'Whose is the cheat's bike?" asked a cynical voice at the George, a gastropub in the Peak District village of Alstonefield.
If the man started back-pedalling when he realised it was mine, it wasn't altogether surprising. In my mid-30s, reasonably fit and a regular cyclist, I'm not an obvious candidate for an electric bike but, having agreed to test drive a new cycle scheme in the area, it hadn't taken long to become a convert.
The idea, launched at the end of last month by the Electric Bicycle Network, is straightforward enough. The Peak District's hills are speckled with walkers, painters and committed cyclists but there are fewer options for the less active. About 85 per cent of those who venture into the UK's oldest and most visited national park explore it by car. The Electric Bicycle Network hopes that, by making the ride slightly easier, it will convince more people to swap from four wheels to two.
Though the scheme – a legacy project from now-abolished Cycling England – is also being rolled out in the Lake District next month, and in Devon shortly afterwards, the Peak District is the first UK location to join the network. Several accommodation providers, cafés and tourist attractions have signed up as hire and charge points along the way – including the Charles Cotton Hotel in Hartington, my base the night before I set off on a trial run.
The hotel's co-managers, Judy Dyer and Alan Shanks, say the bike business is already starting to fulfil its potential. "Someone tried one of the bikes earlier this week and wrote in our visitors' book that it was the best £25 they had ever spent," Judy told me as we headed towards the hotel's small fleet of sturdy Giant bikes.
Alan showed me how to slot the battery into one of the panniers and pointed out a detachable counter on the handlebar which displays speed and battery life, and lets you choose which mode to put the bike in. "Eco mode prolongs the battery – you're doing more work than the bike but it gives you a top-up," he explained. "In normal mode you put in a push and the bike puts in a push and, in sport mode, you put in a push and the bike puts in two. Most people keep it on eco most of the time and use normal or sport if they're going up a hill."
Pedalling out past Hartington's grand youth hostel was a revelation. Compared with my own bike, the Giant was shockingly comfortable, with an upright cycling position that lets you take in the scenery. And the boost was never powerful enough to make you feel out of control. The bikes are also quiet, apart from a very faint whirring.
I left the bike in eco mode along the flat Tissington Trail, an off-road cycle path that follows an old railway line. At about 10mph, I passed a scenic blur of dry-stone walls, rolling green hills, old stone barns and fat, leafy trees. About an hour after setting off, I arrived at the pretty village of Tissington for a tour of Tissington Hall, a wander around the village's famous wells, a spot of window-shopping at artisan candlemaker On a Wick & a Prayer and a bowl of homemade sweet potato soup at the Old Coach House which is also one of the scheme's battery-recharging points. But, in mainly eco mode, my battery lasted all day.
From Tissington, the ride took me out past an avenue of lime trees, on to quiet country lanes fringed with cow parsley and the odd kamikaze chicken, before winding sharply downhill at Thorpe. Just after the village, I left the road at a bridge over the River Dove and detoured up into Dovedale to spot dippers and wagtails hovering around the water's edge. The photogenic limestone ravine here – and particularly some stepping stones across the Dove – formed the backdrop to the closing scenes in Russell Crowe's Robin Hood. It's also a great jumping-off point for a lovely three-hour walk to Milldale and back.
My next stop was nearby Ilam, with its doll's house cottages, the country park and yet another stately youth hostel – Ilam Hall. I pedalled up to the National Trust visitors' centre for a cup of tea before heading on towards Beechenhill Farm, a cosy country B&B run by multitasking businesswoman and artist Sue Prince and her family.
An electric bike is more gentle deception than downright cheating, as I found on the steep uphill pedal from Ilam to Beechenhill. Even in sport mode, my legs were burning.
After a quick tour, it was time to get back in the saddle and cycle over to Alstonefield for dinner. I was rewarded that evening, though, when Sue showed me down to a magical wood-fired hot tub at the bottom of the garden. Surrounded by glowing hurricane lanterns, I wallowed away the sunset as the lowing of cows was gradually replaced by the hooting of owls. Now that, I thought to myself, is what recharging your batteries is all about.
How to get there
East Midland Trains (08457 125678; eastmidlandstrains.co.uk) has return fares from St Pancras to Matlock from £27. Double rooms at the Charles Cotton Hotel (01298 84229; charlescotton .co.uk) in Hartington cost from £60, B&B. Double rooms at Beechenhill Farm cost from £80, B&B (minimum two nights). Wood-fired sauna "experiences' costs from £80 for four hours (01335 310274; beechenhill.co.uk).
Electric bike hire in the Peak District costs about £10 per hour, £15 per half day, or £25 per day. Go to electricbicyclenetwork.com for more details and a map of rental providers. Also visitpeakdistrict.com.