Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Fifth in a series
In early 2020, Susan Gautsch planned a ski trip with a friend to Vancouver Island in southwestern British Columbia.
It was supposed to last five days, but the COVID-19 pandemic had other plans.
When the U.S.-Canada border closed, they had to make a choice to come home immediately or lock in place at a local resort. Thinking it would be a couple of weeks, Gautsch decided to stay. Ultimately, she spent about six months at the mostly closed hotel before she could return.
The scene – a remote, abandoned resort in the mountains – might make some think of “The Shining,” but Gautsch thrived.
“I felt good, and healthier than I had in decades,” she said.
Free from her high-powered career in higher education in Los Angeles, where she tackled everything from public policy to business studies to online learning for well-known institutions like the University of Southern California, she had time to snowshoe, cycle and think about her next move.
And that thought process led her back to Albuquerque, her childhood home, and prompted her to turn her passion for electric bikes into a business: Free-to-Roam eBiking. Inspired by her elongated stay on Vancouver Island, Gautsch started Free-to-Roam in 2021. Her storefront, a former office in Nob Hill at 4118 Central SE, opened a few months later.
“I can have fun and have an impact, and I can do it in New Mexico,” Gautsch said.
Electric bikes – bicycles offering an electric motor to assist with pedaling – have been getting more popular in the United States in recent years.
A 2020 report from Forbes notes that 3.7 million e-bikes were sold in 2019, with additional growth expected over the next five years.
Gautsch, who bought her first e-bike in 2017, reported improved mental and physical health after ditching her car. Freed from her daily car commute while working for the University of Southern California, she said she came to see Los Angeles in a different light while cycling.
She described the experience of riding her e-bike as a blend of exercise, sightseeing and fun.
“It was hard to explain, right? It just made me happier and I felt grounded,” she said.
Gautsch estimates that it cost nearly $150,000 to buy bikes and pay for other expenses to get her business rolling. She said a lot of that money came out of her own pocket, including her retirement funds, but credited a few New Mexico organizations for their help. The nonprofit economic development organization WESST helped her secure an approximately $20,000 loan to purchase a new fleet of e-bikes last year, and the company received grants from the city of Albuquerque and the state Outdoor Recreation Division as well.
So far, New Mexicans seem to be along for the ride. Free-to-Roam won a pitch competition at New Mexico Outdoor Economics Conference in Farmington last year, and Gautsch said she’s looking at opening storefronts in other parts of the state.
Beyond simply selling and renting e-bikes, Gautsch said she wants to change the way her car-dominant hometown views cycling.
Free-to-Roam has led e-bike community rides around Albuquerque, including a series of glow-in-the-dark early morning rides to and from the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. The company has organized group rides for employees at Sandia National Laboratories, and is looking for other employers to partner with.
Gautsch, who serves on the board of BikeABQ, said she wants to see Albuquerque become a more friendly city to cyclists of all stripes, just as Los Angeles started to during her last few years there.
“There’s been huge transformations in other places,” she said.