July–August 2024

A New Boost for Biking

E-bikes are bringing more bicyclists onto trails and lands around the state. It’s been a smooth ride so far—and resource managers aim to keep it that way.

Keith Goetzman


In spring 2023, Candace Jacobs of Olympia, Washington, was invited by her friend Peggy Carter of San Antonio, Texas, to join her and four other women on a multiday bike trip in Minnesota. The group would ride 130 miles on the Mesabi State Trail between Grand Rapids and Ely during five days in June, carrying their own supplies and lodging in Iron Range towns along the route. It was a typically ambitious bike-centered adventure for this group of women in their 50s and 60s—and it sounded exciting but a bit daunting for Jacobs.

“I was a little nervous to be honest, because these other gals were younger than me, and I’m a swimmer, not a biker,” she says.

Gamely, she signed on and showed up in Grand Rapids to meet the rest of the group, who drove up from Texas. When Jacobs arrived at Ardent Bicycles, where she had arranged a bike rental, shop owner Peter Gustafson unexpectedly offered her an electric bike with pedal assist—that is, when switched on, it can give the rider an extra boost of power whenever they’re pedaling. “I thought I’d give it a shot,” says Jacobs. She liked the e-bike on a short test ride, and soon after the group was loaded up and rolling, she realized she loved it.

“I am telling you, it was fantastic!” she says. She ended up carrying the group’s extra supplies in her panniers, lightening their loads on the sometimes hilly trail, and the pedal assist erased her anxiety about not being able to keep up with the others. Each night, she removed the battery and recharged it.

When she got home, Jacobs enthused about the e-bike so much that her husband bought her one for her birthday. She now bikes far more often and farther than she used to, riding recreationally around her home in Olympia. And when she rejoins the bike group this summer for their next pedaling trip on Prince Edward Island, she plans to go electric.
“It makes biking more achievable for people even if they aren’t hardcore bikers,” she says. “It just makes the ride much more fun.”

Micromobility Movement. As an e-bike convert, Jacobs has lots of company. Electric bike use is booming in Minnesota, as it is across the nation and the world, as people discover—or rediscover—the pleasures of bicycling when physical and topographical barriers are reduced or abolished. In 2022, 1.1 million e-bikes were sold in the United States, according to the Light Electric Vehicle Association, nearly four times as many as in 2019.

Visit any popular bikeway in the state these days and you’ll see numerous e-bike riders, often happily rolling along. People are using e-bikes of all kinds to ride recreationally on roads, paved trails, and natural-surface trails, as well as commuting, carrying cargo, hauling kids, even traveling into rugged backcountry for hunting and fishing. As these legions of new riders saddle up, trail and land managers around the state are working to make sure that bikers stay safe, trail conflicts are minimized, and resources aren’t damaged.

Regulations are evolving to keep up with the e-bike trend. The Minnesota Legislature in 2021 updated its statewide e-bike regulations, which now treat e-bikes the same as conventional bikes and spell out three e-bike classifications:

  • Class 1 e-bikes are pedal-assist only and have a maximum speed of 20 mph. 
  • Class 2 e-bikes can be powered by a throttle—that is, without pedaling—and also have a max speed of 20 mph.
  • Class 3 e-bikes are pedal assist only and top out at 28 mph.

The new law also establishes a power output limit of 750 watts.

The updated state statute provides more consistency and clarity around e-bikes, and it leaves room for federal, state, city, county, and other trail and land managers, including the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to enact speed limits or other limitations on e-bikes on their properties as they see fit. The DNR’s state trail regulations currently mirror the state law, allowing class 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes on all routes signed as state trails. The DNR will continue to monitor use over time to evaluate whether any adjustments are needed.

E-bikes are “hands down” the most significant current trend in the trail world, says Wade Miller, who oversees more than 1,478 miles of paved and unpaved trails as the DNR’s state trail and snowmobile program consultant.

“We’re certainly keeping our eyes peeled on them,” he says, noting that e-bikes are part of a larger societal trend toward electric-powered personal transportation devices such as scooters, skateboards, Segways, and unicycles that will continue to expand in variety. “We’re moving to a new phase of electric-powered micromobility devices: e-you-name-it,” Miller explains.

So far, the integration of e-bikes into the existing state trail system has been a largely positive phenomenon, according to Miller, who says e-bikes present both opportunities and challenges.

“The increase in e-bikes is great, because it’s allowing people who lack the ability or confidence to keep up with other riders to participate in group activities and recreate longer on our facilities,” he says. “The challenge is that some traditional users may feel that e-bikes are taking over, or they shouldn’t be allowed on certain trails because they may have the potential to cause more harm. They’re larger, they’re heavier, they can go faster. So we’re continuing to monitor those concerns. But at this point, we haven’t had any data supporting any negatives or accidents that would make us want to change our management.”

