E-bikes are here to stay; Aspen’s challenge is safety
Management solutions being sought on Maroon Creek Road
The use of electric bicycles has surged in Aspen over the last two summers to levels unimaginable in 2019 — and it’s just the start.
The surge has been a dream come true for bike shop owners and vendors banking on the new market to spur revenues. E-bikes have also delighted people who otherwise wouldn’t or couldn’t pedal solely on their own, as well as aging cyclists battling sore knees or tired lungs.
But e-bikes have created something between a headache and a nightmare for public land managers and bus drivers responsible for keeping people safe. Maroon Creek Road, gateway to the stunning Maroon Bells, is ground zero for the management challenges.
“We’ve had some near misses up there,” said Brian Pettet, Pitkin County director of public works. “Some people on e-bikes treat it like a glorified bike path.”
Hang around long enough on any given day along the road and it’s easy to see what he means. On Thursday morning, a group of five riders suddenly stopped in the right lane while heading uphill. A couple even hopped off their bikes momentarily, apparently unaware that a bus or other vehicle could soon come barreling around the corner in that lane. A Forest Service worker heading downhill stopped momentarily and told them to keep moving.
The common issues include cyclists drifting over into the oncoming lane, riding two or more abreast and not wearing helmets, but the biggest problem with e-bikers on Maroon Creek Road is blocking the traffic lane, according to Shelly Grail, recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District of the U.S. Forest Service.
“People are taking selfies, stopping in the middle of the road,” she said.
Like Pettet, she said too many riders regard the road as a glorified bike path because vehicle use is restricted. However, full-sized buses roll by every 15 minutes and exceptions to restrictions are made for private vehicles with permits and people with reserved space in the campgrounds.
“Bikes in general are something we’re trying to manage better,” Grail said. “E-bike use is 70 percent of the bikes up there.”
Pitkin County and the Forest Service work cooperatively to manage Maroon Creek Road. They are part of a “working group” that also includes the city of Aspen, Aspen Chamber Resort Association, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority and Aspen Skiing Co. The group placed bike counters on the road this summer. In June, there were 3,685 trips up and down. That is an average of 123 trips per day, though it’s skewed more heavily toward weekends at about 300 trips per day, according to Pettet.
As with any recreational user group, most of the problems are created by a few of the people. Many e-bikers are following proper road protocol.
Carol and Curt Schreur of Scottsdale, Arizona, rode their high-end, electric road bikes single file on Thursday. While taking a break at the top of the road, Carol said her knees started getting cranky and “the joy was going out” of cycling for her four months ago. They are avid riders so she decided it was time to invest in an e-bike. She researched brands and models and bought an S-Works model, top of the line from manufacturer Specialized. She has logged 500 miles in three months.
“I used turbo (the highest setting) coming up the last mile and a half,” she said. “You’re getting a good workout, definitely. This thing is pedal assist. It doesn’t pedal for you. If you quit pedaling, the motor cuts out.”
Curt still rides a traditional, high-end road bike, but he rented an e-bike for their trip in Aspen. He acknowledged he is hooked.
“My vision was when I retired, I was going to buy my dream Italian road bike,” he said. “Well, now I’m going to buy a nice e-bike. I’ll spend eight, ten grand doing that.”
Carol said e-bikes will keep them engaged in the sport and riding together.
“For me, I just want the ride and I want to be able to enjoy the ride,” she said. “We never have been e-bike snobs.”
David Berkey was on his first e-bike ride on Monday. The avid cyclist from New York state has ridden Maroon Creek Road numerous times but never experienced it quite like on the e-bike.
“I’m a road biker by nature and a mountain biker,” he said. “I was really suspect of the whole thing because I’m a purist. I’ve ridden up this road many times on my road bike. This is a totally different experience.
“You do feel like you’re a Tour de France rider coming uphill at 20 miles per hour,” he added. He made it to the top in about 25 minutes or half the time it takes him on a regular bike.
