Our garden in Switzerland is mostly grass and trees, and is on about a 45 degree slope. We manage it quite naturally, and just like most of the Swiss farmers manage their mountain meadows. This means that we just let the grass and wild flowers grow until about mid-June and then, when most of the wildflowers have finished and seeded, we cut it. In every Swiss Canton, there is a date set to cut the grass and hay, and cutting before that date is prohibited so that all of the wild flowers can continue to seed naturally. Whilst Switzerland has four amazingly different seasons, I think June is my favourite due to the sights, flora and smells of the countryside. Luckily I don’t get hay fever.
Back to our garden. It’s mid-June and the long grass and wild flowers now need cutting. I do this using a scythe and not a motor powered strimmer/weed whacker. Using a scythe is an art and requires a perfected technique is several areas. Firstly, setting the blade at the right angle, sharpening the blade, and finally, actually mastering the sweeping, cutting or mowing action. After 8 years of using a scythe in Switzerland, I am proud to say that I have mastered the technique.
I excitedly bought my first, new scythe and a sharpening stone well after the first one had ever been made and used in about 5000 BC, and I immediately raced out to start harvesting. How difficult can it be? My impetuousness led me to hacking my way through the long grass, sticking the blade in the ground, sharpening it to a blunt edge and running out of energy pretty quickly due to a really crap cutting technique. My shoulders, arms and hands and back ached. The farmer next door came over to talk to me and provided some much needed advice, free of charge!
My farmer friend firstly asked why I wasn’t using one of those Swiss motor mowers instead of the old scythe. I explained why, so he shrugged his shoulders and decided to help me anyway. Farmers like giving non-farmers advice. He showed me how to set the blade in the right position for the level of the land. He showed me how to sharpen the blade with a wet stone and crucially, he showed me how to scythe efficiently with minimal loss of energy. Since then, I’ve mastered the technique and can mow our 45 degree gradient meadow garden quite quickly. It’s actually fun, relaxing in a way, and rewarding when one sweep of the blade neatly shaves off the hay. Letting the hay dry and then gathering it up creates that perfect summer aroma. As we don’t have any animals to feed it to, it all goes to the local composting site.
Anyway, the thing is, technique is everything and you can’t buy it either. It doesn’t matter if you’re making bread, mowing hay, playing an instrument or crucially to get to the cycling point, riding a bike efficiently up a steep hill. There’s a narrow road a couple of kilometres away from the house that climbs 700 metres in about 12 kilometres and the last 4 kilometres have a 27% gradient. After several rides up this hill, I know where the recovery and surge points are. I also know where to sit on the bike to pedal efficiently, know the best route around the tight hairpin bends and what gear I should be in dependant on the bike I’m riding at the time. This is normal stuff for any cyclist, but is a critical technique and capability.
This small road is a connecting point on an off-road route that I do, so mostly I ride it on a mountain bike, and either a modern one or a vintage (1990s) one. I have done it once on a road bike and it wasn’t pleasant. I had the technique but not the fitness😬. Nothing new to you or I here I guess, except today, before mowing our small hayfield, I did this ride on an ebike. I’m having a lot of fun on this new road ebike as well, trying to get every last bit of battery energy to maximise my range. This means pedalling a lot of the time with the motor switched off as it has nearly zero drag, and I very rarely use anything other than the lowest two of the four motor assistance levels. This gives me a 150 kmh+ range. However, today I wanted to throw big electric power at that hill once and for all, and see how fast I could get up.
I soon learned that the technique in keeping the speed high was not just in the gearing, but in the cadence that I was spinning in relation to the actual motor output. Sounds obvious I know, but as my bike’s motor assistance is capped at 26.5 kmh, and I unusually used the turbo function in two places on this climb, it meant balancing and maximising the motor assistance, maintaining speed and my cadence. The road also had rivers of water running down it following a big storm, so sitting in the right position to ensure my weight aided traction and not allowing the rear wheel to spin was key. This was a required technique for the ebike, and which I transferred from an unassisted bike riding style very quickly. This makes ebiking really rather fun and provides a good level or physical exertion. I obviously didn’t get all of the way up the 27% gradient at the maximum 26.5 kmh, but the closest speed comparison I have to this ebike riding up this hill was a Honda 600 trail bike, and definitely not the mountain bike.
Whilst road riding requires some basic technique to be mastered, mountain biking requires a bit more, and so does track riding, and especially time trialing. I think time trialling requires the perfect combination of position and cycling efficiency techniques, which took me about as long to master as the scythe operation. Cutting through the air on a time trial bike as efficiently as my scythe cuts through grass isn’t easy. I can also breathe better scything in a standing position than I can on a time trial bike😳.
Experienced cyclists take technique for granted because it’s just what they do and it’s the same for farmers. My farmer friend drives a Lamborghini tractor and wondered why the hell I wasn’t cutting the grass with something engine powered. I wonder how long it will be before cyclists on ebikes are looking at cyclists on unassisted bikes with the same view. The answer is simple, attaining cycling technique isn’t easy, but it is rewarding and especially when you can apply it to any type of bicycle. It’s the same with applying off-road motorcycle technique to riding an eMTB.
So what? Well, allowing someone else to ride your bike with a different technique won’t effect its performance when you get back on it, but don’t ever, ever lend anyone your scythe and allow them to sharpen it, because it will come back to you blunt. Your scythe blade and your sharpening stone develop together with you and your technique over time. Don’t say I didn’t warn you😉.
Featured image and MTB photos courtesy of the Author
Time trial photo courtesy of Rodrigo Macip