Cycling in France: Itineraries to Consider

I’ve had a challenging time narrowing down my favorite itineraries in France this year.  So many regions of France are improving existing bicycle paths and building new ones and great choices are springing up across the country.  This makes it really tough to narrow down possible choices to a manageable few.  At this rate, I could miss the whole summer bicycling season, mired in route research and conversations with local tourism officials!  It’s time to get the list out!  I’ve made a big pot of coffee, and am ready to make some decisions.  With the list complete, I can settle down to providing you with details on each of the itineraries, and why each of them would be a perfect choice for an upcoming bicycle trip to France.  Each choice will be featured in an upcoming post including:  top ten reasons to choose the itinerary, bicycle rental options, and best resources for trip planning.

Here are my top 5 bicycling itineraries to consider for 2014:

Tour de Manche and Petit Tour de Manche

The Tour de Manche is an incredible bicycling itinerary that combines cycling along the coastline of Brittany and Normandy with a ferry crossing and more cycling along the southern coast of England.  The 1200 km itinerary provides a unique opportunity to taste adventure on both sides of the English Channel.  From the Pink Granite Coast, to East Devon’s Jurassic Coast, Dartmoor National Park, and the Bay of Mont Saint Michel, this route has something for everyone, incredible scenery and terrific food.

Tour de Manche in blue, Petit Tour de Manche in red

Tour de Manche in blue, Petit Tour de Manche in red

The Petit Tour de Manche at 450 km offers a shorter, but still magnificent taste of the full itinerary, perfect for those who want to try out a smaller section of the overall itinerary.  For those with more time, the Tour de Manche itinerary connects to EuroVelo itineraries 1 and 4, and also to the new D-Day Beaches Itinerary.  This itinerary is signposted and includes a combination of cycle lanes, greenways, cycle trails and low-traffic country roads.

The Veloscenic Cycle Route, Paris to Mont Saint Michel

I’ve reported on the development of the Veloscenic route now for several years.  I’m happy to report that by late spring, the final sections of the itinerary from Massey to Epernon and from Alencon to Domfront will be signposted, making this 440 km itinerary perfect for recreational cyclists and families.

La Veloscenic route

La Veloscenic route

The itinerary crosses 4 regions of France, 8 departments and travels through 3 regional natural parks. When fully completed, the itinerary will enable cyclists to travel from the magnificient Notre-Dame de Paris to the equally magnificient Mont Saint-Michel and along the way, you will have the opportunity to visit the magnificent Cathedral at Chartres. This itinerary is steeped in history, gorgeous parks, incredible scenery, and, wonderful food.  The itinerary currently has over 130 km of greenways with more in development.

La Loire A Velo

Hands down, one of my favorite itineraries in France and Europe, the Loire a Velo just keeps getting better with more connecting paths, lodging options and attractions!  Gorgeous scenery, fantastic food and wine, great summer markets and signposting in both directions makes this route a perfect choice for first-time France cyclotourists as well as for seasoned veterans!

First view of Chinon castle from the bicycle path

First view of Chinon castle from the bicycle path

Bicycling the Loire is an adventure of a lifetime and no matter how many days you spend, it will never be enough.  The 800 km itinerary goes through the Centre and Pays de la Loire regions, 6 Departments and includes the cities of Orleans, Blois, Tours, Saumur, Angers and Nantes, as well as hundreds of small charming villages.  The entire Loire region is steeped in history with over 1,000 public and private chateaux scattered along and around the river.

Gorgeous views along the itinerary

Gorgeous views along the itinerary

Traveling slowly along the paths of the Loire by bike is an adventure that you would never see from the backseat of a car or a tour bus!    The Loire itinerary alternates between quiet roads with little traffic (37%), to car-free greenways (27%) to limited access or no through roads (24%) to cycle tracks and cycle lanes (12%).  Over two-thirds of the itinerary runs along the Loire.

Signposting in both directions makes navigation easy, even for beginners

Signposting in both directions makes navigation easy, even for beginners

Whether you have a week, a long weekend or a month, if you have not experienced this itinerary by bike, it should be at the top of your list for an upcoming trip.