Berkey was with his wife, Karen, who wasn’t previously a cyclist, and another couple. Karen took an instant liking to the e-bike because it allows her to ride with her husband. The group raved about Silver City Cycles in Aspen for taking the time to explain rules of the road, how to properly operate an e-bike and for strongly encouraging helmet use.
Derek and Ryan Attema took a gamble and started the e-bike rental business last summer despite the pandemic. As it turned out, they made the right choice at the perfect time because people clamored to get outside during the COVID-19 lockdown. They don’t have a shop. Instead they use a small bus to deliver bikes to where their customers want them.
Derek said their 20 e-bikes are booked nearly every day during the heart of summer. He ordered 10 more and expects to take delivery this week.
He acknowledges there are problems with some e-bikers. Because he operates a mobile business, Derek is on the road a lot and witnesses what a lot of bikers are doing. He said he cringes when he sees e-bikers on the road when they could be on a parallel path. (There have also been horror stories this summer from Aspenites who witnessed clusters of e-bikers riding on city sidewalks.)
Attema said he feels the problem with e-bikers on roads instead of paths has eased this summer compared to 2020. The city of Aspen has erected better directional signs on paths and some rental shops are giving better instructions. But there’s still the issue of inexperienced cyclists.
“Seventy-five percent haven’t been on a bike in 10 to 15 years,” he estimated of his customers. “We really try to push safety.”
While they cannot force customers to wear helmets, his staff strongly suggests the lids.
Attema sees parallels between e-bike use now and snowboarding in the 1980s or 1990s.
“People just hate them because they’re new and different,” he said. “They’re here to stay.”
Attema said he believes Maroon Creek Road has been especially busy this summer because the Woody Creek Tavern has been closed. The tavern is a popular destination for e-bikers cruising down the Rio Grande Trail. The tavern is preparing for reopening under new ownership soon.
Perhaps the person in Aspen with the broadest perspective on the e-bike invasion is Michael Hutton. He has lived in the Aspen-area for about 50 years and worked in the legendary Sabatini’s bike shop when mountain biking was emerging. He’s also personally ridden just about every kind of bicycle. He believes there is a place for e-bikes, as long as they are ridden safely.
As a RFTA driver on the Maroon Bells route, he witnesses the good, the bad and the ugly of riding. E-bikers tend to be less experienced than traditional bike riders, so they make mistakes, he noted.
“They tend not to be aware of the rules of the road,” Hutton said.
Under Colorado law, riders are supposed to “single up” to allow a vehicle to pass, he said. He agreed with Grail that the biggest problem is people stopping in the lane. For a bus driver, that can be harrowing.
“Eventually, somebody’s going to get hurt,” he said. “We obviously need more education. That’s the starting point, I think.”
The biggest problem for bus drivers is trying to get around riders on the uphill trip, Hutton said. On the downhill, riders are generally going fast enough to keep traffic flowing and buses on time.
He has consulted with Bicycle Colorado to get ideas on how the situation could be improved. He believes solutions include better signage on protocols (“Stay to the Right”), enforcement by the sheriff’s office or some other entity, and wider shoulders on the uphill straightaways of Maroon Creek Road. If there were a handful of places where the road was wider, it would give bus operators and other drivers the opportunities to safely get around uphill riders, he said.
Hutton didn’t shy away from a topic few dare to broach. He believes riders could be charged a fee to raise money to fund solutions.
“I am not against a fee,” Hutton said. “It shows a caring attitude of, ‘Hey, I’ll be part of the solution.’”
Five e-bikers head up to Maroon Lake on Monday, July 19. Cyclists are supposed to ride single file when vehicles approach from behind so drivers can pass them. | Jim Paussa/Special to The Aspen Times
The U.S. Forest Service and Pitkin County are frustrated that bikers don’t follow the rules of the road on Maroon Creek Road. The problem is particularly bad with e-bikers since so many of them are new or lapsed cyclists, according to authorities. Here are the basic rules:
Stay to the far right of your lane.
Go into single file when a vehicle approaches from behind.
Don’t stop in the lane. Look for a safe place to pull over if you need to stop.
Wear a helmet.
Make your presence known when passing another rider.