It was an avoidable mistake. Not paying attention, I neglected to shift into a lower gear while approaching a steep hill high above Lake Pend Oreille.
Suddenly each pedal stroke felt nearly impossible. I started to stall. Within seconds, I’d be resigned to pushing my mountain bike up the hill.
That didn’t happen. Instead, just at the decisive moment when I should have lost all forward momentum, I felt the pedals magically kick in, offering their own assistance.
The future of biking saved the day.
I was riding an electric mountain bike at Schweitzer Mountain Resort. I was on a two-hour guided tour of the mountain, led by Dani Demmons, activities manager for the North Idaho resort.
We completed a roughly 10-mile loop that took us high up the mountain and was replete with glittering views of the lake, the deep cleaving marks of the long-ago glacial flood clearly visible.
We biked along shady roads and passed pockets of wildflowers. A tree, stripped of its bark, showed where a bear had marked its territory.
Despite the 90-degree heat, I didn’t break a sweat.
”We call it a leisurely interpretive ride,” Demmons said.
The bikes, built by Rad Power Bikes, weigh 65 pounds and have fat tires, allowing riders to roll over all but the largest obstacles. Riders can pick the level of pedal assist they want, or there is a throttle that removes pedaling altogether.
Schweitzer started offering the rides in July. Since then, Demmons said, the tour has attracted the kind of people you might expect, “people who don’t think they’re quite physically fit enough” to go on a full mountain bike ride.
But it’s also brought out the more experienced and athletic bikers.
”I’m very, very physically active,” Hillary Berry said. “But about three years ago, I was in a bike accident and I broke a collarbone and I’ve been petrified of getting back on a bike.”
She overcame that fear on July 8 when she did the two-hour tour with her boyfriend.
”It was fun,” Berry said. “It was awesome.”
The e-bike tour is more than just a fun outing. It’s a harbinger of what’s to come.
The bike tour on Schweitzer Mountain is one example of how biking is changing. Worldwide, e-bike sales have skyrocketed with 35 million sold in 2016. Some economists predict the industry will account for more than $34 billion in sales by 2025. Already e-bikes are the highest-selling electric vehicle worldwide.
They’re particularly popular in smog-smothered China and bike-friendly Europe. But, like all things cycling, e-bikes haven’t taken off in the United States the way they have elsewhere.
That’s starting to change.
According to a Bicycle Product Suppliers Association study, the U.S. e-bike industry essentially doubled from 2016 to 2017. While the numbers are still small, they will likely only continue to increase.
The technology could be particularly useful in a hilly city such as Spokane. Rhonda Kae Young, a professor of civil engineering at Gonzaga University, has been using a Copenhagen Wheel since the fall.
Young, who lives on the South Hill, said the wheel makes it more likely that she will commute regularly. She said when she gets home, she’s not too tired to do other things
”It just kind of makes your city level,” she said.
Unlike full e-bikes such as the ones used at Schweitzer, the Copenhagen Wheel is an electric propulsion device integrated into the rear wheel of a bike. The amount of assistance a rider gets is controlled via a smartphone. The wheel can fit onto normal bikes and starts at $1,499.
The prospect of e-bikes flooding the streets has alarmed some motorists and other cyclists.
”People talk about it a lot: Should e-bikes be able to use regular bike lanes?” Young said.
Some worry about the bikes traveling too fast and putting cyclists and pedestrians at risk.
Mariah McKay believes concerns about e-bike safety are concerns about biking etiquette. McKay, who may have been the first person in Spokane to own a Copenhagen Wheel, has been using the device for about two years.
”Most people don’t even realize my bike is an e-bike,” she said. “I think I’m a courteous cyclist because I was trained to be, not because I ride a special kind of bike or don’t ride a certain kind of bike.”
In March, Washington passed a law governing e-bikes and breaking them into three classes based primarily on speed.
As for infrastructure considerations, good bike infrastructure is good e-bike infrastructure, Young said. Although McKay points out that for longer bike trips, between cities, for instance, finding places to charge the bike’s motors could be challenging.
Perhaps the most important function e-bikes serve is getting more people onto two wheels.
”Where we really struggle in this country is we often don’t have the numbers (of riders),” Young said. “So just getting people out there, whether they’re getting help or not, ultimately makes us all safer.”
At 290 pounds, Robert Welck is a big man. He’s not the kind of guy who slips into spandex shorts and knocks out 50 miles.
That’s exactly why he’s renting and selling e-bikes.
”Most e-bikes that you’re going to see are built and designed for someone who is in relatively good shape and relatively light, less than 225 pounds,” he said. “Our bikes are really focusing on people who haven’t ridden in a long time and who may not be in good shape.”
Welck and his brother started Spokane Electric Bike Rental in 2017. Their goal is to make biking more accessible. They don’t manufacture their bikes, but they design them with an eye toward heavier riders. The bikes cost between $1,000 and $2,500. Rentals cost $50 a day. Rental payments go toward the bike purchase.
”Our niche is someone who hasn’t ridden in a long time and someone who is heavy,” Welck said.
For Welck, e-bikes have four main selling points: They connect you to a time in your life when things were simpler; they provide some exercise; they’re good for the environment; and they’re cheap.
Schweitzer Mountain Resort executives likely weren’t considering the bigger biking picture when they started offering e-bike tours. Instead, they saw a cool recreation opportunity, one that could open the mountain to people who might not otherwise get out and see it.
Yet the recreational tour may have have pushed some inadvertently into the e-bike fan club.
”I thought it was pretty neat being able to go up hill at a much faster rate than I normally could,” said Matt Diel, who took the Schweitzer tour two weeks ago. “It would be cool to go on a little longer one. The bikes had plenty of battery.”