Monday, October 20, 2014

Over the Alps on a Bike With a Boost

The NYT has an article on electric bike riding in Switzerland - Over the Alps on a Bike With a Boost. I had one of these things overtake me (startlingly quietly) as I was riding up a hill last week - they are looking quite sleek nowadays.
THE road east out of Sörenberg rears up into a series of steep turns that climb the Glaubenbielen Pass, the high point of a road the Swiss Army punched through the Alps more than 60 years ago. Though the occasional car and bus make the journey to the top, these days much of the road belongs to cyclists.

On a cool afternoon in mid-July I was one of them. I hadn’t ridden much all season, yet something primordial kicked in when I spied another biker just ahead. His calf muscles were swollen like Salamanca hams, and he was stooped over the bars, sweat dripping onto the pavement.

Easy pickings, I thought, as I tore after him. Within moments I’d reeled him in. He, gasping; me, hardly out of breath: I felt, well, guilty. “You’re cheating!” he panted in German as I sped by. “You’ll be out of power soon!”

He was right: I was cheating. With the mash of a button on my handlebars, a 250-watt electric motor had spun to life and increased the power of my pedal strokes by 150 percent. Suddenly I had my own domestique, a 26-volt brute that seemed to grab the saddle and shove me onward every time I pedaled. In a few minutes, I had reached the summit, taken a short walk and realized that cycling big Alpine passes with some breath to spare might not be such a bad way to cheat.

Here in the United States electric bikes are slowly becoming more popular — you can, for instance, take e-bike tours in San Francisco and Napa Valley. In Europe, the trend is more developed with robust rental schemes in places like Britain’s Lake District, Versailles and Amsterdam. But it is the Swiss who have embraced the concept with the most imagination.

For 50 Swiss francs a day, about $62 at $1.25 to the franc (with discounts for multiple days), you can rent an electric bike from one of 400 rental stations around the country and then set out on some 5,600 miles of well-marked bike paths. With hundreds of places along the way to obtain fresh batteries free, you don’t need to be a whippet-thin racer to roll for days through the spectacular Swiss hinterlands — up steep mountain passes and past soft meadows, burbling creeks and curious cows. You’re free from unforgiving train schedules and away from the tourist hordes but still have access to all the traditional Swissness you can take at inns and restaurants along the way. And since sweating is cheap, a famously expensive country just became a little more affordable.

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