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Electric bikes all the buzz at a growing number of tour companies

More tour companies are giving their inventory a boost by adding electric bikes
'With an e-bike, no one gets left behind,' says one tour operator
Electric bikes give travelers a leg up on some terrain

As Ike Fazzio and I pedaled our Swiss-made, electric-assist bikes through Balboa Park, a steep climb loomed. Usually that would mean bearing down, sweating a bit and perhaps even walking up the incline. But not that day.

With a flick of my wrist, the Stromer bike's electric motor kicked in, and, though I was still pedaling, I ascended the slope with minimal effort. And, yes, as a dedicated road rider, I felt a wee bit guilty.

Call it cheating if you will, but for cyclists who like to pedal where the terrain is flat or mildly rolling and then get a boost when the going gets tough, riding an e-bike is the way to go. Several tour operators have jumped on the bandwagon, adding these heavier cycles to their inventory. Because their top speed is only 20 mph, you don't need a license to operate one.

When I rode with Fazzio, who runs a bike-touring company called San Diego Fly Rides (sandiegoflyrides.com), we used our legs for the most part to pedal the bike paths around 1,200-acre Balboa Park. We stopped to view statues, including one of botanist Kate "Mother Balboa" Sessions, lovely gardens and museum buildings, many built for the 1915 Panama-California Exposition and the 1935 California Pacific International Exposition.

Fazzio, a stone carver by training, said he and his wife, Megan, started their company nearly four years ago after returning from a six-month cycling tour of Europe.

"We knew we wanted to do something with bikes, and I thought e-cycles sounded like a great way to get more people on bikes," Fazzio said. His company's most popular ride, the SoCal Riviera Tour, takes in hilly La Jolla and Mt. Soledad and is for more adventurous riders.

Because the bikes weigh 62 pounds, thanks to their batteries and motors, the e-assist is definitely needed. This outing lasts about 21/2 hours and costs $89. The Spanish Twist tour of Balboa Park, which is heavy on San Diego history, lasts two hours and costs $75. Riders must be 16 or older.

"Hills can be tough, no doubt about it," Fazzio said. "But with an e-bike, no one gets left behind. They are great for groups, families and couples, especially when not everyone rides at the same level."

Closer to home for L.A. riders, Pedal or Not (pedalornot.net) offers 21/2-hour e-bike tours in Santa Monica on Pedego cycles that start at $59 each for two or more riders.

When I rode last year with co-owner Barbara Wittels, she gave me the scoop on celebrities past and present as we pedaled along the boardwalk, by the Marion Davies Guest House, under the Santa Monica Pier, past Muscle Beach and over and around the Venice canals.

Though most of the tour was as flat as a pancake, I admit I occasionally used the motor when I wanted to rest. We even encountered actor-director Tim Robbins on our ride. (He was pedaling a regular bike.)

In hilly San Francisco, Electric Tour Co. (electrictourcompany.com) cyclists use Ultra Motor bikes for the ride ($85) through Ft. Mason, along the Marina Green, through the Presidio and over the nearly two-mile-long Golden Gate Bridge into the Marin County burg of Sausalito.

To return, you hop on a ferry back to Fisherman's Wharf. Or, as a cool bonus, you can keep the bike and putter around on your own without a guide until the end of the day. (Electric bikes are allowed only on Blue and Gold ferries.)

Margaret Purnell, a Pasadena resident who has done numerous bike trips with Trek Travel (www.trektravel.com), said she decided to try an electric-assist bike several years ago after one of her knees began to hurt. Since then she's done multiday tours along the California coast, in Vermont and in and around Zion National Park in Utah.

"At first I tried everything, and then I stopped riding my bike," said Purnell, who is in her 50s. "My knees quit hurting. But I missed riding, so when the e-bikes became available, I tried them and it made it so my husband, Alan, and I could keep riding together."

Tania Burke, president of Wisconsin-based Trek Travel, said Purnell's story isn't unusual. She said the company added its first e-bike four years ago when a woman who had injured her knee asked about them, and Trek Travel permitted her to use one on a trip in France.

"She was able to do the whole Tour de France route and keep up with her husband," said Burke. "She told us she thought that was awesome."

E-bikes are now offered on all of Trek Travel's tours except those for avid or more serious riders. Up to 10% of her clients now use them.

"They're great because they allow couples who aren't at the same level to ride together," she said. "And you still have to pedal, but they allow you to go farther and faster."

Other bicycle tour companies have added e-bikes too. Issaquah, Wash.-based Bicycle Adventures (bicycleadventures.com) is retrofitting bikes to add electric motors.

"We debated this for three years, but we'll be offering them on all our tours next year," said Todd Starnes, Bicycle Adventures' owner. "Part of it is a purist thing. When we mentioned it to some of our regular riders, some of them said, 'Are you kidding me?'

"But we are getting more and more requests for electric bikes. It gives us the opportunity to expand the life span of a cyclist.… It's not unusual for us to have seven or eight 70-year-olds on a trip, though some of them think e-bikes aren't fair."

travel@latimes.com

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