Electric-assist cycling in Provence

Pedaling an ebike through the Gorges de la Nesque in Provence.

Pedaling an ebike through the Gorges de la Nesque in Provence.

Perhaps you’ve wanted for a long time to see Provence, and have heard that the best way to do it is to go on a bicycle tour. But you’re afraid you’re too out of shape, or no longer have the stamina for daily rides through rolling hills and vineyards.

Well, you’re out of excuses. More people are joining bicycle tours in comfort by renting electric-assist bikes.

I did such a tour recently and six of the 15 people in my group were on e-bikes. I was the oldest (Medicare-plus) but pretty fit.  All five other e-bikers were  women. I suspect men resist the idea. The riders included some more experienced  than others, mostly in their 40s and 50s.

CASUAL INNS AND HILL TOWNS

This was a “casual inn” (as oppposed to most costly “premiere inn”) trip offered by Backroads, one of my favorite bike touring outfitters. It included five nights in delightful, well-appointed hotels and six days of riding. We spent two nights in two of the inns, one in a third, so we did not have to move every single day.

In Your Bucket Because…

  • Provence is among the most gorgeous European landscapes.
  • Cycle touring is active, healthy and social.
  • Electric-assist bikes make it easier to pedal up to “perched villages.”

Our riding began east of Avignon in the Apilles area and over the week we hit many of Provence’s high spots: the perched hill towns of Baux, Rousillon and Gordes; a vineyard tasting; an olive oil tasting; a Van Gogh lecture, and great dinners. Our group was ably led by two charming and efficient bilingual guides plus an assistant, with a total of two vans cruising with us.

If you have read this far, you may already have done some bike trips, either self-guided or with an outfitter. But what was fabulous about this – a new development in the luxury bike-tour world – was the availability of an e-bike for an extra $300.

YOU STILL MUST PEDAL

Let’s get one thing straight; I still pedaled my fanny off. An electric-assist bike lends assistance, a boost up a hill or when you are tired, but it is not a scooter – you still must pedal. The bikes have regular gears – 3 in the front, 7 in the back. Then there are four assist levels, sort of like four levels on a hair drying – minimal, intermediate, higher, highest. The rider taps a plus-sign on an elaborate odometer to call these for help. (Alternatively, on straightaways or downhills you don’t have to engage them.

Ebike computer mounted on handlebar

Ebike computer mounted on handlebar

The boosts were just enough to ease my pedaling instead of feeling wrung out after 25 miles of rolling terrain. On hills, the boost was remarkable; it made me feel 20 years younger.

The pros of e-bikes are obvious: a middling level spouse can use one to keep up with his or her cycling enthusiast partner; my boomer/war baby cohort can choose a trip without fear of running out of gas or breath; a heavyweight or breathing-challenged tourist can enjoy bicycle cruising.

NO RIDING IN THE RAIN

The cons? The bikes are heavy – the battery (in Backroads case, it is mounted on the downtube) and the motor (part of the rear wheel mechanism) add significant weight to even a titanium bicycle. This weight makes the e-bike ungainly when one stands over it. I have minor bruises on both sides, incurred when I was looking at directions or taking a photo and the bike tipped over into me.

Backroads leader Avi Ragaven hoist e-bike

The bikes are heavy — but manageable.

Also, the bikes cannot be ridden in the rain because the moisture will wreck the motor. However, how many people who are not from Portland like to ride in rain? The one day we had heavy morning showers, we e-bikers stopped after four miles, put the bikes in the van and repaired to a charming café for a long espresso.

The best part: I absolutely loved the trip, the scenery, the other riders and the cycling. I felt that I had found a way to ride forever. Once you get the bike moving, you pedal at any speed in which you are comfortable. With the extra time you are bound to gain, you can stop often for photos and shopping.

On our fifth day, with no fatigue setting in to bother me, I came to a long nine-kilometer downhill where the bike’s poundage actually helped little me. I found myself sweeping past a beautiful landscape at 45 kph (27 mph), the sun warm on my back, with Mt. Ventoux of Tour de France fame in the distance. I am often happy on a bike; I cannot ever remember feeling quite this blissful.

Practicalities

  • You can rent electric-assist bikes in many towns for self-guided touring,
  • Want support? Spend the money to join a reputable outfitter’s trip offering e-bikes.
  • Companies: Backroads, Ciclismo Classico, Freedom Treks (UK), Cycle Breaks (UK).  Resource for rentals.
  • Save your butt and your feet by bringing your own saddle, pedals and/or cycling-specific shoes.
  • It can get quite hot in Provence in July and August – best months for your trip are in May, June, September or October.