A Broader Spectrum of Bikers. At Cuyuna Country State Recreation Area, Minnesota’s mountain-biking hotspot on the Iron Range, manager Barry Osborne is also keeping an eye on e-bikes. Most of what he’s seeing is good.

“E-bikes have broadened the age and the physical ability spectrum of people that are out there,” he says. “They’ve just increased it across the board. And there’s no doubt that e-bikes are bringing more people into biking.”

Cuyuna hosts e-bikers on both dirt and paved trails, and rules differ on the two surfaces. On the recreation area’s 60-plus miles of dirt singletrack and wider adaptive trails, e-bikes are limited to class 1. On the paved eight-mile Cuyuna Lakes State Trail that runs through the recreation area, statewide rules apply, with classes 1 to 3 allowed.

On a blustery Friday morning, with a chance of showers and a fall chill in the air, hardy riders are showing up at Cuyuna trailheads, pumped to ride. Among the bikers setting out from the Miner’s Mountain Rally Center are a group of four from Colville, Washington. All of them are in their early 70s, and all are riding electric bikes. Paul Wade and Mike Snook are on e-mountain bikes and will traverse some of Cuyuna’s dirt trails; Kris Wade and Becky Snook are on commuter or hybrid style e-bikes and aim to stick mostly to the pavement. All four plan to ride adaptive trails together later in Cuyuna’s Sagamore Unit.

Paul Wade says the group of two retired couples is two weeks into a four-week road trip to Lake Superior, biking on trails along the way. They’ve ridden the Mickelson Trail in South Dakota and, in Minnesota, the Paul Bunyan State Trail and the federally designated Mississippi River Trail.

It’s been a great trip so far, says Kris Wade. “We’re just happy to be out here still going and still having fun,” she says, explaining that at their age they wouldn’t be doing nearly as much biking if they didn’t have e-bikes.

As they roll off amid swirling leaves, another pair of bikers prepares to set out on the singletrack. Bruce Mickelsen of Bozeman, Montana, is on an e-mountain bike, while his friend Steve Schmidt of Northfield is on a conventional ride. They’ve known each other since high school in Northfield and still get together regularly to hang out and bike.

“I also have and enjoy conventional bikes, but to keep up with Schmidt I need all the help I can get,” cracks Mickelsen, adding that he also appreciates an extra boost on dirt bike trails back home in Montana. “It’s nice to have more power for the mountains. Not so much around town. I don’t need it there.”

Osborne doesn’t have hard numbers on e-bike use at Cuyuna but has done casual trail counts where he sees up to 50 percent e-bike use on the paved trail and a lower but still significant percentage on the dirt. One previous concern is that heavier, more powerful e-mountain bikes might tear up trails, but Cuyuna’s experience and numerous studies elsewhere have not borne out those fears.

“In most of the research that’s been done, there has been no differentiation between e-bikes and nonmotorized bikes as far as trail damage,” Osborne says. “We are not seeing damage here, but it’s something we are paying attention to.”

Matt Andrews, trails coordinator for the city of Duluth, echoes Osborne’s point. Duluth has followed state legislation, allowing classes 1 to 3 e-bikes on all of its bike trail system, which includes about 100 miles of dirt trails and 25 miles of paved trails.

“We’re not really experiencing increased damage to trails; we’re not seeing anything out of the ordinary,” says Andrews. “It’s more of a perceived thing than an actuality. From my perspective, it seems like a positive thing. It’s getting more people out.”

E-mountain bikes, Osborne explains, have in fact led to more overall wear and tear on the Cuyuna trail system—but not in the way you might think. “It’s not that e-bikes in and of themselves are causing more impact,” he says. “It’s that there are more impacts from more users.” In other words, the main problem with e-bikes on the trails, if it can be called a problem, is that they are extremely popular.

Why They Ride. The reasons that people take up riding an electric bike varies, but conversations with riders, trail managers, and bike purveyors reveal some recurring themes:

  • E-bikes are equalizers. Cuyuna biker Paul Wade: “The e-bike is an equalizer. It allows my wife and me to ride together.” Patrick Stoffel, who rents and sells e-bikes as co-owner of Red Raven Bike Café in Crosby, a gateway town to Cuyuna: “Some people who rent an e-bike haven’t exercised for a while so they’re using it to enjoy the sport a little more than they would if they didn’t have one.” Cuyuna manager Barry Osborne: “In the Sagamore Unit, I’ll see a whole family unit, 4 years old to 80 years old, and they’re all riding together, some of them on e-bikes.”
  • E-bikes flatten the earth. Troy Herlick, store manager at Gateway Cycle in Oakdale, which sells e-bikes: “They take away barriers to riding. Basically they flatten out the earth. Hills no longer exist, the wind no longer exists, all those factors that make people maybe not want to ride—an e-bike kind of takes those factors out.”
  • E-bikes are range extenders. Electric bikes typically have a range of 20 to 100 miles, depending on model and other factors. Peter Gustafson of Ardent Bicycles in Grand Rapids: “The reason many riders are going to electric-assist bikes is for extended range. People who normally ride 10 miles want to be able to ride 15 or 20. For mountain bikes, it’s that they want to ride the Tioga Recreation Area and Redhead Mountain Bike Park [Iron Range mountain biking destinations] in the same day. Or Cuyuna and Tioga in the same day.”
  • E-bikes are healers. Gustafson: “A number of customers are buying them for rehab, whether they have had a heart attack or a knee or hip replacement or back injury.” Stoffel: “Some of our rental customers are recovering from an injury, so they’ll rent e-bikes for a little bit, then they’ll get back to their other bikes.”

