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As e-bikes gain popularity in Colorado Springs, questions of access, 'cheating'

June 16, 2017 Updated: June 16, 2017 at 4:40 am
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The battery of this e-bike is small and hardly noticeable. Photo by Jerilee Bennett, The Gazette

With the sun high and the air crisp, it's time for a ride.

David McNeil, 72, unplugs the bicycle that some - "the purists," as McNeil knows other riders - would not call a bicycle. Only on an electric motor-powered bike, or e-bike, would a green light flicker on a handlebar. One does, letting McNeil know that he has full charge - 36 volts to give him a boost to go without pedaling up the hill by his Colorado Springs home.

His right thumb presses the throttle on the other handle. And away he zooms, reaching 7 mph in no time on his way to the sidewalk looping a nearby park. When he returns, his smile is not unlike that worn by the little boy on the park slide.

"That easy," McNeil says. "So much fun."

Count him among the growing e-bike fan base. Mayor John Suthers also seemed pleased by the zippy ride a couple weeks ago during an event that celebrated June as Bike Month.

Long trendy in Europe and Asia, industry experts predict e-bikes will become more common in the U.S., especially in eco-friendly communities wanting to develop urban infrastructure that gets people off roads. There's a push for that in Colorado, where this year the legislature approved a bill that placed e-bikes into three industry standard classes.

The law's intent is to help towns decide where exactly they'll allow the bikes. Whatever the limitations around the state, Luis Benitez hopes recreation leaders will consider lifting them. The head of the state's Office of Outdoor Recreation Industry is an outspoken e-bike proponent who continues to lure manufacturers to Colorado.

"My question," Benitez says, "is why would you ever want to limit access for something that keeps people healthy, that keeps them outside, that brings people joy?"

In Colorado Springs, e-bikes that meet the state's Class 1 standard - pedal-assist with a max speed of 20 mph - are allowed on the city's Tier 1 and 2 trails. Those are concrete paths, such as the Pikes Peak Greenway. Gravel or dirt trails popular among hikers and mountain bikers are off limits.

"We would not allow them in open spaces and regional parks," says Sarah Bryarly with city Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services. "A lot of it has to do with us not wanting people to have a sense of overconfidence when they're riding an e-bike and potentially getting in positions where they're not comfortable, or where they're making other people uncomfortable. We want to make sure they're used in a safe environment."

While Jefferson County is exploring the idea of e-bikes in its open spaces by conducting on-site surveys, Colorado Springs' stance is firm, Bryarly says. "Really, we've heard more people asking us to keep excluding them from open spaces and regional parks than we have to allow them," she says.

Medicine Wheel, the advocacy group of mountain bikers sustaining local singletrack, prefers e-bikes be kept out of the high country. Along with user conflicts, the organization thinks the bikes could damage trails with their uphill torque.

Says board member Harry Hammill: "If you're gonna be an idiot" on a mountain bike, "you can be an idiot on downhills. On an e-bike, you can be an idiot all the time.

"We're not haters," he adds. "We just think they should be managed responsibly."

More than recreation, riders in Colorado Springs herald e-bikes for what they provide on the commute. John Duprey, the founder of e-Bike Co. who installs motors, battery packs and controls on bikes for $1,000, has customers around town thankful to arrive to work without a drip of sweat.

His girlfriend, Gin Woolsey, is thankful, too. John is a "serious rider," she explains. "Now I can keep up with him," she says.

The appeal extends to an aging demographic. Jim Newcomb, 71, shows a wired-up, three-wheel recumbent bicycle in his garage near downtown, where he runs his company Biketricity. "This one I'm building for a lady," he says of the bike, with a backrest and hand-propelled pedals to assist the motor. "Both of her knees have been replaced, and she wanted to keep riding."

The same contraption keeps him active. It would be a great challenge otherwise with his prosthetic right leg. He points to the house of a neighbor - a man he calls "a power rider."

"When I told him I was gonna start doing this, his words were, 'You're defeating the purpose,'" Newcomb says. "I said, 'Well, let's take your leg, tie it behind you and see what you think then.'"

McNeil doesn't claim to be within any certain tribe of cyclists. He was drawn to e-bikes six years ago following retirement, he says, as he encountered the sudden, "nervous" feeling of having nothing to do. His passion has always been energy efficiency - his backyard collection includes three vintage electric vehicles. Cycling was never his thing until now. He's never tried to be a "power rider" or "purist."

"They call us cheaters," he says. "It's all how you look at it, I guess."

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