An E-Biking Epic

To Eee’b or not to Eee’b? – that is the question.

We strolled into Grizedale Forest Visitor Centre eager to stack in a quick breakfast sarnie before picking up our E-Mountain Bikes from Biketreks. To my horror, the little serving hatch hadn’t yet opened! It was 9.15am and Tom, Ian and I had hoped to be riding shortly after collecting our bikes at 9.30am. There was no way I could manage an all-day mountain bike epic on an empty stomach, even if I would be motor assisted!

Biketreks are the new kids on the block at Grizedale Forest. They were due to open as the new bike shop and hire facility on Monday but had kindly agreed to grant us early access to their electrified full susser’s two days prior. The team at Biketreks let us in early to sign our waivers and kit us out with three brand new Specialized Turbo Levo’s, and were super helpful at giving us route advice that would take in some seriously technical single track, even looping us back to base at lunchtime where we could top up our charge while we ate. Disappointingly, none of them could tell me what time the café would open!

We rolled our box-fresh never-been-ridden E-Speshie’s round to the café, where I asked another randomer whether they knew the opening time. Nobody seemed to know, but word on the street was 10.00am. On the dot I heard the bolts of the serving hatch clunk open and ran shamelessly to the first in line. On reflection, I feel for the poor girl that swung open the little serving hatch only to come face to face with my grinning bonce barking “Three bacon, sausage and egg baps and coffee please!!”. But it must be noted that I was very hungry and low on caffeine. 

At 10.30am, an hour behind schedule but fuelled, we pedalled away from the visitor centre and onto the first fire-road climb. ‘Eco’ mode would be more than enough here and being my first experience on an E-Bike, I must admit it seemed a little gimmicky. The route would take the three of us up and over Grizedale Forest towards Coniston Water, loop us back to the south and passed Esthwaite Water, before climbing Claife Heights and down to the shores of Lake Windermere. We’d then cycle back to Grizedale via Hawkshead for a final loop around the forest, completing our 46-kilometre E-Bike adventure by drop-off at 4.30pm. We’d be following the first two sections of the red-graded “North Face” trail, which we had rode the day before on regular full suspension bikes. It would be an interesting comparison as we turned our bars towards the first section of the technical rocky climb. I flicked the bike into ‘Trail’ mode and accelerated up and over boulders with ease. The three of us cleared every obstacle and cleaned the entire section without pausing. Yesterday we’d stopped at least twice to catch our breath. This was easy, but wearing matching grins across our faces, it was clear that Tom, Ian and I had all enjoyed that climb… Huh?

I still wasn’t convinced. Sure, it was fun. But so is Go-Karting, and you don’t buy one to replace your regular car! Maybe E-Bikes have a place for older folk or people with physical impairments. But an E-Bike would never replace my trusty Canyon Strive. My doubts fell on deaf ears, as Tom and Ian were already planning how they would explain a new bike to their wives! We cruised effortlessly away from yesterdays route and onto the first section of non-trail centre bridleway. At first smooth and flowy, the bridleway soon turned rocky and started climbing steep sections that offered little by way of traction. Yet the Levo’s took it in their stride and glided over the rough stuff painlessly. 

The trail soon emerged onto a high grassy moorland and we were rewarded with some pretty spectacular views of Coniston Water and the mountains beyond. I sheepishly floated the idea of taking some photo’s, which would usually be met with rolled eyes and a look that say’s “You’d better not ask me to ride that again!”. Without hesitation, Tom said “Yep, I’ll ride up that hill so you can get me coming back down it!” and pedalled off towards the summit, Ian joyously springing off to follow suit. All that uphill had clearly done little to drain our cheerfulness. Bagging a few photo’s, we pointed our 29er’s downhill for the first time.

It was obvious that E-Bikes owned the climbing game, but I was intrigued by how these heavy beasts would handle a downhill. My carbon Canyon Strive with its 160/170 mm travel, slack head angle and agile 27.5-inch wheels skips youthfully down descents. Would 150 mm of travel be enough to dampen a 22 kg bike taking hits off boulders? Well, I can confirm that the combination of progressive suspension set up, 29er wheels and plus size tyres, with the planted feel of a heavy bike, made this ride feel like speeding along atop a two-wheel bombproof mega-tank! (Not sure that’s a thing…) We ploughed through a bottom-bracket-high flood and followed the twisting rocky bridleway further down the seemingly endless descent towards the valley floor.

We pulled back into the visitor centre to give the bikes a quick charge while we ate lunch. They didn’t really need it, but Ian’s battery had run a little low as his had started the day at 80%, and there was really no reason why not. A chilli cheese hot dog and a 90% charge saw us back onto the trails, albeit further still behind schedule owing to the very large queue that had formed at the café hatch. The planned full route was now looking questionable – a late start and a long lunch may not have helped! It was already 1.30pm and we needed to have the bikes back to Biketreks by 4.30pm. We ploughed on regardless, keen to make it over to Windermere and sure we could take a direct route back to base if needed. 

