Where in Thetford do you find a seasoned outdoor guide who is willing to help people of all abilities get outside and have fun? For some, the answer lies on Academy Road where Jonas Cole operates Vermont Bike and Brew, an eBike (electric bicycle) rental and sales outfit, from the home he grew up in next to Thetford Academy.
For the last ten years before opening his business, Jonas “lived and slept in the field,” leading outdoor education programs for all ages. He’s led groups from kindergarteners to people in their retirement years, with a focus on middle school kids. His classes covered all manner of activities including rock climbing. But gradually, having a real home and other aspects of life began to look more and more attractive. Vermont Bike and Brew is the answer he dreamed up. It’s a way to have a livelihood through which he shares his love of Vermont and of giving people access to the outdoors — in their home state. His experience in helping participants on outdoor trips feel prepared has translated easily into showing clients how to use equipment like the eBikes he rents out.
There’s a second aspect that’s encapsulated in the “Brew” part of the name. Jonas provides mapped routes that send eBike riders not only along scenic roads, but to destinations of interest, often local businesses like ice cream shops, local stores and local Vermont breweries. To him, it is a shame that so many visitors to Vermont drive directly up to Waterbury and Stowe, missing out on interesting small towns and the many hidden gems of our region. His goal is to change that and to support the local economy. To that end, he is offering five or six brewery tour routes this season.
He doesn’t think there is such a thing as a “typical customer.” He rents to all sorts, from people in their seventies to visiting tourists to family groups with a range of ages and abilities. Even in such mixed groups, the boost provided by an eBike, especially on hills, allows everyone to keep up.
The pandemic made its mark on Vermont Bike and Brew, and on the cycling world as a whole. On the positive side, Jonas sold more eBikes and provided more rentals in 2020 than he anticipated. On the negative side, there was, and still is, an extreme shortage of eBikes and of bicycles in general. It is sobering to know that most bicycles and eBikes sold in the US come from two sources, China and Taiwan. Both counties ramped up export-oriented bicycle manufacturing in the last 20-30 years while US production decreased and became increasingly dependent on foreign components. Then overseas production of bicycles essentially stopped during the pandemic. At the moment, Jonas has a limited number of eBikes for sale; however more inventory is expected by mid-summer. He will be renting out 20-30 eBikes this summer.
In addition to an accessible form of recreation, eBikes have a very practical aspect. Many of the eBikes Jonas offers have rear racks for carrying things, and he can even provide a bag for the rear rack. For residents of villages, eBikes are well-suited to local trips, for instance to the store or post office.
However, there are presently obstacles to wider “lifestyle” use of eBikes and bicycles. Local roads could be in better condition, and there are no bike lanes. Roads are often too narrow for them. Cities all over the world are taking the lead here with the addition of bike lanes and bicycle storage areas. EBikes are also costly and by no means affordable for everyone. There is a move at Vital Communities to provide an eBike subsidy to low-income people in the Upper Valley, and Jonas has helped with some input to this future program.
People don’t appreciate enough that winter is also a bicycle-friendly season. Jonas is promoting winter cycling with the addition of so-called fat eBikes to his fleet. Fat bikes have 4-inch wide tires that are kept at a low pressure for greater surface contact and traction. The tires can be studded, enabling travel on ice or packed snow (but not in powder). He says it is entirely possible to do a 20-mile ride in winter on packed trails. And why not roads? Currently he has eight fat eBikes available for rent, winter and summer.
Self-powered modes of transportation like eBikes are sure to have a place in the shift away from gasoline-powered vehicles, especially as eBikes become better known and accepted and as improved technology allows them to go farther on a single charge.