Pedal power is a very real thing, thanks to the rise of the e-biking movement. New Zealand may not yet be on a par with the likes of China, where over 30 million electric bikes are being bought annually.
But if sales and import figures are anything to go by (Statistics New Zealand reports that 23,326 electric bikes were imported into the country in 2017, up from 13,364 in 2016, 6,899 in 2015, and 2,509 in 2014) the e-bike revolution is coming to a town near you.
The Johnstons are perhaps best known as the owners of Replete Café, a Taupo institution on the café scene. They’re passionate about their hometown and the outdoor recreation opportunities it presents, including mountain biking. With 25 years of Taupo riding under his belt, Chris knows the trails pretty well, but both he and Kathy were finding that work-related commitments had left them with less time to get out and ride. They started to think about how they could get more time in the saddle - for fitness, but also just for the love of it.
Local bike shop owner Mark Gibson, when hearing about their predicament, suggested they try out some e-bikes. He said they’d get them further faster, and they’d breathe new life into their riding. When a friend lent Chris an e-bike he saw exactly what Mark was talking about, so he and Kathy went back to the bike shop and took up the offer of trying out some e-bikes together.
“We giggled and couldn’t believe how cool it was,” says Kathy. “I was absolutely hooked on it, so we decided to just do it, to seize the day. Life’s too short to wait.”
Mark Gibson says Chris and Kathy are typical of those leading the e-bike revolution.
“There is a really big market amongst baby boomers, who are getting close to or hitting retirement age and are looking for low-impact exercise to benefit their health. E-bikes are perfect for this, especially for those with hip and knee problems,” Mark says.
“Plus, we have this incredible network of NZ Cycle Trails that retiring baby boomers have the time, and money, to get out and ride.”
Mark adds that with big bike brands on board now with making e-bikes, there is a huge marketing machine behind them. He says it’s not just baby boomers who are buying them, but they are seeing an increase in sales in the 30-50 age group too.
“It seems a lot of couples want to ride together on the NZ Cycle Trails, and e-bikes make riding the longer distance of the trails achievable, especially where there’s an imbalance of fitness between two people.”
Mark says the biggest barriers to people wanting to ride a bike are hills, headwinds and saddles. Hills and headwinds are dealt to by an e-bike with their pedal-assist technology, and there are so many good saddles available nowadays that a good bike shop can make anyone feel comfortable.
Kathy and Chris couldn’t agree more. When they started out on their e-bikes they couldn’t believe the distance they covered, the exploring they did, and how they still returned home with a smile on their faces without being ‘absolutely spent’. A year later Chris and Kathy often ride together, exploring the huge network of local backcountry mountain bike trails far further and for longer than they ever could before.
Kathy says it’s reintroduced biking into her exercise regime. “It’s no longer a chore to go out on long rides, it’s become a pleasure again.” She also commutes to work on her e-bike and loves that she can arrive in normal clothes without being hot and sweaty.
Chris says he rode all winter on his e-bike and clocked up 1500 kilometres in 5 months. “Conditions in Taupo allow you to do that,” he says. The volcanic pumice soil is free-draining, meaning mud doesn’t have a chance on the trails during the rainy season.
The couple trained on their e-bikes to ride the nearby Timber Trail with a group of friends, and despite opting to ride their normal mountain bikes rather than their e-bikes for the actual trip, they found they were fit and well prepared for the ride.
“You’re still getting a good workout,” says Chris. “It’s not about using the e-bike on maximum power all the time, it’s about taking the humps out of your riding. I ride mostly on 20% power, so I’m still improving my fitness every time I ride.”
Cycling for recreation is hugely prominent in the Taupo community. Chris says mountain biking is the norm for many people because the trails are so accessible. There’s the 10-kilometre grade 1 Great Lake Walkway that follows the lake shore from town to Five Mile Bay, and Craters Mountain Bike Park is just 5 kilometres from town, linked to the CBD by off-road trails.
“How many towns of 22,000 have five bike shops?” says Chris. “The fact that they are able to survive is testament to the bike culture here.”
Chris says Taupo’s central location to a number of NZ Cycle Trails (the Timber Trail, Great Lake Trail, Mountains to Sea and Te Ara Ahi) has really given the region momentum with cycle tourism. These trails are also working to increase the popularity of e-biking in the region. They give access to some pretty spectacular backcountry, often attracting people who haven’t done a lot of cycling and are looking for an easier way to complete the journey. E-bikes make it achievable, although Chris is quick to point out that riders do still need some riding skills.
