Sign up for our newsletter

Downs and out: How e-bikes open up adventure on two wheels

In-depth
13 Nov 2020
Advertisement

Our sister title Cycling Electric took six people of varying ability levels to the South Downs and produced ear-to-ear grins all round

After months of crystal-clear, smog-free blue skies, our much-revised photoshoot was always destined to fall on the weekend where normal service resumed in the UK. The heavens turned grey over the South Downs at almost the exact moment our crew touched the pedals, and the wind whipped and swirled too – but there were no complaints.

After months in lockdown, a little business as usual was met with glee by six riders who had enjoyed only solitary adventures for months; an entire season had passed without human contact.

Our original ambition was to 'bikepack' a four-day jaunt across the Lake District. We had planned meticulously, identifying and cross-referencing Google Earth imagery against Komoot data of popular routes criss-crossing each corner of a diverse landscape.

Our crew had even called in help from the serious expedition experts at countryside.co.uk to advise a plan of action to combat what would have been, back in March, below freezing night-time temperatures on our Great Langdale campsite. A true epic was roadmapped. But then came Covid-19.

On the Wednesday morning we called the campsite to confirm our imminent arrival. By Thursday afternoon the entire plan was a write-off. And so it remained through a sunny April, the driest May on record and deep into June.

Once we had the Government’s approval for six people to meet in a space as small as a garden (albeit distanced), a new plan was quickly devised. This took in the expanse of the South Downs, a space where maintaining separation was entirely possible.

Ups and Downs

If you’ve never visited, the Downs are simply breathtaking. Rory Hitchens, our local trail guide and supplier of our fleet of electric bikes, took us all by surprise with a trail-side geology lesson that’s worth repeating.

The South Downs extend for 260 square miles on a foundation of chalk and clay formed during the Cretaceous Period. A fun fact from Rory: 'The chalk is actually the result of the skeletons of plankton which lived in the sea at the time.'

The striking height and profile of the hills came about following an extended period where the land folded to create a dome-like structure. Erosion subsequently carved a series of channels into that dome, leaving behind rolling valleys with peaks spanning Beachy Head to Winchester.

The sea washing up on the coastline between Worthing to Brighton is visible from the highest points on the southern side, such as Butser Hill, the Downs’ highest peak at 889 feet (271 metres). Perfect terrain, then, for putting some electric mountain and gravel bikes to the test.

Our fleet comes from Upgrade Bikes, a bicycle distributor that began its life designing parts for a youthful mountain bike and dirt jump scene, but has now diversified into power-assisted cycles. Where others piled in, arguably before certain technologies had matured, Upgrade observed from the sidelines for a short while. The reason? Quite simply, the firm’s in-house bike label – Kinesis UK – tends to only bring a product to market when it can truly offer something unique and sought-after.

The inspiration for its debut bike, the Rise, is a wholly British vision. A big believer in the hill conquering efficiency of a well-balanced hardtail, Kinesis held back from production right up until the designers felt a motor and battery could be factored into a chassis without, first, compromising the geometry of the frame (and consequent handling of the bike), and second, overlooking one crucial element when dealing with British soil: mud clearance.

Both the Rise hardtail and gravel-suited Range integrate a hidden bit of tech wizardry courtesy of motor maker Fazua, whose system can clip in and out of the downtube. What’s more, the majority of the system can removed and replaced entirely by a blanking plate for those days where the inner purist is calling for your legs to shoulder the burden of each climb.

For those taking part in the occasional competition, this means any hint of assistance can be verifiably removed before a race and be placed back inside for the ride home, should you superhuman folk out there have the energy.

For our plucky group of triers, energy and experience is highly variable. Among us we have genuine first-timers, a photographer lugging over 15 kilos of camera gear, a rider looking to offset some of the burden created by an underlying health problem, someone who can be considered athletic and a pair of cycling industry veterans who have many years’ experience in the trial (and error) of various electric bike platforms.

We’d also invited a chap called Logan with a photogenic beard and some genuine ability to make our action shots a bit more, well, gnarly.  It is fair to say, then, that this is a broad church of the e-curious, the e-experienced and the e-essential.

Tech point

One of the plus points of Fazua’s motor is the wireless link your bike can have to the device in your pocket. With our group mashing glove-handed on the touch-sensitive power button, we’re told of the ability to fine-tune our preferred output levels on each level of assistance simply by toggling the mobile app. Modern systems such as these can software update on the fly, much like your laptop or phone, so to a degree bikes such as the Rise and Range come futureproofed and customisable to your experience level.

