“Is this a hill?” my cycling companion asks, as my thighs burn and my pedals slow rapidly. She has to be kidding me. What started out as a gentle incline is rapidly becoming steeper, though she continues to chat and turn the pedals of her electric bicycle effortlessly.
As the pedal power of my mountain bike decreases in inverse proportion to my increasing heart rate, I begin to regret not taking up the opportunity to hire an electric bike at Cyclexperience in Brockenhurst earlier.
Eventually, with a wave of her hand, she shouts “I’ve got to go” and accelerates into the distance. I continue to puff, pant and push my way to the top.
As a regular cyclist, I enjoy a challenge and a good work-out and will happily tackle all terrains so the notion of using an e-bike had never entered my thinking. However, having seen it in action, my curiosity had been piqued.
Fortunately after lunch, when some of my fellow cyclists return to Brockenhurst by car, I leap at the opportunity to have a go.
The e-bike’s advantages become apparent immediately. Fewer burning thighs – and less puff and effort required – when cycling up the few hills we come across on our 27-mile route through the New Forest.
To my surprise, I still manage to get a good workout despite the extra boost the integrated electric motor provides to my pedals. Think of it like caffeine hit, a spurt of energy that thrusts the bike forward effortlessly, as one flicks the lever from eco to normal or turbo.
The electric mountain bike is heavier than the cycle I had pedalled earlier but the gears are the same – and you still need to pedal – fast or leisurely, the choice is yours. Best of all, electric bikes are a great way for couples or groups of different abilities and fitness levels to cycle together.
The New Forest offers more than 100 miles of off-road Forestry Commission cycling trails ranging in length from six to 25 miles. Our circular route, led by Cyclexperience owner Ross Kempson and manager Jon Thurnell-Read, takes us along designated forest trails, gravel tracks and wide lanes, pockmarked here and there with potholes, puddles and the odd stray twig.
It’s a relatively easy cycle – apart from two big hills – with a few interesting sights along the way: the Bolderwood deer sanctuary – so shy on this occasion, they stay away; and the 500-year-old Knightwood Oak, the biggest and oldest oak tree in the New Forest, its girth measuring eight metres.
After 17 miles of pretty-much leisurely cycling, lunch at The Trusty Servant, a characterful 19th-century inn in the village of Minstead, provides a welcome break. Jumbo portions of fish and chips, monster pies (steak and ale or yummy sweet potato and goats cheese), and ginormous chocolate brownies provide a calorific hit and fuel for the remaining 10 miles.
While in Minstead, it’s worth checking out the stocks on the village green and All Saints church, where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s grave stands in the churchyard, complete with a pipe (presumably left by a fan) – a fitting tribute to the author who created Sherlock Holmes.
Back in the saddle, I enjoy the extra power the e-bike provides on the undulating road, so much so that I miss the turning and have to track back to join the group.
The January light is clear and bright, the dark contours of trees, denuded by their leaves, stark against a blue cloudless – it’s a scene fresh from an artist’s palette. Clarity and crispness are infinite reward for winter cycling. The routes at this time of year are far less crowded too, apart from wonderful forest ponies who graze quietly and meander as they please.
Along the way, Ross explains how he set up Cyclexperience with his wife Nikki in 1993 with a loan from the Prince’s Trust. He says the majority of people hiring bicycles go off and explore the forest and the 16 routes he offers on their own. Routes range from eight to 30 miles.
Five of the most popular routes are featured on a new app, designed by his son. The app provides GPS navigation (even without a signal) and details of the best sights, pubs, restaurants and things to do along the way.
The routes include Back through Balmer Lawn to the north-east of Brockenhurst; Ornamental Woods along the Rhinefield Ornamental route; river cycling from Beaulieu to Bucker’s Hard; Burnley on your Backside, following an old, disused railway to Ringwood; and Seaside Ride which visits Hurst Castle and Lymington.
The shop, itself, is tucked away behind Brockenhurst railway station, just 1.5 hours by train from London Waterloo. It is an aladdin’s cave of everything on two wheels – mountain, road and electric bikes, hybrids, tandems, and cyclocross.
And to ensure no one is left behind, there are also kids cycles, trailer bikes, child seats, and trailer kabs for kids, even the family pooch. Do people really hire kabs for dogs?
“Oh yes,” says Jon. “We’ve seen everything from dogs falling asleep in the kab to those howling as they leave and some not even making it out of the car park.”
Now that must be ruff!
Adult cycles from £18.50 a day (£14 part-day); electric bikes from £28.50 a day (£19.50 part-day). Helmets, maps, puncture repair kit and bike lock included.
Go New Forest: thenewforest.co.uk
Trains from London to Brockenhurst with South Western Railways.