FORT MORGAN, Colo. — Steve Neel’s days usually begin with a morning coffee from the Fort Morgan McDonald’s. Just over a mile from his home, the walk may be just a stroll for some, and the drive is quick. But Neel is 78 years old and has atrial fibrillation, a condition that causes irregular heart rate, poor blood flow and trouble breathing.
This condition makes it difficult to walk more than a few steps, but on an electric bike, Neel can cruise with ease at speeds up to 20 mph.
“I love it because it gets me around where I could not go otherwise,” Neel said. “Even down roads I could never go with a car.”
Neel is a retired superintendent who worked in Wiggins, a town 16 miles from Fort Morgan. He still visits friends in Wiggins and said his e-bike makes transportation without a car not only plausible but enjoyable.
“It gives me a freedom that I wouldn’t have otherwise,” Neel said. “It’s definitely not just for the young.”
Thanks to a grant from the Colorado Energy Office, Morgan County — in rural Northeast Colorado — will give 30 free e-bikes to low-income Morgan Community College students and low-income essential workers in the county. The state’s energy office grant provided $78,500 for the project, with the city and college contributing $26,240 for bikes, safety accessories and training videos.
Rural communities welcome Colorado's e-bike program
“In a rural community, we often have barriers towards public types of transportation, unlike bigger cities that have bus systems,” said Sandy Engle, the economic development director for Fort Morgan. “This has the ability to give that type of transportation to 30 people.”
Fort Morgan’s economy revolves around agriculture. Many of its 11,400 residents live in rural areas away from amenities and their jobs. According to a survey from the city of Fort Morgan, 10% of the town’s residentsdo not have a vehicle due to cost barriers. Many who don’t have reliable transit still have to work several miles away and walk long distances through harsh temperatures, Engle said. Though 30 e-bikes may not remedy the issue for all who need transportation, Engle knows these 30 e-bikes are better than the status quo.
“This is a chance for people that maybe don’t own a car or have never considered really being able to enjoy the outdoors in a leisure type of fashion,” Engle said.
Those wanting a bike completed an application with questions about income, geographic location and transportation needs. Applicants with the greatest need will receive their bikes on Sept. 28.
Richard Lapp, owner of Bicycle Adventure — Fort Morgan’s only bike shop — said e-bikes make riding about 50% easier than a traditional bike. Users still have to pedal, but a motor kicks in once they begin pedaling and stops when they do.
“One of the benefits of having an e-bike is you get more exercise, and being in shape and being conditioned is a big part of having a healthy life,” Lapp said. “I would say the biggest benefit is your health.”
Lapp is 69 years old and said riding a standard bicycle has gotten much more difficult with age. He’s hopeful that e-bikes will help older folks, those with disabilities and anyone else who struggles to ride a generic bicycle.
“The older you get, the more work it is to ride a bike, and having an e-bike takes away that work and makes it very pleasurable,” Lapp said. “I think e-biking can make biking way more enjoyable.”
Engle and Lapp said they’re also hopeful that e-bikes can be practical in this small, farm-centric community because of the user’s ability to ride long distances without feeling worn out.
“An e-bike on country roads will make things more enjoyable,” Lapp said. “Fort Morgan is a small, agricultural community that’s full of big ideas, and this is a big idea.”
The state awarded bikes to eight communities across the state after the state legislature passed the Can-Do Colorado e-bike Pilot Program in the 2022 session. Grand Junction, Cortez, Routt County, Garfield County, Fort Morgan, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and Boulder were all recipients, either through city governments or local nonprofits. Municipalities across the state are also awarding rebates for e-bikes.
Sarah Thorne, a senior program manager at the Colorado Energy Office, said the program’s goal was to ensure geographic diversity among those who got access to e-bikes and spread a more environmentally friendly option statewide.
“The Eastern side of the state tends to be overlooked when we do these grants, so we’re really excited to have them on board,” Thorne said. “Your impact on the environment is significantly lower on an e-bike.”