After a short dabble adjusting our preferences and having learned about the push action 'rain mode' too late to save some early confusion, we set off for Sullington Warren, a 24.7 hectare expanse that blends pine forest with sandy inclines. Our guide deems those tricky, root-laced slopes an appropriate test of our group’s enthusiasm for the electric bike.

The Range-riding gravel bikers, meanwhile, set off into the woodland in search of a historic and defunct windmill. Proving something of a glaring design flaw, this old structure ignited because the force of the wind on the Downs was so strong on one fateful night that the friction heated its component parts to incineration.

We’re assured, despite our group’s rapid ascent of this first hill, that the heat problems associated with some e-bike motors of old won’t see the same fate on our bikes.

In fact, so efficient at churning up a steep hill is the Fazua motor that our first-timer, Laura, has ascended and descended twice before Emile’s tripod has been erected to capture the unfolding action. 'There is no way I would take that slope on with my bike at home,' says Laura, having climbed in the region of 80 root-laden metres in the space of only a few minutes.

But does that mean the climb was just, well, too easy on an e-bike? Many people eye e-bikes with a certain suspicion and suggest that they’re akin to cheating. Laura is quick to clear up this common misconception.

'I have to say I was sceptical coming into this,' she says. 'I thought an electric bike would involve next to zero in the way of exercise, but you do have to drive the bike in order to benefit from the help.' All modern e-bikes sold in the UK require human input in order to share motor output.

Just up the hill, Logan is busy showing us just how capable Kinesis’ bike is. Choosing the path less taken, a few small drops and a tucked away ski-slope-style jump begin to see some action. The choice of 29" wheels and knobbly Maxxis tyres give a wide and forgiving diameter on which to iron out small and mid-sized bumps.

X-Fusion’s 130mm front suspension handles the rest, competently absorbing landings for the few in our group confident enough to catch some air.

Once we’re well acquainted with how our bikes handle, the main course is quickly brought up. With a smile, Rory asks: 'Who’s ready for the South Downs?'

Time to climb

Arriving at the base of a long incline near Upper Beeding, which by eye looks to be a least a mile to the summit, we decide to fuel up. There’s no energy gels here, mind, just McCoy’s crisps and some largely overlooked fruit pots.

With the motors having carried us up the early inclines, we have thus far not reached for the serious body fuel stashed in the pockets of our Föhn jackets, which are beginning to show their worth as the wind and rain ramps up.

Where the long incline in front of us would normally instil terror, the group is instead in a jovial mood, more concerned that nearby sheep are after our snacks than the effort ahead of us.

'This is where my worry would be kicking in,' says Nicky, whose interest in the e-bike is enhanced by an often energy-sapping health issue. 'I am hoping my experience will reflect that of the lady I met on the Downs recently. She was taking on these hills in her early 60s and had racked up 1,500 miles in just three months. That’s why I’m here, to see what these machines can really do for my access to this wonderful place.'

With the wind at our backs for the first time all day, we kick off the ascent on the most battery-friendly setting, but with every 10 metres another degree of steepness is added to the hill. The control deck is embedded in the top tube of the Kinesis bikes, and in rain mode it requires a light press to toggle the motor output.

Half of our group stick with suffering for exercise’s sake, while Logan opts to put the power down in turbo, summiting the loose gravel climb in little more than a minute.

It is this ability to choose that makes the electric bike experience so special. If you are out for a significant time then you can easily ramp up the distance covered in a short period, which encourages you to ride harder and further. The net result is often more exercise.

Best of both

On the other side of the coin, if your desire is to get some exercise while maintaining some of the purity of cycling, eco mode will again enable you to ride further, for longer and to see much more.

'There’s really no downside to this,' remarks Logan, whose blind enthusiasm for a tear-up on the climb has inadvertently seen him spray a cow pat up the back of his shorts. He’s led the pack by some margin all day but acknowledges that, while the performance rider stands to have even more fun, it is a real game-changer for beginner confidence.

“This opens up outdoor adventure to many more people, people who may otherwise choose not to cycle,” Logan says. “The view from up here has been so easily obtainable and the assistance this motor gives opens the door for those who would otherwise be forced to walk.

