Monday, 8 September 2014

The Jurassic Electric Tour

Jurassic Electric is not a Steven Spielberg 3D holographic experience, it's a down to earth little company running guided tours on electric bikes around West Dorset. They are one of the very few with guides who take people to Littlebredy, the geographic focus of my upcoming Tour of All Tours for Inside Out Dorset Festival, so they were of obvious interest. The rest of the group was there for the birthday ride of this chap in blue leisure wear, the sun was shining and they were in good spirits.

The tour began with us assembling on a green and Martin our guide in the day-glo green T-shirt getting everyone sorted out with a bike adjusted to their size. We had a short explanation of the bikes and a test ride to get used to them. Although this looked like a formality I heard that it had happened that a woman turned up who was incapable of riding a bike (despite saying she could in advance) and had to end her day at this point as she would have been a serious liability. Harsh though that must have felt at the time, it was correct and I felt there was an eye for safety on the tour that was reassuring without being overbearing.

This is what makes the difference: the battery and motor tucked below the seat. We were told that there would be no problem of the battery running out over the distance of our tour, they are strong and, apparently, if used sparingly can be strung out over a full day's ride very effectively. I was making no such economising and wanted to see just what this baby could do. The hills out of Portesham gave ample opportunity to do this. 

Here is the group making a short stop to hear about a historical building. Usually on a bike I tend to resent making stops like this as the momentum, particularly in hills, pulls me ever forward. On these bikes however, starting and stopping on slopes was a doddle so they work very well for the rhythm of guiding a group of people which inevitably entails making occasional stops to regroup and to explain things.

We made a proper stop at a local vineyard where we were shown around and when the proprietor brought out a bottle of his red and white for us to sample we didn't need any convincing. I haven't tried a great deal of British wine and that which I have had has usually been homemade gut rot rather than the produce of commercial vineyards. My expectations were therefore pretty low. The wine was however, really a great deal better than I expected, I would have happily drunk another glass rather than looking for a plant pot to discretely pour it into. There was even the idea being put around the group of buying a bottle to drink immediately as a birthday toast. Wiser heads prevailed. Stopping at an interesting local business was a nice addition to the tour, it made it about more than just the cycling, we got to meet people, see a new place and hear about making wine in this part of the world. I'm quite sure this will lead to future customers for the vineyard so it really worked well on both sides. 

There were some great views from the spots by the side of the road we stopped at. Maiden Castle, the series of brown horizontal lines in the mid-distance, was pointed out to us with a brief explanation of its role as a iron age hill fort. The sceptics amongst us asked how can you have a fort with no real walls, just banks of earth and ditches. Maybe it's no great surprise the Romans managed to take it... It is a beautiful place nonetheless and worth a visit in its own right. With this tour however there was no time for that, or for further historical speculation, we were back on the saddle again with a hill to climb. 

On our way up that hill we passed a person lying flat on the grass beside the road with a bike lying on the grass behind her. Asking if he or she was OK (it wasn't easy to tell from when flat out), there was some stirring and eventually this older lady propped herself up and said she had just cycled up Hardy's Monument and the last time she'd been up on a bike  she was 17. She was recovering from the ordeal which was a lot tougher than she'd imagined. She had just bought a new road bike and was trying it out, she explained to us. When we suggested she might like to try an electric bike she scoffed at the very thought of it but looking at how wasted she was from the ascent I seriously think she would have benefitted from one. Actually, she was probably the best advert for the bikes that I could have imagined.

Now it was our turn to fight our way up the hill. It is not like riding an electric scooter that does all the work for you, we really do have to pedal. Having come up this same slop before on a section of the Tour de Manche with a bike loaded with kit I know precisely how much effort it requires and this was about half that. Some call it cheating but I daresay some people call cycling cheating and prefer to walk instead.

Excited to have made it up to the top, we pulled the bikes around the fence and, unlike the lady crashed out at the side of the road, we were all standing, smiling and even able to speak.

The view from Hardy's monument is terrific. It's a place that I could spend hours gazing out from on a good day like this. The last time I was up here was during a storm in February to do a geology tour when it was almost impossible to stand upright so powerful was the wind. It's difficult to reconcile the place in two such different states.

Descending from on high was easy, we rolled down Portesham Hill in no time at all, returned the bikes and headed over to the pub for a well earned pint. It was a friendly group who were most accommodating of a stranger like me. I left them deliberating over the steak or seafood linguine as I had to return to my hotel before sunset when by bike turned into a pumpkin. That, unfortunately, meant cycling back up the same hill I had not an hour previously flown down with such ease. It may be that the electric bikes create their own sense of necessity for I was expecting it to be a steely ordeal but, it finally turned out to be  basically OK. I am a regular cyclist and have a decent bike so am probably not the target public for Jurassic Electric as I am able to make my way up and down these steep Dorset Hills under my own steam. That said, the stops en route and the possibility of being in a mixed group with people like me and people less accustomed to such efforts does bring something of value. The proprietor of the hotel I was staying at told me about two couples who visited for a cycling holiday last year; the two guys were keen cyclists their girlfriends enthusiastic but less seasoned. After two days on the hills the bikes were ditched and it became a walking holiday instead...

I also rather liked the general atmosphere of the bike tour too; Martin and his partner who accompanied us, were clearly enjoying showing people around a part of the world they loved. When you have a guide who is in their element you usually see them at their best and, what they decide to show you also has greater weight as well. What's more, I can now see the point in electric bikes in a way I never did before. While I am unlikely to rush out and buy one for a good while yet, I have made a mental note to add one to my 70th birthday wish list. If, God forbid, I am still around and haven't been put away by then, I rather like the idea of wizzing about like a teenage-pensioner over hill and dale.

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