Though they may be sniffed at by “real” cylists, e-bikes are opening up serious mountain routes to the more casual pedaller. Andy Turner dons some lycra to find out more in the French Alps.
“But that’s cheating!” was the verdict from most friends when I’d admitted my cycling trip to France would involve a hint of motorised assistance. The plan was to take on the notorious Alpe d’Huez, 21 hairpin bends of thigh-melting steepness that tests Tour de France riders to the limit.
Given that my cycling experience amounted to the occasional wobble home on a three-speed London “Boris Bike”, I was going to need all the help I could get.
For the uninitiated, e-bikes are standard road or mountain bikes with a battery and motor built in. You still need to pedal (if you don’t you’ll fall off) but the motor takes the pain out of hills and headwinds, enabling those without calves of steel to take on some challenging rides or simply tackle the morning commute without needing a shower at the other end.
Thanks to advances in battery tech, e-bikes can now last for several hours on the toughest terrain, hence their recent appearance in the Alps.
So it was that one sunny day in late July I found myself amongst a small group of novice cyclists staring up at 14km of tarmac, zigzagging its way through pine forest to the ski resort of Alpe d’Huez.
Between my spindly legs was £3000-worth of the latest e-bike technology (aka the Scott E-Scale 920), a rugged-looking mountain e-bike with chunky tyres, powerful disc brakes and full suspension, the only sign of e-assistance being a baguette-sized battery bolted onto the frame.
Our guide, Charlie, ran through the controls with Gallic insouciance. Four levels of assistance – eco tour, sport and turbo – were triggered with a button next to your left thumb while the standard 11-speed gears were controlled with the right.
“Just remember: do not use turbo until the tenth corner or you will kill the battery.”
Ignoring the bemused looks of the serious cyclists setting off next to us – all shaved legs and razor thin saddles – I started pedalling.
Even in eco mode the bike was a revelation – allowing me to zip up four hairpin bends without breaking a sweat. I was soon overtaking ranks of lycra-clad Dutch cyclists doing it the hard way.
With its 21 switchbacks and 1335m climb, the route is the definitive mountain stage of Le Tour and attracts hundreds of thousands of fans. Tackling it with an e-bike felt a bit like “swimming” the English Channel with a jet ski – but any misgivings began to fade as the views grew more stupendous.
Having reached turn eight, I checked Charlie wasn’t looking and jabbed the turbo button. Suddenly it felt as if I had Chris Froome riding tandem on the back.
Surging forward with a high-pitched whirring sound, the tarmac began to blur and the speedo read 35kmph (21mph) on a 10 percent incline. If this is cheating then it’s fun cheating I thought, as we posed shamelessly for photos on the “King of the Mountains” podium at the top.
After recharging both ourselves and our bike batteries, the next challenge was off-road. Having flown over the handlebars the first (and last) time I’d tried mountain biking, retiring to the hot tub in the chalet seemed much more enticing.
But after some encouraging words from Charlie, I found myself loading moi plus e-bike into a cramped ski gondola. As we ascended the yelps of French teenagers could be heard below as they zoomed down the mountain pasture clad in body armour and crash helmets.
“Allez, on y va!” cried Charlie as we pointed our wheels downhill and let gravity do its worst.
I braced myself to eat grass but the bouncy suspension and fat tyres ate up everything the mountain could throw at it.
The only discomfort was keeping two fingers curled around the brake levers as we juddered between rocks, over rickety bridges and past munching cattle.
I could feel my mountain-bike phobia finally evaporate as we broke left onto an uphill section (sport mode engaged) and arrived at an alpine meadow straight out of Heidi. Neon-green grasshoppers leapt around at calf height and butterflies flitted between the spokes as we took a picnic stop.
So how are we getting down? “Andy, how do you feel about paragliding?” said Charlie with a grin.
Ski shops in Alpe d’Huez hire out e-bikes alongside regular mountain bikes during the summer season. Expect to pay around €50 per day. Local ski lifts allow bikes to be taken on board to tackle downhill routes.
Check out Bike Oisians for more information on where to hire and charge e-bikes. For families and novice cyclists, the nearby Vercors region offers gentler cycle routes through stunning scenery along the Via Vercors. Ryanair flies from London Stansted to Grenoble from where Alpe d’Huez and the Vercors are a 90-minute drive.