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On trails and roads, electric bikes are putting the “coast” in Sunshine Coast

Like everyone else on the Sunshine Coast, I live near a hill. For 20 years, I knew any ride in or out of Roberts Creek would require exertion, some sweat and a little resolve. That resolve would often disappear at the mere sight of my car keys.

Then I bought an electric bike. Turns out, I’m not the only one!

“The e-bike flattens the hills quite nicely,” says my friend and fellow Creeker, Randy Shore. “I had been riding a Devinci hybrid for about 20 years, but I had fallen out of love with steep hills.”

Out on a recent ride with TraC, (Transportation Choices Sunshine Coast) a volunteer member-based group, which encourages people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles by changing local culture towards active transportation.

To clear his mind and to enjoy the sunshine, Randy mostly rides backroads on his Specialized Como to avoid the noise, dust and highway bike lanes.

“The bike lanes on the Sunshine Coast are at best incomplete,” he says. “But even the lanes that exist are badly cracked or covered in so much debris that they are too dangerous to ride on. Even when a lane is available I feel safer on the road.”

Teacher, Sheena Careless commutes a few days a week from Gibsons to Roberts Creek Elementary School, sometimes dropping off her eight-year-old son, Toby, at Gibsons elementary. She’s clocked 1,800 kilometres on her RadWagon electric cargo bike since purchasing it in February 2021, a choice her family made in preference to buying a second car.

“I can do a week’s grocery shop, ferry two kids … I could do the recycling if I were more organized!

“The highways are not awesome, so we take back-routes when we can,” she adds. “I don’t e-cycle for the exercise; I e-cycle because I want to get somewhere. I don’t want to show up sweaty. I can e-cycle to school and be ready to teach.”

Commuting in the opposite direction for the last 20-plus years is Alun Woolliams, president of TraC (Transportation Choices Sunshine Coast – transportationchoices.ca). A volunteer member-based group, TraC encourages people to get out of their single-occupancy vehicles by changing local culture towards active transportation. It’s also about encouraging local and non-local governments (The provincial Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure-MOTI) to improve infrastructure.

Guerrilla bike-lane cleaning is among the many events organized by TraC. Other activities include Active Transportation Weeks, (formerly Bike to Work Week) bike polo and e-bike scavenger hunts. Photo courtesy transportationchoices.ca

“An e-bike is a brilliant replacement for the car,” says Alun, who bought a Giant e-bike three years ago. “It takes the hills away and makes it so much easier to get out of bed and get on my bike.”

TraC organizes Active Transportation Weeks (formerly Bike to Work Week) and events such as bike polo, e-bike scavenger hunts and guerrilla bike-lane cleaning. (When I call Alun, he is literally at the bottom of my driveway, cleaning the Lower Road bike lane with fellow TraC members.)

The group has worked closely with the Sunshine Coast Regional District, Town of Gibsons, Town of Sechelt and MOTI to establish a designated bike route. It has also hired a consultant to assess the feasibility of a “Connect the Coast Trail” – a multi-use path between Langdale and Sechelt. However, four government jurisdictions plus private land ownership mean a plan is rarely simple.

“It’s not acrimonious, they’re trying to work together,” says Alun. “It’s complicated but there’s room for improvement.”

TraC president, Alun Woolliams. Photo courtesy transportationchoices.ca

For respite from the Coast’s somewhat unique multi-jurisdictional bureaucracy, Alun can still escape to the forests where he continues to mountainbike the old-fashioned way – unassisted.

“If I’m going into the forest, that’s just recreation and I don’t feel like I need assistance, but I think it’s great that people do, if that makes it more accessible.”

Avid mountainbiker and trail-builder, Dale Sapach, counts himself as an e-bike convert. “They have a whole different fun factor to them and they make going uphill trails really quite enjoyable,” he says.

“One of my trails on Mount Elphinstone was super steep; 50 minutes full on pedal to get up there. When I started building that trail, it became obvious that I’d never finish it.”

His Specialized e-bike changed that.

“It still took me over a year to finish the trail, but regardless, that’s kind of how I got into it. I think it’s great these things exist. You can keep pushing your limits and keep riding with younger people.”

While the assist of an electric bike may make uphill trails easier, it does not necessarily make the sport less skillful, or less risky, says Dale. On the contrary: “The pros, the downhill racers know how to keep their speed through corners. You’re ultimately limited by your skill. And that potentially is an issue for some people who lose control.

“I think the biggest issue with full-power e-bikes is the weight. You require more upper body strength. When things go sideways a bit, they can go sideways a lot worse when your bike weighs 52 pounds.”

Gary Jackson agrees: “Where many people believe the e-bike is cheating, as one of the most experienced mountain bikers on the Sunshine Coast, I believe it’s much harder physically and technically to ride an electric mountainbike.

“You’re riding a bigger vehicle faster over more terrain. Because they’re more capable, I end up riding steeper terrain, higher technical climbs, aggressive technical loops, where on a pedal bike you’d have to go around to come back down. An electric bike allows you to ride fall line all day with much more elevation.”

Separation anxiety or eBike envy? Either way, Leah deals with Sylvester’s issues.

Gary owns Off The Edge Bike Shop in Sechelt. When I drop by for a quick chat, we’re still talking an hour later. He’s passionate about bike safety and dispelling what he sees as misinformation about e-bikes.

“Everybody asks, ‘how much power does it have?’ and my answer is always ‘way more than you need! You want to be talking about efficiency, weight, reliability, warranty, all that – they’ve all got lots of power.”

While it’s difficult to track the growth in popularity of e-bikes locally with any accurate measure, Off The Edge sales provide some insight. The store, a fixture for 15 years, sold its first electric bike in 2016. In 2017, it sold eight. In 2018, it sold 40 e-bikes. In 2019, it sold more than 100.

“In 2022, I’ll sell as many as I can get,” he says.

The Coast’s baby boomer demographic with its disposable income means e-bikes sell faster here, according to Gary. He recounts the experiences of older customers who thought their best cycling days were behind them. Now they’re riding to Phare Lake before breakfast, followed by the base of Mount Hallowell.

“It’s like Viagra for bikes!” he laughs. “Boomers have figured out how to not age.”

Gary sees e-bikes as not just removing hills, but also overcoming political obstacles.

“Boomers get stuff done,” he says. “Now it’s a voting entity. All the sudden, where the 60-plus crowd was not a voting demographic for the cycling community, now it is, and they’re going to have their voices heard.

“E-bikes are going to bring infrastructure. E-bikes are going to bring bike lanes. E-bikes are going to bring much needed revenue and resources into a very difficult economy. E-bikes are going to bring conscientious, enthusiastic volunteers, to help build and maintain trails. “Cyclists can learn from e-bikers and we’re lucky to have them.