Electric bikes offer new spin to enjoying East Bay trails
By Lou Fancher
Seated in an electric bike and coasting on the Iron Horse Trail, I discover the thrill of the throttle and hidden Harley-Davidson dudehood.
After a stop at Pedego Electric Bikes in Danville where I picked up a City Commuter, I was ready for leather with one twist of the wrist and a mild pedal-assisted push. Burning past casual bikers, effortlessly drafting spandex-clad weekend athletes on skinny-tire racers, my companion and I are as charged as our bikes’ 36 volt 15 amp-hour batteries.
With the launch Aug. 1 of a one-year pilot program approved by the East Bay Regional Park District Board of Directors, class 1 and 2 electronic bikes are permitted on three regional trails: Iron Horse, which runs between Concord and Pleasanton; Contra Costa Canal Regional Trail in Contra Costa County; and Alameda Creek Trail in Alameda County. The bikes must be pedal-operable with motors 750 watts or less and travel at no more than 15 mph.
Of course, before hopping on wheels courtesy of the Danville Pedego shop, decisions must be made. Lined up like eye-pleasing candy canes are a blood-red Comfort Cruiser, a brilliant blue Interceptor, a fierce black-with-neon-green Trail Tracker with tires that bring to mind monster trucks and more.
I choose a spiffy white, tan-seated model designed for a smooth ride, hill climbing and “full throttle twist and go” acceleration. The LCD display attachment shows five levels of pedal assist, remaining battery storage, speed, miles traveled. During a four hour journey along the 32-mile trail, the lithium battery barely registers a dip.
Required helmet strapped in place, my only worry is guilt.
“Some people have the mindset that using pedal assist is cheating,” said Clay Houseman, a bike shop employee whose 5-minute instructions are thorough, safety-oriented and geared for a first-time user.
“For athletes like you, knowing you can ride regularly and use assist only when you want to is pleasing,” Houseman said. “For commuter riders or people with disabilities or knee issues, pedal assist is welcome.”
Proving that we think alike but not everyone feels like a cheater on an electric bike, my companion says, “It’s a blast. I don’t feel guilty at all. The throttle is great.”
His exclamations in the 90-degree heat show he’s thinking about traveling the 680 corridor: “I’m not even sweating! You could ride to work and not even sweat!”
Unlike in traffic jams along the highway, cruising at 15 mph on the trail turns a 75-minute commute from a home in Danville to an office in Walnut Creek or Concord into a 20-40-minute tree-lined, vista-filled breeze.
Houseman said customers are buying bikes for exactly that commute. “They avoid Walnut Creek parking problems and the battery locks or is removable, so there’s no worries about theft.”
Starting out in downtown Danville, navigating around zig-zagging kids, babies in strollers, Saturday Farmers Market shoppers, dogs, cars, and city intersections is at first nerve-rattling. But out on the trail headed to San Ramon and later, north to Walnut Creek, there is great pleasure in long, uninterrupted stretches.
And there’s the throttle, to which I become addicted. I can ride with natural resistance, then rocket to top speed in seconds. Eco-aware bonus; there’s no gas expended, no stinky carbon-emitting exhaust.
That’s exactly the response park officials were seeking.
“Reactions have been very positive with many seeing the potential green transportation benefits of E-Bikes. There has also been excitement among those with physical limitations,” said Regional Park Public Information Supervisor Dave Mason.
The pilot program includes planned outreach on the trails to obtain trail-user feedback. When Gov. Brown signed Assembly Bill 1096 in 2015, e-bikes were no longer classified as motor vehicles and local jurisdictions were authorized to develop their own rules for e-bikes on trails.
On level 1, head wind disappears and I take in the scenery, relax. Switching to level 2 to accelerate, I counterintuitively remind myself to pedal slower to stay within legal limits. I try level 3 and immediately, I’m traveling faster than allowed. I never use levels 4 and 5, but the trail is mostly flat and if I branched off on a hilly side street, I imagine higher pedal assist would be handy.
Karl Konrad, of Hayward, pulls up alongside me.
“Is that an e-bike?” he asks. “I ride hills for exercise, so I wouldn’t use one, but my wife would. She’s not so into hills.”
At age 60 and having had knee surgery and both hips replaced, Konrad says when technology comes up with a lighter hybrid, he’d consider owning an e-bike. Although the e-bike already is hybrid — I ride mostly without assist — it’s a heavy beast based on cruiser models. Even so, we agree that mixed-level rider groups like Konrad and his wife would benefit — exercisers could ride standard bikes; those who need or want assist can opt for an e-bike.
Sarah Williams, Pedego vice president of operations, said e-bike technology is evolving. A platinum series soon available features an automatic sensor for variable assist based on how hard a rider is riding.
But it won’t be fancy gizmos or even the attractiveness of Williams’ ride — a seafoam green Interceptor with white-wall tires — that awakens people’s e-bike urge. Nor will it be the “last hill before home” boost that a grinning shop customer says will cause her to ride her bike more often. The real bell ringers will most certainly be the thrill of the throttle and cruising with ease on East Bay trails.