, in fact, you can see it by all of their objections “oh my muscles are fitter, et cetera.” I don’t think that they are going to want to spend the bucks that are necessary to move into e-bikes. The e-bike riders that I am riding with, by the way, tend to be late 60’s into the 70’s, ie. my age range, I’m just not seeing it. I know one younger guy who is associated with a bike shop, who likes doing enduro type events- he’s the only one that I know of, by the way. I know there are others.
BIKERUMOR: That’s your personal experience… that’s how you ride and the people you ride with.
MICHAEL: My experience is that I’ve been riding for a long time, beginning in the 80’s. I owned the first production mountain bike. I still have it; I don’t ride it of course. That was 35 years ago. And in those days… I’ve never been fast. I raced a few times in the 80’s. But now what happens is, it’s very unfortunate to me, personally, is I’ll be at the parking lot, ready to go out, or the trailhead, and I’m ready to ride six hours. And I’m ready do to the long ride. I still can do all that stuff, but immediately right at the trailhead, bingo, they are gone. I’m riding by myself all day long. The people who wait for me are cordial, by the way, but I’d hate to make that happen, but that’s the reality I am faced with on a regular basis. I can train to deal with that, fortunately I have some time to do it but not everybody has.
I just tried the Death Ride, as I just mentioned, a few days ago. Was way off the back. It takes a bunch more training at 72 to maintain. So when I get on an e-bike, I can ride with the pack, with the gang. I am so happy to be there again, riding with people in certain cases that I haven’t ridden with for years. It means an awful lot to me. As one of my pals once said, “mountain biking is a social experience.” It’s an experience of enjoying nature. It’s a social experience. It’s about being with your good friends. It is what has enabled with me to do that.
I take umbrage with those who subject that “if you can’t ride in anymore, then go and do something else.” One rider who I saw in the comments said that “aging is all a part of everything. You age, you get to a point where you are old, you are off the back, go do something else.”
BIKERUMOR: How does that feel as someone who has arguably grown up with the sport and has dedicated so much time to building the infrastructure and partnerships to support it?
MICHAEL: You hit on it. I don’t want to overdo it, but it is bothersome that I would be implicitly asked to stop riding when I’ve devoted a whole lot of time, a lot of years and efforts to make the riding opportunities available to people and then to be told to do something else. That’s bothersome. I do not intend to do something else.
The only people I’ve heard say that are considerably younger, by the way, and I don’t know what they’ll think when they get to this age. But hanging it up is not an option for me. And it might not be for those people when they get to that kind of age. And by the way, I’m not dead. I still want to ride. I still ride my road bike. I’m just looking for a new one now, in fact. And I’ve got a great mountain bike. I’ve always had decent mountain bikes. And I’ll be doing that as long as I can. By the same token, it’s just not fair to ask me to quit.
By the way, everything changes as the years progress. When I was born, which was 1943 during World War II, my life expectancy was 62 years and change. If I were born today, my life expectancy would be 78 years about, if I get that right, an incredible difference in life expectancy. That means an incredible difference in your ability to engage in activities. In my case, enjoy nature and enjoy, perhaps, the fruits of all my years of mountain bikes. Things change. Technology changes. We now have the ability first with mountain bikes, then with gearing of mountain bikes, and suspension of mountain bikes, and clipless pedals, and these various things that made it easy to mountain bike – now we have e-bikes. We can add to that list. So times have changed. Let’s change with them.
One thing we’ve got to be very careful of is all this business of people who get buried on an emotionally philosophical trip that “these are motorcycles.” Forget it. These are not motorcycles. I was talking with one of my good advocacy pals at an event within the past two or three months. I mean, he rides a motorcycle. He must have said this 10 or 15 times during our discussion. I couldn’t shake that idea from his head, he wouldn’t change that idea.
BIKERUMOR: What would you say to people who say that they are motorcycles? I get comments that they are mopeds or motorcycles all the time.
MICHAEL: Motorcycles- that’s a much bigger category. And there are e-bikes that are very very close to motorcycles. I would not want them on trails at all. I have one bike now that’s 350W. European is 250W. By comparison, I know of one that has 4500W that can go 50 miles per hour. That’s a motorcycle. That’s just an incredible thing, people are equating that with what we’re doing here. What I would say is that you get a pedal assist bike, it’s absurd to say that these bikes particularly can go without pedaling. That’s not accurate at all. It depends on the type of bike and the company and the different levels of pedal assist that they’ve got. Nevertheless, in all these bikes that I’m talking about, you HAVE to pedal.
Motorcycles can customarily reach high speeds. These bikes, the standards that seem to be being established, the speed shuts off at 20 miles per hour. These are not bikes that will go insanely fast. If you see somebody on a non-assisted bike and an assisted bike going over 20 miles per hour, they are entirely on their own. No one is talking about downhill bikes these days that reach insane speeds. Likewise, with mopeds, there is a lot of confusion as people equate [these] bikes with mopeds. [E-bikes] are really very close to being bicycles. I know it upsets readers who haven’t been on them. Just like bicycles in many respects. And in Europe in fact, if I have it right, below 250W bikes can go anywhere that bikes can go. They are just regarded as bicycles.
These bikes are great for single track. I don’t really like the highly tactical stuff, but I ride forest service lands in Northern California – little twisty narrow, crazy, straight up and down single track trails on the e-bike, what I ride when I go, and it works perfectly. If I didn’t do that, I wouldn’t be able to ride with my guides around that particularly area. Yes, e-bikes are quite capable of riding. And I’m not a technical rider – never have been a crazy technical rider. But e-bikes are just fine on narrower trails. Having said that, it may well be that ultimately a category is developed that puts e-bikes first on fire roads, but that’s going along with the idea that mountain bikes are only good for fire roads and not good for single track trails. It’s garbage. It’s simply not true.
