With electric bikes due to be added to London’s “Boris Bikes” hire scheme next year, Trevor Ward decided to see what all the fuss was about with a trip to the Swiss Alps, where the upmarket ski resort of Verbier introduced e-bikes-for-hire last year in a bid to boost summer tourism.
With all those ski-lifts and cable cars remaining under-used during the summer months, TeleVerbier – the area’s biggest transport provider and also a major landowner – came up with the idea for a fleet of electric mountain bikes to appeal to those who wanted something a bit more adventurous than hiking but not quite as testosterone-fuelled as downhill mountain biking.
Its second summer season as an e-bike operator has just come to a close, with nearly 300 e-bike rentals recorded.
This appears a paltry number compared with the 77,000 people who used TeleVerbier’s lifts to access high pastures for walking and (non-electric) mountain-biking, but the company is pleased with the feedback.
“In general, it’s been very positive, though there were a few complaints about the battery life,” a spokeswoman from TeleVerbier told us.
The 50 pedal-assist bikes available for hire are all Swiss-made Stromer ST1 models, and the first thing you will notice is the weight. These are veritable mammoths at just under 30 kilos. That includes a unique, purpose-built frame design – where the battery is concealed in the down tube – 27 gears, hydraulic disc brakes(including a regenerative braking system which effectively preserves battery life) and proprietary dashboard showing four levels of “assist”.
Boris’s e-bikes probably won’t be this high-end – a Stromer ST1 costs around £3,000 – but then they won’t have to cope with hills as big as those around Verbier. Having said that, you’d have to be pretty brave – or incredibly strong – to want to attempt to pedal one of TeleVerbier’s Stromers up any slope with more than a 7 per cent gradient, as the slightest miscalculation or loss of balance could see you being flattened beneath nearly 30 kilos of steel. Fortunately, that’s what the ski lifts and cable cars are for, though even the downhills can be problematic. One of our party had her bike topple over on top of her when she couldn’t support its weight after braking to a halt at a junction.
But if you have a pair of biceps like Popeye’s, then the bikes are a lot of fun. Though far too unwieldy for Verbier’s extensive network of downhill MTB trails, they are perfect for the more gentle, meandering hiking trails (where bikes allowed), and you can choose your own level of “power mode” – ranging from battery-friendly “Eco” to juice-sapping “Power” – with the press of a finger.
While hard-core mountain bikers will no doubt dismiss the e-bikes as toys, and experienced cyclists will claim it isn’t “proper cycling” unless the physical effort makes your eyes bleed, others are more likely to appreciate the benefits from having a 36-volt electric battery inside your down tube.
And in case you were wondering, those batteries are supposed to be good for around 25 – 40 miles. But just in case, most of the restaurants/cafes along the walking trails have recharging docks.
Need to Know:
The price of renting an e-bike ranges from 20 Swiss Francs (approx. £14) for one hour to 50 Swiss Francs (£35) for a day. A day lift pass for the Verbier area will cost you an extra £20 during the summer. For bike purists amongst you, Verbier Bike Club provides guides and tours – both on and off-road – in the Verbier St Bernard area.