WORDS AND PICTURES BY CHIPPS.
ADDITIONAL WORDS BY BEATE KUBITZ.
VAN PHOTOS BY DAVE SMITH/NISSAN UK.
I like to think I do my bit for the environment – you know: recycling tins and milk bottles and considerable numbers of wine bottles – that kind of thing. Plus I help promote cycling, right? So I’m as right-on as the next chap. It’s not particularly earth-friendly, really, is it? I still fly around the world, drive a diesel van to bike events and consume a lot more stuff than is entirely needed for my survival.
My girlfriend, however, is a lot more eco than I am, and works for the organisation for shared car clubs, Carplus. She suggested that for our summer holiday we take a mountain bike trip to the Lakes and hire a car club car once we got there. The Lakes National Park has worked out that the biggest carbon footprint in the Lakes is from the people driving there to see its unspoiled beauty, so it’s encouraging visitors to use car club cars when they get there (preferably by train). It’s not very adventurous, though, is it? I mean, an adventure usually implies a journey with an uncertain outcome. Getting the train to Penrith didn’t sound that risky, nor does driving 15 miles to so to Blencathra, so I decided to up the stakes.
How about getting up to the Highlands of Scotland by train?
And how about travelling about in a fully electric car club van when we got there?
Unplug, pump up, drop-off
There are three fully electric Nissan e-NV200 vans available in Aberdeen. They’re usually rented out by people wanting to get some furniture back from the shops, or moving from one flat to another. They never seem to leave the ‘within easy reach of a charger’ orbit of the town. How do I know this? Because shortly after we’d made enquiries about taking one the 80 or so miles west towards the Cairngorms, we had Nissan UK on the phone asking if they could send a motoring photographer up from London to shadow us and see how we got on.
The plan seemed simple. We were going to be in Penrith anyway, so we’d get the train up to Aberdeen (via Edinburgh), get in our little van and head off west, having first checked to see where the nearest recharging points are. The van has no secondary combustion engine, so if you run flat, you’re doomed. It’s not like you can carry a spare can of electricity with you. Scouring the map, we found a charging point in Tomintoul, a small village that happens to be right next to the Glenlivet mountain bike trails, somewhere I’d not ridden. That seemed a good place to aim for – and once there, Ballater is just over the hill and I was sure I could talk the proprietor, Richard, out of the Cycle Highlands shop to show us some of his local gems, as he had for the Santa Cruz launch there a couple of years ago.
The hardest part of the journey was trying to wheel two bikes and a roller bag each through Aberdeen on a Monday lunchtime. Eventually I stayed put and Beate went to get the van from its dedicated parking space. It soon eased into view, spookily silent as it ran on its electric motors. The NV200 van is a great size for mountain biking and I’ve been eyeing one up for a while, waiting for them to drop in price, but I’d never been in the electric version. The bikes were soon stashed, wheels on, in the ply panelled back and we were off towards Tomintoul and our hostel for a couple of days.
A full ‘tank’ gets you 85 miles, give or take, so we could do the 60 mile journey with plenty to spare. That didn’t stop a ‘just in case’ recharge on the way (conveniently next to a chippy that did a fine fried haggis slice). We arrived into Tomintoul mostly with a minimum of fuss and checked into the backpacker’s hostel there. On the phone to Dave Smith, Nissan’s London photographer, it was clear that he normally works in different circles (despite being a Surrey Hills rider himself…)
“I hear you’re up there on a magazine photoshoot. How big a crew do you have?”
“Er, it’s my girlfriend and me on holiday.”
“Oh… OK then. Well, I’ll be there tomorrow morning with my assistant, Owen, a bunch of flashguns, a chamois leather and some tyre blacking.”
Making the most
Knowing how thorough (i.e. time-consuming) ‘proper’ photographers like to be, we got our first lap in of the Glenlivet Red Trail while we could. The trail was deserted (on an August Tuesday) and we had the fast rolling trail to ourselves. It’s a great day out if you’re in the area, though not something to make a pilgrimage for. Plenty of rollers, some unannounced, but very flattering drops and a riot of pinks and purples from the many Foxgloves lining the trail. The coffee at the end was great too, and the pumptrack, within sight of the cafe windows was worth a few laps too – even though the downhill/uphill nature of it meant you could never quite join it up.
