The headwind is powerful. It blows up the valley, scattering leaves, dust and debris, each gusting blast enough to send small children skyward. A kilometer in front of us we can see a road cyclist struggling, head down, into the maelstrom. Aileen looks at me and stomps on the pedals of her townie bike. In seconds she’s picking up speed, knifing through the wind. Moments later she’s screaming past the roadie, accelerating into the dust. Eventually I pass the roadie too, and when I do he gives me a wan smile. Lean and toned, he’s spent enough time in the saddle to know the truth: Aileen isn’t a stronger cyclist than this road-hardened warrior, it’s her e-bike that gives her the edge.
Increasingly sophisticated and lighter thanks to improvements in battery and motor technologies, e-bikes are useful, controversial and fun in equal measures. They anger traditionalists, bring joy to the casual and less fit, and challenge the status quo along with assumptions about just what you can do on a bike.
E-bikes generally fall into a variety of categories based upon power and if the bike is “pedal assist” or fully electronic, i.e. you don’t have to pedal but access power via a throttle, like a moped or motorcycle. Featuring rechargeable batteries coupled to electronic motors with a maximum of 750 watts of power, e-bike categories range from class one to three, with the latter maxing out at 28 miles per hour, fast enough to blow away any grizzled roadie you might cross paths with. Of course, with more power and speed come more restrictions. If you’re looking to ride the greatest variety of trails, class one and two bikes face the least restrictions.
Boulder, a long-time center for innovation in the sciences and with a tech-friendly population that embraces new ideas, is fertile ground for the e-bike revolution. And indeed, the city has opened much of the urban bike path infrastructure to e-bikes. Most of the town’s cycling and multi-use trails are fair game (with some restrictions, such as a blanket 15mph speed limit, for example), with city planners emphasizing access to key commuting and travel corridors.
“E-bikes are a viable mobility option for community members and we do promote their use,” says City of Boulder Senior Transportation Planner David “DK” Kemp. “They are great for longer trips and hilly terrain, and good for commuters and the aging population too — good to stay active — and e-bikes provide a little kick to help some go further.”
The view of e-bikes as a transit solution is reflected on the county level. Outside of Boulder city limits, Boulder County tends to “OK” the use of e-bikes on regional trails that connect urban zones such as the 36 Bikeway, and the Coal and Rock Creek Trails, as well as on the county’s recreational paths and trails east of the foothills. However, once you get off of the flats and into places like Betasso, Caribou and Heil Valley Ranch, you’d better plan on using a mountain bike and 100-percent physical effort to get your two-wheeled thrills in.
It’s much the same in Jefferson County. Known for a progressive mountain bike trail policy and some of the Front Range’s best rides, class one e-bikes are allowed on natural surface trails while class one and class two e-bikes are allowed on paved trails within the parks and open space managed by Jefferson County.
These approaches are comparable to the approved uses that e-bike users experience across the state, including the popular tourist destinations of Vail and Summit County. In Summit County, where regulations are in the formative stage, e-bike use is allowed on paved pathways but not on natural surface trails. In Vail, class one and two machines can be used on pathways throughout town, including the well-traveled Gore Valley Trail, which connects the town to down-valley Eagle County destinations.
This regulatory landscape is informed by federal law. At the federal level e-bikes are classified as motorized vehicles and are only allowed on motorized trails within federally held public lands such as Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and National Forest (USFS) holdings. However, a recent United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) decision to allow class one, no throttle, pedal assist inside California’s Mammoth Mountain ski area’s special use permit boundary is expected to open up some similar access to federal lands within Colorado’s ski areas.
The USDA decision is a nod to tourism, which along with the daily commute, seems to hold plenty of promise for e-bikes, and it’s a development that Jonathan Wienert, sales and marketing manager for Bosch, a supplier of batteries and motors to e-bike manufacturers, is excited about.
“Our perspective and the perspective of our colleagues in Europe is that for these ski resorts, e-bikes make all types of mountain trails accessible. This is much different than the typical demographic of mountain bikers, which tend to be guys in their 20s,” says Wienert.
“In the winter, families ski together,” he adds. “Maybe they’ll take different runs down, but they can all ride the chairlift up. These [e-bike] mountain bikes equalize access to the great outdoors. Now everyone can be on the trails together.”
This accessibility for all also has local retailers excited. “They’re perfect for families or groups,” says Canaday of Pedego. Canaday is, like Wienert, bullish on the impact that e-bike technology can have on accessibility, pointing out that Pedego sees a consistently positive response from bike rental clients such as families visiting University of the Colorado Boulder, who are able to quickly explore the campus and surrounding community regardless of disparate fitness levels.
But mobility and transit issues aside, there’s one key attribute that makes e-bikes so compelling, says Canaday. “They’re fun!” he exclaims with a wide smile.
It’s the same kind of smile that’s plastered across Aileen’s face when I finally catch up to her. She’s radiant with stoke. “Let’s do that again!” she enthuses, and so we head out for more riding.
This, perhaps, is the secret ingredient that will see e-bikes make inroads throughout Colorado’s cycling community. Sure, the grizzled roadies will still be out riding the canyons and Flagstaff, putting the hammer down. And the hardcore mountain bikers will still slay the singletrack in the foothills. But for the casual cyclist, who perhaps wants to ditch the car commute but hasn’t yet due to hills or distance, or the tourist family looking to explore Boulder, or the potential CU student with parents in tow who wants to quickly tour the campus, or your elderly uncle who needs a bit of extra help getting up a hill, these bikes offer the promise of making cycling fun again. And fun never goes out of style.
With the popularity of e-bikes exploding, expect to find more and more bike shops offering sales, rentals and service of these fun two-wheeled toys. If you’re looking to get into the e-bike game, here’s a non-inclusive list of some local shops that can get you up to speed.
Get on your bike and ride:
2015 13th St., Boulder.
An exclusive e-bike retail and rental shop, Pedego’s full service facility offers everything you could want or need when it comes to e-bikes.
Boulder Cycle Sport (bouldercyclesport.com/bikes/e-bikes)
4580 North Broadway, Boulder.
Boulder Cycle Sport offers e-bike rentals, sales and service in addition to their human-powered cycle inventory.
University Bicycles (ubikes.com)
839 Pearl St., Boulder.
This west end retailer offers rentals by the hour, day or week.
Performance Bicycle (performancebike.com/shop)
2450 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder.
National chain with online e-bike sales, along with local service and support.