E-bikes are a big buzz on the trails and in bike shops. But is it really cycling? And does it matter?
I’ve pedaled all 34 grueling miles of the River Mountains Loop Trail — just not all at once. The trail’s not flat, and it’s not easy. I’m content to ride my bike on sections of it, in six- to 10-mile round trips. Completing the trail in one epic excursion is an uncommon feat of truly dedicated cyclists.
That used to be the case, anyway. Nowadays, no matter what part of the trail I’m grinding out, I’m prepared for a buzzing noise and a breezy whoosh on my sweaty skin as another rider blows by. Or, if they’re coming at me, a direct confrontation with the friendly wave of a happy senior.
Cheaters. Slackers. Schluffers.
I hate ’em. I want one. It’s not fun getting lapped by people on Social Security.
Electronically assisted bikes have tamed the trail that I one day hoped to be in just the right shape for. Now, just about anyone can knock out the loop.
To choke back my jealousy and bitterness, I think of Pat Benke and her riding group, the Older Boulder Biker Babes. You will know them by their matching club T-shirts. They range in age from 65 to 77.
Benke and her husband bought standard bikes when they first moved to Boulder City — and those bikes sat in the garage for 20 years. But now, the Biker Babes keep their Tuesdays clear for weekly e-bike excursions, often taking the loop trail to Lake Las Vegas for lunch. “We can go as far as we want, and when we do see a hill we’re not afraid of it,” Benke says. “We’ve populated the trail.”
E-bikes “basically brought the trail to the masses that couldn’t do it before,” says Ron Floth, an avid cyclist and longtime advocate for the trail; he used to chair the River Mountains Trail Partnership Advisory Council. “(The trail) was only for the hardiest of cyclists,” he says. “Even if you’re in really good shape, it would still take you three or three-and-a-half hours to get around it. And at the end of that ride, you’d better not plan anything for the rest of your day because you’re gonna be on the couch with sore legs.”
Two bicycle stores near the trail say e-bikes have transformed their business. “E-bikes have taken over our sales,” says Kurt Horack of All Mountain Cyclery in Boulder City; e-bikes account for about 65 percent of the bikes that roll out the door. His rentals are almost exclusively e-bikes; standard pedal-power bikes rent out maybe five or six times a year now. “If you can rent race cars instead of pickup trucks, why wouldn’t you?” Horack says.
At the opposite end of the trail, Darryn Padfield owns River Mountain Bike Shop off Lake Mead Parkway near Lake Las Vegas. “Eighty percent of my business are (e-bike) rentals, because it evens the playing level,” Padfield says. It used to be that a group of four people would show up with different levels of stamina. “Now you’re all starting on equal terms. That’s how it’s changed the confidence of getting people onto the trail.” His store has 18 e-bikes for rent, with 16 new ones on back-order. On a temperate weekend, they’re all booked in advance.
E-bikes have exploded in popularity in the last five years for a few key reasons. The bikes got cheaper and lighter, and run longer on a battery charge. Padfield’s first fleet of e-bikes was six years old when he sold and replaced them. “The highest mileage on one was only 1,300 miles,” he says. His new fleet is just over one year old, “and every single one has over 2,000 miles on it right now.”
There’s an important distinction among e-bikes. Padfield and Horack’s shops only rent “pedal-assist” bikes, versus the “throttle bikes” which you can gun like a motorcycle without pedaling. “‘That’s a scooter, or a moped,” Horack says. “That’s not what we believe is riding a bicycle.”
Is the day coming when the batteries get so good, the loop trail will be like a theme park ride, with faux motorcycles racing in laps, ignoring the 20 mph speed limit? “That’s something we keep an eye on,” says Paul Grube, the trail advisory council’s current chair. But for now, more of the council’s job is still to “get the word out there that there is a trail,” Grube says, “because believe it or not, even people who live a half a mile away have never even heard of it before.”
That’s bound to change as e-bikes make the trail much more accessible and popular, a prospect that might rankle traditionally low-tech trail users not familiar with the telltale buzz of a group of e-bikes approaching.
