In June, Mark Werksman and his wife, Leslie, bicycled with their adult children throughout Italy’s Tuscany for a week and loved the experience so much they signed up for a Canadian trip three months later. This summer, the Werksman family is set for another trip, this one through Provence in southeastern France.
Their trips with Backroads come with luxury inns, two support vans, GPS guides and special bicycles outfitted with small, silent electric motors that boost riders’ pedaling effort, said Werksman, a Los Angeles attorney.
Recreational bicycle touring has changed gears continuously since the bike’s invention two centuries ago, from Baron Karl von Drais’ wooden two-wheeled “pre-bicycle,” which lacked pedals and was propelled by feet on the ground, to today’s models with low-carbon steel or carbon-fiber composite frames that weigh just a few pounds.
Modern-day bicycle touring hit critical mass during the 1976 Bikecentennial, when about 4,100 self-supported cyclists rode coast-to-coast across America. About 95 million Americans rode a bike for recreation at least once in a year, according to a March 2015 report commissioned by PeopleforBikes, which promotes the benefits of bicycling.
Now the electric bike, which has been around since the 1890s, is really taking off. In Western Europe, 1.6 million e-bikes were expected to be sold in 2016, according to Bloomberg; in the Asia Pacific, that number is more than 20 times greater than that.
The e-bike, on which the rider pedals like a regular bike or gets a boost from an electric motor, is opening the way for more riders and just may revolutionize — and democratize — the touring experience.
“We wouldn’t be doing this if it weren’t for the e-bikes,“ Werksman said. “I’m 57; my wife is 55. We are the perfect demographic for these e-bikes. Our kids are grown, and we wanted to do something a little out there. We were tired of flying somewhere, staying in a hotel and walking around museums all day.”
Though neither he nor his wife, a retired dentist, consider themselves elite athletes, his family is sold on the concept of touring on two wheels. “You can see a community, a world, from a whole different vantage point,” Werksman said.
Custom titanium electric-assist bicycles like those the Werksmans rode are now well represented in the Backroads fleet.
A growing number of bicycle touring outfits are discovering how electric bikes can add more fun to more tours for people with a wide range of physical abilities and athletic ambitions.
“I’m sure there are some travelers for whom the athletics are part of the goal,” Werksman said. “If I hadn’t had an e-bike, I would have had a terrible time in the hills of Tuscany.”
The great equalizer
Innovations in lighter, more powerful batteries and frame designs are making the latest e-bikes more attractive, especially to bike tour companies. E-bikes can become the great equalizer that allows cyclists of all levels to keep up in group rides, making the job of coordinating meals and lodging that much easier.
Most models still require pedaling and some physical fitness, making e-bike touring not the choice of wimps but, say advocates, a green and healthy way to explore cities, bike trails and even the wilderness.
Unlike a moped or motorcycle, e-bikes are quiet and still look like a bicycle, but they can supplement a rider’s effort to achieve speeds of 15 to 20 mph over many miles.
“The range of the battery is totally dependent on the mode, the weight of rider and the conditions you ride,” said Matt Lyon, director of worldwide technical operations for VBT, a Vermont-based bicycle touring company.
Electric bikes make up a fraction of VBT’s 4,000-bike fleet, but demand is growing so the company has dropped the $350 e-bike surcharge and found versatile and reliable e-bikes to suit their customers.
“If you are unhappy with your bike, it could grossly affect your experience,” Lyon said. Now the e-bike’s power adds exhilaration where exhaustion and humiliation used to reside.
Julie Robinson, director of sales and marketing at Seattle-based Bicycle Adventures, said the company never seriously considered in its 34 years adding electric bikes.
“Then there was sort of an ‘aha moment’ with a couple who has traveled with us dozens of times,” Robinson said. “He is very strong and can ride 100 miles every day of a trip. His wife loves to ride, but not as avidly.”
The wife tried an e-bike. “Suddenly they showed up at the rest stops and the scenic overlooks at the same time,” Robinson said. “And they are in all the same pictures. It was such a revelation for us about what a game changer they could be.”
Bicycle Adventures has designed a new, nine-day electric-assist mountain bike tour through Triglav National Park in Slovenia to take advantage of the extra distance and tough terrain that a good rider and an e-bike can master.
“The itinerary was designed with the e-bike in mind to make it accessible for folks who don’t have legs of steel or aren’t Olympic athletic animals on the bike,” said Jennifer Schofield, an adventure manager with Bicycle Adventures.
A new mode of riding
Electric bikes also have become a popular option in famously hilly San Francisco, said Jeff Sears, founder of the bike rental and tour company Blazing Saddles, which rents regular bikes for $8 to $9 an hour and e-bikes for $48 to $88 for 24 hours. Riders of all ages and abilities are gravitating to the new riding mode.
“Young couples come in and their goal is to do a lot more miles than they would have done if they had taken regular bikes. Or they want a faster trip to see all the things they wanted to do, and make it a half-day event rather than an all day,” Sears said.
A popular three-hour, $85 guided e-bike tour offers the experience of riding almost effortlessly up steep hills, across the Golden Gate Bridge and along the mostly flat National Park Bike Path. Sears emphasized that the e-bikes are an attraction in themselves, especially when riders discover their recreational and practical potential.
“We do get a lot of people returning and saying it’s completely different, but it’s still bicycling and so much more. And then they say, ‘Where can I buy one?’” Sears has been selling enough electric bikes that he’s now opening a retail electric bike store.
He also is working with hotels worldwide to stock electric bikes to give guests a new experience and, he hopes, develop new customers.
Electric bike manufacturers are helping tour outfitters understand the potential of e-bikes in tourism and beyond, said Don DiCostanzo, chief executive and co-founder of Pedego Electric Bikes in Fountain Valley.
“For us, getting people on tours is the single best way to expose them to a bike. It’s like they take a test ride and then … they have a fabulous experience,” DiCostanzo said.
One of the biggest rental fleets of Pedego bikes is at Austin’s Rocket Electrics, a rental, retail and tour company in the Texas capital. Nicole Zinn, president and co-founder, opened the all-electric company in 2012 and has seen its tour and rental business double annually.
Pedego’s bikes, which offer a motor that can operate without pedaling, have been popular with corporate groups that have “lots of people who may have various physical issues. Electric bikes let them forget that,” Zinn said.
A more active lifestyle
Though some cycling purists disdain the use of motors, a growing number of riders are attracted to the novelty— and the fun — of riding a speedy bicycle along country roads or zipping around town without paying for parking or crawling in traffic.
Though not every veteran of an e-bike tour returns and becomes an avid cyclist, they can provide a gateway to a more active lifestyle.
“Almost everyone I know who buys an electric bike gets into cycling,” said DiCostanzo. “It’s like there are runners and there are walkers. Riding an electric bike is good exercise.”
Los Angeles psychologist Paulene Popek, 70, became an e-bike convert after taking her 35-year-old athletic daughter, Sarah, on a strenuous Backroads tour on a regular bike in 2014 through Croatia.
For the first time in seven years of bike touring, she found herself struggling on the hills and, worse, lagging behind. “I hate being last,” she said.
Popek and her daughter, who stays fit riding her two non-electric bikes, took another trip in 2016, and this time she used an electric bike through northern Spain. Said Popek: “It’s a tough ride, but who cares? I can get an e-bike.”