TuffHill eBikes prove no hill is too tough to climb

How the lives of two Calgary families were transformed by electric bicycles

By Leanne Murray | August 4, 2022 |5:00 am

Stephanie and Sean Tuff loved their e-bikes so much they decided to start their own company.

Photo: Leanne Murray

Life is full of signs, both literally and figuratively. Two years ago, one sign changed Sean Tuff’s life.

He came across a sign for Bike Root community bike shop on the University of Calgary campus and it piqued his curiosity enough to check it out.

Like so many kids who grew up in the 90s, Sean biked a bit as a hobby but stopped riding as he got older.

One of the biggest reasons is his 6’5” frame which made it difficult to find bikes in his size.

Two years ago, Sean Tuff visited Bike Root not realizing how much it would change his life. Photo: Sean_Tuff Twitter

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

During Sean’s first visit to Bike Root, he inquired about a larger bicycle and was told they had none and rarely got them in.

Mere moments later, a gentleman donated a mountain bike with an XXL frame and the student running the bike shop tracked Sean down to give him the good news.

Sean says he had been looking for ways to keep busy during the pandemic and get out more with his two kids and wife, Stephanie, who was pregnant at the time with their third.

Together the family discovered new parks while biking around Calgary, found new places to eat, met their neighbours, and noticed improvements in their mental and physical health.

Sean also started volunteering at Bike Root where he met new people in the community, made meaningful connections, and started learning bicycle mechanics.

“It was just this perfect mix of me learning to fix all these old bikes, seeing the beauty and power of it in the community, as well as meeting all these people and loving that aspect,” he says.

Aches and pains

While Sean loved riding his mountain bike, there was a problem. Pulling his kids around was becoming increasingly more difficult and left him in a lot of pain.

Sean opted to try an e-bike and describes it as a transformative form of transportation.

“The distances in Calgary are big. But when you throw an electric engine on your bike, all of a sudden they don’t feel big anymore,” he says.

“When you drive through Calgary you kind of go from main thing to main thing. All you see are the main roads and then that thing that you arrive at. Whereas when you’re on a bike, you see all these things that you just miss otherwise.”

Stephanie adds how lucky Calgary is to have outdoor spaces that can’t be experienced in a car.

“You have to set aside and carve out extra time in your life to go and intentionally experience these beautiful spaces that we have,” she says.

“But when you’re on a bike, you literally get to experience them every day on your way somewhere. And it just feels good. Being in natural spaces does so much for the endorphins in your body and your mental health.”

Every day is an adventure for Sean and Stephanie. Photo: tuffhillebikesyyc Instagram

Every day is an adventure

Stephanie says they often ride 10 to 20 kilometres every day, and constantly interact with and smile at people.

“The emotions you experience in a day are just so much more positive than negative on a bike,” she says.

“It really has infused adventure into every day because we can explore new parks, we can ride to a friend’s birthday party, but it’s an adventure on the way.”

The Tuffs also noticed a big difference in their bank account after switching to e-bikes.

“Because we replaced so much of our driving with electric bikes, we were saving a bunch more money. When you have kids, and you’re worried about paying the bills, and you want to eventually buy a house and do all the things for them, every bit of money saved is a pretty big deal,” Sean says.

“It also meant that we started shopping more locally because we wanted to support the local places we were seeing and we had the money to do it because we were saving it by not driving.”

Transformative mode of transportation

While the Tuffs’ lives were being transformed by their electric bikes, so too were the lives of their good friends, Brian Hill and Alexandra Contreras.

The foursome became passionate about e-bikes, often discussing their mutual love for them.

“Brian came to us one day and he pulled out his computer and it’s got this PowerPoint presentation on why we should start an electric bike company,” Sean says.

“The quote that really stood out to us was: the electric bike will do to the regular bike what the computer did to the typewriter. I was sold at that point.”

TuffHill eBikes Inc. was born following thousands of hours of research and countless conversations with riders, shop owners, and manufacturers.

Stephanie believes there is something special about the way all four friends had seemingly insignificant individual moments that came together to form the business.

“How perfect is [it] that our names combined is the worst part of biking? And that’s basically the problem that [e-bikes] solve,” she says.

Biking in the winter

Calgary’s winter weather is one of the reasons they decided to design the electric bikes themselves.

“Most bikes are designed for California and so we wanted to try and build something more specifically for here,” Sean says.

“They’ve got what’s called the carbon belt drive instead of a chain. So it can’t rust. You also don’t need to oil it. It’s got a big battery so you can put the assist level up and you can get through the cold as fast as you want.”

Sean adds the e-bikes have fenders to keep water and snow from splashing up, and tires can have studs to help with confidence and stability for winter riding.

He understands that riding in the colder months can be intimidating at first, but compares it to any other winter activity like skiing, snowboarding, or ice skating and says you just have to dress for the weather.

“The scariest thing is just trying it. Once you’ve tried it and done it, it’s not that bad,” he says, adding the biggest thing the city can do to encourage more people to ride bikes is to clear and maintain the paths.

TuffHill eBikes are locally designed. Photo: TuffHill eBikes website

Calgary becoming a biking city

When compared to other cities across North America, Sean says Calgary is one of the best for bike riding.

“Compared to Denmark and the Netherlands, we are in the Stone Age,” he says with a laugh.

“But overall, getting everywhere and getting around is really easy.”

Bike path connectivity is something that Sean would like to see improved in Calgary.

“We have lots of really great pathway systems and pathways, but then sometimes they just end. So the interconnectedness is still lacking, but it is growing and getting better,” he says.

Sean points to the raised bike lane along 24th Avenue near the U of C as a good example of the kind of bike infrastructure he’d like to see more of in Calgary.

“You’re separated and protected,” he says, adding his dream with TuffHill eBikes is to change the way Calgary moves.

“We want to see the way people move through the city change so that they can become more community oriented and minded. We want to disrupt the status quo of how our city moves and operates together.”

Changing the way Calgary moves

As more people make the switch to biking, Sean sees a positive ripple effect on the environment, mental and physical health, and even taxes.

“If we do see people start shifting how they move, we start saving money tax-wise on roads and maintenance,” he says.

As for the future of the company, Sean says they’d eventually like to expand and sell bikes across the country and incorporate other designs like cargo bikes for families and different sizes for all ages.

Stephanie says they wanted to start small with the most versatile e-bike and they are taking things one test ride at a time.

“We want to grow slow because we really believe that slow is fast,” she says, adding they want to build relationships with people.

“Whenever someone buys a bike from us, it’s an invitation into a relationship in this electric bike community and their support. It’s not just buying a product, you’re really being invited into a whole new culture and movement.”

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Leanne Murray

Leanne is a Calgary Citizen reporter.

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