The portrayal of these being like motorbikes is far from the truth – there’s no need for that level of power and the Fazua system proves that. My ascent was steady, stable and enjoyable on a segment that would otherwise have been exhausting. You needn’t be fit, young or fond of cycling to take huge value from this experience.”

For our photographer Emile, there is an immediate understanding why the photographers tasked with covering the professional circuit’s race calendar are all now ascending and descending the mountains on e-bikes.

'If I were undertaking more landscape photography like this, an e-bike would simply have to be part of my arsenal – there’s just no better way to efficiently cover ground like this,' he says. 'Lugging gear has been no issue. The ride has been stable throughout.

'I personally think there is an even greater case for using them as transport. The price remains prohibitive for many people, but it’s all about context – if you’ve a 30 grand car, a few thousand on an e-bike could ultimately end up paying its way when used for those shorter urban journeys.

'When the camera industry, which was also prohibitively expensive to many, introduced leasing, all of a sudden things became a whole lot more accessible. Perhaps that’s worth considering alongside the existing Cycle to Work scheme. These truly are great vehicles.'

Smooth sailing

One unanimously agreed point is that during repeated ascents and descents for Emile’s lens, our group had all forgotten we had motors. The seamless integration into each rider’s cadence was a transition that had got entirely lost in the fun. The rain and wind was now in our faces on the descent, yet we were still smiling.

While the purist mountain biker may argue that it’s not got the soul of a mountain bike, perhaps that’s the point; this is an entirely new experience. It is something more accessible, with greater potential to revive forgotten adventure, and something that has brought a diverse and mostly unskilled group together in a unified enjoyment of outdoor vistas otherwise just out of reach.

Having recorded 32.4 miles on her on-board Garmin, Nicky succinctly sums up the gift that the e-bike represents for her ability to conquer the outdoors.

'For me, the "e" stands for enabler. It’s an enabler bike.'

Our gear

Kinesis Rise

Flying out the door like hotcakes, the Kinesis Rise has been an instant hit in its two formats; the £3,200 SLX build and £3,500 GXE spec. We strongly recommend you seek out a demo bike because Kinesis has created its own sizing based on rider height and reach, meaning you can dial in an almost tailored level of ride comfort.

That makes the Range an equally excellent option for beginner and pro alike. Large 29" wheels, plush X-Fusion suspension and wide knobbly tires pair seamlessly with the Fazua motor, which you should soon find integrates with your own riding style, making for a confidence-inspiring and natural-feeling ride.

Kinesis Range

Building the very same 400W of assistance into an aluminium chassis that’s tweaked for the gravel rider, the Range rolls on WTB Riddler 45c tubeless tyres that are better suited to covering mileage than the aggressive tread seen on the Rise.

The key difference on the range is the switch to a carbon fibre rigid fork that carries luggage mounts. That allows the rider to take a bikepacking trip that extends for as long as the battery holds charge.

Of course, when the 252Wh battery finally runs flat, as with the Rise you’ve the option to remove it entirely, dropping the weight and giving you a feisty pedal-powered gravel bike.

Should you wish to tap into the platform’s versatility, Kinesis has designed the frame to accommodate up to a 50c tyre. 

Sena’s R1 Smart Helmet

While a helmet’s primary purpose is to protect, the advance of smart technology is certainly not limited to the battery in your bike. Sena’s long experience in catering for the motorcycle market has seen the transfer of some very useful and practical technologies into its cycle helmets.

Both a voice command-ready microphone and built-in speakers are integrated into the shell, enabling you to take calls and GPS information relayed from your phone, as well as communicate with other Sena-clad riders in a half-mile range via a group intercom.

This makes Sena’s R1 a seriously compelling option for families out on rides together, or for groups of friends who want to hear what’s on the trail ahead as soon as the first rider takes it on.

Föhn Clothing

Wiggle’s tie-up with Swedish clothing label Föhn has added to the online retailer’s stable a true bargain find. That doesn’t mean they’re cheap, but there’s serious value for money throughout the range.

The selection of garments ranges from the Supercell Waterproof for combating downpours through to various weights of merino baselayers and lightweight hoods that will trap in warmth and wick moisture away from the skin in a flash. Combine a handful of these garments and you are truly set for a long day in the saddle.

Highly lauded by our models for this particular shoot was the Polartec Power Shield Pro Hooded softshell jacket. This proved just the ticket for resistance to rain but with the balanced breathability that meant the wearer could stay zipped up and comfortable even when the tempo picked up.