Getting to know your way around a new town can be challenging, whether you’re traveling or relocating. In either case, I’ve always been a proponent of doing so via running or cycling, thanks to the unique vantage point the activities offer. When I temporarily relocated to the Boulder, Colo., area late last summer from the sea-level Mid-Atlantic region, I decided to apply my approach with a city bike tour. This one came with a twist, however: We took to the town on electric bikes.
I’m pretty fit, so I’ll admit that part of me looked down my nose at this option. But it turns out that e-bikes are a fun way to go. Their popularity as a bike category exploded last year, with sales growing 240 percent in the 12 months ending July 2021 and revenue reaching $741 million as of October, according to the NPD Group. It’s no wonder, then, that bike-touring companies are adding them to their fleets. The big and long-established outfitter Backroads, for instance, is predicting that, in 2022, more than 30 percent of its clients will opt for e-bikes. You can find e-bike tours in places as varied as Berlin, the Netherlands, Hawaii and Napa, Calif.
“The e-bike touring is definitely picking up,” said Geoff McMillion of the Adventure Cycling Association’s membership team. “We are getting more and more people asking about it.”
Interviews with a couple of companies that have incorporated electric-bike options and their customers explain why pedal-assisted tours are becoming so popular with vacationers.
Herschel Goldberg, founder and owner of Boulder Bike Tours and the guide for my ride, said he added the bikes about four years ago “to make my tours more accessible and enjoyable for people.”
Electric bikes, he said, are “perfect for a town like Boulder with lots of ups and downs.” My experience, which I completed atop a Schwinn Marshall electric bike, proved his case. The bike came with five levels of “assist” that I could toggle through as the terrain changed. I mostly stayed on the lowest level for the flatter sections of town, but when we started climbing, I moved the lever up to two. I was still pedaling and working, but with the extra boost from the motor, I was able to relax and pay attention to the scenery, listening to Goldberg’s narration as we passed sights of interest.
Since adding the e-bike option to his tours, Goldberg has found that his clients can go farther and take in more over a typical two-hour ride than they would otherwise. The result is that Goldberg’s e-bike city tours are now more popular than his traditional offerings — at an estimated ratio of 60 to 40. “We’re able to go to some iconic locations, rather than just sticking closer in town,” he says, “which makes the option a big draw.”
Natasha Walters, a 44-year-old yoga studio owner from Indiana, agrees. She, her preteen kids and her 63-year-old mother all took one of Goldberg’s tours last fall. “We took the road up to NCAR [the National Center for Atmospheric Research], which isn’t an easy hill,” she says. “It gave us a wonderful bird’s-eye view of Boulder, which is an experience we wouldn’t have been able to have without the e-bike.”
E-bikes can serve as a great equalizer for groups of all shapes, sizes and fitness levels. “The tour would have been a bit much for my mom without the e-bike option,” Walters says. “This allowed us all to just coast along and enjoy Boulder.”
Goldberg has found that many of his e-bike city tours involve locals. “When they have friends or family visiting from out of town, this is a great way to show them around, regardless of fitness level,” he says. “E-bikes allow a group to stay together.”
This has also made the bikes a popular option for work-related groups, whether as team-building outings or when a local company hosts clients or out-of-town employees. “This is all about enjoying the ride, not about a hard workout,” Goldberg says.
City tour operators aren’t the only ones to see the advantages. Some bicycle outfitters are including the option on multiday tours, too. That’s what Ashley Korenblat, chief executive of Western Spirit Cycling, based in Moab, Utah, began doing about five years ago.
Korenblat, a retired elite mountain biker, took ownership of her mostly Western U.S. touring company in 1997, along with her husband, Mark Sevenoff. Their philosophy is that people don’t get to spend enough time outdoors, and they introduce clients to riding dirt trails, striving to educate them about the fragile mountain and desert environments along the way. Initially, including e-bikes in this business model didn’t seem feasible. But after a good deal of research into permitting, the couple successfully added the category to their offerings.
“Right now, e-bikes are still only about 10 percent to 15 percent of our business, but we expect that to grow,” Korenblat says. “We offer about 50 different itineraries, and we have to look carefully at each route to determine if e-bikes are legal or not.”
Many trails do not allow motorized vehicles of any sort, including the two-wheeled variety, which can accelerate to about 20 mph in most cases. Dirt roads, however, are fair game. “If a car is permitted, an e-bike is permitted,” Korenblat says.
Electric bikes still have limitations when it comes to dirt and multiday touring, however, even where permitted. “E-bikes generally cater to people without much mountain biking experience, but if we encounter bad or wet trail conditions, they can be tricky for those who don’t have bike-handling skills already,” Korenblat says. “But when conditions are favorable and you’ve got a group with diverse fitness levels, they are the perfect solution.”
Another limit to backcountry riding is that e-bikes are curtailed by how long they can hold a charge. Typical batteries will last somewhere between 25 and 50 miles. “We can’t bring generators into some of the parks, so we use multiple batteries and swap them out,” Korenblat says. “The tech and the batteries are improving, but an e-bike with a dead battery can be very heavy.”
For Anna Dupree and her family, from Larkspur, Colo., a Western Spirit e-bike tour provided the perfect way to take in Utah. Dupree, 54, her mother, 74, and Dupree’s two 20-something daughters took a multiday mountain biking tour together. They rode about 80 miles over five days, averaging between 10 to 20 miles per day. “We never thought we could do a trip like this together,” Dupree says. “The climbs were still challenging with the assist, but at the end of every day, we still had the energy to go out at night, too.”
The family became such fans of traveling this way that they’re hoping to tour another area of the West by e-bikes this summer, potentially in Yellowstone. “Instead of buying a bunch of Christmas presents, we’re taking another e-bike tour,” Dupree says. “I love that my girls want to do these trips with us, and it’s partly because of the e-bike option.”
Although riding an e-bike of any kind for any length of time takes a little orienting, the learning curve is pretty short, Goldberg says. “I give a clear and direct demo on how to use them before we start. In all the e-bike tours I’ve led, I’ve only had one rider who was too nervous after starting, and she decided to abandon.”
Both Goldberg and Korenblat expect the e-bike tour category to continue to expand. “Some people might think e-bikes are cheating,” Korenblat says, “and I get that. But on the other hand, if e-bikes help more people get outside and see things they wouldn’t otherwise, it’s opening up the joy of cycling to a new population.”
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’s travel health notice webpage.