Kathy reflects on how the bike culture in Taupo has grown over the years. She says Taupo really became known for cycling through the Cycle Challenge event, a 160km road cycling circumnavigation of Lake Taupo.
“After a while, they decided to go off-road with the event, but they couldn’t have done that if the tracks hadn’t already been there.”
She’s referring to the 200 kilometres of mountain bike trails that Bike Taupo, the region’s cycling advocacy group, has built over the past 17 years. Her next comment sheds light on what seems to be a significant contributor to the bike culture in Taupo.
“Bike Taupo does a great job of working with people in the community. They really embrace the community with what they’re doing.”
The group, largely run by volunteers, also established the Kids Bike Taupo programme which aims to teach every child in the region to ride a bike. It’s not uncommon to see an entire group of kindergarten children, two-year-olds included, pedalling a two-wheeler around with absolute confidence.
As children get older, there is no shortage of places they can ride their bikes around Taupo.
“The region allows children to experience mountain biking because you have the ability to just go and do it,” says Chris.
He says it’s a generational thing in their family. “The culture has been ingrained for so long that my kids have grown up with it. They both ride fixies (bikes with no freewheel mechanism) in the city. One of them is back here for the summer and riding the summer series races.”
When asked what they see as the future for e-biking, Chris and Kathy both agree it’s here to stay.
“E-biking will allow us to continue to ride as we get older,” says Chris. “We would struggle through if we didn’t have the e-bikes,” says Kathy. “The e-bike movement is just going off. You see 60 and 70-year olds out there riding with smiles on their faces. They wouldn’t otherwise be able to do it, so it’s a no-brainer really.”
And on having what is clearly the good fortune of living in a place with plenty of trails to e-bike on, Chris says, “You can get in a good 30-kilometre ride after work, be home by 7pm and not even have to get in the car. People often find that hard to believe.”
“At times you have to pinch yourself because you forget how good it is to live here.”
Learning to ride your e-bike in Taupo is as easy as 1 2 3...
STEP 1 - GREAT LAKE WALKWAY TO 5 MILE BAY
This is the crème de la crème of easy e-bike trails in Taupo. Ride all the way from Taupo’s Boat Harbour to Five Mile Bay (10km) and return. The trail is paved most of the way, is generally flat and there are numerous parking options along the length of the trail, so you can start and finish wherever you like. The path follows the lake shore past secluded bays, beautiful holiday homes, lakefront hotels and boat ramps. There are even hot spots in the water where you can dip your toes in. You’ll find coffee and ice cream stops on your ride too, so take a break and enjoy the view. Chris and Kathy sometimes like to add on a side trip along the cycle lane of the Taupo bypass before returning home.
STEP 2 - TONGARIRO RIVER TRAIL
The Tongariro River Trail is a great introduction to e-biking off-road. The trail follows the banks of the world-famous trout fishing river up to Red Hut and return. Starting at the Tongariro River Bridge on SH1 in Turangi, the trail will lead you through native forest, past clear fishing pools and over bridges that offer stunning views of the river from above. A great stopover is the Tongariro National Trout Centre where you’ll find a visitor centre and trout fishing museum, a freshwater aquarium and an underwater viewing tank. Take the pleasant walk around the centre and spend some time watching the anglers down in the river – this is a popular fishing spot – before hopping back on your bikes and completing the loop trail back to Turangi. For après-bike replenishment, don’t miss Creel Café, a quaint little eatery tucked away near the river in Turangi that has great coffee, delicious brioche and a kitchen menu.
STEP 3 - HUKA TRAILS TO ARATIATIA
This ride starts from Spa Park and will take you up and down over undulating terrain that follows the course of the Waikato River. You’ll get glimpses of the bright green, clear water before dropping down to Huka Falls, NZ’s most visited natural attraction. From here you can choose to return to town or carry on the Aratiatia Loop to Aratiatia Rapids, famous for appearing in The Hobbit. Time it right and you’ll see the spectacular sight of the dam release. This trail is rated grade 3 which is an intermediate trail, so while your e-bike will help you zip up the hills nicely, you will need some off-road riding experience before tackling it.
This article appeared in the winter 2018 issue of Sounds Good Magazine