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7 Tips for Touring on an E-Bike

Don’t get on a battery-powered bike before reading this

spinner image people riding ebikes on a beginner friendly course through the mountains
Backroads’ “Dolce Tempo” itineraries feature mostly flat roads or paths, gentle climbs, and only two to three hours of activity a day.
Courtesy Backroads

As soon as I hit the side of the quaint Swiss café, I thought I might throw up from the pain. Though I suffered no broken bones, the roughcast wall cut a swath of stingy, bloody abrasions on my forearm and left a pencil-sized hole near the tip of my elbow. Thankfully, after the emergency room cleaned my wounds to remove the grit, all I needed was a stitch.

I was on a day tour, e-biking in southern Switzerland, when my front wheel briefly stuck between the slate tracks on a cobblestone path and the cobblestone, tilting me to the right. I caught myself with my foot, but my bike was too heavy (e-bikes average 50 pounds, about 30 pounds more than an analog bike) for me to right myself. Propelled by the momentum, I hopped a step, then crashed into the wall, my arm taking the brunt of the impact. My first e-bike adventure was over less than two hours after it started. Afterward, I learned my experience was not uncommon.

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Lanora Mueller, who was 61 at the time of her accident, hadn’t ridden a bike in years. Riding her e-bike on a gravelly slope, she felt she was losing control, so “I ditched it,” she says. “It felt as though it was gonna fishtail or something.” Fortunately, she was not hurt, only shaken. 

E-bikes come in a wide range of purpose-built models for touring, mountain biking and city cruising, to name a few. The common denominator is a battery-powered motor with pedal-assist technology that kicks in when the rider pedals. Riders can reach speeds of 28 mph or more depending on the motor’s capacity, and newer styles feature throttles that, if activated, mean no pedaling is required. 

The popularity of e-bikes has grown exponentially. According to a 2020 Deloitte study, nearly 300 million electric bikes will be in use worldwide in 2023, a 50 percent increase from 2019. Tour operators report similar enthusiasm. “Over the past few years, requests for e-bikes on our biking and multi-adventure tours have skyrocketed,” says Bob Greeneisen, assistant director of operations at Backroads, a leading provider of bike tours in 55 countries. 

spinner image author susan portnoy seconds after an ebike accident in switzerland
Susan Portnoy sits against the wall shortly after she was unable to right the e-bike she was riding during a day tour in Switzerland. Her arm took the brunt of the impact.
Courtesy Sherry Ott

It’s not surprising that e-bikes have earned widespread appeal. Riders with physical limitations or no interest in conventional cycling are now able to explore routes that weren’t previously accessible. “The ability to see and ride more without running out of gas (personal energy), along with the opportunity for traveling companions of different fitness levels and abilities to ride together,” says Greeneisen, has been a huge draw. “We’re seeing more than 50 percent of our cycling guests opting to use an electric-assist bike.” 

But with any new technology, there’s always a learning curve and potential pitfalls. Like Mueller, I hadn’t been on a bike in a long time. As a fit mid-50s adventurer, I figured I could do it; it was literally like riding a bike, as the saying goes. And feedback from friends gave me the impression the bikes were plug-and-play. Almost immediately, I realized that wasn’t true. 

If you are new to e-bikes and thinking about touring, whether it’s for a few hours or a few days, keep these tips in mind.

Know your limitations

E-bikes have democratized the sport, but whether or not they’re right for you is not a foregone conclusion. U.S.-based ExperiencePlus! Bicycle Tours, which offers cycling holidays throughout Europe, cautions prospective customers on its website that stability, strength and balance are necessary to operate an e-bike.  

It is also important to note that certain medications can exacerbate injuries. “If you’re taking blood-thinning medications, it doesn’t take much to create an intracranial hemorrhage, or bleeding within your brain or around your brain,” warns Will Dunn, chief clinical officer at Eagle County Paramedic Services in Colorado, which serves Vail and other resort towns in the area. Popular blood-thinning agents known as novel anticoagulants may not have a reversal agent, or they may not be immediately available, which can affect treatment and recovery, he says. 

Select a tour based on your abilities

Tour operators provide trip ratings on their websites – level 1 being the easiest – that factor in physical requirements, the terrain and elevation change. When considering what you want, don’t overestimate how much the e-bike will enhance your capabilities, says Monica Malpezzi-Price, co-owner of ExperiencePlus! “There’s a big difference between difficulty from a physical standpoint and difficulty from a technical handling standpoint.” For example, an e-bike functions on a variety of surfaces, but that doesn’t mean you have the skills to operate it safely on challenging terrain. To determine the best fit for your ability and e-bike experience, ask the provider for advice.

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If you’re a beginner, consider a trip like Backroads’ new “Dolce Tempo” itineraries, which are touted as “easygoing active family tours” featuring mostly flat roads or paths, gentle climbs and only two to three hours of activity a day. 

Practice riding first

Jan Vandenhengel, owner of Biketours.com, who describes his company as a Hotels.com for bike tours, advocates riding a traditional bike for at least a month before switching to an e-bike. “That will probably reduce your risk of injury by 95 percent,” he says. You need “that background process where the act of biking is second nature," so that you can handle the e-bike. If not, that’s when accidents happen.

Given that the weight of an e-bike can make it a “little unwieldy” and “less responsive,” says Malpezzi-Price, “we always ask people to go and rent an e-bike and try it out for a day — at least a day — before they come on [a trip] so that they understand the handling of it.”

Be aware that all e-bikes are not created equal

Even if you’ve got your own e-bike, what you’ll use on a tour may differ from what you have at home. “It used to be, you know, a couple of companies were making [e-bikes]; now everyone and their brother is making e-bikes, so they’re all a little bit different,” says Vandenhengel. Take the time to familiarize yourself with the nuances before hitting the road. 

Opt for a step-through frame

Request a bike with a step-through frame design, advises Damon Victor, president of Greenpath Electric Bikes in Brooklyn, New York, who has been selling e-bikes to customers 50 and older for more than a decade. Step-through frames don’t require riders to swing their leg over the bike to mount and dismount, which makes them ideal for anyone with hip or basic mobility issues. 

Always wear a helmet

Even if the destination does not mandate helmets, you’re much safer putting one on. Research published in 2018 by the National Institutes of Health states that wearing a bicycle helmet reduced head injuries by 48 percent, serious head injuries by 60 percent, traumatic brain injuries by 53 percent, face injuries by 23 percent, and the number of killed or seriously injured cyclists by 34 percent. 

Invest in travel insurance

As a professional explorer who loves outdoor activities, I always buy travel insurance in case of injury. In addition to my standard coverage, I have a Medjet policy that says should I need medical evacuation, I am taken to my home hospital of choice. 

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