From an airplane, it’s easy to miss the views, small towns and back roads that fill travel with surprises. Trekking on foot through city streets helps check off must-see sites, yet it can feel touristy. But on a bike tour, you can explore vistas and experiences off the beaten path at your own pace.
Don’t have Tour de France-worthy quads? Even novice riders can keep up with the benefit of an electric bike, or e-bike.
While the idea of an organized tour through the countryside, pedaling from one hotel to the next, has been around for years, only recently have battery-powered e-bikes changed the game. “We’ve had e-bikes as an option on most of our tours for about six years,” says Chris Skilling, vice president of rural biking at VBT Bicycling Vacations, a Vermont-based international excursion provider. “About 25 to 30 percent of our guests opt for them now, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that is over 50 percent in the next five years.”
Other bike tour operators confirm that growth. “Early on, I think there was this stigma of ‘You’re cheating,’ or ‘I don’t need an e-bike, I can do it myself,’ but now it’s almost 30 percent of our business,” says Tania Burke, president of Wisconsin-based Trek Travel.
On an e-bike, even rookie riders can take in quiet back roads, national parks or European countrysides. That opens up these experiences, views and itineraries to travelers interested in an active vacation, but not necessarily racing. “I want to enjoy the countryside and not rush from point A to point B,” says Peter Montanino, who, along with his wife, cruised through Italy for about a week with Inspired Italy, an e-bike tour group based in England. “I want to stop at wineries and check out farms and shops.”
Riding an e-bike is certainly a workout — you’ll earn a glass or two of wine — but with a tour, that’s just about the toughest part. Once paid, almost everything from your hotel and dinner reservations to turn-by-turn directions is handled for you. You’re left to focus on enjoying the vacation instead of fretting about logistics.
An e-bike uses a motor powered by a rechargeable battery to give riders a sustained push while pedaling.
Some e-bikes include a throttle option — imagine zipping around on a Vespa — but the versions tour operators offer require pedaling to engage the battery.
Think back to riding your first bike: When the motor kicks in, it feels like an easygoing, helpful push on the back of your seat from a parent. The result: Hill climbs are less daunting, headwinds won’t sap your strength, conversations while riding are easier and crushing 70 miles over a few hours is doable. All e-bikes have a customizable level of assistance, and the power can be turned off completely, leaving you with a traditional bike, should you want to go old school.
The largest bike tour operators, like Trek Travel, VBT, REI, Butterfield & Robinson and Backroads all offer e-bike options on many trips. These companies specialize in multiday excursions across the U.S. and abroad.
Regionally, you might find smaller guide companies that focus on daytrips. Most often, the e-bike option appeals to a novice rider who might not have the endurance to keep up with a partner, an older rider who could use the extra assistance or, in some cases, someone with an injury.
Kym Mauseth bikes with her husband on weekends and was coming off a hip replacement before VBT’s Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park ride in Utah last
spring. “I wouldn’t have enjoyed the trip as much ... if I didn’t have an e-bike,” she says. “The hills were, by my definition, brutal. But the e-bike allowed me to do everything, and I got a great workout.”
What you can expect
Guided bike tour operators provide online itineraries with maps that spell out the pace of the tour, how many miles you’ll ride, the names of hotels and restaurants and what’s included in the price. Most of the meals are covered by the tour fee, though operators leave a few lunches and dinners for travelers to head out on their own and explore. Plan to budget for dining out, shopping, hotel extras like spa treatments and gratuities for guides. Typically, tour costs do not include airfare and most suggest arriving to your departure city a day or two early to avoid jet lag.
The number of riders on a tour varies between four and 20, with an average of around 14. Most tours attract a mixed bag of like-minded travelers including couples, groups of friends or families and a sprinkling of solo riders. Many tour operators will create a custom or private trip for groups as small as four, catering it to a common interest.
Wine is a very popular theme. “If we know the group is into wine, but maybe the hotel’s bottle list isn’t great, we’ll have our guide show up with a fantastic wine,” says Jonathan Lansdell, director of travel relations for Toronto-based Butterfield & Robinson.
The guides are the backbone of every tour. Overseas, they’ll speak the local language (along with English), and you can expect them to know the routes. They handle everything from making sure the bike fits properly to outlining the day’s itinerary over coffee.
Tours typically use two guides — one bikes with the group and the second follows riders in a support van.
On the tour, you’re free to stop and snap photos, catch your breath, pop into an interesting-looking shop or break for a snack. If you don’t feel like riding at any point, the van is a quick call away. You can jump in and drive ahead to the next group stop. “The guides are there to answer your questions, make sure the bikes are ready to go, everyone is hydrated and that the ride is safe,” says Chris Jolley, program manager for REI Co-op.
After booking, you’ll receive a packing list specifying the riding gear you’ll need, which includes basics like a helmet (though some tours provide one), sneakers, padded bike shorts, a cycling jersey and a lightweight shell.
Not sure what to buy? Most tours can send you links for suggested gear to make sure you’re comfortable. Tours provide the bike, water bottles, lights and turn-by-turn directions, along with bike bags to carry supplied repair kits and snacks.
With all of the encounters, experiences and, yes exercise you’ll get on an e-bike tour trip, it’s not uncommon to find repeat participants. “We did our first trip with e-bikes back in 2019 through Scotland,” says MarySue Howisey of the tour she took with her husband through Trek Travel. “Getting e-bikes was the best decision because you focus on the vacation and the views, and not the hill in front of you. And you can breathe after you get to the top.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Tour the open road on an e-bike