In 2013, Backroads, an operator of cycling tours to destinations around the world, bought 150 e-bikes for its fleet, experimenting with what was then a novelty.
Today the company has 4,500 electric-assisted bikes in its global fleet, and it offers them as an option on 90% of its trips. A majority of its customers now choose e-bikes over “acoustic bikes” (the term often used for traditional bikes without motors).
For those who haven’t had the pleasure, an e-bike is similar to a regular bicycle, but with a small, nearly silent electric motor that provides a gentle assist as you pedal.
E-bikes seem to flatten hills, extend daily sightseeing range, and let the miles breeze past. Riders can turn the power off to get more exercise, or turn it up to cruise past sights without breaking a sweat.
“We see e-bikes opening up bicycle travel to a wide range of people,” says Jamen Yeaton-Masi, vice president of worldwide operations for VBT, another provider of bike tours worldwide. She cites “spouses and friends of our typical biking guests, older guests who thought their cycling days were over, and people who’d been turned off by an elitist cycling culture that wasn’t super inclusive.” A large majority of VBT guests also now choose e-bikes over traditional pedal bicycles.
This rapid shift in bike tech is opening additional opportunities for travelers who’ve never thought of themselves as cyclists, and not just on packaged tours. There are now guided e-bike day tours in many destinations, and it's become easy to find rental e-bikes for exploring places independently.
E-cycling with tour companies
The rise in e-biking has also given rise to tour operators who offer trips built around them. Both Backroads and VBT lead cycling tours with e-bikes in destinations around the world.
On a typical tour, groups of around a dozen riders cover 20 or 30 miles a day, with stops for snacks, lunch, and exploration. Guides lead the group and a van trails behind, ready to swap out a battery, handle repairs, and pick up riders wanting a break. When travelers reach the next town, their baggage is waiting for them at the night's hotel.
Riding 20 to 30 miles a day for a week could be overwhelming for someone who isn’t a serious recreational cyclist, especially on hilly terrain in popular places like Tuscany. But for practically anyone on an e-bike, much of the challenging physical exertion has been removed.
E-bike riders tend have more energy left over to explore cultural sites and cities, Yeaton-Masi says. With fewer stragglers to wait for at rest stops, the group moves faster, allowing time to see more of the countryside or just hang out at the hotel pool.
Local e-bike day tours
Travelers don't have to go with a structured overnight tour to explore by e-bike. A growing number of smaller companies also now offer day tour options for exploring. Ranging from a couple of hours to a full day, these tours cover a lot of ground—far more than you can see by walking, more intimately than you’d experience in a car or tour bus, and with less physical effort than on an old-fashioned bike.
For instance, Seattle Rider offers e-bike city tours that take riders through popular neighborhoods and natural areas of the Washington city. On its tours, each helmet is equipped with communication devices so riders can hear directions and the guide’s descriptions.
In Newport, Rhode Island, where one of the biggest challenges of visiting the famed historic mansions is finding parking, e-cyclists can easily take in a few historic homes on a 2-hour e-bike tour by Island Adventures. A guide stops to tell stories and sometimes provides tours of the grounds.
There's no single clearinghouse for finding day tours that specialize in e-bike excursions, but since established local bike tour companies increasingly offer guided experiences on both traditional bikes or e-bikes, asking existing cycle tour businesses will often yield results.
E-biking in Nashville with BCycle | Credit: BCycle
Self-guided e-bike touring
Within a a few short years, e-bikes have also become widely available to borrow for short-term rentals through local sources such as bikeshare systems or local bike rental shops.
“Whenever we introduce e-bikes into communities, ridership has just skyrocketed,” says Tyler Britz, marketing manager of BCycles, a subsidiary of Trek Bicycles.
The company operates or supports bikeshare systems in more than 30 U.S. communities. Eleven of them rent only e-bikes.
Availability is rising seemingly everywhere. Using Montréal’s Bixi service, North America’s first large-scale bikeshare, visitors can borrow e-bikes without a reservation from racks spread around town to cycle along the scenic Lachine Canal, cut back into a network of bike-friendly city streets with dedicated bike lanes, and ascend to Mount Royal Park, a popular peak overlooking the city. Montréal's official tourism office now supports visiting e-bikers by compiling lists of renters and routes.
In San Antonio, you can grab an electric BCycle at the Alamo and ride along a 12-mile path to visit the four Spanish colonial missions that constitute a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all within half a day. San Antonio's tourism bureau, like many official tourism boosters, also keep tabs on businesses that offer local e-bike rentals and tours.
New York City’s fleet of CitiBikes, many of them electric, are used by tourists to ease up the hilly roads of Central Park, ride along the protected bike lanes found on many Manhattan avenues, and cross the bridges to Brooklyn and beyond.
In Santa Monica, you can ride The Strand, one of California’s most scenic bike routes, which winds along the Pacific Ocean past spectacular beaches and towns. On an e-bike, it's possible to cover the 44-mile round-trip to the beach town of Torrance in a day.
In most areas you’re likely to travel, local bike shops offer e-bike rentals too.
In Florida between Tampa and Clearwater, e-biking the 9.5-mile Courtney Campbell Trail gives you needed electric assistance in ascending a 45-foot-high bridge along the way. One rental shop there, embracing a favorite local pastime that tourists love, has tricked out its e-bikes with fishing rod holders—and provides the rods.
If you're not sure where to find an e-bike shop or route in a place you plan to visit, try the local tourism office's website first, and also find out whether the city has a bikeshare system that stocks e-bikes. The U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics maintains an updated map of American cities that have bikeshare systems (but its list includes dockless scooter rental programs).
Wherever you go, you’re also probably not far from an e-bike sales and rental store by Pedego, a growing dealer that now has 200-plus outlets.
Shipping an e-bike
For most people, it's easier to rent or borrow an e-bike during a vacation than it is to ship one there and back. If you want to travel with your own e-bike, things get complicated.
Most airlines let you check a bike with special packaging requirements, but e-bikes often fall into another category. Airlines often treat e-bikes as checked baggage or cargo, depending on policy, and they charge accordingly.
Getting the battery there is another story. Most e-bikes use lithium-ion batteries, which TSA prohibits in checked luggage. (You may remember reports of those batteries catching fire, including on airplanes.) Further, e-bike batteries usually exceed 300 watts, which is beyond the limits for carry-ons.
If you desperately want to travel with an e-bike battery, contact your airline ahead of time. But if you’re a recreational e-biker, you’ll save money and grief by simply renting an e-bike at your destination and enjoying the ride. It's not as hard to do as it was even a couple of years ago.