In the last few years, bike riders around Tahoe have experienced something new. While riding along at a decent clip on the bike trail, they are being passed by folks who not only don’t seem to be peddling that hard but are barely breaking a sweat. These would be folks using a pedal-assisted electric bike. These bikes still require pedaling, but the small electric motors make it much easier, which makes many riders much happier.
For my sister, Julie Perachiotti, and her husband Frank, who are 68 and 70 years old, respectively, electric bikes have been one way to extend their bike-riding opportunities at Lake Tahoe.
“We like how you get to decide how intense to ride, mostly because it makes the hills easier. We still get the exercise, but now Sunnyside (on the West Shore) hill is a breeze,” said Julie.
For Tahoe City resident Michelle Allen, her tricycle-style electric bike has been a godsend. She has a degenerative eye disease and can’t drive, but she has enough vision to ride the electric bike.
“I commute to and from work or the farmers’ market when the weather is nice,” said Allen.
Her boss Jim Phelan at the Tahoe City Marina also has one that he uses to beat the Tahoe City traffic and parking issues during the busy summer months.
“It’s faster and easier than a pedal bike and you don’t get sweaty before you get to work,” he said.
The high altitude and hilly trails of the Sierra make bike riding in the area a challenge for visitors from lower elevations.
“Some people can’t get over the hump fitness wise (at high elevation), but they still want to be out there, get out of the car and get some exercise benefits,” said John Percy from Olympic Bike Shop in Tahoe City.
Electric bikes have been around for a number of years, but Percy says he has seen significant growth in just the past two years. There are two types of electric bikes seen most often: one is a cruiser-type bike, primarily designed for bike trails and neighborhood roads, the other style is a mountain bike with full suspension designed to conquer dirt trails.
The bikes attract two different audiences. The more popular cruiser bikes are geared toward folks who want to commute to work, head to town or just get outside. Designated as Class 1 bikes, they only assist the rider while pedaling and have a maximum speed of 20 mph. These bikes are allowed on bike trails. The electric mountain bikes, on the other hand, are focused on getting people farther or faster on dirt than they might otherwise be able to pedaling without a motor.
“We keep our mountain bike rentals limited,” said Percy. “Most singletrack trails in the area are off limits to electric bikes.”
In fact, the U.S. Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has declared that electric bikes are like other motorized vehicles and thus are allowed only on trails that allow motorized use. U.S. Forest Service does, however, know that electric bikes are a growing form of recreational use and new regulations may be necessary in the future.
Electric bikes are also not allowed on California State Park lands, except in areas that allow motorized vehicles, which on the dirt is limited. For example, in Burton Creek State Park, a very popular mountain-biking area, motorized vehicles are not allowed.
“The mountain e-bikes are not going away. The people who might struggle climbing for 2,000 feet or more are doing it. The technology is there,” says Mike Miller from The Gravity Shop in Tahoe City.
Miller is a strong rider and former mountain-bike downhill racer who says he does feel a bit guilty riding one of the electric mountain bikes.
“You still have to peddle hard to get the speed up, but it certainly makes it easier. I felt spoiled being able to cover a lot of terrain in a short amount of time,” he says.
While access to the back country for electric mountain bikes is limited, the cruiser-style electric bikes are becoming increasingly popular. And, they also have the potential to alleviate congestion during Tahoe’s busy summer months.