Taking a left from the road, a long climb now presented itself – the kind that would usually see us head down and painfully grinding our way to the top in cursed silence. Instead, Ian pulled a wheelie and Tom zig-zagged off like a little boy on too much Haribo. I gleefully spun along behind, tackling a rock step-up I’d have no hope in hell of clearing in usual circumstances. Say what you like about E-Bikes, they are a leveller that allows three friends with very different riding styles to roll along in company. Tom is a bit of an XC machine with piston-legs. He maintains rhythm and pace and prefers not to stop, in favour of keeping his eye on the prize and accomplishing large miles. Ian, on the other hand, relies on explosive fast-twitch muscles. He is energetic and fast, and likes to get his wheels in the air, but needs a quick recharge every 10 minutes or so! I ride somewhere between the two. The result is often big gaps between the three of us on climbs, which can flow into the downhills too as fatigue impacts your judgement on line choice. Mostly we chat about the descents at the bottom, rather than experiencing them together. The E-Bikes remove that gap. We chatted our way along the uphill’s and were able to follow each other’s lines and flow alongside one another when the trails pointed down. Perhaps there is a place for the motor-assisted mountain bike?

By the time we were heading downhill towards Lake Windermere, we had now properly familiarised ourselves with our hire bikes. Plus, two days back to back riding, minus the usual fatigue, and it’s fair to say we were riding ‘in the zone’! This had to be one of the fastest, roughest, flowiest, steeziest downhills I’d ridden! With Tom up front, I followed Ian’s line ‘gaping’ rock gardens and manualling stream crossings until we flushed out onto the western shores of Lake Windermere. Fist bumps all round; we decided a quick swim in the lake would serve as a reward for a badass descent!

Refreshed, clothed, and against the clock, it was now a straightforward hop over the Claife Heights to Hawkshead, where we could then decide whether to pedal directly back to Grizedale Visitor Centre or finish off with a loop around the forest. The problem was Ian’s battery was now down to three bars and we were unsure how long they would last. Trying to conserve power, Ian refrained from hitting ‘Boost’ mode while climbing the steepest hill we’d ascended all day. The aforementioned ‘gap’ was beginning to show its face, and we were all now starting to show signs of tiredness. Though power assisted, these climbs were steep and technical, demanding some muscling of a heavy bike, the descents were gnarly and punishing, and the sweat pouring from my helmet was real. I for one was now looking forward to a beer! 

We made it back to Grizedale Forest with 45 minutes to spare and two bars left on Ian’s battery. And although unable to complete the full route, we could follow the final few sections of mainly downhill single-track that ended the North Face trail. Knowing we’d now be fine for time and remaining juice; we drained the E-bikes power in full ‘Boost’ mode down the remainder of the trail – which was awesome! Until Ian slammed his right crank arm into a boulder in full ‘Boost’ mode, managing to bend the crank at around 75 degrees, literally two minutes from the finish! Luckily for Ian, the guys at Biketreks were simply impressed by his crank-bending hulk-wizardry (that’s a thing…) and brushed it aside as inevitable damage on what was to be a long-term hire bike. They had plenty of spare crank arms.

We managed 43 kilometres of the planned 46, so in actuality we really didn’t come up that short. And as we sat outside the visitor centre café eating ice creams, comparing E-Bikes on our phones and trying to figure out a way of raising around £6,000 each, it’s fair to say we were pretty well knackered!

So, in conclusion… it’s a bloody difficult one to conclude! The jury is still out for me and my stance on electric mountain bikes. Along the course of our ride we chatted with a handful of E-Bike owners. One bloke recently had a leg operation and would struggle to ride up hills on his old regular bike. Another chap with young children that could no longer get out every weekend for hours on hours, his E-Bike meant he could do all his riding in a short 90-minute Sunday morning blast. And the other guy that just admitted he was too unfit and couldn’t be bothered to train! I can’t quite fathom where I would have room in my life for an E-Bike (and in my shed for that matter!). Perhaps now the seed has been planted, the idea will start taking over my YouTube searches and I’ll stop buying deodorant and razors, instead putting the money into a saving pot in the hope of one day parting with a small fortune and getting my hands on the latest battery technology? But I can say that this was one of the most ear-to-ear-grin inducing days on a mountain bike I’ve ever experienced, and for now I will certainly be putting a few “E-Bike Hire Epic” days in the diary.

Please donate to my GoFundMe page using the following link: 

https://www.gofundme.com/buymattanebike (Not a real page!)

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