“Let’s not be angry, let’s educate,” says Pat Treichel of Ghost Bikes Las Vegas, a bike safety awareness group known for placing white bicycles as memorials at the sites of cyclist fatalities. “There’s a little responsibility: ‘Hey, you’re on an e-bike. The guy you’re coming up on doesn’t know that.’ I think a lot of it’s just education.” Treichel has heard the grumbling from cycling purists who don’t count e-bikes in their tribe, and he has a couple standard rebuttals. One is simply, “Choose your battle. If you have e-bikes and regular bikes on the same trail, yeah, somebody might run into somebody or tip over or whatever. But that sure as heck beats putting them out into traffic with a car, where it’s not gonna be an even fight. They should have a much easier time co-existing than a bicycle of any kind does with a car.”
The other response is more long-range. “The more people we can get to throw their leg over a bicycle and ride it, the more voters, taxpayers, and road users are going to have a different understanding of cycling as a whole,” Treichel says. “And we’re going to get more infrastructure (such as) trails. A lot of people really resent or are uncomfortable with change. But you’re not going to get anywhere resisting it. You’re better learning to live with it or how to adapt.”
I caved. With our daughter home for college break, we rented e-bikes for a family excursion on a brisk, sunny January day. It was a bit of an experiment. Would the e-bikes neutralize the 40-year age span of our trio? I wondered most about my wife, who prefers swimming and hiking over cycling. But we were barely past Taco Bell on the way to the trail when she whooshed by me shouting, “This is freaking fantastic!”
The Specialized Turbo Comos have three notches of power-assist. It was wise to use them sparingly (especially the highest-power level, with its optional chants of “Tur-bo! Tur-bo!”) to save juice for the last punishing climb from the Historic Railroad Tunnel Trail parking lot through Boulder City. We all finished with our battery grid on its last bar, even if my wife’s was the only one flashing a warning that she would soon be riding a regular bike. And if it helps with the guilt: Riding the 75-pound bikes with no power assist makes them harder to pedal than even my slowest “comfort bike.”
We made the loop in a little more than three hours, thanks to a whip-cracking daughter worried about a dental appointment, who wouldn’t let us stop except for quick sips of water and nibbles of peanut-butter sandwich.
Turned out it was a real ride after all — just longer than most. We were all ready for it to be over, saddle sore and feeling like, well, like we had an actual workout — even though I also felt like I was a philanderer, cheating on my real bike when we sailed past the familiar sections I ride on my own.
More of the time — including when we chugged up and over the Three Sisters mountain ridges — it felt like sweet revenge for past torture. Did I maybe raise a middle finger to those hills when no one was looking? I would no more admit it than I would claim to know it’s possible to goose the speedometer past 50 mph on the downside of the Sisters. Don’t want to encourage what’s likely to become an actual problem as e-bikes get cheaper and the trail more crowded.
I still want to someday ride the whole trail on my old-fashioned bike. I’m just feeling more like a lazy schluffer about it now.
About the TrailCompleted in 2012, the River Mountains Loop Trail is about 34 miles long and surrounds the River Mountains, connecting Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Hoover Dam, Henderson, Boulder City and the rest of the Las Vegas Valley.
The trail’s official starting point is behind the Railroad Pass Casino’s convenience store. There’s a parking lot for cyclists on a hillside area just south of the store. Other places to access the trail:
• Park near the Nevada State Veterans Home in Boulder City, or share parking with mountain bikers in nearby Bootleg Canyon Park.
• The Equestrian Park trailhead in Henderson, at the intersection of Equestrian and Foothills Drives.
• A parking lot on the south side of East Lake Mead Parkway, past the Lake Las Vegas turnoff and just before the fee station entry to Lake Mead National Recreation Area. A spur trail connects to the loop. Be advised this entry point will plug you into the loop’s hilliest, roughest terrain in either direction before you see much flat ground.
• The parking lot for the Historic Railroad Trail near the Boulder City fee station for the lake — if you can get a spot, given that trail’s popularity. (If you can’t, the Visitor Center is just up a hill from it). Cyclists don’t have to pay the park’s entry fee.
For more information, visit rivermountainstrail.org. Φ