Electric bikes, or e-bikes, continue to grow in popularity, forcing local businesses to adjust their offerings and stirring conversation among public land managers.
The two-wheel pedal-assist bikes have opened a whole new world for people who have never biked, or don’t want to go through the rigors of strictly pedaling their way uphill.
The class 1 bikes can fully charge in about two hours, run for about 25 miles depending on many variables, get up to 20 mph and also can help a rider get to the top of a mountain faster than any Tour de’ France champion.
“You think you’re fast now, you can be a lot faster,” said South Shore Bikes owner Hec Hernandez, who has been ordering and selling more e-bikes over the last couple of years at his shop. “It’s hard to imagine not having to pedal as much going uphill.”
READ MORE IN 2019 BIKE & REC GUIDE: This story is adapted from the 2019 edition of the Sierra Nevada Bike & Recreation Guide, a specialty publication of the Tahoe Daily Tribune and the Sierra Nevada Media Group. Pick up a hard copy at various locations throughout the greater Carson-Tahoe region, or go here to read the digital version.
Tahoe Sports LTD near Stateline maybe has the largest selection of e-bikes, for rent and for sale. They have several bikes in stock that cost anywhere from $2,500 to $6,000 and they can order even higher end e-bikes that cost up to $17,000. Or, customers can rent them for $100 a day.
Kyle Smaine, an aspiring South Shore Olympian who travels all over the world in winter as a member of the US Ski Team and has worked part-time at the store for about four years, says rentals have greatly increased over the past couple of years.
“Two summers ago we hardly did e-bike rentals and we didn’t do it well,” Smaine said. “Now, we run out a lot of e-bikes — it’s no doubt growing. It’s picked up a lot in the last year and a half, and most of that is awareness, or they’re seeing people on them.”
It’s the same on the North Shore at the Village Ski Loft in Incline Village.
“E-bikes are positive for many different reasons,” said co-owner Aaron “Elko” James. “It’s helped the industry along and it’s also helped some older people who can’t ride like they used to due to pain or fitness, to get back up the mountain.”
Questions about access
The growing popularity of e-bikes has sparked conversation about where they should, and shouldn’t, be allowed to travel.
Currently, the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit of the U.S. Forest Service considers e-bikes motorized vehicles. That restricts the areas in which they can go, as they are allowed only on designated motorized trails.
“E-bikes are getting really popular,” said Gary Bell, who has owned Sierra Ski and Cycle Works in South Lake Tahoe for about 40 years and has witnessed many changes over the years, including the growth of mountain biking and decline, then rise, of road biking.
Bell’s full-service bike shop in recent years has started selling commuter-style e-bikes, good for riding on paved trails. That’s where he sees them fitting in: around the lake, not all over the mountains.
“E-bikes are great if they get someone out of their car,” Bell said. “They are excellent for transportation across town. But they are illegal on Forest Service trails, which is fine. I know pro e-bike people want to make them legal on all trails, and quite honestly, I don’t think that’s the place for them. I think the regulations should stay in place. I hope their biggest impact is helping our traffic problems.”
The Lake Tahoe Bicycle Coalition, a group whose goal is to make Lake Tahoe more bike friendly, also favors fewer cars on basin roads.
“We’re in favor of anything that gets people out of their cars and onto a bike,” said coalition president Gavin Feiger. “E-bikes are great for older people who maybe aren’t in quite as good shape, or for people who are commuting good distances to work, where if you’re going to meetings during the summer you don’t want to show up all sweaty.”
He sees more e-bikes in the future and thinks they fit well on paved trails.
Keeping an open mind
The Forest Service last year approved e-bikes at Mammoth Mountain, making it one of the first bike parks on USFS land to allow e-bikes.
And more flexibility with e-bikes on trails could be coming to Lake Tahoe, considering e-bikes are already on most of the trails with regulation at a minimum.
“They’re already out there anyway,” James said. “There’s no real regulation right now. I kind of compare e-bikes to the way snowboards got integrated at the resorts. We all just have to keep an open mind.”
Looking toward the future, the USFS Lake Tahoe branch is in discussions on ways to develop a long-term strategy and figure out what makes sense for the use of e-bikes in the basin, said forest engineer Mike Gabor.
“We are currently working on an agreement with (national bike coalition) People for Bikes, and have received $40,000 in funding from them that will go toward analyzing our trail system to determine if it’s feasible to open any current non-motorized trails to class-1 e-bikes within our national forest trail system in the basin,” Gabor said.
Although some mountain bikers look down on e-bikes as a form of cheating, the bikes do not appear to be going anywhere.
“It’s the way of the future,” Hernandez said. “It’s opening up biking to people who could never ride before. It’s like the age group 35 and above, the people that don’t get out and get to see things that they’ve never seen before.
“They’re here, we can’t stop them so you better jump in or we’re gonna miss the boat completely.”