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E-power is likely to be our salvation


By BDN off-road correspondent Pete Plummer


Despite our ongoing love affair for (almost) all of us with the internal combustion engine, happy kids with electric bikes on private land and responsible adults with smiles on their faces riding quietly in the countryside must be the way forward.

All credit, then, to the MCIA and the Bicycle Association for getting together to give their take on the law covering E-power and off-road (see our website at

With electric bicycle/mopeds, pedelecs, full-power electric motorcycles plus E-powered mountain bikes with hydraulic disc brakes and “full factory suspension” entering the market, it is no longer possible to decide type at a glance. Revered motorcycle brands such as Bultaco displaying electric mountain bikes at “our” dirt bike show illustrates the possible dilemma.

That ‘grey area’

They are all just bikes to us and both associations have done a sterling job in categorising the classes but what is considered a sport or a leisure activity, what and where and when we ride and the numerous governing bodies’ power and influence and how it fits together is important.

The FIM (technical)

The Federation of International  Motorcyclists based in Geneva, Switzerland, is a financial powerhouse and point of technical registration and an advisory body which the Japanese manufacturers and others subscribe to but not all. As a technical body it draws up specifications and guidelines for its subscribers for use in road racing and off-road sports.

The FIM (sporting)

It is also a central sporting body which other countries federations subscribe to for running competitive events which is the ACU here. It has a degree of authority when bikes are raced in competition under a specific ACU permit but none when ridden outside those specific events. Here, some 30% of events are run under ACU/FIM rules. The remaining 70% of organised off-road sport is outside that jurisdiction as is all other non-competitive off-road activities including those who may be competition licence holders.

All land is owned by someone

To say that to ride off-road one has to own the land is a step too far as in almost every instance the land is owned by someone else. Most MX, trials, enduro, hare and hounds etc are run under a specific permit on land usually leased to the organising club or company by a farmer for a day or for a very short period for a fee.  Unless full planning permission is granted, no more than 14 days’ use in any one year will be permitted and the events will be monitored by the environmental health department of the local authority.

Rights of way are also on private land

All rights of way including  bridleways (for horses and bicycles) and byways (for mopeds/ motorcycles) are ROWs over private property. The ROW is a bestowed right to the surface crust on which we travel. They may be maintained by the relevant county council but they are there to travel from A to B and not to roar up and down on or turn into a children’s playground so technically trail riding is a non-competitive leisure activity or pastime and NOT a sport and NOT off-road riding in law as the ROWs are unsurfaced roads and can only be ridden by those legally entitled to do so on fully road legal mopeds and motorcycles.


Illegal riding on private and public land is an issue over which the industry has no control but when it comes to noise, manufacturers have. Now E-power may ease the pain but the single-cylinder four-stroke noise factor has become the albatross of off-road sport since the FIM changed how that noise was measured. This came about with stringent air pollution controls being introduced in California, and with that US state being even bigger than Europe in terms of sales, the Japanese stopped two-stroke production to concentrate on high-revving four-stroke development.  With more power comes more noise and it would seem noise is not an issue in the USA. 

Over the past 20 years, the increase from the 96 decibels max, plus even noisier aftermarket exhausts, has had a damaging effect on off-road sport with bike sales tumbling (covered in BDN in 2008). Ironically, four-stroke noise carries further and with the internal combustion engine having fallen from grace, and as the outside world focuses on pollutants of all kinds, the maximum permissible FIM noise level for petrol-powered competition is now 115 decibels. With 80dB being the maximum for cars and road bikes in suburbia, that 115 number (in the quiet of the countryside) could take some explaining to an environmental health officer holding a noise meter  – so bring on the E-bikes.

Undoubtedly E-power is likely to be our salvation but too much is being made of MX as the “bad boy” as it is difficult to see why any E-bike manufacturer would build MX-specific models.  The greater (hopefully mass) market is now a fashion business for MX/ trail/ enduro/ adventure so even those models deemed MX-capable will likely be homologated road bikes with genuine off-road capability in the same way that any number of homologated and road-legal petrol-powered MX/enduro models undertake a dual role now – and hopefully a much quieter role in the future.   

As we know, possibly the best advice is for customers is to exercise  commonsense and courtesy, to ride whisper-quiet bikes,  follow the country code, close all gates, give way for horses and have respect for the countryside and all who live and work there – our future depends on it. 

What do you think? [email protected]


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