There is nothing today that technology can’t help you with. From sex to shopping to shopping for sex, there’s a gadget, app or robot army out there to make things quicker, easier and cheaper. But can microchips and batteries truly replace muscles and brains? To find out, we sent two writers on a 60-mile, two-wheeled odyssey from London to Brighton. Ralph Jones, a keen cycler of short distances at a leisurely pace, is to be assisted by an electric bicycle; Howard Calvert, the kind of man who would cycle to the moon if it were possible, will use nought but what nature gave him to propel a carbon-framed road bike. The prize for success: hot dogs by the sea. Who will prevail? Let’s find out.
RJ: “Cycle from London to Brighton on an electric bike,” they said. “It’s only 63 miles,” they said. This is how better men than I have died – by signing up to endurance challenges for fear of looking like wimps. Despite being aware that I risk becoming the latest significant cultural figure to die in 2016, I sign up.
HC: As a cyclist, I’ve been watching the rise in e-bikes with fascination and more than a little horror. What will it mean for the future of pedal power? Are e-bikes ‘cheating’? What will ‘mechanical doping’ mean for the sport? Why hasn’t someone made a bike Transformer yet?
So when I was offered the chance to cycle from London to Brighton against an e-bike, providing the opportunity to beat the machines, I took on that challenge with a view to claiming a victory for pedal power.
RJ: My ride for the day is the Carrera Crossfire-E electric bike, the battery for which can last up to 80 miles, if the website is to be believed. Sixty-three miles on a bike that does all the work? Piece of p*ss. I’ll be in Brighton by 3pm for hot dogs, and Howard – competent cyclist he may be – will be eating my electric dust, panting like a sausage dog in a sauna.
HC: On my Boardman Road Pro Carbon, weighing just 8.3kg, and warm thanks to Rapha’s winter gear, including its Pro Team Winter Tights and Jacket (as opposed to looking like an extra from Downton Abbey), I’m ready to face down the might of Ralph and leave his weighty bike in my tyre tracks.
RJ: The weather is beautiful: blue sky and no wind. We set off from Clapham Common at 10.30am, me wearing an outfit that makes it as difficult to cycle as possible: shirt and tie; mustard Beretta coat and waistcoat; Beretta plus-fours; Beretta scarf; fat gloves; and shoes that basically say ‘far too impractical to be used for cycling’. It is a get-up that, as our deputy art editor says, makes me look like a member of Ukip’s youth wing.
HC: As the challenge begins, and Ralph sets his bike to ‘donkey’ or whatever setting uses least energy, I attempt to forge ahead. This being London, within two miles my ride is nearly ended prematurely by a white van cutting me up in order to park on a double yellow. I tamper down the anger, instead reserving the energy for later when I’ll need it to get me up the formidable Ditchling Beacon ascent.
RJ: The Crossfire has four settings: camel, squirrel, cheetah and mountain goat. Each offers a higher level of battery assistance, and I find my default to be camel. (Because the bike is ludicrously heavy, the only time I can turn the battery off is when careering downhill.)
HC: As I leave the capital’s suburbs behind, I realise my first problem – navigation. I have to make regular stops to check I am on route, whereas Ralph, being savvier, has memorised it, leading me to wonder if he is the T-1000 sent back from the future to win this challenge, thereby securing the rise of the machines and setting in progress the robots’ future world domination. When I take a wrong turn, and re-navigate back on the route to see Ralph whizz past, it dawns on me that perhaps my worst fears are being realised: this is a quest for the future of humanity. Or, at least, tasty hot dogs in Brighton. Ralph is ahead. I have my work cut out.
RJ: I reach the outskirts of London and I feel sublime. I should cycle to Brighton more often: I’m not tired; the weather really is striking and, if my maths is right, the battery should last the journey. I stop for a breather after roughly 20 miles. My battery level is 54 per cent. That should be fi... wait. Fifty-four per cent. Oh God. I’m not much farther than a third of the way through the journey and I’ve used half my battery. I'm also behind time, which means I need to speed up, using more battery, so I reach Brighton before dark. And, as you may know, the London to Brighton cycle route closes with a beast by the name of Ditchling Beacon: a mile-long, 158m-high climb. (It is an ascent so taxing, says iZaP on cyclechat.net, that “A person has died while climbing it”.) For this I will need my mountain goat setting, an option that guzzles battery. This could get interesting.
HC: By the time we reach the M25, I have caught the electronic rider, and we are more or less neck and neck but, worryingly, Ralph seems to possess more energy than a pre-transmission CBeebies presenter. This is apparent when we tackle one of the first big climbs up to Nutfield. I am a panting, red-faced, sweaty mess as Ralph glides past, impeccably dressed without a sweat stain in sight. We are halfway to Brighton, and I am getting concerned that my legs will fail me.
Then I begin to experience a condition feared by every cyclist: I’m bonking, big time. Concentrating on beating Robobike has meant I’ve neglected to take on board any carbs. My glycogen stores are depleting rapidly – I need food. An apparition appears: The Grange Farm Shop at Crawley Down. I stop and wolf down sausage rolls, flapjacks and sandwiches – ironically, like a machine – in case Ralph overtakes.
RJ: As the sun filters through the trees, I retain a strange sense of optimism. Ignorance, I think it’s called. While careering down a massive hill, I clock my maximum speed: 28mph.
HC: Internal batteries refuelled, I peer down the road, searching for a tweed-based robot gliding into the sunset. And that is our next problem: failing light. We’d vastly underestimated the time it would take us to reach the coast, and with no bike lights, we need to get there before darkness descends. So now I’m racing nature as well as a battery-powered phenomenon.
RJ: Slowly but ever so surely, the realisation sinks in. I might not make it. The light is fading. I’m tired. The temperature has dropped, and my plus-fours are letting the wind rush up my nether regions. At one point my battery inexplicably drops from 28 per cent to 18 per cent in a second. Fortune is p*ssing on me from a great height.
HC: Dusk is well underway as I face the Beacon. I’d heard a lot about this ascent: average gradient 9 per cent, maximum gradient 16 per cent. It is as bad as that sounds and is the one time on the ride I could have – it pains me to say – used an electric boost. But then, I remind myself, where would the sense of achievement be at the summit?
RJ: At long last, at 6pm, I reach the foot of Ditchling Beacon. I am a shadow of my former self. I check my battery level: 3 per cent. Summoning my last vestiges of energy I begin to tackle the monster. Within about half a second I realise my legs aren’t moving. They are as empty as my battery. Even if the juice wasn’t going to run out 50 yards up the hill, my body would give out and I would start rolling backwards all the way to Clapham Common.
HC: Hill cracked, it’s a gentle glide down to the Brighton seafront. And there it is; the gaudy lights of Brighton Pier twinkling in the night. And those hot dogs. Sixty-three miles in 5hrs 23mins, and no sign of the machine. I’d done it: a victory for old-fashioned pedal power.
RJ: Howard is in Brighton. I have lost. And so, freezing cold, exhausted and, with the evening light rapidly fading to darkness, I call a taxi. For a long time they can’t find me as I can't give them a precise postcode. Genuinely near tears, I wheel my bike to a B&B. This is the moment someone murders me, I think to myself. Fortunately, after a wait of about half an hour, the taxi rescues me. We head up Ditchling Beacon and into Brighton. Even if I’m not technically riding it, my bike is in the taxi – so this basically counts. It’s certainly the closest I’m ever going to get.
Ralph rode the Carrera Crossfire-E, £1,000; Howard rode the Boardman Road Pro Carbon, £1,500, both from Halfords. Clothing courtesy of beretta.com and rapha.cc, except tweed cap: schoffel.co.uk