The rise in active vacations has fueled a steady boom in
bike tours, and tour operators say the mainstreaming of electric bikes, or
e-bikes, promises to continue feeding that growth by opening trips to a host of
new audiences and markets.
"It's a game-changer," said Wendy Carter, founder
of the Carter Co., noting that in the
past, many couples wouldn't choose a bike vacation because inevitably, one would
be a much more serious cyclist than the other.
With e-bikes, she and other bike tour operators say, the
less experienced partner can take on longer rides and tougher terrain with ease
because when the pedaling gets too rough, they can flip to a battery-operated
"I always call it the marriage counselor," said
Tania Burke, president of Trek Travel, the tour arm of Trek bicycles.
Likewise, the leveling of biking fields is also fueling
interest from more multi-generation families and older travelers, the tour
For instance, David Mebane, founder of Fat Tire Tours, which
offers day tours of cities around the world, said he, his wife and their 11-
and 13-year-old daughters took e-bikes for an 11-mile ride around the Colorado
mountain town of Aspen this summer.
"We cruised and talked the whole time," he said. "We
didn't break a sweat. There is no way my family of four could have experienced
that without an e-bike."
E-bikes are hardly new. Trek and operators like the Duvine
Cycling & Adventure Co. said they've been offering them since 2009. But the
uptake was a bit slow.
"It's sort of like the cellphone," said Andy
Levine, founder and CEO of Duvine. "First there was the flip phone, then
the [iPhone]. ... The technology just keeps getting better."
It also took a while for e-bikes to become "cool,"
"At first it was, like, 'Don't tell me to get on an
e-bike,' or 'Don't tell anyone I'm on an e-bike.' Now it's, like, 'Look what I
Indeed, Burke said that while e-bikes have been prevalent in
Europe for years, their uptake in the U.S. has been much slower.
"I ride my bike to work every day," she said. "Three
years ago I saw one [e-bike] once a month. Last year, I'd see one once a week.
Now I see one every day."
Besides offering a level biking field to travelers with
different cycling skills, tour operators say it's helping them to open more
Carter, who specializes in "gentle cycling" luxury
tours in the U.K. and continental Europe, said she can now expand into areas
where before "we would never dream of making a tour because it was too
For example, she said, the company now offers a biking tour
along the coast in Cornwall, which has steep inclines and drops.
Before e-bikes, she said, it's the type of route only a
triathelete-class cyclist could ride.
Levine said he believes the e-bike market will overtake
traditional bicycles before too long. "I think it's going to be a bigger
market in five to 10 years than regular bikes, not just for tourism but in the
regular world," he said.
Still, e-bikes have their challenges, operators said. They
are heavier than traditional cycles, making it more difficult to transport
them. They are also more expensive and more complicated to maintain.
"The challenge at the beginning was battery life,"
Mebane said. "And what was challenging for someone like myself was when a
regular bike breaks, I can fix it. When an e-bike breaks, I can't."
Still, he said, a new generation of lithium batteries and
other advances have made the e-bikes "as robust and strong as a regular
And like Carter, he said that the bikes have enabled him to
look at new markets, like hilly San Francisco.
Crystal River Cruises recently discontinued offering e-bikes
on its European cruises, citing safety issues for passengers not familiar with
But Carter said that for anyone who knows how to ride a
bike, they are not difficult to operate.
"The point about an e-bike is, it's not like a scooter.
You can't just sit on it and do nothing,"
she said. "You've got to have a
degree of physical activity in order to pedal. But when you get to that point
on the hill where you think, 'I can't go on,' you just flip the switch."
How much impact e-bikes have had on the tour market is hard
to measure. Burke said she is not aware of any data on the size of the
bike-tour sector, although she asserted that it is among the faster-growing
areas of the adventure travel segment, which itself is among the fastest-growing
areas of all travel.
Levine said he has heard revenue estimates for bike tours
that range from $200 million to $300 million to as high as half a billion
Burke said Trek has been growing by double digits the past
few years. Similarly, Duvine said his
business has been growing in the 15% to
20% range, and Carter reported that after being fairly flat for the first 10
years, her company has seen a "torrent" of growth the past decade.
"I can't see it ending," Carter said. "Because
I think lots of different things feed into it. People don't like what the sun
does to their skin, so lying on the beach holidays are less popular. Young
people want experiences. They want to explore."