E for easy: cycling the Swiss Alps by e-bike

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‘C’est magnifique!” exclaims Armand. Before us lies Switzerland’s Imperial Crown, a spectacular array of five 4,000-metre peaks, with the Matterhorn looming just beyond. Armand and I have reached our magnificent viewpoint after a 1,000-metre climb on e-mountain bikes from the pretty village of Grimentz.

I’m one of a group of seven riders on the Haute Route, a week-long, 250km off-road adventure from Chamonix to Zermatt, in the charge of local guides Adrià and Vince.

The original Haute Route was first undertaken in the mid-19th century as a summer mountaineering expedition by members of the British Alpine Club; today there are also variations for skiers, mountain bikers and road cyclists, and in the last couple of years Martigny-based guiding company E-Alps has put together an e-bike version of the route.

It would be wrong to think that because it’s done on an e-bike it’s a piece of cake – an average day involves more than 40km of off-road cycling on everything from easy forest trails to technical singletrack, and in excess of 2,000m of climbing. Even with the assistance of a motor, a good deal of leg and lung power is required, as well as a reasonable level of technical ability for the more challenging descents.

The adventure begins with Vince leading us out of Chamonix up to the Col de Balme on the border of France and Switzerland, where we stop for lunch in breezy sunshine. From here, a long, winding descent to Trient involves the first technical singletrack of the trip, with Vince and Adrià offering tips on how to negotiate the hairpins, before we end the day in a basic but comfortable auberge just outside Champex with heavy rain falling, a presage of things to come.

Cycling above Lac de Moiry
Cycling above Lac de Moiry

Driving rain, huge puddles and clinging mud characterise day two on the route to Verbier, where we hit one of the finest flow trails I’ve ever ridden. Vince leads the way on a swooping, slippery, rain-lashed descent that, despite a couple of spills and a complete plastering in gloop, leaves everyone with a broad smile on their faces.

A final ascent takes us to the Chalet des Alpes beneath Dent de Nendaz, and good news from Adrià: “The weather will be better tomorrow”.

Even so, we begin in cloud cover and fresh snow lies only 300 metres above. Starting with a traverse alongside a bisse – an ancient irrigation channel cut into the mountainside – we then drop through dank forests to Nendaz before a stiff climb to the summit of 2,491-metre Mont Rouge.

The swirling mist that has thus far hidden the views begins to dissipate as we hare downhill on rocky paths and dirt roads to our lunch in the Herens valley, while fresh batteries for the bikes are provided by a support vehicle which also carries all our gear.

After lunch another long climb ends the shortest day of the trip at a traditional Alpine auberge, which is also home to the region’s infamous “fighting cows” which lock horns to establish a hierarchy within the herd.

On day three we get our first views of the Matterhorn, thrusting up into a cobalt blue sky as we ride across sunny Alpine pastures to a shady forest descent with so many hairpins I lose count.

By the afternoon temperatures are hitting the high 20s as we ride up through airy alpages and shady woodlands with the occasional jaw-dropping view of Dent Blanche, before a lovely flowing descent to the achingly pretty hamlet of La Sage and its eponymous hotel – as Swiss as a cuckoo clock or Toblerone.

“Today will be the most spectacular of the journey,” says Adrià over breakfast the next morning, before adding: “We start with a 1,300-metre climb.” Had I been riding my regular mountain bike this would have been the signal for a mutiny, but with an e-bike – well, it’s still a slog, but not with all the grunting, gasping and cursing that accompanies long ascents on a traditional bike.

The tough climb takes us to Col de Torrent, followed by a dusty downhill past the improbably turquoise waters of Lac de Moiry to chocolate-box pretty Grimentz.

The group on top of Mont Rouge
The group on top of Mont Rouge

From here we ascend to our viewpoint of the Imperial Crown, riding in a group until we hit speedy forest trails where we tend to fall into a natural order – the younger and faster riders up front with one of the guides followed by the rest of us just behind. The trail eventually brings us to our overnight stop, the Hotel Weisshorn above Val d’Anniviers, an impressive Victorian pile once accessible only by mule or on foot.

By now our group is a well-oiled machine, bikes, equipment and bodies working in relative harmony, so the following morning’s superlative descent through sun-dappled forest all the way to Sierre is a sheer joy.

But what goes down must also come up again – in this case a climb to a rustic mountain cabin above Moosalp, which we have to ourselves for the night. Since it also has a wood-fired hot tub and well stocked with cold beer and wine, things get pretty raucous by the time the sun is setting, and four of us choose to sleep out under the stars.

We wake in crisp mountain air and see the sun rising over the mountains before our final day’s riding, which starts on a glorious high traverse before a steep singletrack down to the Matter valley; less than two hours later the Matterhorn hovers into view as we approach Zermatt and journey’s end.

After seven days on the bike, it will be strange not to be riding tomorrow – but then Adrià points out that we won’t be transferring back to Chamonix until the afternoon, so if we like we can hit the bike trails above Zermatt the following morning.

Why not? After all, we’re on e-bikes, it’ll be easy.

The trip was provided by E-Alps; its eight-day Haute Route trip by e-bike includes guiding, bike and batteries, accommodation, all meals and transfer back to Chamonix and costs 2,990 Swiss francs (around £2,375, with a discount of £160 if you bring your own bike). Next available trips are in summer 2022