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Electrified adventure

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Tyler Flaming powers up the steep Madrone Trail in Medford’s Prescott Park on his mountain bike, but he’s not doing all the work himself.

A small electric motor inside his bike chassis is assisting his climb, allowing a comfortable pedal just a day after he put his 57-year-old body through a taxing day navigating trails outside of his Grants Pass home.

A year ago, Flaming might have been flamed out at home resting sore muscles. But his little electrical boost has him back on the trail the very next day and loving every minute of it.

“My riding value goes up,” Flaming says. “With this you can ride consecutive days and cover a lot more ground. And in Southern Oregon, where there’s so much verticality, you can come home and your body isn’t thrashed.”

Flaming is part of a growing trend of people riding electric-assisted bikes, called e-bikes, that help anyone from newbies to high-end technical riders log more miles and gain more vertical climbs thanks to a little help from their battery-charged friends.

Mountain bike riding on Forest Service trails throughout the West has gone up as much as 500 percent in recent years, with local estimates as much as double over just two years ago.

Some of these new-fangled bikes boast throttles like motorcycles, powering riders up trails at speeds they choose.

Flaming, however, rides an e-assist bike, which has settings that add power to the pedals based on pre-set percentages of what the rider is providing with his or her legs.

“You can adjust the level of effort depending how you feel on any given day,” Flaming says. “It can be almost as hard as an acoustic bike, or much, much easier.”

The technology is fueling a subset of the mountain biking economy with e-bikes running from $1,500 to more than $10,000. But e-bike rules have yet to keep up with technology.

Most conventional mountain bikers are gravitating to multi-use trails on Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land historically open to foot, horse and bike traffic. However, on most of these trails, motorized vehicles are banned.

E-bikes to date are categorized as a motorcycle, so they are banned on the vast majority of these trails even if the motor is disengaged.

But the wheels of government is starting to catch up to the wheels of these e-assisted riders.

The federal Department of the Interior in April began a sea-change to give riders like Flaming a legit pass to BLM and National Park Service trails now open to conventional users.

But the proposal has met with resistance from some conventional mountain-biking and environmental groups who worry that the powered bikes could cause environmental damage and overwhelm the current experience of unassisted cyclists.

While many e-bike riders took the April announcement as a free pass to start riding federal trails, that technically wasn’t the case.

Trails opened to nonmotorized bikes are still closed to e-bikes as the government winds through its required gyrations for proposing an overall e-bike rule, and then digging into the weeds to see where these bikes are most appropriate.

BLM spokesman Kyle Sullivan says his agency has proposed an overall rule and already has taken one round of public comment on it. A final proposal is expected by the end of December, followed by another round of public comments.

If adopted, BLM would then have to conduct “site-specific” environmental analyses to see whether e-bikes are compatible with current uses and environmental needs on a trail-by-trial basis, Sullivan says. That could mean e-bikes wouldn’t be welcomed on conventional mountain bike trails for a year or more, Sullivan says.

Until then, there are plenty of options.

Prescott Park’s mountain-biking trails are now open to e-bikes. The Bear Creek Greenway is largely closed to them, except the newer stretch between Gold Hill and Rogue River. Forest Service trails along Taylor Creek near Galice likewise are already e-bike friendly.

Also, Forest Service and BLM trails now dedicated to motorcycles are e-bike friendly, as is the network of forest roads ribboning through Southern Oregon timberlands.

“The silver lining is that we have 4,500 miles of roads (in the Medford District BLM), and a lot of these routes don’t have a lot of vehicle traffic so they can be perfect for (e-bikes).”

Flaming says he and most other e-bikers are already riding many of the technically banned trails. On a recent trip to Colorado, for instance, Flaming checked with local bike stores and learned that enforcement there is lax and “you don’t get e-biked shamed,” he says.

While e-bike rules are in the pipeline for BLM, no formal plans are in the works for the Forest Service, which is under the Department of Agriculture and not the Department of the Interior.

Flaming is anxious for the day when the rules catch up to this year’s conceptual guidelines, and he can’t wait to ride more trails for longer periods in consecutive days than he can now without his electrical assistance.

“To do long rides can be super-taxing,” Flaming says. “You’re constantly in the red zone.

“If you’re 25, you might be able to recover from a tough ride like that, but most people need more time.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

Tyler Flaming pedals a mountain biking trail at Prescott Park in Medford. (Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune)
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