How an electric bike can improve your fitness, and four of the best places to ride one
The combination of ease and fun is making the popularity of e-bikes soar. Mountain biking purists may call it cheating, but you’ll reach places you wouldn’t otherwise get to
I was hammering down one of the bike trails of the ski resort of Les Arcs in the French Alps, whooping and laughing like a child who has just learned to ride. I’d heard mention of the “electric bike smile” before, and now I knew just what it referred to.
This was my first time riding an electric bike – a Giant Full-E+1 mountain bike – and I could not wipe the grin off my face.
Thanks to a motor that gave me a choice of “Eco”, “Normal” and “Power” modes, whenever I came to an uphill section that would have been a slog on my regular mountain bike, I simply started pedalling and the motor would engage to assist me in the climb. It was like being given a helpful push.
I was on the undulating single track for which Les Arcs is renowned – lots of berms, plenty of opportunities to get your bike airborne if you like that kind of thing, and lots of “flow” to ensure a seamless ride all the way from the high point of the trails at 2,600-metre Col de la Chal to the base some 1,800 metres below.
A full range of gears and suspension, front and rear, provided a smooth, plush ride and even though the Giant weighed a hefty 54lb (24kg) – compared to around 34lb for my usual non-motorised mountain bike – this was never an issue. The extra weight of the motor and battery made the downhill ride stable even at high speed on loose dirt.
Though my first ride, this was not the first time I’d seen an e-bike – that was three years ago, while riding my road bike up to the nearby Col de l’Iseran on the highest metalled road in the Alps, which reaches a maximum altitude 2,764 metres. As my friend and I struggled uphill, we were alarmed to see two middle-aged ladies – who obviously enjoyed a bit of cake – breeze past us on their road bikes, chatting gaily.
A second glance revealed that they were enjoying the advantage of the electric motors attached to their bikes. “That’s cheating,” I cried out. But as my companion quite rightly pointed out, so what? As long as they’re getting out and enjoying themselves.
And this, to a large extent, is what e-bikes are all about. For the cycling and mountain biking purist – usually young and fit – riding a bike with a motor is heresy. For everyone else, however, an e-bike offers a chance to ride terrain and explore places that you may not otherwise experience.
“I’ve had customers who say it’s literally changed their lives, both in terms of getting out and about in the fresh air and getting fitter,” says Tony Scudder, the owner of UK-based shop Electric Bikes Kent. Scudder says one of his biggest markets is older people who gave up cycling years ago but are now able to ride again thanks to the help the motor provides.
Riding my e-mountain bike in Les Arcs I could feel the serious riders looking at me askance as I boarded the ski lift that would take me up into the mountains to access the trails. Finally, however, one of them spoke up: “I rode one of those last week – it was brilliant fun.”
It often takes just one ride and people are converted. I’d initially thought that such a heavy bike was going to be hard work to handle, with or without the help of the electric motor, but once I hit the trails in Les Arcs – which are designed to appeal to all levels of rider and feature everything from easy forest fire trails to twisty single-track and technical rock gardens with huge drop-offs – I was amazed at how manoeuvrable and responsive the bike was.
The combination of ease of use and pure fun goes a long way to explaining the growth in sales of e-bikes.
Scudder opened his e-bike store two years ago, and says he has seen sales grow every month.
E-bike sales grew throughout Europe last year, and in France the government is encouraging the sale of e-bikes by offering a national incentive scheme which contributes €200 (US$230) towards the purchase of an e-bike. Sales increased by 50 per cent last year to 200,000 units and are expected to hit the one million mark within seven years.
China is the world’s biggest market for e-bikes, with almost 15 million sold in the country in 2017 – an increase of just under a quarter of a million on the previous year, according to market research portal statista.com. The USA also saw e-bike sales hit a record high of 263,000 last year, an increase of 25 per cent on 2016.
“More people are interested in green transport, and a green lifestyle,” says Ed Benjamin, senior managing director of eCycleElectric Consultants and chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association. “But traffic, parking congestion, fuel prices, and convenience are still bigger drivers in popularising e-bikes.”
Lyle Metcalfe, of e-bike manufacturer Volt Bikes, says: “E-bikes are excellent for exercising, allowing you to choose your own level of effort. With variable levels of help, you can choose how much effort you put in.
“It has been statistically proven that e-bikes get up to seven times more usage by their owners than conventional cycles, so you my actually get more exercise as an e-bike user if you choose a balance between assisted-power and your own power when cycling.”
Do not be discouraged by the extra weight of the bike; simply practice riding on flat, open ground first, which will also let you to get used to the motor kicking in. In every other respect – gears, brakes, etc – an e-bike is the same as a regular bicycle, although you do need to remember to keep an eye on the power meter.
“Modern batteries are efficient enough that it’s rare that you will run out of power on a typical ride, especially if you plan ahead,” says Metcalfe. “And most pubs, restaurants and cafes will gladly allow you to charge your battery if you’re using their facilities. The chargers are portable, so you can just carry them in your pannier or a backpack.”
Belting around Les Arcs on my bike I rode around 65km and the battery was still 80 per cent charged at the end of it – although admittedly most of that riding had been downhill, so I wasn’t calling on the battery to assist me.
In fact, the only piece of equipment that was in any way worn out was the rider – perhaps because I ended up spending more time riding than I would have had I been on my usual bike – but I still had that grin on my face.
Best places to go e-mountain biking
Les Arcs, France: world-class, ski lift accessed trails for all levels of ability. More details at: lesarcs.com
Hakuba, Japan: Hakuba and the surrounding Nagano region are rich in exciting mountain bike trails and the downhill scene is growing fast. More details at: evergreen-hakuba.com
Livigno, Italy: over 3,200km of mapped trails and free lift passes with some great accommodation options. More details at: livigno.eu
Whistler, British Columbia: the focal point of North American mountain biking with a dazzling array of riding option. More details at: whistlerblackcomb.com