How do you fancy spending a couple of days in Mid Wales testing out electric mountain bikes? This is what I found in my inbox late one November evening. Obviously curious and most definitely interested, I responded positively, who wouldn’t? I had read that E-Bikes were going to be BIG, but I was yet to be convinced.
Unfortunately electric powered bikes have rightly or wrongly received some negative press at my hands in the past, in my defence the majority of my pedalling takes place on quiet rolling country lanes or car infested urban carriageways and the sight of an E-Bike filled me with complete confusion. The chance to banish my pre-conceptions was overwhelming, the door was wide open and I was tentatively venturing in, the world of electric powered pedalling awaited. In my simple opinion the whole purpose of cycling is the requirement to self-propel, the means of getting from A to B through good old grit, determination and uncomplicated effort.
The achievement you experience by manually pedalling a gargantuan incline or covering a sizeable distance, dripping in sweat, is the whole principle of cycling isn’t it? So my viewpoint, if slightly biased, is an E-bike prevents the rider from appreciating this very energetic ethos and missing out on the overall joys, and sometimes pains that attract most to two wheeled transportation. To those of us challenged by pedalling up and down modest hills, the prospect of attempting more heady climbs might seem rather intimidating but I accept the experience can be or may be simplified with a little assistance.
The hardest, most painful, least enjoyable part of my rides are usually the bits I remember fondly (actually fondly might not be the most appropriate word). My concern is that these feelings may become lost or blurred when reverting to electric power, resulting in the need for any effort being diluted or even diminished. I understand that there are pros and cons of the e-revolution but, will it really bring people into the cycling arena as predicted or hoped, and if so, will those people then bemoan the occasions when some simple manual pedalling is inevitable. Harshly I appear to have no faith in the human race and its powers of resolve or fortitude.
I concede that a major attraction of battery power is the fact it enables most to cover greater distances with the minimal of effort, encouraging the less able to accompany their fitter, more experienced playmates, without the expected huffing and puffing. Let’s be honest, most MTB riders would concede they crave the exhilarating, adrenalin pumping descents but aren’t too keen on the arduous trek beforehand, and any mechanical assistance would provide an obvious allure. Less effort means more downhill fun and this is where E-bikes might actually come into their own. It was now spring 2014 and I was in Hay-on-Wye to discover for myself.
Would my narrow minded blinkered approach be re-educated? Only time would tell. The towns location is beautiful, pressing tight against the Black Mountains, nestled snugly on the banks of the River Wye. The trip had been instigated by Drover Holidays, a walking and cycling tour company owned and run by Luke Skinner and Anna Heywood and based in the town. The closest train stations are either Hereford or Abergavenny, both around 45 -1 hour away by car. Their ethos is wonderfully simple, they love cycling and believe that the world is best experienced at a slow pace, preferably on two feet or two wheels and this inspired them to start the business.
The trips they offer are tailor-made to the individual needs, and at the heart is their philosophy of social and environmental sustainability. They had put several ideas before me and the one that appealed the most was the ‘Mid Wales Marches’. Thankfully I was in no hurry, I’d been set two days to cover the mediocre 70km trail between Hay-on-Wye and the Elan Valley with a bonus ride arranged between the Elan Valley and Ffair Rhos.. My main focus was to enjoy the sights and scenery of the Welsh Borders, as well as putting an electrically powered MTB through its paces along a mix of non-technical ‘On and Off’ road terrain.
The bike was a German import (Haibike) and offers a ‘pedal assist’ motor, in practical terms this can be described quite eloquently as ‘kicking in when the cranks are turning’. However, stop pedalling and the power is instantly shut off. I was still unconvinced, but now slightly intrigued, and with my appetite wetted, I was ready to be immersed in all things electrical. It didn’t take me long to feel at home, the conversation friendly and not completely bike related. However, Anna’s passion for cycling was obvious and has got her involved in organising the Hay Bike Fest (www.haycycling.org) which is in its second year and is being staged 25th – 27th April. It’s an annual celebration of cycling with a whole weekend of guided rides, skills sessions and demos and so much more…
I set off from Drovers base, a well-stocked shop on the outskirts of Hay, the weather was fair, warm but thankfully slightly overcast. I unfurled my map, the route mapped out in detail, every contour lovingly depicted, every incline worryingly graphic. My route took me north west briefly on the B4351 breezing through Clyro and following the signs for Painscastle.
The ride was relatively benign early on. In the air was a March chill but the sun was already generating a welcome warmth. A lengthy steep climb followed and I found the bike a complete marvel especially with the 5 settings (Turbo, Sport, Tour, Eco and off), I only needed to go as high as tour, maybe that was my sub-conscious kicking in, I wanted to feel I was adding to the majority of the propulsion. However I did have to apologise to a lyrca clad rather rotund roadie struggling slightly with the incline as I sped past with the minimal of effort (the experience is weird it’s like having a constant gentle shove in your back like when your dad used to help you along as a child, but the predicted whine of the motor did highlight the fact I was using some electric assistance).
After stopping briefly in Painscastle I emerged on an unfenced road with stunning far-reaching views of the surrounding hillside. I then hit an off-road section which took me to Cradle Rocks before joining tarmac and once I had pedalled through Llandeilo Graban, the B4594 took me to a lovely coffee stop, Erwood Station Craft centre. Galvanised, I then crossed the River Wye before climbing steeply for 8km eventually reverting to a rutted grass track at the crest of an hill. I skirted the tranquil Pant y Llyn lake, the complete scene of isolation was amazing, the surface was ok, the tyres groaned against the dirt and debris…