For longtime mountain bike aficionado Jon Cabe of Mount Desert Island, reservations about battery-boosted electric bicycles evaporated on his first ride. Like many who bike for fitness and challenge, the 39-year-old mistrusted the hype around the emerging technology, which promises many of the pleasures of cycling without all the exertion and sweat.
“I had always thought they were kind of cheater bikes,” he said. “I mean, why be on a bike if you don’t want to work?” So it was with some reluctance that he agreed to take a test ride at the urging of Ann Watson, the owner of Pedego Acadia, a new ebike shop in Bar Harbor.
“I came back to the shop grinning like a 12-year-old,” he said. “I had tears from the wind blowing back from my eyes and this huge smile on my face.” The next day he accepted the position of manager at the bike shop, which sells and rents Pedego-brand bikes from a prime location in the heart of Bar Harbor’s busy pedestrian waterfront.
For running errands or commuting to work in the congested village, Cabe said, electric bicycles provide an alternative to cars or motorcycles. But most of his customers so far have been excited to use the quiet, battery-powered bikes for exploring MDI’s ruggedly beautiful coastal byways and the nooks and crannies of Acadia National Park. The user-friendly technology has opened the experience of cycling the scenic, 27-mile Park Loop Road, the steep, winding climb to the summit of Cadillac Mountain and other iconic roadways to older riders, those with injuries or disabilities and those who just don’t want to bust a gut on their vacations.
“I had an older guy with [leg weakness related to] polio who was going to stay home while the rest of the family went for a ride,” he said. “His daughter came in here and rented an ebike for him, and he went all around Park Loop Road with them.”
A younger man and woman came in recently, too. Vacationing with their traditional touring bikes, she had suffered a broken bone in her foot and wanted to rent an ebike so she could continue to ride with her partner. Within a few minutes of leaving the shop, Cabe said, they returned to get a second ebike so he could keep up with her.
Cabe still enjoys his regular, pedal-powered mountain bike for tough trail rides and staying in shape.
“But if I’m just out with my girlfriend riding around Schoodic Peninsula and I want to look good for a selfie or be able to stop for a nice lunch somewhere without being all sweaty in the dining room,” he said, “an ebike is a great alternative.”
Electric bicycles have been making quiet inroads to the biking culture for a decade or more. Now, they seem poised at a tipping point, with most bike shops carrying at least a few models in their inventory, more customers expressing interest and even confirmed bike purists admitting to their charms.
Joe Minutolo, who for 39 years has owned the Bar Harbor Bicycle Shop at the other end of town from Pedego, has carried ebikes for sale and for rent for about eight years. Each season, the bikes get better and demand grows.
“The battery life is getting better, the range is better,” he said. “It’s getting more people out of their cars and into the park. It’s also an amazing tool for commuting.” He uses an ebike to get around town all summer, avoiding traffic congestion and parking challenges in the crowded tourist community. “I don’t touch my car when I’m in town,” he said.
“They’ve been catching on like wildfire in other parts of the country, and now they are becoming more visible in Maine,” Nancy Grant, executive director of the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, said. “More visible” isn’t quite accurate, because as Grant noted, “if you don’t know what you’re looking at, you don’t really know you’re looking at an ebike.”
Although ebike frames generally are heavier and bulkier than regular bikes, the real giveaway — the battery pack connected to the front wheel and an array of controls mounted on the handlebars — can be harder to spot. Most often, casual observers simply notice a cyclist who seems to be pedalling uphill or forward from a dead stop at a slightly more rapid pace than usual and without visible exertion.
That gentle boost is provided by a lithium battery, activated with a simple push-button motion, a multi-speed throttle system or a sophisticated pedal-assist technology that senses the rider’s exertion and kicks in when needed. The battery is charged on standard household power and can provide a range of up to 50 miles or more, depending on how much peddling the rider wants to do. Road bikes, trail bikes, BMX models and hybrids are available, including bikes with super-fat tires for rocky mountain trails or snow. Some fold up small for storage or transportation.
Depending on the make and model, ebikes typically cost between $1,500 and $4,000. In addition, kits are available for converting just about any bike to an ebike. At Pedego Acadia, ebike rentals cost $50 for a half-day and $100 for the 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. business day.
And while some may scorn ebikes as a violation of the very notion of a simple vehicle that runs on human power alone, Grant said others are coming around to accepting them as a valuable addition to bicycle culture.
She should know. Her husband of 33 years, an enthusiastic traditional road cyclist who recently completed the 335-mile 2017BikeMaine organized ride through mountainous western Maine, uses an ebike for his daily 3-mile commute to work.
“He wears a suit to work everyday, and he can’t arrive all sweaty,” she said. Since he has established that routine — year-round as the weather permits — the couple has been able to sell their second car. For their environmental friendliness and ease of use, Grant says ebikes are here to stay.
But despite their growing consumer acceptance, electric bicycles do face some challenges regarding their definition and their use. In Acadia National Park, for example, ebikes are banned from the popular, 45-mile network of unpaved carriage roads. The winding roads, financed and donated to the public by philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., traverse inland sections of the island and are open to bicycles, horses and pedestrians but closed to motor vehicles.
The Code of Federal Regulations, which governs federal agencies, defines a bicycle as “every device propelled solely by human power upon which a person or persons may ride on land, having one, two, or more wheels, except a manual wheelchair.”
A motor vehicle, by contrast, is “every vehicle that is self-propelled and every vehicle that is propelled by electric power, but not operated on rails or upon water, except a snowmobile and a motorized wheelchair.”
“Any time you take a traditional bicycle and have any kind of motor added to it, it becomes a motor vehicle,” park spokeswoman Christie Anastasia said.
Though ebikes pose no more threat than regular bicycles in terms of noise, pollution, wear and tear or safety, she acknowledged, the park is unwilling to make an exception that would logically open the discussion to stand-up scooters, golf carts or other electric vehicles. It does, however, allow some exceptions for people with disabilities, including the use of ebikes.
“The intention of the gift of the carriage roads was to provide a unique experience free from the distraction of motor vehicles,” Anastasia said. She pointed out that there are about 80 miles of other paved and unpaved roads within the park, including Park Loop Road, where ebikes and other motorized vehicles are allowed.
At the Bicycle Coalition of Maine, Nancy Grant said laws governing the definition and regulation of ebikes vary from state to state and are coming under increased scrutiny with the growing popularity of the vehicles.
“Maine law is very confusing about ebikes,” she said, and the BCM has established a subcommittee charged with suggesting clarification and changes at the legislative level.
In the meantime, Grant expects ebikes will see a surge in popularity in Maine, despite the lingering skepticism of the purists. That’s a positive development, she said, since more bikes on Maine roads means more support for her organization’s efforts to promote bike safety for all riders, all across the state.
“As people learn more about these bicycles, it’s more likely they’ll be accepted,” she said. “And my feeling is that more bikes is always a good thing.”