It's that time of year when, spurred on by watching the world's top cyclists conquer French mountains, we all fancy heading out on a leisurely cycle. But here's a question that will leave Mamils (middle-aged men in Lycra) choking on their energy gels: can you get fit on a bike with a battery? As the delivery man who lugs my new Raleigh e-bike inside my house (all 25kg of it) says when I tell him the weight is largely due to the motor: "It's cheating, isn't it?"
He's not the only one who thinks so. But let's be clear: this isn't riding a moped. Yes there's a motor, but it's pedal-assisted, meaning you still have to move your feet. "[E-bikes] are a nice combination of using your own human power and having a bit of assistance too," Sir Chris Hoy has said.
"And once you've ridden an e-bike, you completely get it." If an Olympian says they're OK, shouldn't we all jump aboard?
There's no denying pedelecs (to give them their proper name) are part of a growing trend, especially on the Continent: 45 per cent of all new bikes in Belgium and 30 per cent of those in Holland last year were e-bikes. In the UK, we're finally catching on: Halfords reported a 220 per cent sales increase in electric bikes last year. Sales are weighted heavily in favour of the silver cyclist: Halfords say that 65 per cent of their e-bikes are sold to people over 55.
Sir Chris is right: as soon as you hop on an e-bike you realise what fun they are. I was a regular cyclist, but fell out of the habit. But when my aptly named Raleigh Grand Tour showed up at my door for a test ride, a sleek gunmetal machine with a battery pack attached to the seat post and an electronic display on the handlebars, getting back into it was like... well, you know.
Except so much better. I set off late for a meeting, but, turning up the motor and pedalling as fast as I could, I arrived on time, and not, as I used to, a sweaty mess. The motor is capped at a top speed of 15.5mph, but you can go quicker if you pedal harder.
It's so much fun, it doesn't really feel like fitness. So is it? Well, yes. A recent Norwegian study found that e-bike riders exert almost as much effort as regular cyclists when going around the same track. Researchers found that e-bikers were 8.5 times more active than they were at rest, while those using traditional bicycles were 10.9 times more active - a smaller difference than had been anticipated. The regular cyclists utilised 58 per cent of their lung capacity, compared with the e-bikers' 51 per cent. The only significant difference? The e-bikers were 21 per cent faster.
And according to Norwegian and Dutch studies, you could get fitter than you would on a regular bike because e-bikes encourage you to go further than you might otherwise. Which makes sense when you try one - suddenly a meeting 10 miles away seems like nothing, even uphill. "E-bikes give people the confidence to explore more, rather than be exhausted after 20 minutes and go home," says Dave Hull, owner of North Pennines Electric Bike Hire (and an e-bike convert himself). "Before you know it, you've done 50 miles and been out for hours." I certainly found that. On a day when I would have got the bus to meetings, I managed to clock up 40 miles.