The first lesson you learn when mountain biking in the Alps is that steepness overrides distance. Ten kilometers doesn’t seem a lot, but that same journey up a narrow path that climbs more than 1000 vertical metres can be really hard work – especially in summertime sun. That’s where an e-bike comes in. And, although I am a skier foremost, I have to say that the mountains are even more beautiful when they’re green than when they are white, the villages even more gorgeous with their flower-filled balconies.
What is it?
So what is e-biking exactly? A lot of people’s instant reaction is that it’s cheating. Isn’t it’s a bit like riding a moped up the mountain?
It’s true that it’s not the same as ordinary biking, since you have a battery-powered motor at your disposal. But you still have to pedal. The motor just makes the going a bit easier on the steeper uphill pitches, allowing you to cycle for longer. Battery assistance is not mandatory, you only have to use it if and when you feel like it. If you use the battery all the time and on the highest ‘sport’ setting, it obviously won’t last as long as using it sparingly in the ‘eco’ mode.
How to do it
You can hire e-bikes in most tourist destinations these days – companies such as Alps Bike Rental have 24 branches in France and Switzerland, including Morzine, Chamonix, Megeve, La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand. You’ll have to decide whether you want a road e-bike, a mountain e-bike or a hybrid, and that’s a bit like choosing which (ordinary) bike you want to ride in the mountains. If you fancy going through fields or up gravelly mountain paths, then choose a mountain bike with fat tyres to give you more stability. If it’s mainly along roads around a lake, then stick with a road e-bike. Just don’t be swayed into taking a City e-bike by the hire shop, as that’s a bike aimed at commuters mainly travelling relatively short and flat distances from home or a train station to their office and back.
You don’t have to go to lessons – the rental shop will show you how to operate the gears and charge the battery. But to help with mountain biking technique I took a short course in Kirchberg. There are mountain bike schools worldwide, which offer lessons and guided tours both on (non-battery) mountain bikes and on e-mountain bikes. So if you aren’t already an expert then it might help to spend half a day learning some new skills.
The bike needs to have a good lock on it, as e-bikes are more expensive than your average road or mountain bike and therefore a magnet for bike thieves. My first was stolen outside a pub in the UK, locked onto a permanent and very solid bike stand, but using a plastic-covered chain lock. Would-be thieves can’t take a hacksaw to a Kryptonite U-lock.
Kit yourself out properly with a helmet, padded shorts, cycling gloves, wrap-around sunglasses and sunscreen, some old trainers, and a water bottle. Carry a waterproof jacket in your backpack or bike pannier, and you could also opt for padded elbow and knee guards if you think you might fall off!
Where to do it
All the locations I’ve included here have modern lifts that operate during the summer. This means that you can take bikes up the mountain by cable-car or gondola, which makes it easier to cover the distances.
Austria is where I’ve e-biked more than anywhere else, as there are so many charming mountain huts dotted around, and crystal clear lakes to swim in. But Morzine is the best-known alpine centre for mountain biking.
Morzine and Les Gets have 23 lifts open from June to September, giving access to some 650km of bike trails. Bike passes are available for the individual resorts or for the whole Portes du Soleil, which includes 12 villages and the linking bike trails. The MTB school in Morzine, RideAbility, offers private guiding. Bosch recharge points in the area are free, so cyclists can easily recharge their batteries along their route. Les Gets has electric recharge points in the village centre.
Stay: The Manoir is a comfortable chalet sleeping 10-15 people in 5 bedrooms.
Val d’Isere has a bike park close to the resort and 150km of trails. Tignes also has its own bike park. Unlike in Austria, the lifts are free in summer. Val d’Isere hosts the annual Electric Vehicle Show is for everything electric – including e-bikes, of course. Tignes has its own mountain bike school, StartlineMTB, offering group and private lessons and tours for adults and kids from nine years old.
Stay: Les 5 Frères is a comfortable rustic-style three-star hotel.
Along the valley from Kitzbuhel in the Austrian Tirol is The Bike Academy, run by former Austrian team trainer, Kurt Exenburger. From May to October, Kurt runs technical courses and camps from his pro-shop and training ground situated beside the Fleckalmbahn gondola in the Kitzbuhel ski area. In winter, you’ll find him teaching skiing in Sun Valley, Idaho.
The great surge in e-biking makes his technical tuition all the more essential. “There’s no great difference between handling a classic mountain bike and an e-bike,” Kurt says, “except an e-bike is much heavier.” On the practical side, the Kitzbuhel area has 80 battery charging stations.
Stay: Hotel Tiefenbrunner is on the pedestrian high street in the lovely medieval town of Kitzbuhel.
The Zillertal is gorgeous, with Mayrhofen the main hub and a total 800km of cycle trails. A cycle path goes all the way alongside the river from Zell am Ziller to Mayrhofen – and back. Don’t miss spending a day in the cute little climbing village of Ginzling, which you can cycle to, and do take your bike up the Penken lift for some fun trails at the top. The area has 14 places equipped with Bosch electric bike chargers. Bikes can be taken free of charge on the hikers’ bus between Zell and Gerlos and on the Zillertalbahn valley trains.
Stay: Five-star Hotel Elisabeth combines Austrian tradition with modern comforts. It has an indoor swimming-pool and spa area.
Westendorf is part of the huge SkiWelt area, which has 284km of pistes in winter. In winter the gentle hills are best for novices and lower intermediates – but in summer it makes great mountain biking terrain. There are some good, easy bike trails along the valley floor and up through the forest, without needing to take any lifts – and there are free local e-bike tours to join. Should you want to go higher, a dozen gondolas operate all summer and nearly all of the restaurants are open for business.
Stay: Vitalhotel Schermer is family-run and comfortable, with a good restaurant.
Rather like in winter, St Anton in summer is home to the steeps. The H2O station in Ried offers guided tours and is the starting point for trails suitable for those who want to take it easy – or not. Helmets and body armour are provided. June 2018 saw St Anton’s first E-Bike Festival, a three-day celebration including clinics, demos and guided rides. Battery charging stations are available at many of the mountain huts, as well as in the town centre.
Stay: I stayed at the charming family-run Hotel Himmelhof, which is right in the centre of town, set back from the high street.
Bike Box offer guided mountain bike days out for families, off-road adventures for serious mountain bikers and high-speed race routes for athletic road bike riders. Dolomite Biking School also organises guided trips from late May to early October. Beware that the terrain here can be quite steep at times.
Stay: Hotel Rosa Alpina is one of my favourite places to stay in the Alps. The gorgeous family-run hotel has a spa, a gourmet restaurant and delightful bedrooms.
The Parcours des Familles Verbier-La Tzoumaz tour is suitable for families because you can do it using the lifts. Book a bike guide through Verbier Bike Club, which also organises tours. The main lifts are open from the end of May to the end of October, with the bike park open from early July to the end of October. And there are 10 free charging stations located throughout the area (Place Centrale, Medran, Les Ruinettes, La Chaux, Croix-de-Coeur, Gare du Chable, La Côt, Fionnay, Cabane Brunet, and Mauvoisin).
Stay: Bike Verbier focuses on giving you the local’s taste of Verbier’s vast mountain biking opportunities. Packages include five days’ guiding with seven nights’ accommodation including dinner with wine.
So why not have a go at e-biking this summer? It’s become increasingly popular among all age groups in the Alps. In Austria more people now own an e-bike than a second car.
Also see our features on Where to Go Mountain Biking, Top Alpine Sports for Easy Cycling, Cycling to Get Fit, Mountain Biking in Mayrhofen, On Your Bike in Westendorf, and Is Val d’Isere the New E-Bike Centre of The Alps?