The Vaucluse Region of Provence

Last summer I fell in love with the Vaucluse Region, home to famous cities like Avignon, Orange, Vaison-la-Romaine and some of the most spectacular hill towns of Provence:  Apt, Lacoste, Menerbes, Bonnieux, Cavaillon, Roussillon and Gordes, just to name a few.  Often overlooked by recreational cyclists as an area better suited to experienced cycling enthusiasts, this area has over 1,500 km of cycle paths suited for all levels.

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the Venice of France

Isle-sur-la-Sorgue, the Venice of France

From cycling in the Luberon National Park to the area around Mont Ventoux to the Upper Vaucluse near the famous Roman town of Vaison-la-Romaine, to the Pays des Sorgues region and the Fontaine de Vaucluse to Chateauneuf du Pape, one of the most famous vineyards in the world, this area has it all!

Cycling in the Vaucluse

Over 1,500 km of cycling paths in the Vaucluse

In the Luberon alone, there are over 400 km of marked bicycling trails, including the 240 km Tour of the Luberon.

Signposting in the Luberon

Signposting in the Luberon

Thinking that this area may be a little too hilly for your comfort?  No worries!  The Luberon is the home to Sun-e-Bike, one of the best e-bike companies in Provence.  Exploring the hill towns of the Luberon on a Sun-e-Bike last summer was one of my favorite experiences of the summer.  A cycling trip in this area is a perfect add-on to a visit to Avignon or other towns in Provence.

D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel Route

What better way to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy than by bicycling the new D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel itinerary?  This itinerary is part of the Normandie a Velo network and is either 140 or 120 miles, depending on your starting point, either Sainte-Marie du Mont, Port-en-Bessin or Arromanches and the landing beaches of Utah, Omaha or Gold Beach.  Regardless of which starting point you choose, both meet at the Soulevre viaduct and from there, head towards Mont Saint Michel.

D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel Itinerary

D-Day Beaches to Mont-Saint-Michel Itinerary

Sandwiched in between the D-Day Beaches and Mont-Saint-Michel, some of the other major attractions along the route include the Juaye Mondaye abbey, founded in 1202, the Cotentin marshes, the Vire River valley, the Roches de Ham, a rock wall that plunges 330 feet into the River Vire, the Souleuvre Viaduct, created by Gustave Eiffel, the Mortain waterfalls, and the Bocage and Normandy dells, criss-crossed by high hedgerows.  And what could be more magnificient than to end the itinerary at Mont-Saint-Michel?

There are special activities planned at the major D-Day museums all summer, especially in June, so bicyclists along the itinerary will have the opportunity to experience some special exhibitions and events. My in-depth report on this itinerary will include links to some of the more popular attractions and their upcoming events listings.

So that’s it, my top itineraries to consider for 2014.  Needless to say, there are many great itineraries that were not included, but are still great bicycling destinations.  For as hard as it was to narrow the options down to 5, it will be that much harder to narrow the 5 options down to 1!

Stay tuned later this week for the first in-depth report on the Tour de Manche and the Petit Tour de Manche!

Posted by Maggie LACoste

I love the adventure and unpredictability of experiencing France by bike. Cycling in France is the ultimate slow travel adventure, an opportunity to see it through the back door in a way few tourists experience. One week on a bike in France and life takes on a different meaning! I created Experience France By Bike to inspire recreational cyclists to visit France the slow way....by bike, and to be the best source of information for planning the perfect bicycling adventure. I encourage readers to embrace the uncertainty of the road ahead and to take the path less traveled, exploring roads, towns and villages that you would never experience traveling by car.

