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.