“It never gets easier – you just go faster” – Greg LeMond, Tour de France champion 1986, 1989 and 1990.
The news that a hidden motor was discovered in a competitor’s bike at this year’s cyclocross world championship has understandably rocked the cycling world, but there’s an undeniable appeal to the idea of being able to flick a switch and gliding up some of the steeper hills – the sort that would ordinarily leave you in a heap at the side of the road.
It’s why when I heard that the Giant store in Shoreham had taken stock of some E Bikes, I was on the phone arranging a test ride. I’m pretty committed to cycling, but I’m far from being the strongest cyclist, so a little assistance would be appreciated, and there were a couple of hills on the South Downs Way I wanted to teach a lesson.
That said, it’s been a while since I’ve been on a mountain bike – a long time actually. Luckily, I had Rod at the Giant store to take me through the bike and explain how it worked and what to expect. We were going to be riding a ‘Dirt E+’ with front suspension, and the full suspension ‘Full E+’. There are three modes for the motor – Eco, which extends battery life but still gives you enough power to take on the hills, Normal, which gives you a good push both on the flat and when the trail points upwards, and Sport, which sees you overtaking hardened mountain bikers with ease. The SyncDrive motor gives 80Nm of torque, which means absolutely nothing to me, but makes a huge difference when you’re out on the hills. They’re not necessarily for serious cyclists, Rod tells me, but for people who haven’t quite got the fitness to make it up the big hills, or who can’t physically get up them because of age or injury, but still want to get out and enjoy the hills. Rod has put the bikes through their paces himself, and I’m told he’s made it a good 30-miles on the harsh terrain of the South Downs Way on a full charge, and still had a third of the battery left.
Setting off out the door, my first impression was that the bike is heavy – noticeably heavier than the cyclocross bike I normally ride, of course, but still heavier than I’m used to. It’s the kind of weight that I’d ordinarily be nervous about on reaching the hills, as every extra kilogram is something you take up the hill with you. We had a couple of miles on the flat to get used to the bikes though, as we travelled on the Downslink towards the South Downs Way, and in spite of the extra weight, there were no issues with balance, and the bike handles well without feeling bogged down.
Our first climb is a bit of a nemesis for me. I’ve only ridden it a couple of times before, and it’s normally left me either walking or cursing – I avoid it if I can do, even if it means riding an extra few miles. A slow, exposed slog up an uneven, rutted and often slippery climb, I hate it. This was to be the test of this bike – whether I’d get to the top smiling, or at the very least, without crying.
Unlike some of the earlier electric bikes, which are powered even when you’re not pedalling, the Giant’s motor only kicks in when you’re turning the pedals. Starting the climb in Eco mode, I got a gentle push and could hear a faint whir of the motor. If you’re not prepared it’s actually a little disconcerting, because it does make a huge difference, especially when you’re used to getting up hills under your own power. You’re still pedalling, and you’re still doing some of the work, but the motor is like a gentle hand on your back. Setting off from a standstill is a bit of a challenge, as the power can be a little too much, but I got to the top feeling a little breathless, but surprised at how fresh I was.
This was the theme for the rest of the ride – every climb was just easier. On Sport mode, with a bit of extra pedalling, we were passing walkers and other cyclists at speeds of around 20km/h – far beyond anything I usually manage uphill. I spent a lot of the climbs laughing to myself at how ridiculous it felt travelling three or four times faster than I can normally manage, almost as if I was on a motorbike and not a mountain bike.
The best thing about the bikes though, is the way they open up so many new possibilities. As you travel along the South Downs way, you come across all kinds of paths leading away from the main route. Some of these take you down to villages and farms; others don’t appear to lead anywhere. On an ordinary ride, there’s little chance we’d head down one of these routes, knowing full well that we’d eventually have to come back up in order to rejoin the main trail. On the Giant bikes though, we were finally getting answers to the question ‘I wonder where that goes…?’ That’s the beauty of these bikes – they open up new worlds to people who perhaps wouldn’t normally dream of tackling this kind of terrain, giving them a chance to experience the beauty of routes that might otherwise be a point on a map or a dot on the horizon.
Arriving back at the Giant store, a quick glance at the bikes’ computers showed we’d used barely 30% of the battery on a three hour ride, while our own batteries were pleasantly full, given the kinds of hills we’d been taking on. Judging from the amount of mud on the bikes too (sorry, Rod), we’d done a lot more exploring than is normally the case. I think we may have found an exception to Greg LeMond’s famous quote – it definitely got easier, and we went much, much faster…