Rob is an old climbing partner, known for his stock phrase, ‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ – just before it happens, usually. Retreating from a 19 pitch route in the Alps when he’d belayed me from a tuft of grass (‘I knew you wouldn’t fall off’) has always told me he’s made of the Right Stuff. So it was Rob I called to ask if he’d like to do the South Downs Way to test out electric bikes – everyone wants to know what they handle like, are they heavy, how easy is it going uphill, and mostly – how far will a battery take you?
This would prove to be a good move, as Rob had a) never been on an e-bike, and b) possesses a Jeremy Clarkson level of subtlety, leading him to put the motor on maximum from the start and leave it there. I on the other hand thought I’d caress my battery through the day, using it on maximum ‘Turbo’ up hills but a bit less on the flat. His battery ran out. Mine didn’t.
We started with a car shuttle over to the start in Eastbourne and, of course, coffee and ‘carbs’ in the cafe at the start of the trail. The bikes attracted quite a few curious glances from people walking past – a Trek Powerfly 7 with pretty thick semi-fat tyres, and a Trek Rail 7 with less fat tyres – which in fact proved much more helpful during the day. The trail starts with a pretty steep ascent straight out of the blocks and this was just at the end of the wettest February in years. This led to a lot of spinning and swearing; getting used to the torque available on an electric bike is as steep a learning curve as this was a Down!
The first section over to Jevington mainly follows a bridleway northwards from Beachy Head, as the SDW doesn’t go over the Seven Sisters for bikers. The descent into Jevington is a blast down a narrow lane, followed by the road past the church up the other side. I had a great fact here -that the world’s first fatal car accident happened in Jevington, which I was told and have believed for years. It didn’t; I can’t find it anywhere. Damn.
Another block of Downs leads to a ripper of classic Downs riding behind the Long Man and a high speed drop into Alfriston. Turns out they sell more ‘carbs’ there. Rob tells me that all cake, buns, chocolate and the like is really good for endurance exercise and is one of the basic nutritional requirements – carbs. The village shop has got to be one of the best, and the benches in the square outside were an ideal viewpoint.
After this the longer section past Firle Beacon and down to Southease seemed easy, if a little cold in the headwind. This is the South Downs par excellence, fast downhills on wide open perfect grassy slopes. We opted to skip more carbs in the YHA cafe as we thought we might seize up and never get going again, and head for the next block of Downs – however, Rob’s battery was seriously low so a ride along the road back to Lewes seemed sensible. It did indeed turn out to be just that; the battery died about 2 miles from Lewes.
This was a tryout ride, the first of a series of days. We didn’t know how far we’d get and it became evident that battery management is important. My battery had another 15-16miles in it. I’d used it in Turbo up hills, and was constantly adjusting it according to what I felt was needed – but it didn’t feel to me as if I was working any harder than Rob. Easily the best feature of e-bikes is floating up really steep hills with no effort at all – you don’t need any or much battery when going along the flat and certainly not on any descent, no matter how gentle. So for me it was a great solution. I do own a bike shop so I might be expected to say that, but it’s definitely a mater of personal taste. Since then I’ve been out on my normal bike, a Trek Fuel EX, and it was much better downhill – it felt a world away from the ebike and I felt really connected to the ride and the bike. But uphill…? No contest.
Overall I think an ebike would make me go for longer rides and big days out, covering ground I wouldn’t normally do in a day – touring, if you like. It’s still good exercise, just less intense, so you can keep on the trail for longer. I’ve also found that sometimes it makes me go for a ride when I otherwise wouldn’t – the prospect of floating up to the top of the Downs is somehow more attractive on some days than sweating like a squaddie on a spelling test. So would I buy one? Of course not, I own a bike shop! How can I give you an honest opinion? Well, they’re great, but they’re expensive. They’re fun, but they’re heavy. You could try one…