Electric bikes have cruised to popularity, and local governments are scrambling to keep up. Changes in state laws have left a patchwork of policies, and e-bikers aren’t always sure where they can ride. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy took to the trails to check out the new technology and brings us this report.
On a recent afternoon, I joined Kevin Byford, co-owner of Aspen Bikes, for an electric bike ride. I jumped on the cycle, pushed down on the pedal, and it took off, a little faster than I anticipated.
As soon as a rider starts pedaling, the motor engages. This also means that, for what is usually a bit of a grind up the Smuggler dirt road, it’s a pretty easy ride.
Byford rents pedal-assisted e-bikes — meaning, riders have to be pedaling to get any help from the motor. There are three levels of power, and no matter what, the motor on these e-bike caps out at 20 mph. The extra help makes you feel stronger and move faster, but it doesn’t do all the work for you.
"It's like having a fast-forward button for those sections of a ride that don’t really interest you,” Byford said.
As soon as you stop pedaling, the motor shuts off. While it is assisting during the ride, it’s nearly silent.
"It's just not that far away from traditional biking,” Byford said. “It's a lot further away from motor biking, you know, than it is from biking."
State legislators agree. In July, a bill passed that allows e-bikes on pedestrian and bike paths in Colorado, unless local jurisdictions choose otherwise.
Commuters like Tyler Lindsay have embraced the new technology as a way to get cars off the road.
"If my goal is to move 150 pounds of meat and bone up and down the valley, 50 pounds of metal and plastic is a much better tool for doing that than 4,000 pounds of metal and plastic," Lindsay said.
Lindsay commutes from Woody Creek to the Aspen Business Center by bike every day, summer or winter, rain or shine. He said using an e-bike in the winter months keeps that commute doable.
“In the winter, when it's cold and you have to put on a whole bunch of layers, carrying a snowboard, wearing snowboard boots, a regular bike just isn't practical and an e-bike is," he said.
Plus, he said, biking is more in line with the community’s environmental ideals, and a bike path is a lot safer than the highway.
The Roaring Fork Transportation Authority (RFTA) manages the Rio Grande Trail from Glenwood Springs to Emma. Its board recently voted to allow e-bikes on that section of the popular path. Part of that decision was an effort to alleviate traffic backups from the Grand Avenue Bridge construction. RFTA’s Angela Henderson said the new technology makes cycling accessible to more people.
“But there was a discussion around the fact that our population is aging, that we’re going to see more and more people in the valley needing some assistance,” Henderson said.
RFTA doesn’t have exact numbers, but said people are using e-bikes on the trail for both recreation and for commuting.
Although, if people are using the upper Rio Grande for that purpose, they’re breaking the law. The section that runs from Emma to Aspen is managed by Pitkin County, which still bans e-bikes on trails, for now.
“This is a 10-foot wide trail, wasn’t necessarily built to have e-bikes out on it, so we might have to look at some safety upgrades,” Henderson explained.
RFTA’s estimates show 85,000 users on the trail every year — and that includes families, dogs, runners, equestrians, rollerbladers and cyclists of all ability levels, from kids with training wheels to, what Henderson calls the “Tour de France crowd” of serious road bikers.
“If we add another layer of e-bikes, we need to make sure that, whatever we do, we make it as safe as possible for all of those uses,” Henderson said.
RFTA is heading up efforts to analyze where e-bikes might be appropriate in the Roaring Fork Valley. The goal is to have one set of rules that governs the Rio Grande Trail, from Glenwood Springs all the way to Aspen.
Commuter Tyler Lindsay welcomes the conversation.
"It's valuable for new technologies like this to come in and force a rethink of existing ways of doing things and legal frameworks for running society,” he said.
Even when it might be easier — and warmer — to drive, Lindsay thinks it’s important to stay on the bike and off the highways.
“Even if you have to break the law,” he said.
For now, law-abiding e-bikers in Pitkin County will have to stick to only those areas where other motorized vehicles can go.