  1. […] I’ve had a really hard time narrowing down my favorite itineraries in France this year.  So many regions of France are improving existing bicycle paths and building new ones and great choices are springing up across the country.  This makes it really tough to narrow down possible choices to a manageable few.  At this rate, I could miss the whole summer bicycling season, mired in route research and conversations with local tourism officials!  It’s time to get the list out!  I’ve made a big pot of coffee, and am ready to make some decisions.  With the list complete, I can settle down to providing you with details on each of the itineraries, and why each of them would be a perfect choice for an upcoming bicycle trip to France.  Each choice will be featured in an upcoming post including:  top ten reasons to choose the itinerary, bicycle rental options, and best resources for trip planning. Read more. […]

  2. In September 2010 I had a magnificent experience cycling the entire length of the Canal du Midi in both directions. My invaluable planning tool for that ride was the book written by French schoolteacher and enthusiast, Phillippe Calas, entitled “Biking along the Canal du Midi”. Overall the conditions of the towpaths were quite reasonable for riding a touring bicycle with only a couple of small sections requiring me to “get off and walk”.
    Consequently, in May 2013 with high expectations, I set out on another expedition along that canal from Narbonne to Toulouse then onto the Canal de la Garonne with a plan to continue on to Bordeaux. I was very quickly brought down to earth on the section between Paraza and Castelnaudary which had deteriorated into little more than an overused muddy goat track. Primarily due to the tree replacement programme, most of the towpath south of Trèbes was non existent. After Carcassonne the paths were little more than muddy ruts through the grass. After 94 kilometres and eight hours of not pleasant cycling, I reached Castelnaudary exhausted and covered in mud from head to toe.
    Apart from being tired and aching all over I was totally disillusioned with cycling in France. However, after a day’s rest things got much better. The path to Toulouse was a dream, then it was on to the smooth tarmac along the Canal de la Garonne – magnificent. A few days later I left the canal near Aiguillon and headed up the 160 kilometres of the “velo route de la Vallée du Lot” to Cahors. Things were getting better by the day; nice well signed paths and roads, beautiful scenery, interesting villiages and the food and wine wasn’t half bad either! I spent a couple of great days in Cahors before heading back to Aiguillon then further along to the end (or start) of the canal at Castets-en-Dorthe.
    From there I made my way back to Toulouse where I decided that I had had enough of cycling France for the time being, so, after a few days relaxing, I put my Focus touring bicycle on the train and swiftly returned to Narbonne. From there it was just 28 kilometres via the Canal de la Robbine to Paraza from where I had hired my bicycle. 1107 kilometres in all and a great experience.
    I think that the most important aspect of making a solo cycling trip in France, as I have done, is to plan meticulously. I pre-booked all of my accommodation, mostly in B&B’s, had a good touring bicycle, detailed maps, good quality warm but light clothing, plenty of snacks and energy food (regularly consumed) and drank plenty of water.
    I hope to have another ride in France this year before my legs say “enough”. Incidentally, I had a wonderful 73rd birthday in Cahors last year.

    Clark Payne,
    Noosaville, Queensland
    Australia

    1. Wow! What an incredibly great note and report on the routes that you cycled!!! I totally agree with your assessment of the Canal du Midi from Toulouse to Sete. I read and used Phillippe Calais’ book to plan and take my trip last year too. As we spent day after day encountering conditions just like you, I wondered how many decades ago Phillippe bicycled the route! There are segments of this itinerary that are perfect. But the maintenance of itineraries like the Canal du Midi is done by each jurisdiction, and there is a huge amount of time, effort and coordination that is required for their to be uniform and safe cycle paths from beginning to end. Before there were exceptional itineraries like La Loire a Velo, the Burgundy Canal, and the Canal de Garonne, people’s expectations were much lower. Now that we have gotten spoiled by safe and well signposted routes, the Canal du Midi in its current condition does not offer an experience even close. I am happy that you stayed with it, and ventured onto the Canal de Garonne and then through the Lot Valley to experience how wonderful bicycling in France can be!! The whole purpose of my website and my guidebook series is to promote some of the best and safest itineraries for recreational cyclists. You are so right, planning is secret to success. I spend from 2-5 hours on every hotel/B&B selection that I make, a time commitment that few normal people could tolerate. So when I pass these suggestions on to readers, it saves a lot of time, and hopefully a lot of money. So kudos to you for a great planning process, and please let me know where you plan to go for your next trip.

      Thanks for reading Experience France By Bike and for sharing your wonderful trip comments!

      Maggie LaCoste