Nothing beats exploring new places from the seat of a bicycle. But when health issues made it difficult for my wife to bike, we thought our bike touring days were over. Then we discovered e-bikes. They’ve been a total game changer, opening the door to active travel opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t be feasible.
My wife, Libby, met her first e-bike on a California wine country vacation. A single-day trip on a borrowed bike led to a guided week of cycling in Hawaii, then the purchase of our own e-bikes. With the simple addition of a pedal assist, road riding is once again the primary goal of our vacations.
E-bike tourism is everywhere in Europe, where electric bikes are also commonly used for commuting and getting around town. In the U.S., people typically ride bikes for exercise or recreation, so e-bike tourism has been slower to catch on. But bike share programs and city tours are helping to increase exposure to electric bicycles and the e-bike travel industry is benefitting as a result.
To get a perspective on e-bike travel, we reached out to the two companies that first introduced us to the concept: Backroads, an active travel company with trips across the globe, and Sonoma Valley Bike Tours, a company that provides bike rentals and guided trips in California wine country.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Bob Greeneisen, Backroads: E-bikes allow more people to participate in active travel by taking away their fear. They also enable people of varying ability to ride together. Cyclists who, for various reasons, had to stop riding have also found a renewed ability to ride thanks to e-bikes.
Kellie Macway, Napa & Sonoma Valley Bike Tours: We’ve offered e-bikes off and on since 2009, but 2018 really seems to be the first year that they have become popular where we see people asking for them.
When we first offered e-bikes, many people perceived the e-bikes as cheating them of the exercise benefit of biking. Europeans, on the other hand, who are more familiar with bicycling as a means of transportation vs. strictly for exercise, would light up with recognition and say, “Oh, you have e-bikes? Great, we’ll take those.” They understood e-bikes as a more efficient means to travel farther/faster by bicycle and had zero stigma about losing any exercise benefit.
Fast-forward to 2018 and I would say that Americans have a new understanding and appreciation for e-bikes. I suspect the familiarity is coming from a lot of the new e-bike rentals that are popping up in major cities.
Martin and Libby Rose pose during an e-bike tour in Hawaii.
Russell Grange, Backroads: People unfamiliar with e-bikes sometimes assume they will be noisy or won’t blend in well with traditional bikes. As a trip leader, it’s fun at the start of a trip to “introduce” guests to their e-bikes and put their concerns to rest. To the untrained eye, our e-bikes look nearly identical to our traditional bikes, and with the motors being silent one can bike with ease and never worry about standing out from the crowd.
Another concern guests sometimes have is running out of battery midway through the ride. While the batteries pack a lot of power and can most often easily make it through a full day, we do carry spare batteries in our support vans and often install a fresh battery at the midpoint of the ride, just for safe measure.
Finally, some guests worry that they will get too much assist from the e-bike and not get any exercise. Once they learn that they control how much assist they receive at any given time, and that they do still have to pedal like a regular bike, they are happy.
Macway: I wouldn’t say there is a prototype for “typical” e-bike rider. In some cases, it’s a member of a travel party who is recovering from an injury or is generally less confident of their fitness level, but mostly, e-bike riders are able-bodied outdoor enthusiasts who think e-bikes sound like even more fun that a regular bike – and they are!
Grange: E-bikes are a huge win for couples and friends with varying skill levels and interests. An e-bike means a rider who may not be able or interested in biking as far or as quickly as their partner can now ride along at a pace that works for both. They are also a huge win for people who have chosen a bike tour, not because of a long history of biking or a passion for the sport, but because they recognize that bicycles are a direct connection to the countryside and the more authentic, less-traveled corners of the regions in which we travel.
Macway: It’s important to distinguish whether the e-bike your renting has a throttle mode (no pedaling required) or is strictly a pedal-assist model. Our current e-bikes – the Specialized Vado 2.0 – are pedal-assist, so pedaling and the full range of motion to complete the pedal stroke is required. It’s important to note that most e-bikes are significantly heavier compared to a traditional bike, so it is imperative that the rider has the dexterity and confidence to ride a bike. Sometimes people are looking at an e-bike as an option for a frail, elderly member of their travel party and I wouldn’t say that is always a great idea.
Grange: Because an e-bike is not a motorbike, you do still have to pedal the bike. When you do, the motor will assist you and make the pedaling easier, smoothing out the hills and lengthening the distance one can comfortably ride. That being said, e-bike riders will have a more enjoyable time and be more comfortable in the saddle if they are in adequate physical shape and are, at minimum, comfortable on a bicycle.