E-bikes—electric-assist bicycles—offer hope for recreational cyclists who like the idea of a multi-day bike trip but who worry they’re not up to the challenge. But as more cycling companies mix e-bikes into their offerings, are they alienating their core customers?
“Initially, it was hard for the purists, including me,” says VBT Bicycling and Walking Vacations’ Technical Operations manager Dave Drumm. “But once I spent some time on one and began to understand how they work and their benefits, I realized they’re amazing. I’m a convert for sure.”
The Benefits of E-Bikes
Adding e-bikes—bikes that give a boost to your pedaling—means opening up multi-day biking tours to entirely new audiences, most notably, couples that include one serious and one recreational cyclist. “E-bikes level the playing field” for traveling companions at different levels, Drumm explains. “We’re seeing couples who, for the first time, are actually able to enjoy a cycling vacation with their partner, side by side.”
Active travel company Backroads agrees, noting that e-bikes “are enabling people with different interests and activity levels to enjoy the same trip together.”
The benefits extend beyond just being able to keep up with the peloton. According to Backroads, customers have come to embrace e-bikes as a way of getting more out of vacation: “Guests have said that they enjoy the days better because they aren’t as worn out at the end of the day, or because they move through the routes quicker which enables them longer stops at cafes, it gives them a chance to shop en route or luxuriate at the next destination.”
Even some tour leaders—who have to be in top shape to keep up with the rigors of leading cycling trips—have found benefits to e-bikes, since the pedal assist allows them to move easily from the front of a line of cyclists to the end to check on people throughout the cycling day, and still have enough energy to deal with transfers, restaurant reservations, and hotels at night.
The Challenges of E-Bikes
But it’s not all smooth pedaling. As more companies add e-bikes to their fleets—especially in Europe, where e-bikes have been popular for longer—challenges have arisen. Since e-bikes are heavier than traditional bicycles, companies may need special trailers and licensing to transport their fleets. Because the bikes are considered motorized vehicles, there are some parks that prohibit their use, which can mean reworking itineraries. And since everything depends on a battery, companies must plan ahead for keeping everyone charged up. Backroads, for example, provides a second battery for every rental and swaps it out at lunch every day to make sure bike and cyclist can cruise worry-free to the end of the day.
The Future of E-Bike Trips
“It’s not a blip, it’s not a fad. This is where things are going,” says Drumm. Both VBT and Backroads say they, like many others in the industry, have grown their e-bike fleets in recent years, and plan to expand further. And while the bikes cost more to acquire and maintain, both companies avoid passing along those costs to customers on bike tours. Both companies see e-bikes as a complement to, rather than a competitor to, traditional bicycles, and report that cyclists of both kinds ride happily side by side on trips every day.
E-bikes are bringing pedal-powered sightseeing to larger audiences, but the best parts of cycling vacations—the sore muscles, unfiltered scenery, and bliss of a comfortable bed at the end of a long day of riding—will continue to be earned, one mile in the saddle at a time.