The Battery-Powered Future. Electric bikes have raised a few concerns as they’ve proliferated. Among a shrinking handful of hard-charging bicycle purists, e-bikes carry a stigma: They’re cheating. They encourage laziness. They’re not really bikes. They’re crowding the trails and slowing me down. Other trail users have mentioned safety concerns about e-bikes moving past them at faster speed.

However, as time has gone on, some of the naysaying has turned to acceptance as wary bikers see friends or family members pick up an e-bike and enjoy the sport that they love (or even join them on rides); as they see the grins on the new breed of bikers around them; or as the inevitable happens: They get older.

As Candace Jacobs puts it, “I think some people look at e-bikes and think, ‘Well, they’re pretty much for old people.’ Well, I’m an old person!” she says, laughing. “I think they’re fine. And I think e-bikes would really get many people out biking more.”

Matt Andrews says he still sees some pushback against e-bikes in the Duluth cycling scene, but it’s diminishing and “it’s definitely not as hostile as it used to be.” Regarding older riders who are reaching for e-bikes as the years roll by, he concedes, “Honestly, heck, I might be in that boat one day, you know what I mean?”

Peggy Carter, who tried out Candace Jacobs’ e-bike on the Mesabi Trail, says, “I enjoy exercise, so I’m unlikely to get an e-bike very soon.” She pauses, then adds, “But you know, in another five years, I probably could.”

As for the exercise factor, several different studies have concluded that e-bikes—especially class 1 models—actually encourage more overall exercise because their riders tend to bike more often and to bike longer distances.

Gateway Cycle’s Herlick says most e-bike buyers indeed tend to be older, but in categories such as e-mountain bikes, he sees ages trending younger. And as the e-bike entry point price declines, he’s seeing younger buyers partly as a matter of affordability. Minnesota’s popular new e-bike rebate program has also helped get more people on electric bikes.

All told, several converging factors are making e-bikes a sizable and growing presence on Minnesota bike routes among riders of all kinds. As Cuyuna’s Osborne says, “I expect to see more and more e-bikes in the future.”

The Minnesota DNR’s planning section, says Miller, is preparing to conduct a state trail study that for the first time will incorporate e-bikes and provide a more detailed look at this fast-growing trail user category.

“We’re keeping the conversation on the table regarding whether there’s a need for us to make management decisions, and if so, what would they be?” he says. “We’re in a wave of new e-devices. And we don’t know where it’s gonna stop.”


Where Can I Ride My E-Bike?

Here are e-bike rules and guidelines on several types of Minnesota trails and lands. This is not a comprehensive list; rules are evolving so always check the latest information from the trail or land manager. No matter where it is ridden, any e-bike must be under 750 watts of power output.

State trails: Classes 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes are allowed. For more information, visit mndnr.gov/state_trails/other_trail_uses.html.

State forests: Classes 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes are permitted on all state forest roads and trails unless posted closed. An exception is the Richard J. Dorer Memorial Hardwood State Forest, where bikes may travel only on designated bike trails or where motor vehicles are allowed. State forest roads can range from asphalt to gravel, maintained to minimum-maintenance road surfaces. Some roads and trails may cross wetlands that will limit bike use.

Superior and Chippewa national forests: The Forest Service classifies e-bikes as motorized vehicles. Classes 1, 2, and 3 e-bikes are allowed on open motorized trails and roads. E-bikes are not allowed on non-motorized trails.

State wildlife management areas: E-bikes may be used on public roads unless they are posted closed to motor vehicle travel. On roads that are posted closed to motor vehicle use or on developed nonmotorized trails, e-bikes may be used at walking speeds. E-bikes are not permitted in areas marked as sanctuaries. DNR Fish and Wildlife is working to clarify e-bike use on WMAs to ensure sensitive habitats are protected from potential damage, to avoid disturbing nesting and young wildlife, and to manage interactions among users.

Other DNR-managed public lands: Check with the local land manager.

County, city, township, or municipality trails: Check local regulations.