CYCLING groups and equestrians have clashed in a debate over allowing electrically assisted bicycles on the network of New Forest cycle tracks.
The verderers are currently considering an amendment to the bylaws which would open the gravel network to ebikes, which are limited to a speed of 15.5mph and can be used on UK roads by anyone over 14 years old.
Revealing that verderers were minded to agree the change, Official Verderer Lord Manners invited people to have their say at last week’s Verderers’ Court with cycling groups, charities and local businesses all stepping forward to join the debate.
While some backed the technology as a way of helping less mobile people enjoy the national park, others warned faster bicycles might set a precedent for bigger vehicles.
Burley-based PEDALL, which supports people with additional needs, said without ebikes many of its users would be unable to enjoy the Forest.
A spokesperson said: “As people get older, fitness and health challenges often become a barrier to riding a two-wheel bicycle.
“Electric-assist on a bike can mean many people can continue to enjoy cycling longer, improving health and wellbeing, and maintaining independence.”
Longstanding Dibden resident and Cycling UK member Phillip Thomas said he used an ebike following an irregular heartbeat diagnosis.
He continued: “I meet many cyclists using electrically assisted cycles and we discuss the environment and ecology of the area and the quiet.
“None of these cyclists are cycling quickly and many are of an elderly disposition or have medical reasons for using this type of cycle.”
Cllr John Spinks, of Bransgore Parish Council, added: “Electrically assisted pedal cycles are here to stay, and should be as acceptable on waymarked cycle tracks as they are on the public highway and the problems caused by the few should be dealt with under the same anti-social behaviour measures that apply to other Forest users who misbehave.”
Bob Damper, a cyclist from Chandler’s Ford, said cycling was a low impact way for visitors to enjoy the national park, which promoted physical and mental wellbeing.
Ross Kempson, the owner of Cyclexperience in Brockenhurst, said the majority of its ebike sales and rentals were to retirees who wanted to enjoy the Forest or families with young children.
He warned: “The danger of introducing penalties and further restrictions will only stir up hostility and discontent if cyclists feel there is an air of inequality within the New Forest when the rest of the country, if not the world, are encouraging cycling as a major force to tackle pollution and congestion while increasing the health and wellbeing of its citizens.”
However, Peter Frost, the vice-president of conservation group Friends of the New Forest, urged the verderers to take a precautionary approach and maintain a firm resistance to ebikes.
He said: “The bylaws regarding motorised vehicles on the New Forest should be upheld. Present and future technology will continue to create more opportunities for people to access remote and wild places more easily. Faster vehicles in greater numbers will also be to the detriment of other Forest users.”
Caroline Scott, the chair of the New Forest Equestrian Association, told the verderers that allowing ebikes could threaten the fragile environment.
She said: “The concept of going faster over longer distances is hardly in keeping with the appreciation of what the Forest stands for, and the quiet peaceful enjoyment that most users seek.”
“Permitting motorisation per se on the Forest is punching a hole in the legal armour of protection. After ebikes it is a small step then to quad bikes and scramble bikes. Any form of motorisation should continue to be banned.”
The verderers are set to announce their decision on a revision to the bylaws after considering all the evidence.