BIKERUMOR: What’s the big danger in categorizing e-bikes separately?
MICHAEL: I think it’s a good idea basically for political reasons. If you say certain e-bikes are to be treated just like regular bikes, then I think you run into potential problems both with, shall we say, the radical anti-e-bike mountain bicyclists which are more prevalent in this country than in others.
I think we’ve always got an issue with land access, and I’ve worked, as have many many many others for a long time for land access and I’m conscious of the reality where we, if we really push e-bikes everywhere that mountain bikes can ride, that we can expect more push back than would be satisfactory from our environmental friends who would say without knowing anything about it necessarily, “oh, it has motors, look what’s happening,” then push back. There are a lot of people in our area that say that we could lose access that we already have that we’ve fought so hard for. And I want to be conscious of that, and make sure that any approach we take does not jeopardize our access and turn our friends that we are gradually winning against us, including land managers and equestrians and hikers.
BIKERUMOR: You’re a career diplomat at this point with those people. How do you think e-bike access happens? How do you think that e-bikes are implemented? I know that there is legislation in place, that there is an IMBA environmental impact survey taking place.
MICHAEL: -with the BPSA. They are working on legislation with three categories in California and New York, it’s really for road. We’re not talking about that. To me, that’s a no brainer. There’s 50 states with 50 different sets of regulations on how to treat e-bikes on roads and paved bike paths, so this is California which I’m solidly behind. I also track and participate in road issues by the way. That’s great.
That organization is not pushing legislation at this moment to deal with trails. I’m seeing too many agencies just saying, like they did with us, with mountain bikes by the way back in the beginning. They’ve got gears and wheels and mechanical things, let’s just ban them. We don’t know anything about them, let’s just ban them. I’m seeing some places where they take that approach. Let’s just ban them. It’s just way too complicated to see what it’s all about. I’m very concerned with that kind of reaction where I see it. There are other agencies that have it. It’s a gray area. They haven’t figured it out yet. They are working on disabled exceptions, which makes a lot of sense.
California has a self-declared way that that works. And forgive me for not expressing it exactly correctly but in California certain agencies come up to you, “hey, you’re riding an e-bike, what’s up?” And the response is “I’m disabled.” Well, your declaration is good enough. They don’t get to spread eagle and search you and require proof right on the trailhead. So that’s a good thing. But that only deals with disabled people. What if someone is disabled because they are 72 years old? So those are issues that are being resolved. I read one thing a few months ago by the way, e-bikes in Southern California on trails and some commentator or land manager said “all these e-bikes out there, someone is going to go too fast and someone is going to get hurt and someone is going to prohibit them.” That suggested that there are a whole lot of e-bikes out there and that they are not being prohibited.
I hear this other term. “Cheating.” Are you actually competing with an old dude on an e-bike? That he’s riding with you? Or even ahead of you? Does it really make the slightest difference to your life? Are you not confident enough in yourself that that’s a different thing? I’m cheating, yes- I’m cheating old age.
BIKERUMOR: It’s always a competition.
MICHAEL: If you get somebody who is able to keep up with you at any age with an e-bike, what difference does it make? I’ve gotten, “You’re cheating! You’re cheating!” a few times. Sweat is pouring off of me and I’m cheating. I don’t get it. There is an emotional response that these people are often having that this is some kind of competitive thing.
BIKERUMOR: I mean, suspension was, at one point, cheating.
MICHAEL: Yeah. “You’re cheating, you have suspension.” We’ve already covered that I’ve worked so long that- when I read these people that say I should hang it up-
BIKERUMOR: – which they’ll believe exactly until they have someone tell them that they have to hang it up.
MICHAEL: Or if they still believe it when they have to hang it up, that’s fine. I won’t miss you. I don’t like the idea people on e-bikes aren’t real cyclists. I’m sorry, I am a real cyclist. I’m not a great cyclist. I’m a real cyclist. It’s offensive. They don’t need to have those kinds of arguments.
BIKERUMOR: Why are people saying that?
MICHAEL: The ones I’ve seen cling to this idea and not get beyond “motorized,” that’s fine. Put that in the equation. Now let’s continue talking. The discussion doesn’t end there, just as I hoped it didn’t end back when people said in the 80’s “You’ve got gears, you’re mechanical, forget it, let’s not even talk about it.” Fine. That’s in the equation. Put it in the equation. Now let’s continue our dialogue about what’s going on out there. So the idea that something is motorized ending the discussion is ridiculous.
BIKERUMOR: Mechanical advantage hasn’t shut down the discussion for you before. That’s kind of what you were working with from the beginning.
MICHAEL: We were faced with people who said that and I replied with, “Fine. I accept that. It’s mechanical. Let’s move on.” And we did move on. And people started using the bikes.
I guess my bottom line, the next step is: let’s get on these things. So many of the responses are emotional responses – biased responses. This business about being motorcycles, about being motor assist and stopping the discussion there – it’s an emotional response. It’s really important I think for people to get on these bikes before they make judgement and to slow down judgement and to keep an open mind on these things and to get rid of these emotional things. This cheating business is crazy.
Part two of this interview will include the opposite viewpoint with someone who feels ebikes shouldn’t be allowed on trails. Stay tuned.