Updated: May 26, 2021
Images: Margus Riga
Just a few years ago when most of us thought of ebike riders we probably envisioned a greying rider that’s pushing 60, someone who’s recovering from an injury or sickness or an overweight off-the-couch weekender with the lung capacity of a mouse. And, you’re probably envisioning them riding to the beach on a low-step hybrid pseudo-mountain bike with cushy saddle, plastic pedals and rear rack bag with a fresh bottle of coconut oil in it.
As eMTB technology advanced in recent years we began to ignore the stigma, replace the coconut oil with an inReach and consider the possibilities. Could these bikes be used for big days of adventuring, the style of riding that we love most and that we’ve infused in our trips with our travel company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures? Could we expend the same amount of energy as a big day on our regular bikes, or less, and ride twice as much singletrack and still have enough left in the tank to enjoy a bottle of wine with dinner? And, could this be done for a week straight?
It was clear that the European Alps was the region to really put the eMTB’s to the test. It’s network of mountain infrastructure is like nowhere else in the world: roads, towns, restaurants, lifts, espressos and days upon days of singletrack peppered throughout the mountains. Besides, we’d been running mountain bike trips in Europe for nearly twenty years and had considerable experience from mega-loops over glaciers in Switzerland’s Valais region, to a point-to-point sufferfest from Briancon to Nice in the South of France, to the Italian Dolomites and the Aosta Valley, the Spanish Pyrenees and more. Of course, the Europeans were ahead of us on all things eMTB but it was time for us to put a North American spin on these pedal-assist bikes.
As we pulled out our maps at our Whistler headquarters and started to look at routes our excitement grew as if we were planning our first trip back in 2001. On regular bikes we could make it from A to B on a big day, but on the eMTB’s we could make it from A to E, or further! It wasn’t long before a dream route was laid out, an ambitious non-supported seven-day traverse through the Swiss, Italian and French Alps; a combination of the Haute Route Traverse and circumnavigation of Month Blanc including a dip into Italy’s Aosta Valley. Three countries, three languages and dozens of celebrated wine varieties between them. This would be an aggressive and rugged mostly singletrack point-to-point route across some of Europe’s highest peaks.
The idea was to spend as much time as possible riding in the alpine, using mountain huts for overnights when possible while taking full-advantage of the precious 500-watts of power but avoiding running out of juice; no one wants to pedal or push a 50-pound bike for long. Besides distance ridden and meters climbed daily, we had to take into consideration riders’ weight, what level of assist to use relative to the terrain (eco, tour, e-mtb or turbo), if we could charge the batteries at lunch and of course being able to charge batteries overnight. Some mountain huts didn’t have sufficient power to charge batteries which meant careful planning. In the end we opted to each carry an extra battery.
This enthusiastic reconnaissance route was ripe with red flags beyond running out of battery power: mechanicals, injuries, weather, hangovers. Riders would have to be experienced. The group that we recruited for this exploratory mission consisted of six seasoned and grizzled BC riders each with decades of performance pedalling and a long list of adventures under their belts.
Fresh off the overnight flight from Vancouver to Geneva, we gathered at the train station in the Rhone Valley on a sunny afternoon in late-July with chamois on, ready to ride. First up was to pack our 25L riding bags that needed to fit everything from a toothbrush to an extra riding kit to cameras and chargers and water and snacks and tools and extra parts and first aid kits and clothes and the dreaded extra battery, including charger. Our bags were packed as tight as could be and weighed about as much as a small and angry fat toddler.
The next morning, we set out from our historic hotel at 2337m along an amazing stretch of singletrack in beautiful sunshine with views of the villages of Zinal and Grimentz far below and the mighty Matterhorn at the end of the valley.
The next few days were spent crossing the Valais region of Switzerland roughly following the famous Haute Route ski traverse that goes from Chamonix to Zermatt. We rode along ancient waterways, through flowery villages and over high-alpine passes and bombed down mountains including the 2135-meter (7000-foot) singletrack descent from Becs de Bosson to the remote alpine valley, the Val D’Hérens. It would have been rude not to, we ended our Swiss days by sampling a variety of fendant wines, the Valais’ symbolic light and aromatic white, as our multitude of batteries blinked and charged away into the wee hours of the morning.
The Aosta Valley wasn’t all loam and fine dining though, we had a tough 40-kilometer day to conquer with 2200 meters (7217 feet) of climbing punctuated by a steep hike-a-bike to the feisty Col de Malatra, a piton-laden finish that resembled a climbing route more than a mountain bike trail. On the final push we removed batteries from bikes to lighten them up and aided each other with the human-chain technique. It was tough. The reward was spectacular, a 1345-meter (4412 foot) descent to the beautiful Val Ferret at the base of the imposing Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak at 4808 meters (15,775 feet).
Next up was Italy and the amazing Aosta Valley which we entered via the remote Fenêtre du Durand. Unlike the rockier Swiss side, the Italian trails had more dirt and forested trails which was welcomed.
With the help of local guide Patrick we devised a route high above the Aosta Valley on trails that were knocking out everyone's previous Top 10's of all time, little-known trails that had seen few mountain bikes. And being bella Italia, lunches were delicious and always washed down with a few dopio espressos while evenings were spent diving into courses of polenta, cured meats, pasta, cheeses and crushing Brunellos and Chiantis like the Pope crushes sermons.
Arrivederci Italia, we eventually crossed into France on the remote Col de la Seigne and swung around the Mont Blanc massif on the popular Tour du Mont Blanc route via the village Les Contamines. The Tour du Month Blanc was busier with hikers, but still an amazing ride as you'd look over your shoulder and up, way up, to see the imposing Queen of the Alps piercing the clouds.
After several mediocre cafe au laits, a case or two of dry Burgundies and 340 kilometers of pedalling, 15,077 meters (49,465 feet) of climbing and 16,298 meters (53,471 feet) of descent we rolled into Chamonix on a glorious sunny afternoon. What a trip.
Over the week we learned a lot; eMTB’s are capable of travelling impressive distances over truly big mountain terrain, they’re capable of cleaning some head-shakingly technical climbs, they eat up descents like a downhill bike, that good suspension and good tires are as important as ever and long leisurely lunches in the sun are advised to charge batteries. Oh, and hike-a-biking e-bikes should be avoided at all costs.
In the end, it was clear that eMTB adventure riding holidays in the Alps is here to stay. And, with better batteries that charge faster and hold more power we’d be able to avoid carrying an extra battery, more room for that bottle of coconut oil.
Chris Winter is the owner operator of a Whistler-based global mountain bike tour company, Big Mountain Bike Adventures (www.ridebig.com). His passion for travel by bike started as a child in the 70’s when tagging along with his parents on their epic cycling adventures.