When you hear Merick “Merv” Hill’s British accent, you’d never guess that he was born in Virginia. And that’s just one of the many surprising things about the founder of Chelan Electric Bikes, which offers the phenomenally popular electric bike winery tours at Lake Chelan. (The outings are offered on Pedego electric bicycles, shown below.) Hill’s parents moved the family back to England when he was 4. But after finishing college, he returned to the U.S. And a series of random coincidences brought him to Lake Chelan not just once, but twice. These days, spring to fall, his team’s bicycle tours are among the most popular activities at the lake. With peak season in full swing, I’m sharing excerpts from my recent conversation with this truly remarkable bloke.
How did you come up with the idea for your tours?
I used to be a manager at a motorcycle dealership in Monroe [northeast of Seattle]. One day, a sales rep came along with an electric bike, and he persuaded me to take it for a spin. And I just fell in love with it. So, I purchased one. I just started it riding everywhere.
Then, in 2008, the recession hit. The motorcycle industry just went completely down the drain. The shop closed, and we lost our house. I had lived in Chelan before. And my wife and I both loved visiting the area. So, we were like, “What can we do to make a living in Chelan?”
I Googled electric bike tours. And it showed there was one in Napa, or someplace like that. And I thought, “I wonder if this could work out in Chelan.” So, we kind of took a leap of faith. Before we lost our house, we maxed out our credit cards and bought a fleet of electric bikes. And the rest is history.
What do you find most surprising about the way people react on your tours?
We get lot of people who haven’t been on a bike in a while. Or, they have never been on an electric bike. So, they are apprehensive at first. As soon as they see how the bikes work, they just smile. Because they are so easy to ride. So, the most surprising thing for the guest is how fun the bikes are.
And then, every now and again, we’ll get locals on the tour. Because they have friends coming in from out of town and they want to show them around. And often, the locals will be like, “Wow, I never knew these roads or houses even existed.” Because we’ll take them down back roads, and we’ll tell them about the history of these places.
How do you choose the wineries you visit?
We only go to three wineries on the [4-hour] tour. It’s not a drinking tour. It’s a sipping tour. If people want to visit more wineries, we’ll refer them to a limousine service.
We stick to the south shore, because the roads are more bike-friendly. The shoulders are much wider than they are on the roads heading out to Manson. The wineries are all pretty nice. So, we’ll check with them ahead of time to see who has space for us. For instance, we generally go to Karma Vineyards (above). But sometimes, Karma will have a private event booked, and we can’t go there that day. It kind of depends on which wineries are available. But we go to a lot of them.
Also, and this is really cool: we have people who come back every year to do the winery tour. And they’ll call up and they’ll say, “Hey Merick, we went to these wineries last year, can we do different ones?” So, we try to accommodate that request, too.
What are some things that people will get from this tour?
It’s a whole new way of exploring Chelan. There’s fresh air, and you’re not in a car, so you can experience it with all your senses. It doesn’t matter how hot it gets. Because the bikes are electric, so you’re not exerting yourself super-hard. We encourage guests to bring their swimsuits, and we’ll jump in the lake once or twice along the way. And by the time you get to the next winery, you’ve dried off. The whole experience is just fun.
What attracted you to the Chelan area in the first place?
After I finished college, I came to America and hitchhiked all over. I spent the summer processing fish in Alaska. When I was there, I met a bunch of fellows who picked apples in Chelan each fall. They invited me down to pick apples with them after the fishing season ended. So, I came to Chelan to pick apples. The funny thing is, these guys gave me their address. But when I knocked on the door, they never showed up. I never saw them again, and I never picked apples. Instead, I got a job in a restaurant, and that was it.
Chelan Electric Bikes offers 4-hour winery tours and 2-hour sunset tours, spring through fall, as well as custom tours for groups of eight or more. Advanced reservations are highly recommended. Those with their own electric bicycles are welcome to join the tours at a reduced fee.