In the ten years I’ve lived away from my hometown in Cumbria I’ve fallen in love – with cycling.
Now I’m back in the beautiful Lake District, itching to explore its hidden valleys and ancient historical routes on my bike. But Cumbria is both a friend and a foe of bicycle lovers. For every glorious view there’s a hill to climb. For every coastal vista there’s a headwind to contend with. I’m not fit enough for the hills and I’m downright fearful of headwinds.
This got me thinking. “Electric bikes dismiss headwinds and flatten hills,” I read on the website of the Electric Bicycle Network. Curious, and feeling only a little bit guilty about cheating on my own human powered bike, I booked on to the Kentmere Cog, an electric bicycle tour of the Kentmere Valley, near Kendal.
That’s how I found myself standing in the sunshine in front of Wilf’s cafe in the village of Staveley, watching six shiny white Giant bikes being lifted off a trailer by two men from Coniston Boating Centre.
Helmet on and seat adjusted, Anna Gray, one of my guides for the day, showed me the very simple controls. “‘Eco’ gives you a bit of power, ‘normal’ slightly more help and ‘sport’ full battery powered gusto,” Anna explained. “Or you can switch the battery off altogether and use only your own power, just like a normal bike.”
Raring to go, I flicked the bike into ‘normal’ mode and zoomed off for a practice spin around the car park. Feeling the battery kicking into action as I pedalled, I avoided the temptation to step it up a notch into ‘sport’. I didn’t want to get banned for speeding before the tour had even begun.
After introductions all round we were off, led by Anna and her colleague, Tess Pike, both Blue Badge guides to Cumbria. Blue Badge guides are known for their exceptional local knowledge, from ancient times right up to the present day.
Cycling along a pretty country road towards the Kentmere valley, Tess, a natural story teller, set the scene. “It might seem peaceful now,” she explained, “but 150 years ago this area would have been really busy and industrial, with thirty mills in the space of twenty miles along the River Kent. Imagine!” Immediately my perspective on this rural idyll changed as I backpedalled to the 1800s, picturing packhorses and people headed for the town of Staveley, loaded up with heavy Lakeland slate.
Tess drew us into the present again, pointing out the stained glass at St James’ Church, “Royal Mail featured the design on their Christmas stamps in 2009.” I would not want to be up against Tess in a pub quiz.
As we sailed along following a ‘no through road’ sign I felt the thrill that comes from heading off the beaten track. Exhilarated, I pedalled harder, feeling the bike’s battery working and relishing the feeling of being propelled forward that little bit further than I expected or deserved, in relation to the effort I was putting in. Riding an electric bike is the cycling equivalent of walking up an escalator or swimming with flippers on.
Pedalling along a walled path Tess pointed out the old packhorse route snaking far into the distance. Our own path narrowed and led us to a tiny bridge. Dismounting and crossing a little stream we were greeted on the other side by Gordon Fox, a local potter, who showed us his hidden gem of a studio – and introduced us to his resident peacock. Feeling thoroughly gleeful about our behind the scenes tour, we waved good bye and turned our minds to lunch.
“Just to warn you, you might need to get off as we approach our lunch stop at Maggs Howe because it’s really steep and challenging, even with these bikes,” said Anna.
“Ok,” I said.
“Bring it on,” I thought.
The hills got hillier and the views more outstanding. By now we were high above the ancient village of Kentmere. I set my bike to ‘sport’ and it occurred to me that on my own bike it would have taken me a long time, a few stops and a couple of bags of jelly sweets to make it up these hills. “You made it,” said a friendly voice just as I began to break a sweat. And there was Christine, the owner of the friendly voice, Maggs Howe B&B and camping barn, and one of the most splendid outlooks in Lakeland.
Refreshed after lunch and cups of tea, we pedalled for home, but not before Tess and Anna surprised us with two more special treats: a visit to a 14th century fortified tower, now part of a working farm and usually closed to the public; and last, but by no means least, a stop at Sunny Orchard Farm, an organic smallholding where owner, Mark, gave us an insight into his near self-sufficient lifestyle.
Back in Staveley I handed over the bike, the slight ache in my thighs a signal that, despite the electric assistance, I still deserved my usual post-ride piece of cake.
Earlier that morning Anna had explained to me why she loves cycle touring: “Exploring on your bike gives you the freedom to go at your own pace, stop when you want to and take in the sights, smells and sounds. Rocks, sheep, walls – everything you see has a story.”
Cycle tours on electric bikes are fantastic because they allow everyone, regardless of fitness or ability, to experience the beauty of the great outdoors – all the sights, sounds, smells and stories – on two wheels.
Don’t just take my word for it though – on yer bike!
Caroline Gilbert, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine