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Talking e-bikes

Photo Credit: Tim Miller

If you’ve spent time on Minnesota trails in the last few years, you may have noticed a growing trend: Electric bicycles, or e-bikes now make up the fastest-growing bicycle segment. And all projections say their momentum is just building.

It’s easy to see why. Just ask someone who has ridden one and you’ll hear, they’re just plain fun.

But, amid the growth and excitement, also reigned confusion. The variety of designs and capabilities left regulators unsure where e-bikes fit—are they more like bicycles, scooters, or motorcycles? We’re finally getting some clarity.

The trade association, PeopleForBikes, has played a pivotal role in defining e-bikes into three classes, a classification now adopted by 42 states, including Minnesota, as of 2021.

These classes share a basic definition of bicycles (operable pedals and 2-3 wheel) and limit the electric motor to 750 watts. The class difference comes into play with the pedaling requirement and the maximum speed of the motor (see table). In Minnesota, bicycle manufacturers or distributors must affix a label to all e-bikes according to this classification.

E-Bikes as defined in Minnesota Laws

Class 1

Class 2

Class 3

Motor provides assistance ONLY when rider pedals

Motor can propel bicycle WITHOUT pedaling (throttle on demand)

Max speed of motor




Requires speedometer

Minimum age of rider is 15 years old

Motor limit of no more than 750 watts

E-bikes allowed on most trails

Nationwide, there is a growing acceptance of e-bikes on trails. In 2020, the National Park Service finalized regulations that give discretion to park superintendents but generally treat e-bikes similarly to traditional bicycles. Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Voyageurs allow all classes of e-bikes wherever traditional bicycles are allowed.

Similarly, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources allows e-bikes on state trails, although restrictions on class 3 e-bikes, which offer a pedal-assist of up to 28 mph, may be reassessed as they are considering a broad rules update.

As for regional and city trails in Minnesota, most allow all e-bike classes, but some enforce limits on the rider’s speed ranging from 10-20mph.

The joys of e-bikes

The benefits of e-bikes are notable, offering expanded cycling options for individuals limited by physical fitness, age, or disability. They make Minnesota’s extensive system long-distance trails more accessible.

They appeal to all types of people for all types of reasons. From young people forgoing cars to older people extending their riding years, commuters looking to arrive at work less sweaty to recreationists looking to go farther than they ever could before.

They have environmental benefits too. According to the Department of Transportation, more than half of people’s trips are three miles or less. By using e-bikes, we would reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fossil fuel consumption and improve air quality.

20 is plenty?

While e-bikes gain acceptance, safety concerns persist, particularly with class 2 and 3 e-bikes. Their increased speed and weight compared to traditional bicycles hint at the potential for more serious crashes. The top speed of a class 3 e-bike, 28 mph, is faster than the average Tour de France speed. Meanwhile, when it comes to automobiles, some cities embrace the motto “20 is plenty” to encourage driving no faster than 20 mph on city roads. This begs the question, why should bicycles on a trail go faster than what’s considered prudent for a car on a street?

Another concern is the blurring of lines with bicycles that propel themselves (e.g., class 2 e-bikes), hardly fitting the traditionalists’ understanding of bicycles as human-powered vehicles.

Battery safety is another concern, with reports of deadly fires. In response, legislation is making its way through Congress to mandate safety standards for lithium-ion batteries used in e-bikes.

Minnesota e-bike rebates in 2024

For those looking to buy an e-bike, this summer and next could be a good time to do it with a new rebate program being rolled out to Minnesotans. Starting in July, residents can apply for a certificate for 50-75% off the value of an e-bike up to $1,500. This certificate must be presented at participating retailers, who will reduce the price of the e-bike according to the value of the certificate. The maximum rebate of 75% is limited to individuals earning $25,000 or less per year. There is no income limitation on the 50% rebate. Keep an eye out for more info this summer.

Editors note: This article is republished with permission from the Parks & Trails Council of Minnesota. View the original and learn more about the council here.

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