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The ebike revolution: Cycling in the Alps? No sweat

Ebikes aren’t just easing the pain of hill climbing, they’re changing the face of cycling. There’s evena new festival in Verbier celebrating their popularity

The ebike revolution: Cycling in the Alps? No sweat
High spirits… Ebikes allow cyclists to enjoy rather than endure riding up hills. Photograph: Uwe Moser/Getty Images

The first time it happened was three years ago. I was cycling up the Col de l’Iseran in the French Alps with my friend Tim. At 2,764 metres, it’s the highest paved road in the Alps and, as we panted and gasped our way upwards, we were overtaken by a couple of middle-aged women chatting away happily.

Tim and I like to think we’re reasonably fit, if not exactly Geraint Thomas, so I looked across at him in horror. To which he replied knowingly: “They’re on ebikes.” Phew.

Being overtaken like this has now become a regular event on my rides in the Alps, and while I once complained about ebike riders “cheating”, I no longer can, as I recently bought my own electric mountain bike. Like countless others I’ve given in to the lure of the electric motor. Living in Les Arcs, in the French Alps, I can enjoy access to fantastic mountain bike routes when the ski lifts are open from July to the end of August, but getting to the top of those mountains once the lifts close is a long, hard slog, and I’m not getting any younger.

Plenty of purists still argue that this is not “real” cycling, but if it gets you out and about on a bike – whether along a canal towpath or to the summit of Mont Ventoux – who cares?

‘Rather than having to get my breath back, I’m able to pedal along while enjoying a spectacular alpine panorama’

My ebike allows me to actually enjoy riding up hills, as well as letting me race down them at the same speed (if not faster) as on my regular mountain bike. Take, for example, the trails above my home on the edge of Les Arcs – there’s a mix of fire road and single-track climbs that ascend from 1,200 to over 2,000 metres and, when I ride up them on my normal bike, it’s not exactly a fun experience. Desperately gulping at the thinning air, I can usually see little more than the trail ahead as the sweat trickles down the lenses of my sunglasses. On my ebike I still have to make some effort but the motor (which has four levels of “assist”) reduces the effort enough for me to enjoy the scenery and the pine-scented air as I wend up through the forest to emerge, eventually, above the tree line.

Rather than having to stop to get my breath back before I can take in the views, I’m able to pedal along at the same time as enjoying a spectacular alpine panorama of deep green valleys rising to high peaks, with the snowy Mont Blanc massif above.

What’s more, on my regular mountain bike, I’d do this climb once, then belt back home and be done for the day – exhausted. On my ebike I have plenty of energy left to do another lap, maybe even two, which also undermines the assumption that you don’t get as much of a workout on an ebike. In fact, research has shown that ebike users get as much as seven times more use out of their bikes as regular cyclists, which makes up for the lack of effort required to power the bike.

However, these transports of delight don’t come cheap – my recently purchased Cube Stereo Hybrid 160 ebike cost over £4,000, more than many of the cars I’ve owned. But I’m far from the exception in shelling out such a sum – in the Netherlands, ebike sales were up 40% in 2018 and they now outsell regular bikes, with more than 400,000 purchased in 2018 at an average price of just over €2,000. In Germany, some 980,000 ebikes were sold in 2018, an increase of 36% on the previous year. Sales in the US increased by 25% in 2017 and in China, the world’s biggest market, 15 million ebikes hit the roads in 2017.

A guided ebike tour near Verbier

Ebikes have now become so popular that ski resorts like Avoriaz have introduced “uphill flow” trails – ones specifically designed to be ridden uphill. Add to this the fact that ebike riders don’t need to be whippet-thin Mamils (middle-age men in Lycra) to enjoy cycling through stunning scenery like that of the Alps, the Lake District and the Scottish Highlands, and it’s little wonder this is becoming the big new trend in cycling.

This August, the Swiss Alps will host the world’s biggest ebike event: the four-day Verbier Ebike Festival is open to every level of rider, including absolute beginners, with the aim of introducing both converts and non-believers to road, downhill, and cross-country ebiking. It is set to be repeated annually.

All participants will be supplied with ebikes if they don’t have their own, and there’s the chance to try out 30 brands of machine on the bike trails, gravel tracks and mountain roads. There’ll be bike tours, both guided and non-guided, that take in the best restaurants; races for all levels of ability over 38km, 66km and 100km routes (plus kids’ races); and evening events including barbecues, concerts and the chance to meet professional ebike riders.

Julien Hess, managing director of the festival, says the resort was inspired to hold the event by the growth in the number of ebikers and the demand for summer events in Verbier. “We expect the festival to attract visitors who come here to ski and now want to experience the area in summer, and to mountain bikers and cyclists of all ages and experience”.

The Verbier Ebike Festival hopes to attract more summer visitors to the Alps. Photograph: Jeremy Bernard

Hess sees ebiking as adding another string to the bow of resorts such as Verbier, giving them the opportunity to increase the number of summer visitors, allowing those visitors to rediscover the area without its winter snows, as well as giving pretty much everyone the chance to ride a bike in the mountains.

“Ebikes also allow people with limited fitness or disabilities to enjoy cycling in the spectacular surroundings of the Alps, as well as helping in the battle against sedentary lifestyles.”

As for the hair shirt brigade who claim ebiking is cheating, he simply says: “Come and give it a try and then we can talk again! And if you’ve already given it a go and are still not convinced, I’ll find you a challenge with an ebike that will make you change your mind …”

The Verbier Ebike Festival runs from 15-18 August. Ebike rental costs 30 Swiss francs a day (£23); a full day of guided riding costs £30. Discounts are available for groups, families and early bookings

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