Riding around the hills of Provence proved a pleasure for Paul Lamarra, especially with a small motor to help him
Freewheeling round the many bends on the road that uncoils through the Provençal hill town of Lacoste from below the château where the infamous Marquis de Sade once lurked would have been a bitter-sweet pleasure; for what goes down on a cycling trip usually has to go back up and in the hilly Luberon that is an intimidating prospect.
Thankfully, organisers of a new scheme in the natural regional parks of the Luberon and the Alpilles realised that hills are off-putting to all but the most sporting cyclists, and have come up with a solution: the battery-powered Sun-e-Bike, of which more than 200 are available for hire. You still need to pedal for some of the time, but a motor discreetly placed in the hub of the front wheel kicks in at the turn of a pedal to help out. The bikes are equipped with 21 gears, but it is the motor that takes the sting out of the climbs.
Picking up my Sun-e-Bike from the depot in Bonnieux – the other is in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence – I set off on one of the 14 specially designed loops that range from 40 to 70 kilometres. My chosen route explored the area to the north of Bonnieux, taking in Lacoste, scenic Gordes and the adjacent monument historique of Bories with its dry stone barns and cottages, L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, Ménerbes and Oppède-le-Vieux.
Having downloaded a route map, directions and terrain profile from the Sun-e-Bikes website, I was in no doubt as to what lay ahead. Starting in Bonnieux (400 metres above sea level) I enjoyed the long descent into the valley beneath Gordes, interrupted by a short, stiff climb to Lacoste to have morning coffee in the Café de Sade, with its picturesque views.
Going downhill, the motor automatically cut out when I exceeded 25 km/h and started again when the bike slowed down and the climbing began. Cycling uphill felt as though an invisible hand was pushing me, so when I sat among the beautiful people in the Café de Sade I was perfectly composed and my breathing calm.
While many struggled to find a parking space for their expensive sports cars, I propped the bike up on its stand and bagged a table with a view. Sun-e-Bikes counts the actress Kristin Scott Thomas among its clients, so you won’t lose any credibility in cycling an electric bike in this particularly chic part of Provence.
All the cycle routes stick to quiet back roads that can be very steep in places, so the motor was a welcome help. Sometimes I was following the signs for the Vélo Tour du Luberon, which is an extended, signposted route of 250 kilometres that can also be tackled on Sun-e-Bikes. Car drivers, and there were very few, were warned regularly to expect cyclists on the road.
Batteries keep going for about 35 kilometres, although their range can vary between 20 and 70 kilometres depending on the terrain. But unlike any other electric bikes scheme I have encountered, Sun-e-Bikes has a network of partner hotels and restaurants where batteries can be recharged or exchanged for a fresh one.
My 70-kilometre route had three battery exchange points and had I chosen to make a detour it was reassuring to know that I would never have been more than 20 kilometres from a fully charged battery. If there was a downside it was my compulsion to keep checking the battery life indicator, although it is possible to hire a spare battery for €5.
I opted to spread the trip over two days with an overnight stop in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, mainly to visit the famous Sunday antiques market. I carried my own luggage and although the bikes have a basket on the front, additional bags or a luggage trailer are available to rent from €7 per day. Bike hire starts from €35 per day and all bikes are equipped with locks, lights, a helmet, a yellow vest, a speedometer and a map of battery exchange points.
It is possible to arrange a Sun-e-Bike touring holiday that includes being picked up from the TGV station at Aix-en-Provence and having luggage collected and taken each day to your next hotel. A one-way hire between the depots in Bonnieux and Saint-Rémy-de-Provence is also available at no extra cost.
Anyone wanting to take children can hire trailers for the very young and trailer bikes for those aged between five and ten for an extra €10 a day.
The Sun-e-Bikes scheme has offered the authorities a way of attracting visitors without compromising the charm and the relaxed Provençal way of life with more cars and coaches. The busy market at L’Isle-sur-la Sorgue, the narrow streets of Ménerbes made famous by Peter Mayle in A Year in Provence and the bumpy and traffic-free approach to Oppède-le- Vieux that would have once been trodden by donkeys presented no problems to these sturdy and easily parked bicycles.
I found the scheme to be integrated and well thought-out, leaving me with nothing more to worry about than being on time for lunch. At the restaurant L’Échaugette in Oppède-le-Vieux I was careful to add a battery to my order for the final hill into Bonnieux. At around 17 kilometres long and rising more than 300 metres in altitude, the route would have been hard work on a full stomach.
Exploring the Luberon on a bike is now for everyone – except perhaps for those who come in search of the Marquis de Sade and his uncomfortable ways.
Sun E-bikes can be hired from:
1 Avenue Clovis Hugues
Tel (Fr) 4 90 74 09 96
35 Avenue de la Libération
Tel (Fr) 4 32 62 08 39
Batteries can be exchanged at 18 partner hotels and restaurants. More details and a map at: www.location-velo-provence.com/fr
Elsewhere in France
In the Alpine resort of La Clusaz, hire an electric bike from anyone of the 28 locations and combine it with an audio guide from the Maison Faune Flore in the Parc Naturel Régional du Massif des Bauges.
In Savoie the vélostation in Chambéry offers electric bike hire for €10 per day. Venture out into the vineyards of the Apremont and Abymes.