After a great night involving perfect pizza from the kilt-wearing Canadian at Gordon’s Public House, we were ready for the big time as photographers Dave and Owen showed up to document our drive over the high, remote pass past the Lecht ski station and on to Ballater beyond. This would be a test of our electrical confidence as there aren’t currently any charging points there (though Scotland is adding 500 more chargers in its quest to go to carbon-free traffic by 2050). Tomintoul, interestingly, has four electric charging points now, yet the nearest petrol station is 15 miles away. I know what I’d be getting if I lived there…
With our hilariously Hello! Magazine-style photos posing around the van dispensed with, we set off over the Lecht, with Dave hanging out of his car while Owen drove him on the wrong side of the road, a scant few feet from our van just to get ‘the shot’.
We watched the estimated miles count down on the climb until we were committed to getting to Ballater, but once over the summit, the regeneration motors kicked in and the ‘fuel tank’ began to re-fill once again. We cruised in to Ballater confident of being able to leave it again. It was then a case of setting up camp and hunting down the Indian restaurant for some refuelling of another kind.
Richard greeted us at Cycle Highlands in the morning, ready to show us a local loop. Despite being a mountain bike guide, he was definitely off duty and happy to show us a personal favourite, as long as we turned off the GPS units.
The climb up towards Mount Keen went straight from town. In the muggy atmosphere, it was a hot and sweaty pull, but we were rewarded with a great view and seemingly had the hills to ourselves. So far, so normal, but then we set off down a boggy track and then onto a barely visible trail in the heather. In the strange way that Scottish trails seem to do, this imperceptible line seemed to become more distinct the further we got from the main track, so that by the time we were on a remote edge of hillside, we had a bottom bracket-width trail snaking its way through the heather. Tight, twisty and testing and all but invisible until you were right on it. Just how it should be.
We leapfrogged our way down the trail, stopping for photos and snacks and stories, but always eager to discover which bit of heather or hidden rock was plotting to launch us into the undergrowth. Escaping without mishap, the trail brought us first out to the riverbank and in textbook trail perfection, to a cafe and some well earned refuelling.
All that was needed then was to get back to the van and get it back to Tomintoul for a recharge before we set off for Aberdeen the next morning. By now we were confident in our electric mileage and, even though the range dipped down to under 20 miles on the way up to the the Lecht, we didn’t panic and it rose back up on the descent. We arrived back in Tomintoul without incident, had more kilted-Canadian food and then we were on our way back to Aberdeen and the train back south.
Coulda, shoulda, would?
Would I consider an electric van for my ‘modern mountain bike lifestyle’? If most of my journeys to ride were within 30 miles or so, then I definitely would look at getting an electric van. They’re brilliant fun and once you know where the chargers are and ease into the accuracy of the range predictions, they’re no more worrying than driving through Wales on a Sunday afternoon in a diesel car. Most of the time, though, my car sits on the driveway until called upon to drive for 250 miles on a Friday night, which would probably ask too much of my powers of organisation to leave enough time to top up on the way. As a second vehicle though, absolutely. And when they combine auto-driving electric cars, with charging points outside every cafe and pub, I’m right there.
As for car club cars (more details below), I can see those being mighty handy for the many town-based riders who don’t need a car all the time, but don’t want to rent a van for a whole day, or whole weekend. Or riders who need cars at odd times (4am start for the Lakes anyone?)
Looks like the future is here again. It keeps doing that…
Other eco-adventures are available
There’s a growing network of car clubs across the UK – there may be one locally to you. But for locations near train stations that will help you get out into the wilds, here are some suggestions.
City Car Club
Cars in Edinburgh (Peebles anyone?), Glasgow, Southampton (if you brave the New Forest) and Cardiff (gateway to South Wales). Membership costs £60 a year (or £20 for van only) and cars cost from £4.95 an hour £39.95 a day with vans from £7.20 an hour and £62 a day. Mileage costs 5p per mile for electric vehicles and goes up to 27p per mile for vans.
Cars in Exeter and Taunton for Dartmoor and Exmoor. Membership costs £25 a year and cars cost from £3.80 an hour, daily rates are £33 for weekdays and £24 for weekends with mileage at 15p per mile.
Cars in the Lake District (at Oxenholme, Windermere and Staveley stations), Glasgow and Dundee. Membership costs £25 a year, cars cost from £4.50 an hour, daily from £31.50 and vans cost £7.25 an hour, £50.75 per day. Mileage is 13-20p per miles depending on vehicle although mileage on all electric vehicles is free.
- Sign up before you go to so there’s time to be set up, be posted your key card and do the DVLA checks.
- All clubs cover insurance and fuel costs (there’s usually a fuel card in the car).
- Check out special offers – day rates can vary with reductions on less popular cars.
- Unlike car hire, your car club key card will unlock the car even if you show up in the middle of the night.
Find your nearest car club at carplus.org.uk
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