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Tech Wars: Electric Mountain Bikes Versus Strava

I consider technology to be neutral; it is our adaptation of technology that determines its worth. Radiation to kill people with WMDs? Evil. Radiation to kill cancer cells? Brilliant. Radiation to warm up my leftovers in the microwave? Highly convenient but not critical to my existence.

We mountain bikers love to argue about what technologies improve mountain biking. Fortunately, it is mostly a personal conversation between you and your wallet. If I want to outfit my carbon rig with a fancy new fork then I’m not any more or less a mountain biker than my buddy who rides a rigid steel frame, I’m just lacking proper fiscal management skills.

Two technologies that seem to incite passionate responses are the use of Strava and electric-assist mountain bikes (aka eMTBs). Mention either and you’re likely to get face-spittled on by those who think that we’ve identified at least half the iron horsemen of the coming mountain bike apocalypse.  Interestingly, the growth of the latter may eventually eliminate the use of the former.

It’s hard to cheat at Strava on a mountain bike. Unlike being able to drive your favorite pavé segment in your car (or drafting your buddy on a moped), on the trail it’s up to your skills and fitness. eMTBs, however, are set to change that as suddenly people will be able to climb faster on the ascents and sprint harder on the descents with the aid of a battery pack. As soon as people can no longer differentiate between eMTBs and non-eMTBs riders then Strava’s appeal will be reduced.

A separate Strava category for eMTBs could be created, of course. However, it will be up to users to be honest about whether they are riding under their own power or not. If people were honest in competitive athletic events we wouldn’t need doping controls in professional sports, so to assume that a KOM on Strava is going to be any different from the pursuit of a KOM on the Giro is wishful thinking.

Even as eMTBs continue to be banned from the vast majority of trails in North America emerging technologies will make it difficult to visually distinguish an eMTB from a human-powered one. They will proliferate and continue to cause heated debate among enthusiasts about whether they are appropriate technology. So even if you hate eMTBs it will be hard to argue that they won’t reduce the popularity of another contested piece of technology: Strava.

Chris Bernhardt is IMBA’s Director of Field Programs. His personal ramblings about the future of mountain biking are designed to incite thoughtful reflection during long, painful, human-powered climbs and do not reflect IMBA’s official stance on Strava or eMTBs.

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