Battery-powered bikes bring long distance touring within reach of casual cyclists

PUBLISHED: 13:36 24 October 2012 | UPDATED: 22:10 20 February 2013

Blencathra – one of the most spectacular ridgelines in the Lake District

Blencathra – one of the most spectacular ridgelines in the Lake District

Battery-powered bikes have evolved, bringing long distance touring within reach of casual cyclists. Mark Sutcliffe saddles up and heads for the Lakes

Theres a bit of a revolution going on among the hills of Lancashire, where on Sunday mornings, the quiet lanes and byways are invaded by a multi-coloured cavalcade of middle-aged men and women in Lycra who have been inspired by Bradley Wiggins. I wanted a piece of the action.

Having been a keen cyclist as a lad, I was looking to rekindle the excitement I once felt about groupsets, chain rings and derailleurs but I realised I couldnt rely on my hopelessly out of condition body to carry me over the Lake Districts notoriously steep mountain passes. Quite simply, I cheated. Now were not talking performance enhancing drugs here (unless you count Thwaites Old Dan), but something a little bit more prosaic.

For less than 1,000, you can acquire your first electric bike but for those of you remain to be convinced by the idea of wobbling along country lanes on two wheels wired up to a battery and motor, theres no need to splash the cash.

In the Lake District, electric bike schemes are attracting backing from agencies like the County Council and the National Park Authority as a sustainable alternative to cars.

And thats how I found myself whistling northbound up the scenic Settle to Carlisle railway to Penrith. The guys at Penrith Electric Cycle centre were keen to show me their new premises almost adjacent to the station and after a quick introduction and a trial run around the block, I was on my way, cycling up the steep hill out of Penrith, over the M6 and straight onto a quiet country lane heading northwest to Greystoke.

I was carrying around 30 kilos split between two panniers plus a large backpack and the gradients would normally have defeated me but this was much less painful than a pedal cycle.

Now a word about electric bicycles. Strictly speaking, they are electrically assisted, meaning that while you can just coast along on the throttle, you wont get very far before the battery gives up the ghost - especially if serious hills are involved .

So the key is to use the gears and keep pedalling. This helps the motor overcome the initial inertia and maintain progress at a respectable lick. The motor cuts out at 15.5mph, so it doesnt affect terminal velocity downhill, but it does mean you can sustain a higher average speed.

Greystoke is one of the waypoints on the increasingly popular Sea to Sea (C2C) Cycleway a challenging 140-mile route stretching from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Tynemouth.

Serious cyclists usually allow three full days , often camping at the string of sites along the route. But with electrical assistance, the prospect of completing it in a weekend becomes a distinct possibility.

I headed for the famous Greystoke Garden Caf, where I hoped to meet some fellow cyclists and see what they thought of electrically assisted cycle touring.

This wonderfully quirky little cafe is beloved of weary cyclists looking for a decent cuppa and some serious carbs to lift the spirits after the slog over Matterdale.

From Greystoke, I headed south, crossing the A66 and onwards into the back roads of Matterdale - one of Lakelandss quieter valleys.


Cruising along at a steady 10-12mph means you can cover some respectable distances in a day, but still appreciate the close contact with nature which eludes the motorist. Its a truly fantastic way of getting around and you feel much more connected to the landscape. Some of the gradients here would normally have forced me out of the saddle to push, but even with the extra payload of tent and camera gear, I made it over the top.

In Dockray I stopped at the Royal Hotel for some rehydration then crested the final rise before the long descent to Ullswater and one of the best views in the Lakes, eventually picking up the Lakeshore road at Aira Force.

Free-wheeling along the tree-lined lakeshore in the dappled late afternoon sunshine, life in the saddle felt like the most natural thing in the world. I enjoyed a little paddle before continuing on to Glenridding, through Patterdale and then onwards towards Brotherswater at the foot of the Kirkstone Pass. Yet even after several hours in the saddle, the steady ascent up the lower reaches of the Kirkstone held no horrors.

I pulled in at the Brotherswater Inn, pitched the tent at the adjacent Sykeside Camping Park and removed the battery and took it up to the pub where the landlord was happy for me to plug it in for a couple of hours charging.

After a pint or two and a dinner of meaty Cumberland sausage, I wobbled back to the tent under a brilliant starscape ready for the assault on Kirkstone the following morning. Next day, as the ascent steepened, both bike and rider started to struggle.

And heres the thing about electric bikes: they are an easier option, but they arent the easy option. That would be a motorbike, or a car. If serious, sustained climbing is involved, it gets pretty physical - the electric motor lends a helping hand, but it wont do it all. I was spinning like Freddie Flintoff in a pedalo, but the motor was fading and we only just made it to the summit, where we were greeted by a welcoming party of bolshy Herdwick sheep.

The return ride downhill was exhilarating and I celebrated with a full breakfast at the Brotherswater Inn before striking camp and heading back to Ullswater.

I made for Glenridding, where the pierhead for Ullswater Steamers has a charging point. From Pooley Bridge there was just another six miles of pedalling to reach Penrith.

In a little over 24 hours, Id covered around 50 miles and climbed some 3000ft without really exerting myself. With an early start and a decent stop for lunch to recharge the batteries both human and mechanical this sort of mileage or more could be easily achievable in a day by a reasonably competent cyclist.

Reassured by the reliability of the technology, Ill be back soon to attempt the whole of the C2C now where did I leave those bicycle clips?

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