Cycling in the Mont Ventoux region doesn't need to mean struggling up and down the mighty Giant of Provence. We tried out an easy, gentle route around the mountain's southern foothills.
Click here to book a hotel near Mont Ventoux in Provence
And, just to make things really easy, we opted for what the French call VAEs (vélos à assistance électrique, or electric bikes).
Thanks in part to more modern batteries that don't need constant recharging, these are becoming more and more popular as a way of touring Provence.
Sylvie Palpant, the Director of the cycle touring organisation Véloloisir Provence, knows of a 94-year-old man who covers 60 km / 37 miles a day on an electric bike.
She believes that, far from replacing the use of regular bicycles, VAEs are tempting tourists, who might otherwise think cycling was far too much like hard work, away from their cars.
That's us, certainly. We picked up our bikes in Bédoin from France Bike Rentals, whose website is plastered with photos of terrifyingly fit-looking young men in stretch lycra sportswear hurtling effortlessly up Mont Ventoux. Not an image we could identify with.
We've been keen cyclists in the past, but neither of us had been in the saddle for years or previously ridden an electric bicycle. However all worries were unfounded.
We soon found our "bike legs" again, and the dual system of gears and electric assistance - one set of controls on each handlebar - wasn't difficult to use. And the ride itself was delightful.
Our 23 km / 14 mile route called Aux Portes de Ventoux (Gateway to Mont Ventoux) was devised by La Provence à Vélo (Provence Cycling). It's meant to take two hours, though you might spend longer if you stop to explore on the way.
Mont Ventoux rises up proud and alone in the surrounding landscape, but the countryside here isn't entirely flat: there are plenty of small hills and, even the last, downhill stretch of the route was a little demanding because we were riding directly into the wind.
With a vélo à assistance electrique, "assistance" is the key word: the motor will help you but it won't do all the work. And it wouldn't, we suspect, be of much serious use if you were actually cycling up the mountain itself (click here to read our full guide to the three routes up Mont Ventoux).
But this route goes along the bottom of its sunny, south-west face where the landscapes are lush and gently rolling, with vineyards, olive groves, poppy fields and cherry orchards. There are patches of ochre too (though nothing like as dramatic as those in the Roussillon area). The villages, perched on a hillside or snuggled in a valley, are pink, pretty and sleepy.
The triangular route takes you around three of them: Bédoin, Flassan, pictured, and Mormoiron. Apart from Mont Ventoux itself, there aren't any notable landmarks on the way, unless you count the nudist campsite of Bélézy just outside Bédoin. Do they go cycling too, I wonder?
It's a tremendously relaxing experience to cruise along listening to all the sounds drifting across the valley: church bells, dogs, birds – plus tractors and strimmers. Mid-May, when we were cycling, is a pretty busy time of year for winemakers and farmers.
On the other hand, it's relatively quiet for tourist traffic. A huge bonus of this route is that it takes you along quiet back-roads with very few cars (though some surfaces were unmade, which made at times for a bumpy ride). We barely saw any other cyclists.
La Provence à Vélo produces a little leaflet in English, French and Dutch, with a very detailed itinerary. You can pick up a copy at local tourist offices and bike shops, access it online (here's our one) and / or load on to a smartphone.
You don't need to consult it for most of the way, as little green cycle icons on the street signs, pictured, indicate where to go. (The street name in the photo means "the street of neat-haired young ladies" – not altogether appropriate on this windy day.)
However different cycle routes cross each other at certain points and some turn-offs weren't well indicated. We made an unscheduled detour, only realising our mistake when a huge articulated truck suddenly thundered into view.
So it's worth taking the leaflet with you on your ride, especially since it also includes lots of handy information, such as an altitude profile of the route, which villages have pharmacies and tourist offices, and the days of their markets, plus emergency phone numbers and the nearest bike repair shops.
The leaflet also contains suggestions for interesting places to visit. Depending on your route, this might be anything from a lavender distillery to a factory making stripy berlingot sweets. Our one had an artisan jam-maker and no fewer than three vineyards. Probably not a good idea to stop at them all!
But by the time we reached Montmoiron, it seemed a good moment to pause for a spot of modest refreshment and we were lured into the attractive Château Pesquié to sip cautiously at three of its excellent white wines. You can just call by there for a quick tasting and - unlike some vineyards - there's no charge.
Depending on your timing, you might also take a guided tour of the winery (by reservation, and for a fee) or order one of their picnics, which look pricey but do contain a lavish spread of local produce: cheeses, tapenade (olive dip), charcuterie, nougat, fruit and, of course, wine.
It was all in all a glorious introduction to Mont Ventoux and, even better, we ended up feeling healthy and virtuous. Next stop: the summit?
The La Provence à Vélo website is fantastically detailed, well-structured and informative (curiously, while its leaflets are in available in English, French and Dutch, the site itself is in English, French and German).
It proposes around two dozen routes in the Mont Ventoux area. Some are closer to the mountain than others, and they vary widely in length and difficulty, with something for all ages, spheres of interest and levels of fitness - and of laziness!
A few, such as the Via Venaissia, near Orange, are as short as 7 km / 4 miles. Among the more demanding ones is the ride through the spectacular Gorges de la Nesque, which is 65 km / 40 miles and described as "sportif".
For an even longer excursion, you can cycle all the way round Mont Ventoux, a 120 km / 74.5 mile trip that takes between two and four days. There's also a program on the website which enables you to design your own route, customised according to length, difficulty, location and focus of interest.
As well as the actual routes, the website covers such aspects as safety tips, recommended bike hire companies in the region and contacts for local taxi services, which will transfer your luggage from point to point if you are on a tour taking several days.
Depending on the terrain - you can ride on a regular, VTT (mountain), VTC (hybrid) or VAE (electric) bike. The website suggests the best bike(s) for each route.
If you choose an electric bike and are going on a longer ride, it's worth knowing that some hotels and restaurants will trade in your empty battery for a fully charged one.
This service is free of charge, though it would be polite to buy a drink or meal there! Ask at your bike hire supplier for details.
Electric tricycles adapted for disabled cyclists are also available at some outlets, as are baby seats or trailers, tandems and small-size bikes. You'll probably be expected to have your own insurance.
Our rental bikes had little luggage racks on the back, but not panniers, and this proved a minor nuisance, even on a short ride, so come with your own pannier, or a small back-pack, or else check if you can rent one.
Spring and autumn are the best times of year to go cycling in this area. If you are biking in summer, be sure to bring sunblock and have plenty of water with you on your ride. In autumn, when the nights draw in early, wear bright or fluorescent clothing. And above all don't assume that it never rains in Provence! Click here to read our general guide to cycling in Provence.
Photo credits: All images © SJ for Marvellous Provence.