Why eBikes?

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For the 35th anniversary of Backroads, we decided it was about time to get me out talking to the press, something I hadn’t done in ages.

Everyone wanted to talk about eBikes, electric-assist bikes. All the editors and writers I met challenged my decision to offer them on trip. One writer’s adverse reaction to eBikes was so strong it was shocking. She walked into the neighborhood shawarma shop where we’d decided to meet. Before she even took her seat she said, “So tell me about these eBikes. I’m not going to like them.” Her face was hard and she seemed almost angry.

Why? I wanted to ask her. I’ve wanted to ask everyone who’s fought me on this. What are you afraid of? Instead, I said…

“We know there are people out there, couples, for example, who can’t ride together, and we want them to be able to ride together.”

I don’t remember what else I said, but this was enough.

I’ll never forget the look on her face when she understood. Her change was amazing. In that moment of comprehension, her change was almost as shocking as her initial disapproval.

eBike on Backroads Italy Trip in Tuscany

It turns out she was an avid cyclist, and her long-time boyfriend had been an avid cyclist too. But he’d recently had a hip replacement and they’d been unable to ride together comfortably since. She asked whether I really thought they could ride together again. “Yes,” I told her. “I know you can.” (The couple is now booked on our upcoming Mallorca Cycling Trip in Spain.)

Writing this in my office in Berkeley now, looking out at our courtyard and the bikes hanging by the front gate and all the coming and going, I can’t remember whether I told that writer in New York City about my trip with my son, William, earlier this year out to Alpine Dam. We’d gone together to put eBike to the test. I’m a serious enough cyclist. I even have a bike desk, so I can ride hard for hours – while working – when I don’t have hours to ride.

William was twelve. The Alpine Dam loop is 34.2 miles with a 3202 foot elevation gain. When we went out together, I rode hard. William did, too, and with the extra boost of the eBike, he kept up. We’d never been able to ride hard together before, and certainly not with that distance or elevation gain.  I ride with my kids, but not full out. That day was different. We still talk about it. It was wild for us to share that.

I’m not sure what it will take for the angst around eBikes to dissipate. Once the cycling community comes around to the realization that more people on bikes means more bike lanes and more awareness of cyclists on the road, I think attitudes will change. By and large our guests are thrilled with eBikes–those who have tried them–but a handful still adamantly disapprove of my decision to offer them. And until I sat across that shawarma shop table from that writer in New York City, she disapproved, too. Why? This question still baffles me. But I think people will come around. In time.

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Tom Hale

Tom Hale

Founder and President at Backroads
A native of Moraga, California, Tom Hale possesses a passion for two seemingly divergent interests—business and back roads—which he has powered into the world's most successful active travel company. It was the back roads that first attracted him, as a competitive runner at Campolindo High School (where he still holds the two-mile record at 8:57.2) and at the University of Oregon, where he was a teammate of legendary runner Steve Prefontaine. Armed with a Masters in Environmental Planning from UCLA, Hale was six months into an environmental planning position in Las Vegas when the back roads called again—big time. A middle-of-the-night inspiration to start a bike touring company motivated him to pedal 5,000 miles alone through the West, all the while formulating plans for his new business. Settling in Berkeley, Hale washed fondue pots by night and built his fledgling travel company by day. In true entrepreneurial fashion, he did it all—designed the itineraries, maintained the bikes, led the trips, produced the catalog.
Tom Hale

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