Here’s my dilemma: I have a chance to take a bike tour of Albania, a country that is steeped in mystery after being secluded behind the Iron Curtain for decades. But along with the high levels of intrigue come mountainous terrains and enormous climbs. Do I go for it with the power of my own two feet, or do I set aside pride and principle and use an e-bike, an electric bike that has a battery to give an extra pedaling push?
I’m a purist and enjoy the physical challenge of biking. I had had an amazing time on BikeTours.com’s bike/boat trip in the Greek Isles and know the pain (and accomplishment!) of burning lungs that come with tackling the steepest, longest climbs of my life. But the BikeTours experts say that the Greek Isles was a Class 3 ride and Albania would be a Class 4, with even steeper, longer climbs.
What’s more, when I look over the day-by-day elevations, one day stands out at being the equivalent of a mile in total elevation gain. So if the Greek Isles was my physical limit, I’m not so sure I can do Albania.
But I also believe that the best way to engage and to discover a destination like Albania is by bike. Cars and buses would never attempt the back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways, or through villages, and neighborhoods. Even if they did, they would likely go too fast to really experience the scenery.
On a bike, you can snatch up and savor the world around you, and looking through glass windows puts a layer of unreality. From the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace to see the sights and hear the sounds. How else could you encounter cows mooing, the bells attached to goats, and the cicadas? Or smell the wild sage growing beside the road and feel the moist coolness as you ride through a forest?
You can stop at a bend in the road to take in the breathtaking views or just get your breath. You can even chat with a shepherd edging his flock across the road. People wave and call out hello as you ride through a village and you can wave and say a cheery “hello” as back. Most important of all, you can stop when you want (as I did most frequently) to take photos.
And, finally, I believe ardently in the quest for knowledge, understanding, and ambassadorship that is the essence of travel. This essence is particularly apparent via bike tour travel.
So, if the only way to experience Albania is to use an e-bike, I will set aside my pride and principle. Ultimately, using an e-bike will add a whole new layer and experience to my trip, and I know I’ll enjoy it.
I know there will be many bonuses of using an e-bike: I can stop for pictures and still know I can catch up with the group. I won’t suffer or need to focus exclusively on the ride. I won’t lose sleep over the worry of whether I can manage the next day’s ride. I can also make the ride as challenging as I want (I simply don’t go into an easier setting), so I will still get the workout I want and feel the satisfaction of conquering a climb. But most importantly, the priority of this trip is to experience a culture and explore a destination, not a physical work-out or just getting from point A to B.
And finally, I realize that the e-bike extends horizons and opportunities for adventure and exploration for many of us who have reached an age where we appreciate biking but are unsure of doing the distance or the hills.
How it works
After picking the e-bike once and for all, it takes me about two minutes to figure it out and three minutes to get comfortable.
The e-bike is not like a scooter – you still have to pedal. But to me, it takes the hill out of the climb, making it like pedaling on flat surface (unless you want to retain the challenge, as I did, and keep it at an “Econ” setting, the lowest of three “speeds”, “Norm” and “Sport” being the others). I find that “Econ” makes my hybrid bike, which with the added weight of the battery (about 12-15 pounds) ride like a road bike.
The e-bike is so responsive – it changes gears immediately, efficiently, at the push of a button (up arrow, down arrow), and allows for quick speed changes.
On the big hills, by keeping the setting at Econ, there is still the physical effort of climbing, but I don’t wind up with burning lungs. And of course, I can just zip up the hills by going to the Norm setting. For an even greater push, I can switch to the Sport setting (I never use the Sport setting, and only use Norm a couple of times, when the climb seems never-ending).
I’m so glad I went with the e-bike option: it makes me feel as if I have superpowers.
The cycling company that BikeTours.com selected for our tour, Cycle Albania, is relatively new and may in fact be the only company offering bike tours in the country. We attracted attention as we zipped through villages because we were such an oddity.
I am really impressed with the quality of the bikes, manufactured by the Taiwan-based Giant Company, which Cycle Albania purchased from the Netherlands. Each of the bikes – the regular hybrids and the e-bikes (probably the only ones in the entire country) – are the best quality, valued at thousands of dollars (in a country where the median income is $5000 a year). They have hydraulic brakes and suspension. (You can bring your own seat and pedals if you want, as did a couple from Oregon who were used to climbing hills).
My pedals have screw heads that grip the soles of my sneakers for the extra push without toe clips. And boy are we grateful for suspension and hydraulic brakes on the Day 6 ride, when we traveled down a road that was more like a mountain trail – broken gravel, rocks, potholes, gravel, and steep with winding hairpin turns.
I use the e-bike feature of my Giant bike for the first time on the second day of cycling, when we are leaving Ohrid, in Macedonia, one of the oldest human settlements in Europe, and are on the last third of a 35-mile ride. We have three progressively longer and harder hills to climb on our way back into Albania. I just whisk up the hills like nothing – and am only in the “Norm” setting – I didn’t even use the “Sport” setting, which gives even more thrust to each pedal stroke.
The great equalizer
But that’s what it is – it’s like taking the hill out of the ride. You feel like you are riding on a flat surface. You still pedal each stroke and change the gears, but each stroke is magnified. You hear a tiny whir of a motor, but it isn’t like riding a scooter.
The e-bike is a superb alternative for anyone who has denied themselves the opportunity to discover a destination by bike – the best way in my opinion – because they were afraid they could not go the distance or manage hills. The e-bike is a godsend: destinations and experiences that seemed out of reach can now be conquered. If you felt you had aged out of managing 35 to 50 miles a day on anything but flat rail-trails, e-bikes open up a whole new world of travel, and I highly recommend giving one a try.
© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info.