Paul Lamarra road-tests Sun E-bikes, and finds the set up an excellent electric bike option for cycling in Provence.
Freewheeling around the many bends on the road that uncoils through the Provencal hill town of Lacoste would have been a bittersweet pleasure; what goes down on a cycling trip usually has to go back up, and in the very hilly Luberon it was an intimidating thought.
In the Luberon, the Vaucluse and across the Durance in the Alpilles, however, they have thought of this, and for cyclists put off by the hills there is an electric option: Sun E-bikes, a network of more than 200 battery-powered bikes.
The bikes still required me to pedal, but a motor discreetly placed in the hub of the front wheel would at the turn of the pedal kick-in and lend a helping hand. The bikes are equipped with 21-gears, but it was the motor that took the real sting out of the climbs.
You can download the map and full route notes from the Sun E-Bikes website.
Picking up my Sun E-bike from the depot in Bonnieux (online booking here) – the other is in Saint-Remy-de-Provence (you can book online here) – I set off on one of the 14 specially designed loops that range in length from 40 to 70 kilometres.
I chose the route that explored the area to the north of Bonnieux visiting Lacoste, filmic Gordes and the adjacent village of Bories with its dry stone barns and cottages, the L’Isle sur la Sorgue and its fabulous Sunday market, Menerbes of a Year in Provence fame and charming Oppede-le-Vieux.
Having downloaded the 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 (350m above sea level), I enjoyed the long descent to Gordes (50m) interrupted only briefly by a short stiff climb in Lacoste and morning coffee in the Café de Sade with its wonderful views across the valley to equally picturesque Bonnieux.
On the downhill when I exceeded 25 km/h, the motor automatically cut out and then started again when the bike slowed down and the climbing began. Cycling uphill felt as though an invisible hand was pushing me so that when I sat among the beautiful people in the Café de Sade, I was perfectly composed and my breathing calm.
And while many struggled to find a parking space for their expensive sports cars in ancient Lacoste, I was able to prop the bike up on its stand and bag a table with a view. Indeed I was certain that there was no loss of credibility in cycling an electric bike in this particularly chic part of Provence and Sun E-bikes count the actress Kristin Scott Thomas among their clients.
All of the cycle routes stick to very quiet back roads that can be very steep in places and the motor was a welcome help. Sometimes I was following the signs for the Velo Tour de Luberon which is an extended signposted tour of 250km 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 35km, although it can be as low as 20 and as much as 70 depending on the terrain, but unlike any other electric bike scheme I have encountered, Sun E-bikes has a network of partner restaurants and hotels where I could exchange my battery for a fresh one.
On my 70km route I was informed that there were three battery exchange points and, had I chosen to wander from the route, it was reassuring to know that I would never have been more than 20km from a fully charged battery. If there was a downside to it all it was my compulsive need to keep checking the battery life indicator. For the particularly anxious, however, it is possible to hire a spare battery.
What you need to know about hiring a Sun E-bike
I opted to take two days with an overnight in L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, primarily to visit the Sunday market. I carried my own luggage and although the bikes come equipped with 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 come equipped with locks, lights, a helmet, a yellow vest, a speedometer and a map of battery exchange points.
It's also possible to arrange an e-bike touring holiday that includes being picked up from the TGV station at Aix-en-Provence and your luggage being collected and taken each day to your next hotel. If I had felt inclined, a one-way hire between the depots in Bonnieux and Saint-Remy-de-Provence was a possibility at no extra charge.
Those wanting to take children can hire trailers for the very young and trailer bikes for those aged between five and 10 for an extra €10 per day.
For the tourism authorities, the Sun E-bikes scheme offers a way of attracting more visitors without compromising the charm and the relaxed Provencal way of life with yet more cars and coaches.
In a nutshell I found it to be integrated and well-thought out system that left me with nothing more to worry about than being on time for lunch.
At the restaurant L’Echaugette in Oppede le Vieux I was careful to add a battery to my order for the final hill into Bonnieux; around 17km long and more than 300m up, it would have been very hard work on a full stomach.
Exploring the Luberon on a bike is now for everyone.
Paul Lamarra is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about cycling for more than 15 years. He is the author of Ultimate Scottish Cycling and contributing editor at France magazine. He is an occasional contributor to the London Times and Adventure Cyclist.
More information on cycling in Provence
For guided and self-guided rides in Provence, see our organised tours section.
Browse our map below for ideas for cycling accommodation in Provence.