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It took me a few days to stop trying to fake it. Cycling up a steep hill to get a view of Lake Constance from the west Austrian town of Bregenz, I huffed and puffed to show other cyclists how hard I was pushing myself.
I was using an electric bike, or ebike, and although these remain relatively unusual on British or US streets, in many parts of Europe they are becoming common enough to be unremarkable. In Germany, for example, sales of ebikes grew 7.9 per cent last year, according to industry association ZIV, and they now have an 11 per cent share of the bike market. In the Netherlands, they make up 19 per cent of the market, according to RAI, the cycling and automotive industry association. And while they were once seen as being suitable only for invalids and the elderly, a new generation of rugged electrically assisted mountain bikes is broadening their appeal.
So, as I set off on a 200km circuit around the lake, my vanity-serving efforts to divert attention from the small motor assisting me were pointless. No one cared.
I’d wanted to try an extended ebike trip since I’d hired one for a day in Germany’s Moselle Valley (something I’d only done because no conventional bikes were left). It was quite an old model, and looked heavy and clunky, but that first 60km ebike outing, way above the valley floor up to the Hunsrück plateau, was a revelation – despite my dodgy knee, even the uphill part into a vicious headwind proved amazingly easy.
Ecycling is not like using a scooter. You do pedal – I defensively told people ahead of my setting off – and if you stop pedalling, you will fall over. The bikes look little different to conventional ones, with the usual choice of gears, but a handlebar-mounted button lets you kick in the motor should you feel the need.
This new trip, one of a growing number of organised ebike tours, would take my husband and me from Bregenz into Switzerland and on into Germany, on a 10-day journey clockwise around one of central Europe’s biggest lakes. We would follow route maps rather than joining a guided group, with luggage transferred between hotels by road, and each day of cycling would be punctuated with one for sightseeing.
Much of the route follows a cycle path – not some terrifying narrow lane squeezed into the road as an afterthought but a lengthy, tranquil, prioritised and, from what I saw, fully respected route. The cycle trail around the lake cleaves as closely as possible to the water but when agriculture, allotments, reed beds, campsites, railways or housing intervene, it veers away through countryside, parks and suburbs. When it does run through a village or town, motorists treat cyclists with a degree of respect I have never seen before. I was only surprised the trains didn’t screech to a halt to let cyclists cross the tracks.
We began with a quick 20km ride into Switzerland, crossing the Alter Rhein river via a covered wooden bridge border post. A score of cyclists, among them three or four with ebikes, were crowded on to a restaurant terrace on the Austrian side, filling up before riding on into pricier Switzerland. A further 20km took us through waterside parks and marinas, as well as a couple of bigger villages, before we broke out of the suburbs and into countryside, past fields of crimson poppies, impeccable caravan sites, orchards and vineyards being prepped for the summer. The lake itself dipped in and out of view; sometimes one of the ferries that shuttle commuters and tourists around would pass by. Behind us and to our left we could see proper mountains.
We arrived in Arbon in time for a walk along the lakeside before dinner; groups of friends were gathering for barbecues on the banks. First, though, we took our bikes to the hotel’s secure car park to recharge them for four or five hours. (The ebike infrastructure we came across on the trip ranged from dedicated public charging points to a plug-board slung from a hotel window.)
The itinerary we followed errs on the conservative side in terms of distance; the longest being the 60km from Arbon to Stein am Rhein, a medieval Swiss town of imposing frescoed buildings, their façades painted in exquisite narrative detail. On the German side of the lake, successive small holiday towns cluster around their marinas and regattas jostle with fleets of windsurfers.
I loved the way that this three-country route is not unadulterated rurality all the way; others may not. I found the stretches where people live and work – small patches of light industry steam and clank here and there – fascinating. Four “rest” days are built into the trip; we used an achingly hot Sunday at the university town of Konstanz, in Germany, to visit the garden island of Mainau, planted with an arboretum, rose gardens and flower beds densely packed in intense swaths of colour. A traditional horn-playing contest was under way; groups of men sweated it out in heavy breeches and tails before being summoned to perform before a table of sternly impassive judges.
On the other three rest days, we chose to do more cycling, taking the chance to really stretch the ebikes. We easily doubled the 200km or so on the basic itinerary. At Arbon and Stein am Rhein on the southern shore, and Friedrichshafen, on the northern, we turned our backs on the lake and cycled away from it. The rides above Arbon and Stein am Rhein took in three-house hamlets and farm and pastureland. It was strawberry season, and the scent of ripening berries came in gusts. Above Friedrichshafen, we rode through forests and out past pear orchards and signs advertising homemade schnapps. Every now and then we’d catch sight of the lake, and the copious pointers for cyclists mean you scarcely need a map.
There are also copious hills. Only one of them defeated me, or rather the ebike, but that was because I stopped part of the way up to grab some water at a roadside fountain and couldn’t get started again.
Once, I might have gone along with the view – still prevalent at home in the UK – that ebikes were transport on which only the infirm would willingly be seen. But ebikes have given me back a pleasure I thought I’d lost: the joy of a week’s cycling. I’m not infirm: I just have a ropey knee. Obviously, fleets of blurred Lycra overtook me regularly but I don’t think I missed any squawks of derision as they vanished into the distance.
But even in the UK, there are signs that ebikes might soon begin to gain ground. Last year Transport for London, the government body responsible for travel in the city, announced that it would fund a trial to investigate supplementing the capital’s bike hire scheme with a fleet of ebikes. TfL says there is “no timeline at the moment” but that it remains keen. While it’s not quite the Tour de France, the Electric Bike World Championships in Bristol in June included an ebike road race, and the Electric Bicycle Network gathers information in one place on routes, hire, charging points and accommodation. But perhaps the impetus will come from the holiday industry: several operators are now marketing ebike holidays in the UK as well as in more ebike-advanced countries.
One of those countries is the Netherlands. When I chatted to a Dutch ecyclist on the Lake Constance circuit he told me that a common problem back home is of riders getting carried away and losing control. Two days later in a street in Konstanz I heard a huge clatter as a woman rounded a corner at speed on an ebike, ploughing into tables and chairs outside a café. She was helped to her feet, given a glass of water and sent on her way. Who says ebikes are for wimps?
Sue Norris was a guest of Headwater Holidays (headwater.com), which offers a 10-night Lake Constance cycling trip from £1,219 per person, including cycle hire, most evening meals and luggage transport between hotels
Photographs: Elisabeth Real; Alamy; Stefan Arendt