How does an electric mountain bike change your mobility in the mountains? Dirk Belling, an old hand in the world of cycling, asked himself this question and ventured to try it out for himself. Along with guide Gebhard Kneisl he rode an electric mountain bike to the opening of the Ski World Cup in Sölden, Austria.
Sölden is jolted awake by the jangling of cow bells. Only there aren't any cows; instead there is a herd of Swiss fans squeezing onto a shuttle bus. Our destination on 24 October is the same as theirs, and lies 2700 metres above sea level. Whilst the supporters are shuttled by bus to the Ski World Cup Opening on the Rettenbachfern Glacier, we commence our trip on our electric mountain bikes.
Our journey starts at the valley station of the Gaislachkogl cable car. From there the route leads over steep alpine meadows, snow-covered forest trails and technical single tracks via Hochsölden (2083 m) and through the skiing areas up to the Ski World Cup's finish area on the Rettenbach Glacier.
Medium power assist level and a low gear
It is a glorious autumn day, in places the trails are completely covered with snow and ice – all a new experience on an electric mountain bike. On a conventional mountain bike the altitude gain of almost 1400 metres would have been absolute torture with plenty of sections where the bikes had to be carried or pushed. Our electric mountain bikes with their wide 27.5 inch tyres provided a totally new riding experience. Gebhard shows me which setting to use on the bike in order to make the best progress: "Medium power assist level and a low gear will get you safely through the deepest snow," says Gebhard with a smile.
After leaving the village behind, we tick off our first metres of ascent by traversing an ultra-steep alpine meadow. This is one of those bits where you really don't want to fall off! As on a ski route, Gebhard leads me carefully and safely upwards, moving in a zigzag pattern. The wide tyres provide the necessary grip. "As a mountain farmer I have mowed thousands of hectares of these steep meadows," Gebhard informs me in a calm voice. Every summer for the first 17 years of his life was spent on his parents' hill farm, and he knows the Sölden Valley like the back of his hand.
We turn onto a steep and technical single track. The surface is soft and also loose in places. Despite the fact that we are carrying heavy equipment on our backs, thanks to the maximum assist level we manage to negotiate the trail without any problems. But not without working up a sweat. Gebhard explains that the Focus Jarifa Fat with its EVO RS Impulse motor gives him 3000 to 4000 metres of altitude gain on a single battery charge.
Snow guns and cable car pylons mark the uphill route through the skiing area. The sun is still strong enough to turn the drag tracks into soft, slushy strips of mud. Time and time again there are steep icy sections that bring a fearful sweat to my brow. If my wheel slides away now I'll be toast ... But the bike works its way safely uphill with gentle pressure on the pedals, and I can enjoy the view of the steadily approaching face of the glacier.
Electric mountain bikes from Mars?
As we get to the top the post-race party is in full swing on the finish slope. The whole scene is bathed in glorious sunshine, while loud music and copious amounts of alcohol are really getting the 17,000 visitors in the mood. Amongst the throngs of ski partygoers we manage to find ourselves a free bench and a hot cup of coffee. People can be seen staring at Gebhard with his e-bike as if he were some kind of extra-terrestrial being. Curiosity drives some of them to take photos as "evidence".
Before we set off again we want to try out the bikes on the firm snow of the pre-prepared pistes. We clamber for several hundred metres along the edge of the piste until we reach the strips of the competition slope. Thanks to the chunky studs gripping deep into the firm snow it feels like riding on a solid gravel track. Unfortunately, though, we can't carry on. Bikes are not allowed on the piste at the same time as any skiers.
"During the winter I regularly ride my mountain bike up the empty slopes as far as the summit station after the pistes are closed. It's an unbelievable feeling," Gebhard tells me with a broad grin on his face. One thing is for certain: next time I come here I want to try that too!